Life in Wartime: In a Gentler City, Odd Metamorphoses

Friday, March 28. Has there been a change in the emotional tone and texture of life during wartime in the city? I keep picking up on signals of a certain kind of gentleness and connectedness, perhaps a response to the ungentle, disconnected footage on TV.

There are indications that some people are seeking ways of relating that are not defined by the war, or the war over the war.

I’m thinking of a lovely evening I spent last Tuesday discussing Jane Austen films with a full house of smart Janeites at the Williams Club. It reminded me of that Rudyard Kipling story (“The Janeites”) where soldiers in the World War I trenches take a pause in the savagery to exchange views on Lady Catherine De Bourgh. The only savagery that night was the scorn my fellow panelist, Nora Nachumi, and I directed at the Miramax version of Mansfield Park .

And then today, for instance, I ran into a woman in my apartment complex, someone I hardly knew except through a mutual friend, and she started talking in a lovely, gentle way of her son, who died of cancer two years ago. She took out her wallet and showed me the picture of him she carries with her always. Told me how much our mutual friend had been a help in getting her through her grief. Somehow, I don’t think we would have had that conversation in other circumstances.

Saturday, March 29. Ovid and conspiracy theory: Some versions of metamorphosis at the Small Press Book Fair.

Before getting too deeply entangled in the dark thread of conspiracy theory that one could find in some of the books on display at the Small Press Book Fair, let me pay tribute to another instance of this subcurrent of gentleness that runs like a hidden stream beneath the city. While wandering through the three floors of idiosyncratic offerings by book-loving publishers-people “crazy-fond o’ books,” as Kipling puts it in “The Janeites”-I was surprised to come upon the self-published works of an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, Susanna Cuyler.

I’d first known Susanna as the daughter of the landlord of one of the most intriguing places I’d ever lived in, in the city: an ancient wood and stone house in Little Italy, originally an 18th-century farmhouse, I think, next to that funeral home on Spring Street. When I moved into the upper attic floor with a girlfriend, it was Susanna who thrilled us with tales of how the house was sometimes visited by the legendary “Spring Street Ghost,” the spirit of a drowned woman who supposedly haunted the now-underground spring that gave the street its name.

Susanna had always followed her own path, spinning her web in her pre-Nolita storefront shop called B. Rugged, which featured her own woven creations. Now married to a brilliant mathematician, she has been publishing a series of unique books and pamphlets (members.aol.com/brugged/), something I was completely unaware of until one of them caught my eye at the Small Press exposition: Susanna’s translations of selections from The Metamorphoses , Ovid’s poetic accounts of mythical tales of transformation.

This was particularly exciting to me, since I’d just been reading the 1567 Golding translation of The Metamorphoses , said by most scholars to be the one Shakespeare read and heavily relied on.

One of the attractions of Susanna’s selections from The Metamorphoses is that, while she charmingly declares that her version of Ovid’s opening invocation is “best,” she offers a spectrum of other translators’ versions of the opening lines.

I found myself struck by Allen Mandelbaum’s 1993 ” … o gods, you were the source of these / bodies becoming other bodies, breathe / your breath into my book of changes …. “

“Bodies becoming other bodies” beautifully captures the Ovidian erotic subtext of The Metamorphoses . Other translations more literally give us bodies becoming “things,” “other things” or “other shapes.”

And then there’s a line in David Slavitt’s version of Ovid’s plea to the gods: ” … let me glimpse the secret / and sing, better than I know how …. ” We all want to glimpse the secret, don’t we: whatever it is behind the mystery of the way things work.

That love of secret things, somehow numinously at work, may be at the heart of some of the classics of conspiracy theory I was able to pick up at some of the other publishers’ tables at the book fair.

Classic 9/11 conspiracy theories, for instance. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the famous French nutso Grand Theory of 9/11 is now available in English and I’ve got it. Recall, not so long ago, that, as L’Effroyable Imposture , it was the No. 1 best-seller in France-the one that claimed the Pentagon plane crash “never happened.” Now, at last, it’s available for aficionados from Carnot Books. Actually, there are now two books: The original, now called 9/11: The Big Lie , argues for “the existence of a plot within the US armed forces to perpetrate the September 11 attacks.” And then its supplement, Pentagate , further develops the argument that no plane hit the Pentagon, that it was actually a cruise missile fired by the military, all for the purpose of, um, well, real bad conspiratorial stuff. The inconvenient disappearance of the plane and passengers that supposedly crashed into the Pentagon is not explained in great detail.

There’s a serious side to such books, no matter how silly they seem: Who knows how much such conspiracy theory may have poisoned French public opinion (and the politicians who follow it) against America? Soviet archives now show that the K.G.B. helped stir up J.F.K. conspiracy theory. Were sinister intelligence agencies behind 9/11 conspiracy theories? (Hey, a conspiracy theory about a conspiracy theory.)

Here’s another thought prompted by these books: conspiracy theory as metamorphosis. Doesn’t conspiracy theory do something similar to that which Ovid’s tales do? It’s about transformation from the familiar to the strange and sinister, about identity change, about turning the familiar objects and theories of causality into something “rich and strange,” as Shakespeare put it in the metamorphosis lyric in The Tempest . Isn’t it possible to conceive that conspiracy theory shares in the same primal myth-making urge for connectedness that-unsatisfied with the banality of chance and accident that incoherently conspire to shape history-metamorphosizes mundane facts into rich and strange patterns?

Anyway, the high point of my experience at the Small Press Book Fair was coming upon the Barricade Books reprint of one of the all-time classics of conspiracy literature: The Control of Candy Jones . Originally published in 1976, one gets the feeling that this was the real inspiration for Chuck Barris’ piece of triction, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind .

But to me, the most important aspect of The Control of Candy Jones is the central involvement of one of the great under-recognized shapers and creators of American alt.culture, the Ovid of American weirdness: Long John Nebel. He was the husband and “deprogrammer” of former model Candy Jones, a beauty queen and charm-school operator who, in the early 70′s, married Long John, then a famous all-night syndicated-radio personality.

“All-night syndicated-radio personality”: The phrase doesn’t begin to capture who or what Long John represented to me, a bored suburban kid who’d stay up all night to hear his extraordinary array of guests: dissidents, crackpots, bee-venom arthritis-cure vendors, flying-saucer contactees, J.F.K. conspiracy theorists, precious bodily-fluid preservers. The midnight-till-dawn Long John show was my link to an underground, unconventional America seething with fantastic theories and weird conjectures not otherwise accessible in my Long Island suburb.

Perhaps Long John’s true immortality will reside in the fact that he and his show are clearly the model for Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show , which I regard as one of the great American novels of the 20th century. (I’ve said it before, but nothing matches the insanely brilliant metaphysical hilarity of the “Dr. Behr-Bleibtrau” episode in The Dick Gibson Show . Prove me wrong; tell me what surpasses it. And check out the charm-school operator who appears in it.)

Anyway, it was Long John’s fate to be, in effect, hoist by his own conspiracy-theory petard: Shortly after he married Candy Jones and began to use hypnotism to help her sleep, strange things-things of the sort that had barely been conjectured about on the wilder fringes of his show-began to happen to him and Candy Jones. Under hypnosis, she began to produce buried “memories” that as “a covert operative of the CIA [she was] harassed, badgered, and even tortured … [turned into] a human guinea pig in a secret CIA scientific project in which mind control was the goal … an unwilling and unknowing laboratory subject for 12 years, and only her chance marriage to John Nebel saved her from the final stage of her adventure … her own suicide as choreographed by [her CIA controller].”

Maybe it’s all true-after all, the C.I.A. did engage in mind control experiments-but what was remarkable to me was that Long John, who was the epitome of pointed skepticism to the nuttier guests on his show (“Sir, you’re telling me the saucer people spoke English ?”), would be so willing to believe it was all fact, not hypnotic fantasy. But such are the seductions of conspiracy theory: They make one feel that one is singing of “secret things,” adventures unknown to the ordinary prole that make one’s life metamorphose into a secret big-budget thriller. Turn one into a star.

Somehow I see The Control of Candy Jones as different from the pernicious 9/11 conspiracy theories, a folie à deux that was the product of a genuine love story. Thinking about it, and the strange world it brought back to life, made me wish that I could go to sleep again to the sound of Long John Nebel, rather than Wolf Blitzer in the war zone.

Monday, March 31. Another moment of that gentleness and connectedness-this time at a Shakespeare Guild evening at the National Arts Club. These are monthly conversations between John F. Andrews, the distinguished scholar and former editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly , and various Shakespearean actors and directors, this time with one of my all-time favorite Shakespearean actors, Roger Rees.

One of the emotional peaks of my life-one of the few that was emotional and literary and spiritual-was seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby , that legendary eight-and-a-half-hour, bare-stage tour de force in which Mr. Rees played the title role. (I recently had occasion to rewatch, on tape, that portion of Nickleby in which Mr. Rees as Nicholas played the lead in the comically inept Crummles Theatrical Company version of Romeo and Juliet . It was just, if I may use a scholarly term, friggin’ brilliant, a metamorphosis that turned Shakespeare’s tragedy-particularly the final scene in the tomb-into the hilarious “Pyramus and Thisbe” comedy embedded within it.)

Then, more recently, I was privileged to attend a remarkable tribute to Claire Bloom put on by the Shakespeare Society, one for which Mr. Rees served as host and charming interlocutor to Ms. Bloom. In the conversation with John Andrews tonight, he was informative, funny and intellectually engaged with the issues of acting-particularly the way one finds Shakespeare’s “stage directions” embedded in the language.

Finally, toward the end of the question period, Mr. Rees somehow segued into Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60 and began reciting it from memory:

Like as the waves make towards the

pebbled shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their

end,

Each changing place with that

which goes before ….

And then Mr. Rees did something unusual: He had the audience recite those lines in unison. And after it had been done, he noted the way the sound made by the multitude of voices imitated the sound made by the muted rush of the waves on the “pebbled shore,” rose and fell like the waves “changing places” with each other (a subtle metamorphosis). He pointed out how the word “place,” when drawn out by the voices in chorus, seemed to capture the sound of a wave spilling onto the pebbled shore. Particle and wave: The sonnet goes on to play with the place that individuality has in the eternal wave form of time-at least in the pre-Botox era:

Time doth transfix the flourish set

on youth,

And delves the parallels in beauty’s

brow,

Feeds on the rarities of nature’s

truth ….

“The rarities of nature’s truth …. ” What a line. The entire experience was a kind of rarity; the voices in unison became almost a spiritual experience of unity. A gentle connectedness. I’m glad I got out of the house to see it.

Tuesday, April 1. I’m not going out of the house anymore. Not for a while. For some reason, I’ve stopped shaving, trying to decide whether to grow a beard again. I’ve now reached the point of maximum seediness, where you look unshaven rather than consciously bearded. The seedy look has now been compounded by a minor accident in which, as I was racing to get a cup of coffee and get back to the war news, I hit my head on a kitchen cabinet, leaving a wound in the middle of my forehead. (Talk about “delving a parallel [in the] brow.”) With my unshaven face and fresh head wound, I now had the complete Skid Row look.

Fortunately, there are rewards to staying inside and resuming 24/7 war-watching. One is watching Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show , which is kicking everybody’s ass, finding a way to be sharp and funny in war circumstances by making war on the rest of TV, satirizing war coverage with its “Stars of the Network Battle” feature.

Today, a friend told me a story about a spiritual person, a man of the “peace” movement. His first reaction, when apprised of early optimistic reports of Iraqi surrenders (which seemed to portend a quick, minimal-casualty outcome of the war), was to exclaim in anguish, “Oh, no, this is going to help Bush!” Better many, many people should die than that . He caught himself, ashamed of the implication, but it was there for a moment, a pathological obsession with the devil, Bush, that blinded him.

I know that most people in the peace movement are gentle souls, so I’ll try to be gentle about this, but perhaps one of the consequences of the war is that at least some on the Left will ask themselves if they’ve been blinded by Bush hatred, Bush fever. Will ask themselves how did I, a leftist dissident, end up defending in effect, the survival of a fascist regime in Iraq that tortures and murders dissidents by the tens of thousands? Is that what the Left is supposed to be about? Is that what their spiritual forefathers fought in Spain for? If you recall, back in the 30′s, until the shameful Hitler-Stalin pact, most of the Left was not a peace movement, but an anti-fascist movement. Put it this way: If F.D.R. had decided to send troops to stop fascism in Spain-to, yes, pre-empt the advance of fascism in Europe-would the Left be on the streets demonstrating against that? Take to the streets for “peace” instead of fighting fascism? Bemoan the way our “unilateral” acts might upset fascist-friendly European diplomats? As the editor of the venerable left quarterly Dissent recently put it in a forum on the war: “I am anti-fascist before I am anti-war … I am anti-fascist before I am anti-Bush.” Paul Berman makes a similar point in his thoughtful and provocative new book, Terror and Liberalism, about the Western roots of fascism in the Middle East.

Thursday, April 3. But wait-an amazing development. For some, the case is apparently not closed on what is fascism and what is not. I almost choked on my coffee this morning at breakfast, reading an absolutely astonishing item in Page Six about the forthcoming CBS prime-time May sweeps Hitler miniseries. As readers of my last “Life During Wartime” column may recall (see the March 26 Observer ), I made a plea to CBS to change the provisional subtitle of the docudrama, which was called Hitler: Origins of Evil , so it wouldn’t be confused in any way with my book Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil . Whether or not my plea had anything to do with it, the CBS docudrama has now been retitled Hitler: The Rise of Evil . Thank God. Because-get this-according to Page Six, the executive producer of the film “tells the upcoming TV Guide that he, [actress Julianna] Margulies and director Christian Duguay believe it’s a good idea to look at the Bush White House through the prism of [Hitler]. A fearful American public’s cooperation with Bush’s policies, [the executive producer] tells TV Guide’s Mark Lasswell, is ‘absolutely’ similar to post-World War I Germany’s acceptance of Hitler’s extremism. ‘I can’t think of a better time to examine this history than now.’” According to the Page Six item, CBS president Les Moonves “disavows the filmmaker’s highly paranoid views and says he doesn’t subscribe to the Bush-Hitler parallel.”

I got in touch with Mark Lasswell, the TV Guide writer, who confirmed that the executive producer was dead-serious about these sentiments. Mr. Lasswell also told me something quite interesting about the subtitle change. It was only last week, just as his story was about to go to press, that he checked back with CBS and discovered the title had been changed from Hitler: Origins of Evil to Hitler: The Rise of Evil . Which suggests the possibility that the change had been prompted by my column. (This column gets results?)

Friday, April 4: I just heard the unbearable bad news about the death of Michael Kelly, one of the gentlest souls and sharpest minds in all of journalism.

War is a tragedy for innocents on both sides. I didn’t know him well, but I did know him as a colleague and I’d written for him as an editor, and I had enormous respect for him as a writer. I knew him enough, in other words, to feel the loss more personally.

This afternoon, after I heard the news, I went back and read some of Mike’s recent war dispatches and came upon a remarkable paragraph he wrote from Kuwait before the war started. He talked about the Kuwaiti victims of Iraqi torture after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait (remember, Saddam started this war; we didn’t), and wrote about the way today’s Iraqis might feel about their liberation from torturers and death squads:

“I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti, or Iraqi) is something to be desired …. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?”

Mike died when the infantry battalion he was with came under fire while racing toward the Baghdad airport. By that time, it was clear to Saddam-or whatever Saddamite was in charge-that the game was up. Surrender by then might have saved many thousands more lives. But the torturers wouldn’t admit their day of the boot was over. And to my mind, we lost Mike Kelly-and countless others-because the war was over and the Saddamites wouldn’t admit it.

Never forgive them for that.