A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 250

The Great Dictator.

Sunday, January 23

The noted Norwegian memoirist Karl Ove Knausgaard must have known it was a provocation to entitle his magnum opus My Struggle. And that act alone must have made it all but inevitable that Knausgaard would at some point have to ruminate a bit about the writer who previously employed that title—Adolf Hitler, author of Mein Kampf. (At one point Knausgaard calls it “literature’s only unmentionable book”—so of course he mentions it.)

Knausgaard writes hugely long works and so I won’t apologize for only now catching up to him. The 1157-page Book Six of My Struggle was published in 2018.

But you would think it would be almost impossible to say anything new about Adolf Hitler, so much has been written about him. Nonetheless, Knausgaard has extracted some information from Mein Kampf and elsewhere that is novel, to me at least.

Did you know that Adolf Hitler was homeless for a time? That he was a battered child, being regularly beaten up by his terrifying pig of a father, Alois Hitler? (Alois was illegitimate and went by his mother’s name Schicklgruber for a time, finally adopting his stepfather’s name of Hiedler, which the authorities misspelled as Hitler.)

Did you know that Adolf had only one real friend, August Kubizek, with whom he roomed for a time in Vienna?

And that Adolf was paralyzingly shy around members of the opposite sex? For years, he carried a torch for one girl, writing poems to her and even drawing up plans for a house in which he imagined they would live. Yet Hitler never even approached her or members of her family…he could never bring himself to speak to her.

Knausgaard offers startling but provocative comparisons. In his late teens, Kubizek tells us in his book The Young Hitler I Knew, Hitler was not fixated on politics but was instead so enthralled by high culture—painting, architecture, Viennese opera, and the symphony—that he could talk of little else. In this, he resembled his Vienna contemporary Stephan Zweig and that future successful novelist’s gang of buddies.

Moreover, if Hitler was a failure at his chosen profession of painting, he was hardly alone. Vincent Van Gogh, Knausgaard reminds us, failed to sell even one painting during his lifetime and must have experienced his time on earth as a deeply painful rejection.

So in many ways, one must conclude, Hitler was nothing special–not even a special failure.

During the year 1909, the nineteen year old Hitler was evicted by his landlady, had no possessions, went hungry, and slept on park benches. But, like Van Gogh, he was too “headstrong” to give up his vision of becoming an artist.

Three-time rejection by the art school of his choice and the period of destitution surely played a role in the making of the Führer. Knausgaard compares some of the writing about poverty in Mein Kampf to the reflections of Karl Marx and Jack London. Like Marx, Hitler faulted capitalism. But where Marx focused on the problem of class exploitation, Hitler located the key problem in the ethnic conflicts that resulted from the growing number of immigrants converging on Vienna. “In the Greater Germanic Reich of which he dreamed, there would be no division between burgher and aristocrat, but between German and non-German,” Knausgaard writes.

And before long, there was World War I, and for Hitler, four years in the trenches. Out of that experience, Hitler constructed a mythology of heroism and war.

Dinner: The Italian rice dish risi e bisi, broccoli, and avocado salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of the British mystery series Vera.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 249

It was in the bleak January–and not a spark of life.

Friday, January 15

This week’s crisis: No propane, which we need to run our furnace, water heater, and kitchen stove. It seemed we might spend at least one very cold night without heat.

We have two large propane tanks out at the side of our house. I rarely look at the gauge, since the fuel company has always been very dutiful about refilling them. But when I looked on Tuesday, the gauge seemed to read 10%. 

I telephoned the propane supplier in the afternoon, and they said that they had tried to reach us on December 19 (huh?) but failed. It seems the tanks have to be replaced every ten years or so, and that ours needed to be replaced. We couldn’t get a refill until that happened. They agreed to bring new tanks on Wednesday.

A bit later, hoping for the best, I began to prepare pasta for dinner…when the stove sputtered and the flames died.

So I called the supplier’s emergency number, where the representative insisted that I should go out to the tanks and read the gauge again. It seemed they couldn’t make an emergency delivery that evening unless the gauge read 5% or below. Otherwise, they’d have to levy a $150 charge for a delivery.

By this point it was after 6 p.m. and very dark. They seemed pretty unconcerned. Ah, capitalism…rugged individualism…every-man/being-for-xself-ism! There is no such thing as society, as Margaret Thatcher instructed us!

In any case, by around 8:30 an emergency delivery guy came. He was very cheerful and, employing a portable tank, he gave us a 20% tank refill. That much, he said, should last for a couple of days. The old tanks, he said, had been completely empty. (So, I guess, no extra charge for the delivery.)

Then, at 9 a.m. the next day (Thursday), the same easygoing dude reappeared with two new large propane tanks. Working all by himself, he unloaded them from his truck and, employing only a hand truck, moved them into position. These, he said, were 40% full. Another guy would come sometime in the next couple of days to give us even more gas, he said. And indeed, before the day was out, another delivery guy did come and fill the tanks.

So, crisis over—at least for now. 

In each case, the cheerful guy inspected the stove, water heater, and furnace to make sure they were up and running.

But we experienced an anxiety-filled evening, all for nought. Why did no one tell us about the December 19 visit—when, as best I can tell, we were here—or of the necessity of replacing the propane tanks? Well, who knows? The company apparently intended for the old tanks to run down to nearly empty, so they’d be lighter weight and easier to lift and replace—but no one told us that either.

The lingering question: Just what else is about to hit us?

Along with many others, we have experienced plague, bitter cold, tornado-like winds, obstacles to getting food and fuel, medical crises, and more.

So far, looking over Job’s list of complaints, we have missed out on death and utter destruction. No plague of frogs or locusts. No forest fires here. Emily has had a rash…but no boils or leprosy. I have had arthritis afflicting various parts of my body…but I’m not yet a Granpappy Amos-like cripple.

And so far no nuclear winter, Love Canal- or Chernobyl-like eco-disasters.

Still—what next? Nights are still long and dark.

Dinner: turkey chili and a green salad.

Entertainment: The European animated flick The House, and possibly November Man with Pierce Brosnan.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 248

General Motors sit-down strikers in 1937.

Sunday, January 9

The madness of crowds—and the wisdom of crowds.

Each of these phrases has been in the title of a book…each focusing, largely, on investing/speculation/investment bubbles. But the phrases could also refer to the mystifying actions of people—including the January 6 rioters—when they gather as a crowd.

Indeed, historians such as George Rudé have build reputations on the study of crowd behavior. Psychologists must have done the same sort of work, although I know nothing of their research.

But so much of the journalism focused on January 6 reflects the writer(s)’ preconception of right and wrong. A very long Times article today looks at the experiences and psychological damage sustained by Capitol police. Inevitably, that article carries the suggestion that the rioters were villainous or at least demented. 

As far as I know, there has been very little in the way of clinical studies of the January 6 rioters. Some have now been prosecuted for crimes—and a few of these have recanted, saying they were deceived or some such. One Florida man, sentenced to five years in prison for his violent behavior, told the judge in his case that he was “really, really ashamed” of his behavior that day and that he would never attend a political rally again.

So just who misled him? Trump? Fox News? Other irresponsible media? Or the crowd itself?

A “mob” or crowd, we can understand, takes on a personality of its own, separate from the personalities of the individuals. Police of various nations have long employed agents provocateurs with the intent of getting a crowd to misbehave so that its members can be beaten up or prosecuted.

Does that work? Sometimes it must. But exactly what makes a crowd turn into a mob remains unclear. And at one moment, such a group might have a goal that could prove historically progressive, such as the sit-down strikes of 1930s and 1940s America that resulted in great gains for labor unions and ultimately gains in wages and benefits for the U.S. population as a whole. At another moment, as we know from innumerable movies and photos, a group can blame its unhappiness on the perceived actions of scapegoats—black people in the post-Civil War south or Jews in 1930s and ‘40s Germany and Austria.

One noteworthy anecdote comes to mind, drawn from French social philosopher André Gorz’ 1967 work A Strategy for Labor. Gorz described how managers at a European Vauxhall auto manufacturing plant conducted a survey in order to find out just what the facility’s workers thought of their work experience. The written survey, conducted one by one, revealed that the employees were hugely content. Later, though, the results of the survey were published—and workers gathered to discuss them. The group was outraged—how dare you say we are happy?!!—and immediately went out on strike. 

Here, group psychology seems to move in a progressive direction. The group discusses things and takes action to right what the mass perceives to be a wrong. But for good or ill, once again, it seems people have different attitudes when they are individually isolated and when they gather as a group.

So, more study of the January 6 rioters—at least of those not members of organized fascist groups such as the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers—seems in order.

Dinner: Ropa vieja, black beans, rice, and green salad.

Entertainment: More Vera on Britbox and Reservation Dogs on Hulu.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 247

Friday, January 7

It’s a mystery to me how it works.

He wears Hermes ties and handmade suits. He travels around by private jet, flying to the fancy resorts he “owns” (along with the banks) in exclusive areas of Florida, New Jersey, and Scotland. And, perhaps most mysterious of all, he gained notoriety on a nationally broadcast television show where he played a boss who delights in screaming at people “YOU’RE FIRED.”

I mean, could you conceivably root for someone whose reputation rests on giving everyday folks a very public heave-ho? Do you hate your fellow workers that much?

And yet it seems this is the guy who a great many white working men feel best represents their interests. They celebrate their loyalty, flaunting Trump stickers on their Dodge Ram pickup trucks.

The anniversary of the January 6 Washington, D.C. riots has brought the weirdness of the whole Trump phenomenon back into relief. Here you had 10,000 protesters, many of whom had traveled long distances across the country, ferociously intent on reinstating to the Presidency a guy you’d never see down at the barbershop or local bar, much less browsing the secondhand trousers at the Goodwill outlet. Five people died during the riot and 140 police officers were wounded. Subsequent to the events, 700 rioters have been brought up on charges including assault and use of deadly weapons.

And while the action was going on, Trump was watching it all on TV from his private dining room.

One of the rioters on January 6 carried a banner inscribed with a pitchfork. As if they were there in support of “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, a firebrand Populist Party leader of the 1890s. Trump isn’t even Huey Long, author of what historian T. Harry Williams has termed the Long tradition in Louisiana politics—“the idea that the state had an obligation to use its power to raise the lot of the masses.” 

Huey Long said, “Every man a king.” Donald Trump said, “I’m the greatest.”

No, nowadays apparently all some voters care about is having someone who’ll throw tantrums, insult opponents and minority groups (especially women), and escort around a bevy of trophy wives and Barbie-doll daughters.

Please: Explain it to me.

Back to January, 2022.

This time, Mother Nature didn’t miss. Three days back, a storm dumped a foot of snow on D.C. and parts of Virginia and left hundreds of drivers stranded overnight on I-95. Long Island got away with a dusting.

Last night, we got hit…but it’s still no calamity. I’d say we got maybe seven inches, all very pretty. We have plenty of food and the heat’s working, so no need to fear.

Dinner: mushroom barley soup, corn muffins, green salad, and tapioca pudding.

Entertainment: we’re still binging on old episodes of the Britbox policier Vera. Last night, we also viewed the very wacky Bob Odenkirk (famed as Better Call Saul) vehicle, Girlfriend’s Day on Netflix. Hey, how many other shows feature unemployed greeting-card writers?

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 246

The deserted beach in winter.

Tuesday, January 4

Questions for a below-freezing day:

Why does the cold make your nose run?

They say that household dust is, in some measure, made up of old human skin cells. Why then does the forced-air heating, which brings in air from the outdoors, lead to more dust on the floor?

And how can that person actually be out there today (temperature: 27 degrees) operating his leaf blower?

COVID just won’t go away, so we’re in for more weeks of isolation. Now, the disease has evolved into the Omicron variant—fast-spreading but it seems not as devastating as Delta. Still, no one can yet say just what the long-term effects of contracting even a milder version of the virus will be. Emily’s brother Vic tells us that his young daughter Maya, currently working out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has gotten it.

Strange to me, the Britbox streaming service has been featuring a number of filmed ghost stories during the Christmas season. Maybe the telling of ghost stories is a Yuletide tradition in Britain, realized most famously in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” In one of these videos, “The Stalls of Barchester” based on a story by M.R. James, an archdeacon is left alone in his large, spooky house when his sister/companion goes away to visit relatives. It happens to be the dead of winter, the most oppressive aspect of which, the cleric reflects, is not the cold but the dark. He hears squeaks on the stairs, howls from cats, and ghostly voices…But it’s the darkness that unnerves him most.

And that’s the thing I feel most out here in the country at mid-winter. No street lights and a limited number of neighbors means that it gets very dark indeed at night. I look forward to the dawn, which these days arrives after 7 a.m. I remember the first season of our COVID-related isolation came during the month of March (2020), when days were already getting longer bit by bit. What a relief that will be—but we’re months away.

Food remains a preoccupation. Cold weather encourages consumption of such heavy stuff as beef stew, ropa vieja, chicken potpie…and pudding-like desserts including pear clafoutis and tapioca. The last of these sinfully requires a measure of whole milk or even cream—yum.

Dinner: pasta with meatballs and tomato sauce and green salad.

Entertainment: Early episodes of the thriller Vera on Britbox.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 245

A harsh contemporary satire–or a simple fall-from-grace story?

Friday, December 24

On a tobacco plantation in a remote corner of Italy lives a “marquessa,” her layabout son, an estate manager, and fifty or so “sharecroppers” who do all the work, unpaid. It is what might be thought of as a paternalistic, pre-capitalist setup—i.e., slavery. 

Among the workers at “Inviolata” is Lazzaro, a perhaps simpleminded, ever-agreeable youth who labors tirelessly. Lazzaro becomes friends of a sort with the layabout Tancredi and introduces him to his primitive mountain hideaway, from which Tancredi sends word to his mom that he has been kidnapped and is in need of ransom.

Thus begins the Italian film Happy as Lazzaro, or Lazzaro Felice, directed by Alice Rohrwacher and now showing on Netflix.

The marquessa, Alfonsina De Luna, is wise to her son’s schemes, but the estate manager’s daughter is taken in—and uses her cellphone to telephone the authorities. When the police arrive, they announce that sharecropping has been outlawed for years! They disband the plantation, arrest the owner, round up the workers, and transport them in a truck to a nearby city. 

The whole thing becomes fodder for a tabloid scandal—“The Great Swindle” perpetrated by the woman who becomes known as “the queen of cigarettes.” The newspapers announce that the former slaves have been relocated to more suitable accommodations. In fact, they are just set adrift to become homeless beggars and petty thieves.

Is the filmmaker a Marxist? Her fable seems to echo the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, as the capitalist police have “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound [the sharecroppers to their] ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self- interest.” The former rural proletarians now live atomized lives lacking all sentimental illusions, amid pitiless urban blight.

No one seems to notice that Lazzaro has been left behind. During the police roundup, he plunges off a cliff. But magically, he doesn’t die; seemingly years later, he awakens and wanders on his own into the city, where he finds not only a group of his former worker-comrades (now living in a large, empty propane tank) but also Tancredi.

Late in the movie, Lazzaro goes into a bank to demand that the De Luna fortune be returned to the family. He has heard that bankers took away their wealth. The bank’s workaday patrons, ignorant of Lazzaro’s history and having internalized capitalist logic, fear that—armed as he is with a primitive slingshot—he may take away their money! They set upon him and kill him. Thus is order restored.

Lazzaro Felice was among the 2018 Palme d’Or competitors at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. But despite its light touch, the satire doesn’t really leave the viewer as Happy as Lazzaro: Its view of life without sentimental illusions is as harsh as reality.

Dinner: A Christmas Eve feast of roasted turkey breast, couscous, cranberries, and a pear clafoutis.

Entertainment: On Mubi, either Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy or Jean-Luc Goddard’s Contempt.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 244

Late-day sky at Maidstone park.

December 21

We’re going back to the city again today, for more dental work. I’m hoping to make this a quickie, just in on Tuesday and back out to Long Island on Thursday. The fast-spreading Omicron variety of COVID, now very much a presence in NYC, has Emily worried, but she’s coming along to keep me company.

Last time, the dentist explained that tomorrow was the first available appointment–because the insurance wouldn’t allow one any sooner. It’s truly amazing just how much control, large and petty, these insurance companies exert over our lives.

Dinner: unknown

Entertainment: Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God on Netflix.

.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 243

Thursday, December 9

In the mid-to-late 1980s, I lived on East 26th Street in Manhattan. That’s on the edge of a neighborhood known as “Kip’s Bay,” named for the pre-Revolutionary Era landholder Jacobus Kip. His estate “covered one hundred and fifty acres” of “meadow, woodland and stream” and extended eastward to a rocky indentation of the East River known for its shape as Turtle Bay, or alternatively as Kip’s Bay.

By the 1930s, when the Federal Writers’ Project put together a guide to New York City, the writers had termed much of the district “a slum.” Most of the bay had been filled in long before, and the guide reported that “El trains of the Second and Third Avenue lines thunder by constantly,” while “an endless, noisy procession of trucks” stormed over First Avenue.

During my time there, the neighborhood was a sort of Nowhere Ville—not so different in that from the area I had previously occupied, Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. (If there is a hill there, I never found it; I guess the name-givers had to pretend that the area adjacent to Carroll Gardens had some sort of distinguishing trait.)

But back to East 26th Street: My apartment there was a one-bedroom affair at the top of a four-floor walk-up. Few friends ever visited me, for obvious reasons.

On my walk home from a doctor’s appointment today, I passed by the old building. The neighborhood hasn’t really changed much. The laundromat that used to be downstairs is now a “Brazilian” beauty parlor. Two doors down, there’s a “Tipsy Scoop Barlour” specializing in “liquor-infused ice cream.” On nearby Third Avenue, the D’Agostino’s supermarket is still in place although a bit gussied up with newish plate glass windows. And the liquor store where I once got a $10 bottle of Famous Grouse scotch (on sale as a promotion) also remains. But the bars and restaurants that line Third Avenue have all changed hands or gone out of business.

Also not very far away is Gramercy Park and the tony neighborhood that shares its name. I’m sure that Gramercy retains its share of the Beautiful People, just as it did when Mayor James Harper (one of the founders of publisher Harper & Brothers) lived there in the 1840s, or when Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish was there in the 1890s. A singular aspect of the area is the exclusive and privately owned park to which only nearby residents are allowed keys. Such a shame that the dog-walkers allow their charges to foul the surrounding sidewalks!

New York will never change—and it’s in a constant state of change. The builders are still throwing up new high-rise structures in the area, particularly along 23rd Street. But will anyone choose to live in the new buildings? That matter is no closer to resolution now than it was in the year 2020, when the COVID pandemic began.

Dinner: Croque-Monsieur sandwiches, red-pepper soup, and a green salad.

Entertainment: an episode of Britbox’ policier Shetland.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 242

Monday, December 6 

A dramatic storm in the early morning hours included startling lightning and thunder. It woke me, but, I’m happy to say, Emily slept through it.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of lots of wind but there must have been some: Glancing out the window now, I can see another large oak tree has split open and fallen into the front yard. Where will the destruction end?

The tree service guy—a “Certified Arborist” no less—came by a few days ago to make an estimate on how much he’d charge to remove storm-damaged trees and limbs. (Horrifying numbers.) He said that the type of wind here has changed—nowadays, we get swirling, tornado-like winds that whip trees around in ways they aren’t prepared for. And these winds are very selective: They’ll break trees apart on one property and leave the next-door lot totally undisturbed.

I went back to sleep after the storm and dreamed that I was working in a detention facility for teenage offenders. In the dream, I have some Acetone or paint thinner, which I intend to use on a project, not sure just what. One of the boys asks if he can have some, and I pour out a bit into a jar for him. It seems the stuff can be used as invisible ink—and that’s what he intends, in a letter to someone. I say, hey, that can be traced back to me! I wash the outside of my bottle, hoping to remove fingerprints, and decide that I should get rid of the bottle.

I must be watching too many streaming-video crime dramas. They seem to be infecting my dreams.

We’ll be going back to the city again tomorrow. Emily has yet another dentist appointment on Wednesday, and I have an appointment with a neurologist on Thursday. I had a seizure a few years back, and it seems I must check in with her every so often in order to keep my Rx coming. She’ll probably send me to the NYU lab to have blood taken….

The weatherman predicts more gusting wind and a bit of rain for today. On Wednesday, there’s a 60% chance of snow here, perhaps an inch, but if temps remain in the upper 30s, even that may not happen.

Dinner: an omelet, green beans, and a baked potato. All modest offerings in order to empty out the larder.

Entertainment: final episodes of Netflix’ “The Imposters.” It’s an entertaining series about a bunch of grifters, but there are a very large number of episodes. In recent times we’ve also enjoyed the intricate Martin Scorsese kids’ movie “Hugo”; the 1976 François Truffaut flick “Small Change,” which is also about kids and their mostly innocent adventures; and the mysterious, 1990 Icelandic film “The Juniper Tree,” which is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm tale and features budding star Björk.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 241

Tim-brrrrr!

Wednesday, December 1

It’s a grim period. Most of the oak trees in our neighborhood have shed their leaves—but our yard guys haven’t yet come to blow and rake them away. So an inch-thick cover of brown coats the landscape. Meanwhile, as I have already noted, several trees in our yard were decapitated or broken during a mid-November windstorm. The gimpy near-dead still haunt our property, like wounded soldiers from a recently lost war.

And it’s cold—maybe seeming to be colder than it really is, thanks to the deep darkness that descends around 4:30 p.m.

I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s The Magician—an engaging fictional life of Thomas Mann—-then having nothing better at hand, I re-read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. The latter work is—more than I remembered—a bit like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, as it features an exposé of the grime and exploitation behind the scenes at fancy Paris restaurants, circa 1933.

“The dirt in the Hotel X…was revolting. Our cafeterie had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches….Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered—a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body. Apart from the dirt, the patron swindled the customers wholeheartedly….In spite of all this, the Hotel X was one of the dozen most expensive hotels in Paris, and the customers paid startling prices.”

In Paris, after a period of near starvation, Orwell finds a job as a plongeur, or restaurant dishwasher. Later, back in London, awaiting a gig as a tutor, Orwell falls in with the ranks of the homeless. Their rootless, exhausting lives are neither worse nor much better than the lives of Paris’ occasional laborers.

What leavens Orwell’s account are his descriptions of Paris and London characters. His Paris confrere Boris hangs out with fellow Russian expats, shares his meagre funds with Orwell, and in between periods of absolute destitution, enjoys a riotous, often-sodden bacchanalia of a life.  

Among London’s tramps, Orwell meets Paddy, who becomes a pal for a couple of weeks.  “He had two subjects of conversation, the shame and come-down of being a tramp and the best way of getting a free meal….His ignorance was limitless and appalling. He once asked me, for instance, whether Napoleon lived before Jesus Christ or after.”

Orwell reports on the relative merits of various places where tramps can get a bed for a night. Most are awful, and those who try to sleep out of doors risk being arrested by the police as “vagbonds.” But compared with other options he has described, jail may not be so bad. Near the book’s end he tells us that one chum, Bozo, had been sentenced to 14 days in Wandsworth prison for begging. “I do not suppose prison worries him very much,” says the author.

Dinner: cheese omelettes, pumpkin bread, and green beans.

Entertainment: episodes of Ashes to Ashes on Britbox and Gentefied on Netflix.