Grim Irony of the Day

On the last page of the current issue of AARP (the magazine) is the regular feature “Big 5-Oh.”

Add-ons include Elvis Costello (turned 60 on August 25) and three, uh, “upcoming” milestones. The last of which, at 90, is … Lauren Bacall.

Capper: “Serious actress told Vanity Fair ‘I think you have to be unconscious to be happy.'”

Happy Birthday, Lauren.

(If AARP is really unlucky, Sophia Loren, turning 80 on September 20, might check out on them, too.)

Timely Reminder: The Gates Incident

Cheering glad that Jamelle Bouie brought up this early event in Obama’s presidency. After his election, I thought all the yap about “race is over in America” was ridiculous. But I let a tiny chip of myself get carried away: maybe things will be better.

Then Henry Louis Gates got busted for trying to enter his own house. The only good aspect of the whole business is that it whacked down the doofus notion that Cambridge is this hotbed of radical-progressve politics and society. With a sensitive police force.

President Obama had a common-sense response to it. “Yow, that’s great,” I thought. “Maybe things are better.” Wham! The white blowback was so rabid and reactionary, you’d think he’d said something about “honkie pigs.” The chip of hope in me went out. The “secret agenda” shit was always going to work. He’ll be a wimp or a crazed animal — sometimes at the same time.

The one standout of his record that the enemies haven’t been able to exploit? Osama Bin Laden is dead. We’re lucky to have a leader who refuses to make that a big selling point.

Essays by Simon Leys

When it gets back to full-summertime swelter like today, the only reading I can turn to while I take a break from the keyboard is essays. Had a very good time in the sweatbox of Nova Scotia with The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies, but didn’t write about it here when it was fresh enough in my mind. I often matched wavelengths with Davies and am much less in sync with my current essayist, the just-deceased Simon Leys, but sometimes, as music crazies know, dissonance is as fun as harmony.

I encountered Leys long ago when he launched into an attack on Christopher Hitchens for his attack on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position. I had paid only glancing attention to Hitchens before — leftist, dissident, good writer often, friend of Martin Amis — but this Mother Teresa thing clanged with me. Not because I’m a Ma Teresa fan necessarily, but because it had the unmistakeable atmosphere of willful, reckless contrarianism which I think swallowed Hitchens alive for the final couple decades of his life. So Leys and he went back and forth in the New York Review of Books, both scoring points, and the discussion was left hanging. Mr. Leys’s final words are in his collection The Hall of Uselessness and I did conclude that he is a savage cultural snob, no bout a doubt it. And discovered I disagreed with the positions of both arguers. Hitchens was one of those tedious modern atheists who present the religious as credulous dolts, as though an antimatter counterattack will somehow quell the shrieks of true believes nowadays. But Leys is wrong, too. Hitchens didn’t slime Mother Teresa because he was a philistine, he did it because he was an anti-religion zealot, so committed to being contrary that he didn’t care if he appeared ignorant.

And hey, that was a plenty stimulating revisit. Followed up with Leys’s lead essay on Don Quixote, which further confirmed his commitment to Christianity in a way I can tolerate (I also find him a worthy V. Nabokov skeptic) and made me commit to revisiting a critic I enjoyed as a youth but had forgotten since, Mark Van Doren. Should get around to him when the next distant season of bake-days arrives.