Roundup

Earlier this week, Mark Twain travelled to Jerusalem and the Holy Land so I don’t have to.

Philadelphia has its own distinctive aura — a strangeness, an idiosyncrasy about its urban form, and a particular history that’s critical to understanding the way America as a nation developed, but also that stands apart from the rest of the nation,” says Nathaniel Popkin, co-author with Peter Woodall of Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, just out from Temple University Press. Their text accompanies some splendid photographs of out-of-the-way Philadelphia by Joseph E. B. Elliott; a few of these sites are hidden-in-plain-sight, others very well hidden indeed. The below video promoting the book features a few tantalizing samples. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is available now from Amazon.

See you at Cafe Katja later today, and here next week.

The Innocents Abroad

I got around to finishing Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869), the other day. Although in structure it’s a rather helter-skelter parody of American travel literature of the period, there’s a deeper journey there too, suggested by Twain’s journey east, from modern America to the old Europe, then eastward again into the ancient Holy Land and Egypt: a journey backward in time as well as eastward in geography. The Twain persona is in its infancy in The Innocents Abroad, but no longer in embryo as it had been in his earlier journalism: the face a dead pan, self-mocking (as well as other-mocking), enjoying a good drink now and again (and again). The further along the voyage to the east and into the past becomes, the more profound it becomes, however; the light humor and caricature are displaced by subversive meditations on the relationship of human beings and history. Finally, Twain leaves the Holy Land with even more skepticism about religion and humanity than when he arrived; the more he comes face to face with history and belief, the less he has faith with either. (Note the subtitle of the book.) I’d have more to say about Innocents Abroad, had I the time to say it. But I’d recommend it. Most travel books are recommendable; I’m glad to have Twain’s portrait of the Holy Land to confirm me in my complete disinterest in going there myself.

Here’s a good online resource covering the writing, influence, and reception of The Innocents Abroad. It’s a part of the “Mark Twain in His Times” web site at the University of Virginia, “Written and Directed by Stephen Railton.”

2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the sailing of the Quaker City, the boat that took Twain and his compatriots from New York to Egypt and back again. A new documentary, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland, is being aired on various public television stations this month; narrated by Martin Sheen, the film explores the Quaker City voyage that led to The Innocents Abroad, and features rare film of Twain and Jerusalem itself. I’m unable to find airtimes in my local area, but maybe you’ll be able to. The trailer for the film is below.

As bad as we say it is

Billboard on Schuylkill Expressway, near Exit 37 west of Conshohocken. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 1970.

Two new books about Philadelphia are now available: an updated and revised edition of Philadelphia: A Short History by Roger D. Simon; and Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City by Joseph E. B. Elliott, Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall. Both are being published by Temple University Press. In time, I hope to write about them both; they bring to mind my short essay below, originally published here in May 2017.

When in the early 1970s the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce needed a slogan to promote the city to businesses and tourists, the best it could come up with was “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” It’s hard to determine exactly what the Chamber of Commerce expected as a result. In the ten years following the slogan’s launch, the population of Philadelphia dipped by 13.4 percent, from 1,948,609 to 1,688,210. And on the eve of the city’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo requested 15,000 federal troops to maintain order in Philadelphia that summer, fearing violence from political demonstrations. Tourists stayed away in droves. “The total number of visitors to Philadelphia in 1976 was estimated to be between 14 and 20 million, which fell far short of the planners’ expectations,” Madison Eggert-Crowe and Scott Gabriel Knowles write in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.  “Much of the shortfall may be attributed to fear of violence spread by media attention to the protests and the mayor’s reaction to them. During the Bicentennial there was also an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. Hundreds of members of the American Legion staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel contracted an infectious disease through the hotel’s air conditioning system, killing more than thirty of the Legionnaires.” Local wags inclined to punnery called the city “Filthydelphia,” and the same wags, referring to the main artery into town, the deteriorating high-speed Schuylkill Expressway, were prone to call it “the Surekill Distressway.” We regularly booed our sports teams, which inevitably found themselves in the basement of the standings a few weeks after the opening of the season, at their home games. Philadelphia was, at the time, the self-loathing Larry David of American cities. It remains so in some respects. It may be no coincidence that the phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us” was popularized in the 1970s (though not coined) by Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo — and a Philadelphia native.

I consider myself a native Philadelphian too — I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets in 1962, in the heart of Center City — and remain one, though I’ve lived in New York since the early 1990s. I spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia in the 1970s (I must have passed that billboard many times myself) and remember this period well. But then, Philadelphia was never one to curry favor with outsiders, or with ourselves. Compare Philadelphia’s slogan of the 1970s with, for example, New York’s “I Love New York” advertising campaign, which launched in 1977 — a screaming success. A success, at least, when it came to the city’s self-image, if little else; New York’s population also suffered a 10 percent decrease during the 1970s. Nonetheless, the contrast between the two slogans reveals about Philadelphians their steadfast refusal to believe  their own bullshit.

Bullshit is a fine fertilizer, and like other fertilizers it’s a compound, its individual elements consisting of hyperbole, publicity, half-truths, whole-lies, arrogance, exaggeration, conceit, egotism, self-delusion, greed, and a narcissism verging on religious mania. The danger is in believing your own bullshit, and if anybody believes their own bullshit, it’s New Yorkers. The sentence “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” unintentionally reveals a more laudable modesty and humility at the heart of its civic and urban culture. That modesty and humility have done damage to the city and its reputation, no doubt. But they have also done the city and its inhabitants more good than may be evident at first glance, and it obscures the far greater civic and urban damage that bullshitters who believe their own bullshit can accomplish.

The roots of this difference between New York and Philadelphia may lie in their histories. William Penn, the founder of the city whose statue looks down from the top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, deliberately established Philadelphia on the Quaker values of tolerance, piety, pacifism, and order in its original prospectus.1 He envisioned it as a “greene country towne,” a “city of brotherly love” that would disdain excessive commerce and business activity in the pursuit of a prosperous (within reason) but civilized community of compassionate, like-minded citizens. Within fifty years of its 1682 establishment, of course, these ideals had fallen by the wayside as the non-Quaker population — diverse and heterogenous as it was in terms of religious, social, and racial composition, a diversity and heterogeneity ironically encouraged by Penn himself — displaced the original Quaker settlers, forming a more practical and commercial population, personified by no less than Benjamin Franklin, inventor, entrepreneur, and civic leader. On a recent walk through Olde City Philadelphia, I counted no fewer than fifteen statues and historical references to the inimitable Franklin — he’s hard to miss — but above it all, Penn and his memory still look down over the city. There is, no doubt, some bullshit in Penn and rather more in Franklin; the capacity for bullshit is something that differentiates the human race from the animals, after all, and none of us is entirely devoid of it, even and perhaps especially seemingly benign visionaries like Penn. New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post. And New York is still a trading post — magnified a millionfold, and powered by the latest in technology, but a trading post nonetheless. And there’s no better fertilizer for business, commerce, and publicity than bullshit. I hate to say it, but if Benjamin Franklin may be the personification of colonial Philadelphia, Donald Trump may be the personification of contemporary New York.

That “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is” also suggests a bit of a desire to be left alone. In these more connected and networked days, a Facebook intimacy, in which we can be “friends” with hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we never meet, undermines traditional conceptions of community and friendship, which traditionally required us to actually meet, talk, and enjoy each other’s real-world presence. Such traditional conceptions themselves undermine the ability of bullshitters to successfully bullshit us; we can see the deceptive glint in their eye as they spew it.

About twenty years ago, Philadelphia got around to hiring a rather more adept publicity firm, which came up with the slogan “The Place That Loves You Back.” This might be interpreted as a somewhat sarcastic response to New York’s “I Love New York,” which doesn’t love anyone, apparently. In 2012, Prof. Richardson Dilworth, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy, compared the two Philadelphia slogans in an insightful essay for NewsWorks, seeing in the later slogan something of a betrayal of the Quaker ideal of universal love.2 “The claim that Philadelphia loves you is really the opposite of Quaker-inspired universal love. The slogan suggested intimacy, while universal love is cold and impersonal,” Dilworth noted. “If I love everyone, I love no one in particular. And Philadelphia has indeed often been perceived as a uniquely cold and unwelcoming place.” Cold and impersonal, perhaps — but also cautious, and, befitting the essentially conservative (with a small c) nature of the city, fonder of and more comfortable with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn’t.

Dilworth cites Digby Baltzell’s landmark 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as he continues:

According to Baltzell, the radical equality and antiauthoritarianism of the city’s Quaker leaders fostered a uniquely individualistic culture that was more tolerant of dissent than the more paternalistic culture fostered by the authoritarian Puritan leaders of Boston. … Though generally considered a negative characteristic, Philadelphia’s antisocial reputation was intimately connected to the city’s perceived virtues — the opposite side of the coin of tolerance and acceptance is indifference and disregard. …

Since the city’s antisocial reputation also defined some of the city’s perceived virtues of tolerance and acceptance, it seems worth asking what shared sense of community we gave up in selling ourselves more successfully to tourists.

“The Place that Loves You Back” suggests that we offered to welcome tourists into a warm and intimate community. We want you to have fun; in fact, we’re going to insist that you have fun, because we love you and we care.

But in making this new offer, have we forsaken the mixed history of tolerance and indifference that allowed anyone to come here and do what they wanted? And in exchange, we really wouldn’t care?

There’s a reason that one of the more significant studies of Philadelphia of recent years is titled The Private City.

The more years I spend away from Philadelphia, the more I come to appreciate its eccentricities, including its reserve, self-deprecation, and modesty. I find in these qualities more realism than skepticism, more honesty than self-hatred. Naturally, I’m not blind to its many deficiencies. I’m glad that my daughters are enrolled in public schools in New York, given the worrisome condition of the public school system in Philadelphia today; its arts community, compared to that of New York, is less vibrant and less daring, though there’s enough vibrancy and daring in Philadelphia if you know where to look. Its newspapers are a shadow of what they once were. And very little of Philadelphia’s urban cuisine — those cheesesteaks, the pulled pork sandwiches at DeNic’s — will end up on the cover of Eating Well magazine anytime soon; five minutes in the Reading Terminal Market will send any vegan or health-conscious eater screaming to the exits. On the other hand, Philadelphia, for many reasons, encourages an individual to come to private terms with a history — his own, as well as his culture’s — that’s worth preserving. Perhaps that’s the bullshit I believe, and perhaps it’s the bullshit Philadelphia believes, too. In which case, to each his own.

Not necessarily on newsstands now

Believe it or not, the fifth issue of The American Bystander, the crowdfunded humor magazine published by the redoubtable Michael Gerber, landed with a disconcerting thud at my doorstep a few days ago. This issue continues the bitter effort to maintain an American humor magazine at a time when American humor is having a hard time of it, with contributions from a variety of fine humor writers, both veteran and new: head writer Brian McConnachie, M.K. Brown, Merrill Markoe, Drew Friedman, Jack Handey, Ron Barrett, Ron Hauge, Howard Cruse, and, in the pages of the magazine for the first time, the one-of-a-kind Ed Subitzky, who offers “101 Beginnings for a Novel.” My personal favorite is #36:

“To gain the hand of my beautiful daughter,” the sorcerer said, “you must solve three riddles. The first riddle is, ‘What are the second and third riddles?'”

The issue is now available through amazon.com, but you can subscribe to the magazine here, which I’d recommend. Let’s make Michael happy. I may as well also note that he’s embarked on the disastrous course of publishing some highlights of past issues on the internet here.

The sense of sound

Michaël Levinas.

Starting next Thursday, October 5, and running through Sunday, October 8, NYU and La Maison Française will present The Sense of Sound (Le sens du son), an exploration of the limits and possibilities of our aural sensations. According to the web page for the series:

Talks and roundtables are organized around a series of performances which include a concert featuring compositions of Michaël Levinas, a performance at the Park Avenue Armory of Boulez’s Répons by IRCAM’s Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the innovative production by Roland Auzet of Bertrand-Marie Koltes’s play In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields. Levinas; the director of l’IRCAM, Frank Madlener; and Auzet will participate in discussions around their work.

More specifically, at 5:00pm on Saturday, October 7, my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken will be performing two of Levinas’ solo piano works — Anaglyphe (Variations on a Secret Motif) and Etude No. 4 (The Tears of Sounds) — and, on the second half of the program, pianist Irina Kataeva-Aimard and mezzo-soprano Roula Safar will perform Olivier Messiaen’s epic song cycle Harawi. The performers will discuss all three works at a round-table before the program, which will also feature Levinas.

The performance will take place in Room 303 at NYU Steinhardt, 35 West 4th Street, New York, NY 10012. Admission is free. More information about the concert can be found at the Facebook page for the event. I look forward to seeing you there.