In memoriam: Bruce Jay Friedman

Bruce Jay Friedman in 1967. Photo: Sam Falk/The New York Times.

You hear an awful lot about the “fading line between fantasy and reality” in the modern world and I had better put that in fast or else I am not going to get to do any more Forewords. So here it comes. I agree. There is a fading line between fantasy and reality, a very fading line, a goddamned, almost invisible line … Then, too, if you are alive today, and stick your head out of doors now and then, you know that there is a nervousness, a tempo, a near-hysterical new beat in the air, a punishing isolation and loneliness of a strange, frenzied new kind. It is in the music and the talk and the films and the theater and it is in the prose style of Joe Heller and Terry Southern. You can find it in Gogol and Isaac Babel, too, and perhaps they saw it all coming. …

What has happened is that the satirist has had his ground usurped by the newspaper reporter. The journalist, who, in the year 1964, must cover the ecumenical debate on whether Jews, on the one hand, are still to be known as Christ-killers, or, on the other hand are to be let off the hook, is certainly today’s satirist. The novelist-satirist, with no real territory of his own to roam, has had to discover new land, invent a new currency, a new set of filters, has had to sail into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire and I think this is what is meant by black humor.

–Bruce Jay Friedman
Foreword, Black Humor (1965)

Those words from one of the greats, Bruce Jay Friedman, who sailed into rather different waters yesterday at the age of 90. He knew us then, and he certainly knows us today; see, especially, his story “Black Angels,” published in the December 1, 1964, issue of Esquire.

Bruce Weber’s obituary for the writer can be found in the New York Times here.

Claudio Magris on irony and the Central European mind

Here the Danube is young, and Austria is still far off, but clearly the river is already a sinuous master of irony, of that irony which created the greatness of Central European culture, the art of outflanking one’s own barrenness and checkmating one’s own weakness; the sense of the duplicity of things, and at the same time the truth of them, hidden but single. Irony taught respect for the misunderstandings and contradictions of life, the disjunction between the recto and the verso of a page that never meet even though they are the selfsame thing between time and eternity, between language and reality … Tolerance of the imbalances and deformities of the world, of its parallel lines that never meet, does not diminish our faith that those parallels meet at infinity, but it does not force them into meeting any earlier.

Danube (1986/89), p. 58
Translated by Patrick Creagh


Mr. Trump goes to church

He did not pray. He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces.

–Mariann E. Budde,
bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington,
in the
New York Times, June 1, 2020

And the beat goes on; and so yesterday Donald Trump threatened to call up the army to invade and militarily occupy his own country. The days all seem to string together without division, so I can’t say exactly when he also characterized members of the Antifa movement as a terrorist organization. (Mr. Trump and his defenders are apparently Profa themselves.) Because  he is Donald Trump, his threat was laced through with stupidity: there is very little if any real organization among the Antifa crowd, making them a quite slippery target. It’s plain that the real rationale behind his characterization is to provide carte blanche for individual prosecutions under terrorism laws. And under a Trump judiciary, this will likely succeed.

Otherwise his designation is useless, not unlike most of the things he does. Late yesterday, his path there cleared by police firing tear gas canisters into the crowd, he walked from the White House to a riot-torn St. John’s Episcopal Church and stood before it for a photo op, waving a bible. “This evening, the President of the United States stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, lifted up a bible, and had pictures of himself taken,” noted Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us.”

Quite good at waving bibles around, our president is, but he is a better waver than a reader. It’s unlikely that he’s come across the passages about rich men, needles, and camels; the merchants’ tables in the temple; meals with prostitutes and tax collectors (though here he may have something in common with Jesus); the urges to humility, modesty, simplicity, non-violence, our common humanity, and sacrifice. It’s possible that one day Mr. Trump may open the New Testament to read about these things. It’s also to be hoped that Mr. Trump will see fit to forgive Jesus for such a disappointing message.

Nothing to say

The White House, May 31, 2020.

About Donald Trump I have nothing to say. The photograph above is no doubt worth its thousand words, but many others have written thousands of words far more eloquent about the past few months, and especially the past few days, than I could ever aspire to. The photograph might be comic if it weren’t so pathetic: When competent leadership is needed most, it is completely lacking in the place where one would most hope to find it. When the protests appeared outside his house, its chief occupant locked the door, turned off the lights, and ran into the basement, perhaps hoping against hope that those protestors would conclude that nobody’s at home. And perhaps they’re right. For me the photograph is a most eloquent expression of Donald Trump’s cowardice, his lack of empathy, his refusal to take responsibility for what he and his supporters have turned this country into in a few short years: a disease-ridden nation now consumed by violence, fuelled by a racism, a reactionary and bigoted cultural and social conservatism, and profound structural and economic inequality they have blithely dismissed. But an empty White House would probably not have resulted in the disaster we’re currently experiencing; Trump’s rhetoric, his gross refusal to take responsibility for his office, his astonishing stupidity, and the resentments of his supporters were the fuel on the fire; silence and absence would possibly have been more constructive. That this too shall pass I am confident; that it will not happen again, and worse, in a second Trump term is impossible to believe given the evidence of our senses now. Since February 16, 2017, the historian Anne Applebaum has pinned a tweet to the top of her Twitter feed: “After this is all over,” she wrote, “I never, ever want to hear again about how businessmen would run the government better than politicians.”

I only post these few words of mine here because a Facebook or Twitter post seems like even more of a waste of time than a blog entry, a preaching (and a poor sermon it is) to the converted. But one must say something with words; even a photo, as eloquent as it can be, may not be enough.

Metropolitan diary

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?”

Over the weekend I was taking a quiet walk through my Lower East Side neighborhood when suddenly I felt a sharp, hot sting on the side of my neck. I slapped my hand to my neck then looked at it to see a smear of blood; as my arm dropped, a small metal pellet, what I recognized as a BB, fell to the ground from the crook of my elbow. Looking up to see the source of the gun, I saw about thirty yards away from me and through a few trees a group of young men, looking at me and laughing, though I saw no gun. Bleeding and somewhat shaken, I turned to go home and apply a dab of Neosporin and a Band-Aid to where I’d been hit.

I’ve been living in New York long enough to develop a … well, a thick skin is  obviously the metaphor du jour. But if I’ve been obsessing here just a bit about the pleasures of an earlier day, perhaps events like this are the reason. I’m not fool enough to suggest that such things and much worse haven’t happened since time began (and continue to do so now), but as Yossarian pointed out to Clevinger in Catch-22, that’s small comfort.

I have in my bookshelves a well-thumbed-because-purchased-used copy of Essays of E.B. White, and within that collection is his very popular essay, Here Is New York, written in 1948 and available as a popular, elegantly produced souvenir in most New York bookstores. In 1977, though, White himself looked back at that essay:

The city I described has disappeared, and another city has emerged in its place — one that I’m not familiar with. But I remember the former one, with longing and with love. … The last time I visited New York, it seemed to have suffered a personality change, as though it had a brain tumor as yet undetected.

And, I think, listening to New York congratulate itself so often, the tumor is growing.