Friday Food for Thought: 14 April 2023

The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

I finished a slow re-read of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 this week. I was probably in my 20s the first time I read the book and I had wanted to revisit it for a while. I found it profound and exasperating. Heller’s intermixing of absurdist humor and grim sadness doesn’t feel too far removed from reality, especially where the military-industrial complex is concerned. The constantly shifting time-frame occasionally took me out of the story. The endless bickering and jockeying between the numerous higher-ranking officers dragged on too long. Still, the scope of the book and the many ways in which Yossarian expresses bewilderment over his own government’s attempts to kill him make for a moving read. Whether or not Heller had Vietnam in mind when he wrote the novel, it seems like the home front of 2023 is equally dangerous for a lot of our own citizens.

  • P. 418: “Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.”
  • P. 455: Yossarian: “When I look up I see people cashing in. I don’t see heavens or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.”
Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill

Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) is another work I revisited this week, though I can’t recall when I first watched it. I think De Palma is an excellent director; the museum scene with Angie Dickinson (supposedly the NY Met but filmed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and the subway sequence with Nancy Allen are brilliantly directed. The story is intriguing, if not especially original, and the plot is well-paced. And what a great score by Pino Donaggio. But I understand why so many dislike the movie, because the trans-phobia is not subtle. Did De Palma really intend that? Has his thinking changed over the years? I guess a lot of us are struggling these days with how to respond to art we appreciate when the message is questionable or the artist is a bad person. I’m looking forward to reading Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer, which deals with similar issues.

Nancy Allen gets no help from law enforcement in the New York subway system in Dressed to Kill

I also read A Time Outside This Time by Amitava Kumar this week. It’s a novel but feels highly personal and includes a good bit of factual information, so I tend to forget that I’m not reading a memoir. Which seems appropriate because the book has a lot to do with how we perceive stories as either true or false.

  • P. 4: “…the question I’m really asking is this: Who among your neighbors will look the other way when a figure of authority comes to your door and puts a boot in your face?”
  • P. 6: “Any story ought to be surrounded with other questions. Whose story is it? What ends does it serve? Does it affirm or contradict other stories? My point is that we can change the way we consume stories. And, of course, the way we produce them.”
  • P. 94: The retired police officer Ravi Shankar: “I’m so utterly without shame that it has never occurred to me to be embarrassed about what I don’t have or to pretend to be what I’m not.”
  • P. 187-188: “On April 23, 2013, the Associated Press tweeted a piece of breaking news. ‘Two explosions at the White House and Barack Obama has been injured.’ The tweet from the AP Twitter handle was fake news, of course, and later a group called Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility for it. But, nevertheless, computerized trading algorithms reacted to this tweet, and began trading according to predetermined rules about responses to such crises. What was the result of the fake tweet? The stock market went into a tailspin, wiping out $136.5 billion in equity value. In just six minutes!

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