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GP 1 November 2006: The Eighth Wonder of the World

What Should Writers Write About?  It’s hard to be in the writing business these days.  If you are a newspaper man, you wonder if you are working for a dying institution.  In our fifth postscript below, we even ask you to drop us a line with your suggestions about how to save our metropolitan dailies and weekly magazines. On average, the nation’s dailies lost another 2-3% of their readership for the six months ending September 30.

If, instead, you are a novelist, your handiwork pales when compared with the tales of intrigue and mischief today’s world has to offer.  So-called fact is more fantastic than fiction.  The world is on a crazy binge that journalists and scribblers of fiction cannot get their arms around.  No wonder Halloween is just around the corner: ghosts, goblins, and witches are now the stuff of daily life.

Our Personal Epistemology.  Somewhere during those bright college years a long time ago, we divided all knowledge into three categories: grand illusion, illusion, and delusion.  Grand illusions are the big myths that get people to fight wars in the name of something; illusions are bodies of rhetoric such as modern medicine which purports to make us well but kills us off at alarming rates in hospitals because of out-of-control infections fostered by superbugs; delusions tend to make us think our notebook computer is better than the other guy’s even though they both came off the same production line in Taiwan.  If enough of us buy into an idea, it’s grand; if only a few, it’s a snare and delusion.  This tripartite way of looking at things does not grow out of cynicism or pessimism.  It is simply an act of prudence.  We’re in a time where much thinking simply does not hold up, and one must treat every enthusiasm with irony.

The Grand Illusion La Grande Illusion is Jean Renoir’s wonderful 1937 movie about World War I where the officer class of each country feels it has more in common with that of another than with its own countrymen.  Nobles first; Frenchmen and Germans second.  But, by movie’s end, this concept and the illusion of honor are much in doubt. The awesomely talented Renoir (where are directors like him now or have they disappeared under Chirac?) nicely set the stage for World War II.  Wars, of which we had ample in the 20th century, are surely grand illusions.  We start the fight to accomplish something but as the years go by we simply fight to get it over with.  The men we most esteem who fought in the World Wars would barely talk about them in the years that followed.

The Second World War.  The First World War is known as the Great War.  However, we think the momentous event of the 20th century was World War II, certainly for the United States.  It changed us entirely: it pulled us out of the Depression, made us the major power in the world, and made the federal government so dominant in our political cosmos that the states and cities became appendages of Washington.  With it, we had a revolution in our lives and a transformation of our thought that is still playing out.

There are a rash of movies and books about it even now.  Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose come to mind.  Clint Eastwood is just out with Flags of Our Fathers, yet another re-interpretation of the battle for Iwo Jima.  At no time do we forget Casablanca, a film peopled by two-timers set against the very few loners who comport themselves with honor in the face of the overwhelming horror of World War II.  Despite a world that has turned its back on the courtly ways and codes of conduct alluded to in Renoir’s movie, one can still do the right thing—at least in this movie.  It’s this very Second World War and the stories that surround it that control our thinking even in the present day.

Eighth Wonder of the World.  Along just now comes Leslie Epstein’s Eighth Wonder of the World.  It is not without significance that his uncle and father were the screenwriters for Casablanca and a score of other fine movies.  Who can forget Arsenic and Old Lace and The Man Who Came to Dinner?  Epstein heads up the creative writing program at Boston University, thought by some to be the finest in the country, and known by many to be the most interesting.  Clearly he has inherited cinematic writing genes from his forbears, and, like them, he was bound to have his own reckoning with World War II, which he has been digesting in one way or another during the last 40 years.

As we read his work, we feel, indeed, like we are passing through a movie, scene by scene, free of the nuanced sensations that Proust conjured up that made the plot the least  important aspect of his novels.  The central conceit of Epstein’s book is a mile-high office tower that an architect proposes to build for Il Duce in Fascist Italy, all part of a convoluted scheme to save the oppressed from death.  It starts as a grand illusion.  But just as the wooden rifles carried by soldiers and the wooden aircraft at airstrips were mere make-believes meant to fool the movie cameras into thinking Italy had unbounded ammunition and power, the tower turns to dust, a dream undreamed.  Grand illusion to mere delusion.  Epstein, incidentally, has inserted “A Glossary of Players” at the end which lets you know that this novel is a play with a global or European cast that might just be made for the movies.

Illusion.  That this novel appears now is no accident.  We are fighting poorly conceived wars that have denuded our Treasury and that lack carefully reasoned objectives.  We witness excesses each day that trump yesterday’s wildest flings.  Two paintings go for $140 million.  Around the world cruises that cost a mere $500,000 per couple are reputed to be now sold out a year in advance.  Richard Branson (Virgin) will pop us into outer space on one of his Virgin Galactic Spaceliners for $190,000, though lately he has turned conservationist, too, so that we will not know whether he is saving this planet or is simply  “out of this world.”  Ray DeVoe, Wall Street’s best writer, warns us that there are still plenty of bubbles around to be popped—the stock market, the conflating housing market, etc.  In other words, there are many mile-high towers around waiting to be pulverized.

Value Investing.  For the compulsively sane there is only one option.  Buy quality at the right price.  If you’re after stocks, this is called “value investing.”  But the notion applies anywhere.  There are a whole slew of humdrum restaurants all over the States that now wear fancy names (e.g., fusion cuisine) which charge too much for too little, tastelessly   prepared and presented.  They’re to be avoided.  Colleges now sport $40,000 tuitions that middle-class parents cannot afford.  The product is actually pretty poor—the courses, the residence halls, safety, health support, and all the rest.  As local taxes rise in town after town, services decline and disappear, mainly because the costs of new development are not understood and are not borne by here-today-gone-tomorrow developers.  The new tax revenues do not pay for the infrastructure costs of all the runaway development.

Wine Hoopla.  The world has an excess of wine, but the packagers have still been able to   charge absolutely ridiculous prices for their corkages.  Wine’s as good a place as any to buy decent but buy right.  In this vein, we recommend to your attention Andrew Tanzer, a   chap at Kiplinger’s who writes about stocks and bonds and all that sort of thing.  In July 2006, he took his readers for a quick, inexpensive world tour where he did some cherry (wine) picking.  “Start with Argentina's Bodega Catena Zapata Chardonnay Mendoza 2004 ($18 a bottle; www.catenawines.com).  That’s a mouthful, but so is this golden-hued, delicate Chardonnay that drops notes of apricots and tropical fruits.”  Argentina, incidentally, is one of the world’s major wine producers, but for the longest time it did not achieve the cachet nor command the prices of countries whose wines are no better.  “The grapes that go into Italy’s Vietti Barbera D’Alba Tre Vigne 2004 ($22; www.vietti.com) grow on the same hillsides as the Nebbiolo grapes that are used to make super-expensive Barolo wines.”  “If Chile’s Casa Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Merlot 2003 ($20; www.casalapostolle.com) reminds you of a Bordeaux, it’s no wonder.  Casa Lapostolle was founded by the family behind France’s Grand Marnier liqueur, and the Chilean winery employs world-renowned Bordeaux oenologist Michel Rolland as a consultant.”  “Our last pick, Clos Montirius Vacqueyras 2003 ($22), is a true expression of France’s southern Rhone Valley soil.”

Lutece.  Now just a memory, Andre Soltner’s Lutece was a bright star in the New York firmament during the last half of the 20th century.  It’s not that other French restaurants of renown, west and south of Lutece, weren’t as good, and sometimes better, but somehow there was a little electricity to the place.  We remember it better for lunch, as, for instance, when a retiring executive greeted 4 of us there for a relaxed and stressless affair as he was fading away from New York.  On our visits, we liked visiting with the owner chef since we could discuss points of preparation with him.

One night we were there for a quiet meal, and we had a waiter and cuisine that fitted our mood.  But the clutch of 8 at the next table did not.  The conversation was loud, forced, and unsubstantial.  The bottles of wine kept coming, all priced at multiples of $100.  It was a bunch of gauche young investment bankers out with clients, celebrating the initialing of a deal.  In the world of illusions (and that is the heart and soul of investment   banking), things are frequently over the top.

P.S.  The wine you are drinking probably is even worse than you think.  Factory techniques have taken out a lot of the taste, as chronicled in the movie Mondovino.  We are amused, too, that the wine trade has even been sold a bill of goods, so that corkages   no longer have cork.  Plastic corks and screwtop caps are creeping into everything, and the ‘experts’ even dare to tell us that the wine is better as a result.

P.P.S.  In “Washington’s Marginalia,” we asserted that Washington D.C. can now lay claim to the second-worst traffic jams in the nation.  None of our leaders and none of our parties are paying attention.  In Virginia an independent candidate for Senate, Gail Parker, is the voice of sanity on transportation, calling for a big expansion of passenger rail.  Lightly financed, she only is getting support from 2% of Virginians, but she may be able to withdraw and extract some support from either Allen or Webb, since they are locked in a very tight Senate race.  Parker is a retired budget analyst from the Pentagon as well as an Air Force reserve officer.  It is likely that it will take independents everywhere to refocus on us on real problems, since we are so caught up with illusions.  Allen, of ‘Macaca’ fame, has recently criticized Webb’s novels as being salacious, all proving that it’s a risky business to be a writer these days.

P.P.P.S.  The review you should read on Epstein’s book is in Oprah’s magazine, O, the November issue.  Naturally it’s called “A Towering Folly.”

P.P.P.P.S.  There are a whole slew of pretty good ‘excess’ one liners: “Nothing succeeds   like excess.”  “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” Etc.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Help.  Please write us a note if you have any special ideas.  We are counseling a bunch of print publications—magazines, newspapers, and the like.  The question is survival.  How do they go on when kids supposedly no longer read, and everybody wants to do their reading for free on the Internet?  Any thought is welcome.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  As it happens, many things are labeled as the eighth wonder of the world, with a view to comparing them to the seven wonders of antiquity.

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