Palmyra in the Past and Present




The “Arab Castle” looms over Palmyra, recently recaptured from ISIS by Asad’s army. Image from

I reached Palmyra, those many years ago, after a long trip of minibuses and thumbed rides from belching diesel trucks, conversing minorly in my barely-there Arabic and the unlimited patience of the people who picked me up. The ruins loomed up in the desert, a sun-baked mix of different eras and styles, from distant pagan antiquity to near history, seemingly disconnected from the world, a testament to both the length and the relative insignificance of our history.

Hitchhiking through Syria was neither dangerous nor was it romantic, though I certainly tried to romanticize it. It was a safe time, in the spring of 2000. Hafez al-Asad was still ruling, and while his undertaker pallor still loomed oppressively in thousands of hagiographic portraits, there was a sense of an ending. The oldest son, Basil, who seemed like he was born with a chest full of unearned medals and a dictator’s toothy grin, had been killed in a car wreck a few years before, and the other son, Bashar, was being groomed. He had been living in England- an ophthalmologist, right? – and there was optimism that he would be different. He couldn’t be worse than his brutal old man. Right?

So long ago. The destruction he has levied on his country is enough to make him one of the great criminals of our time. His brutality is compounded by the vacuum it created, the chaos in which (combined with the destruction of Iraq) ISIS found its strength, galloping on blood-stained horses from a medieval nightmare.

Their bloodlust doesn’t need to be recounted here. This is about Palmyra, which was the scene of horror when ISIS took it over. Public mass executions in ancient amphitheaters, the destruction of ancient, pre-Roman temples, the desecration of a shared human heritage. People reacted in horror at the thought of these illiterate goons wantonly destroying ancient ruins. When the Syrian army retook it over the weekend, there was relief that the destruction wasn’t as bad as was feared– though it was still plenty bad, and the murdered would never come back. For many reasons, Palmyra resonated more than the story of 1000 dead.

For many reasons, Palmyra resonated more than the story of 1000 dead. The formulation that I saw was that the theater was the scene of executions, not that executions took place, and it happened to be in an ancient theater. The inflection was on the smearing of a tourist place, a place of antique wonder. This is understandable, if a little grotesque. After all, people die all the time, right?

Yes, of course they do. People die horribly, in mute and screaming terror, in Pakistan or Belgium or Syria or Chicago or Yemen, every day. We’re ripped from this earth by the gory animalism of ideology, whether that is radical fundamentalism or the nihilism of post-capital gang life or rampant jingoism or other ancient horrors. It was always this way- I don’t know the whole history of the Palmyra amphitheater, but through the years, the city, which was taken and retaken, in which different beliefs smashed into each other, was the scene of horror and agony, over and over.

It’s horror that has been dulled by the years, baked into the stones and sanctified by admission. It belonged to people in the past, who didn’t feel pain the same way we do, much how people in other countries don’t weep and moan and bleed and die unless we force ourselves to truly imagine it.

That’s one of the reasons why Palmyra was important. That a goof like 21-yr-old me, with stupid hair and the fake profundity of an adolescent poet, was allowed to go there, in a country that was “supposed” to hate Americans, is why places like that matter. I sat in the old Arab Castle, in solitude, overlooking the ruins, the vast expanse of lives that went into building them, and living in them. It was a castle built for war, that now existed for tourists to connect with the past.

It’s optimistic. ISIS will not last forever. Even Bashar al-Asad will one day fall. This is a generational catastrophe, one that will reverberate for decades, remaking the Middle East. But as the reaction to Palmyra shows- as the existence of Palmyra proves- there is more a sense of shared humanity now than ever. It’s just a matter of overcoming our superstitions and ideologies and small-mindedness, and truly using the empathy of imagination. It’s a matter of recognizing that while we live in the flicker, we don’t have to put out the light just yet.




Newly Translated Gombrowicz Story Makes Certain People Happy

h/t Gregory D. Johnsen, Itinerant. 

Witold Gombrowicz by Bohdan Paczowski - detail.jpg

The Paris Review  has in its current edition a very short story by Witold Gombrowicz, the greatest modernist, translated for the first time to English, by Tul’si Bhambry. They were also kind enough to put it online for us cheapos.

It’s more of a ridiculous and minor tragedy than a great introduction to his works, but it does manage to touch upon some of his big themes: the way outside perception shapes and molds how we perceive ourselves, and the way we perceive that outside perception, and how our personalities are molded by a million competing pressures. Like in much of Gombrowicz, the physical appearance of the perceived changes, although in this case it is more a direct action rather than some kind of metaphysical mutation.

His work hits on a lot more themes, of course, and the tragedy of Polish history is always just around the corner, even though, as has been said of him, he might be the only major Polish writer of the 20th century whose themes weren’t explicitly Poland.  If you want a very basic summation, he is a comic writer whose ideas revolve around the crushing weight of being alive and aware in an absurd century. His books are uproariously funny and bizarre, terrifying and grotesque, with wild loops of language and phrases that take on a heightened tone of terror through repetition, as if they were in front of a mirror that bends at stretches in impossible contortions. The power of language is a driving obsession as well- the actual transformative power, as it ties in with the awareness that all we are is a collection of ideas about ourselves in the shape of words. But what happens if other people can control those words? If they start saying that you are a child, and everyone believes it, do you transform?

If you want a starting novel, his masterpiece is probably Ferdydurkewhich as I understand is just as much a nonsense word in Polish as it is in English. I would probably actually start, though, with the stories collected in BacacayIt is a great introduction to his ideas, and some of the scenes in the collection are adapted in other novels. Really, you can’t go wrong with anything.

However, his three-volume Diary is, in my mind, one of the great achievements of writing in the last century. Self-obsessed, at times impossibly narcissistic, with wild flights of fantasy, a keen look into the artistic experience, an exploration of the themes that obsessed him, a view of ex-pat life in South America, grudges, loves, creations, mythologies, allusions and illusions. It’s not just a view of a great writer: it is like immersing yourself in writing itself.

What Trump’s Particular Brand Of Lying Reveals

All politicians lie. That’s not a statement of cynicism; it’s part of the job. At some point, you have to hedge what you are really thinking, or what you really believe, because winning an election means appealing to the most citizens you possibly can. We’ve had spectacularly successful Presidents who have had an uneasy relationship with the truth. Lyndon Johnson and Nixon were both world-class liars. That’s not a positive thing, of course, but it is to say that Donald Trump being clinically dishonest does not, in and of itself, disqualify him from the Presidency. But it is his method of dishonesty, the kinds of lies he tells, and what that reveals not just about him, but how he’d run the country, that is something we’ve never seen. It is as dangerous as his rampant xenophobia, his bitter misogyny, and his huckster’s ability to appeal to the darkest heart of America.

Trump’s lies are possibly unlike anything we’ve ever seen, not just because of what they say, but because of what it says about him, and the reaction that his campaign has to it. His lies automatically become not just truth, but axiomatic and inevitable. What’s stranger, they become policy. This is the result of a man who has been surrounded by a fawning payroll for his entire life, cosseted by servants and sycophants. His whims become reality, and if reality disagrees, it can go pound sand. This is who he surrounds himself with, and it would continue into the White House. A few examples here will suffice.

Continue reading

Donald Trump Performs The Impossible…

He makes Ted Cruz look like an honorable and decent person.

Let’s point out, again, everything horrible here.

  1. The Republican frontrunner is attacking his rival’s wife
  2. The Republican frontrunner is attacking his rival’s wife, based on her personal appearance
  3. The Republican frontrunner is attacking his rival’s wife, based on her personal appearance, on Twitter, his desired forum for discourse.
  4. The attack comes in the form of a reweet from someone who has named himself “Don Vito 08”, which is perfect image of a Trump supporter- sad and lost but with delusions of greatness underscored by violence.
  5. Again, he makes Ted Cruz- who is Richard Nixon without the charm, personal magnetism, or higher sense of ethics- look like the big man here, with the moral high ground.

None of this matters, of course. Trump is beloved because of his vulgarity. Because he sleeps with women who look like Melania despite being the human incarnation of lung cancer. Because he swaggers like a caricature, like someone playing Vito Corleone in a low-rent Godfather knockoff in the worst community theater in Secaucus. Just remember that he is the frontrunner. The plane has crashed into the mountain.

Idle thoughts on basketball

And not even college basketball, or the Warriors, both of which at least have the benefit if currently being interesting. I’m watching the Bulls play the Knicks, and wondering if there has ever been a superstar with as pointless a career as Carmelo Anthony. He’s undoubtedly one of the best players of his generation, and has largely been healthy, but has maybe one memorable playoff run?  Can you really think of a signature moment? His most interesting time in the biggest market in the league came when a Chinese-American kid played pretty well for three or four weeks. Even his annoying drama with the trade looked Punch and Judy compared to the media Gotterdammerung of The Decision.

This is completely pointless, of course, but I can’t think of a parallel. Until recently, he was a top-5 player, but no one has cared about any of his teams or his career. Even the jokes about the Knicks seem perfunctory.  It’s not even a “what if” career; it’s a minor shrug, a weird blip for someone who could be a first ballot immortal.

Brussels and The Price of Modernity

“Always on the run, not knowing what to do any more, being looked for everywhere, not being safe any longer and that if he waits around any longer he risks ending up next to the person in a cell.”

From the will of Ibrahim El Bakraoui, Brussels terrorist

Ripped from context, the will of one of the (still-living) murderers from Brussels could be taken from the diary or blog or hastily scribbled and terrible poetry of any mildly disaffected 21st-century youth. It is of course more direct- the brothers who carried out these attacks and their companions had reasons to feel they were being hunted, after the nearby capture of one of the Paris attackers, but the sentiment rings true, globally, and it is a reason why terrorism is the dominant issue of our time. It is the sharp end of the modern condition, one marked by alienation, disconnection, and a sense of sliding across the surface of something vast, mysterious, and implacable.

Continue reading

Ted Cruz Makes Clear How Much He Hates America

There aren’t really any words.

“We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant Al Qaeda or ISIS presence,” the Texas senator said in a statement. “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”

It’s a mark of the wild danger howling through the country that this kind of loose and dangerous talk drips easily from a major candidate. What happened in Brussels is a horror, and it is the kind we’ll be living with for many years. There is no easy solution (more on this forthwith), but there is also no question that this kind of weaponized rhetoric only serves the cruel forces of Islamic militancy.

What’s clear is that Ted Cruz’s major problem with America is that it is, well, America. This is clear in a further part of his statement.

“The days of the United States voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we are at an end,” he said. “Our country is at stake.”

The “voluntarily surrendering” is inflammatory and reality-ignoring and dangerous enough (were it true, you’d think Cruz would have the stones to pursue impeachment). It’s the second part that really captures his whole program: he has nothing but contempt for the Enlightenment values the country was founded upon. He is directly saying that since our country is at stake, everything that makes America what it is should be thrown over the side. It’s a sneering yawp at modernity itself.

He means it, too. He can’t really believe that ISIS is an existential threat. But the march of progress is an existential threat to his perverted value system. The country is at stake only because atavistic reactionaries like Ted Cruz aren’t in complete control anymore. He wants a grim mix of plutocracy and theocracy, and fears that he won’t be able to get it. Attacks in Europe give him the opportunity to promote his real program: the erasure of post-Puritan progress.

Combined with Trump’s lunatic ravings about borders and shutting it down “until we figure out what’s going on” (an off-the cuff remark that was made into a somehow-viable policy), it is clear that the GOP has zero interest in the threat of radical Islam other than its use for them in their endless culture war. Everything is a symbol, a fetish object for their retrograde obsessions, and the deaths of dozens of Europeans is merely a cudgel to win the next battle.

Ted Cruz Is A Fanatical Liar, Part Who Can Count


Gawker noted this interview Ted Cruz had about yesterday in which the somewhat controversial notions of one of his senior advisors came up.

“Frank Gaffney is someone I respect,” Ted Cruz said Monday, defending his foreign policy advisor. Frank Gaffney is a serious thinker.” Frank Gaffney thinks that President Barack Obama, Governor Chris Christie, and longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin are part of a secret Muslim conspiracy.

“I don’t know what he said in 2009,” Cruz said, after Blitzer read him a quote about Obama being America’s first Muslim president. “I just read it to you,” Blitzer said. “I don’t have the full context,” Cruz said.

To say you don’t know this about Gaffney is, without a doubt, an absolute lie. There is literally no way not to know it. It’s, like, the only thing about the guy. It’s his whole essence: implacable hostility toward anything Muslim and wild conspiracies about the secretly powerful role that Muslims have in American life, the proof being the bombing campaigns we’re running all over the Muslim world, apparently. It’s all there is about Gaffney.  Saying you aren’t aware of what he said is like hiring Sammy Sosa as a hitting coach and not only saying that you weren’t aware of the steroid thing, but you didn’t even hear about all these home runs. “He just interviewed really well!”

Of course, the real lie in this is “Frank Gaffney is a serious thinker.”

Bringing someone like Gaffney in is a sign that you are going to have a team of fabulists and messianic, people who desperately wish they could be at war with an existential foe like the Nazis (although not doing to actual fighting, god forbid). They’ll blow up a real and serious threat to an unrecognizable proportion to live out their McArthur fantasies.

It’s a sign of the Republican Party today that one of the only two possible candidates bringing in someone like Gaffney elicits little more than a shrug. It’s an even stronger tell that the party has gone completely insane that in order to “pivot to the middle” even slightly, to appeal to mainstream Americans, Ted Cruz knows he has to straight-up lie regarding the only thing that matters about a top advisor.


Ted Cruz, In A Nutshell: The Problem With Anti-Obama and Cuba Arguments


Ted Cruz is a fantastic and fanatical liar, the kind who believes that whatever he is saying is not just true, but divinely inspired, and that if you point out he is lying, then you are an unpatriotic leftwinger who wants to destroy America, and probably shoot God in the face. It isn’t just the lying, though: it’s his ability to say complete nonsense with utter self-righteous conviction that makes him so loathsome. His statements on President Obama’s visit to Cuba, written for Politico, are a perfect example. 

Before we get into the heart of his “argument”, it is important to look at how he opens. This is why Ted Cruz is the preeminent culture warrior of our time. Luxuriate in the connections here, in his ability to conjure up every fear that an aging white reactionary might have. No one is a better name-dropper than Cruz. Trump is an amatuer compared to him. Angela Davis!

Communist Havana has always been a magnet for the radical chic of the left, drawn like moths to the flame of this western outpost of totalitarian Communism. Back in the 1960s, the visitors included Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael, while Che Guevara himself received Jean-Paul Sartre.

Now this scene will include a president of the United States. On Sunday, President Barack Obama, a retinue of celebrities in tow, is expected to arrive in the Cuban capital to hang out with Raul Castro and his henchmen, all of which will be breathlessly documented by the media mavens along for the ride

Stokley! Che and Sartre! Ted Cruz imagines himself the perfect melding of Buckley and Spiro Agnew (see, it’s easy!), and he quivers with the privileged anger of every sort-of-smart Young Republican.

Continue reading

Life on Pluto?



The dark parts are the “heavily craters and ancient terrain of the Ctulhu Region”, and that’s just awesome. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via Scientific American

No, of course not. That’s just clickbait. But as this amazing Scientific American post by Lee Billings highlights, Pluto is far weirder and more inexplicable that we had imagined. If this paragraph doesn’t give you chills, you’re made of sterner stuff that you should be.


The biggest surprises have been Pluto’s surface and atmosphere, which are restlessly active and diverse despite average temperatures of only tens of degrees above absolute zero. Some scientists expected New Horizons would find Pluto to be little more than an inert, sunlight-starved orb. Instead, the spacecraft encountered a world where nitrogen glaciers flow down into plains of frozen methane from towering mountains of water ice. Sunless half-frozen oceans lurk deep beneath the surface, and multiple moons tumble overhead through hydrocarbon-hazed red skies that tinge to blue at sunrise and sunset.

You really owe it to yourself to read the whole piece. What strikes me- beside the haunting beauty of an ancient distant object that has billions of years of scarred and shattering history, without realizing it, and without having any connection to our magnified insignificance- is that the solar system is far stranger and more unexpected than we had even imagined.  Pluto is bizarre. Its moons are bizarre. Its oceans are mind-blowing.

To me, I think that our with knowledge that even the parts of the universe relatively right next to us are capable of enormous surprises, combined with the recent awareness that there are billions of planets potentially capable of holding life, we’ve passed the point where anyone can reasonably say we are definitively alone in the universe. There was no single point where that happened, but we are in the middle of a major turning point for our species.

We almost certainly won’t discover life in my lifetime, the only thing that actually makes me depressed about a finite existence, and we might not ever in the timespan of humans, an end to which we weirdly accelerate. But since there is no way to reasonably of logically think that life can’t exist elsewhere, and since in an essentially endless universe that which can happen almost certainly does, it’s pretty clear we aren’t alone. I think as that awareness seeps in, over the next few generations, regardless of a major discovery, we’ll have to start to really reckon with it, morally.

I don’t, of course, think there is any impact in the knowing that somewhere, there might be life. It won’t affect us directly. But we’ll have to reconcile that with our narcissistic mythologies and increasingly witless eschatologies. That isn’t a bad thing. It might actually be the most incredible development in human history, as breathtaking as nitrogen glaciers, with no measure of man, tumbling silently to a sunless sea.