Monday, October 16, 2006



Recently I attended a one-man stage adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. As theater it was a surprising success, but only because, like the novella itself, it was presented as a toss-off—eighty minutes, no intermission—not a complete evening of dramatic entertainment.

I saw it maybe three weeks before the Congressman-Foley-chasing-after-teenage-pages-scandal broke. Too bad. I’d like to see the actor going on about Tadzio’s godlike beauty, against the background of Foley’s take-your-boxers-off IMs. Could he keep a straight face, so to speak?

When I first read the book and then saw the movie, I was a coming-out-gay leftist English lit major. I saw the moral of the story as simple, and comic: Fuck when you’re young—don’t become a pathetic old man following young boys through the streets.

Now, after thirty years of not thinking much about it, I have to agree with my earlier assessment It’s a simple cautionary tale regarding age-appropriateness. Aschenbach’s predicament in Venice balances the inappropriate choices he made in childhood.

Rather than pursue pleasure in play and companionship in his youth, activities for which he felt inadequate, Aschenbach became a loner and grinder, achieving academic excellence not though brilliance but by dull lead-assedness. His literary achievement, Mann tells us, was substantial but mediocre. The only thing notable in his style was impeccableness, as opposed to, say, verve.

So, in his sixties, when vague impulses draw him to a vacation alone in Venice, he sees and develops a crush on a fourteen year old boy. The overwhelming effect on Aschenbach makes him think that there is something very special about the boy, Tadzio. Aschenbach gushes, mentally, just like an adolescent girl with her first major crush, on “the most beautiful boy in the world.” Tadzio “rises godlike” from the waves of the Adriatic.

There is nothing wrong about this experience and response, we’ve all gone through it, but it’s supposed to happen around age 13 or 14 or 15, not 62. By the time a man reaches his sixties, he should know that the response, “that’s the most beautiful (boy, girl, man, woman) in the world,” is common and fleeting.

The climax of the story comes when Aschenbach utters the words, regarding but not to Tadzio, “I love you.” And, Aschenbach knows, the words are completely appropriate, except they’re uttered fifty or so years too late.

Aschenbach dies, never having touched or even spoken to Tadzio. There is a kind of perfection in this, that could be called tragic. It’s like the lovers on Keat’s Grecian Urn who will always love but never kiss, and never, presumably, smell each other’s farts.

The inability or failure to form a relationship with a perfectly beautiful person can be thought tragic. But consider the disappointment consequent to actually forming such a relationship. I think of the serious young doctor marrying the mayor’s daughter, “a perfection of blondness,” in Middlemarch.

The young doctor found that sexual possession of a beautiful object was entirely possible, but that while being perhaps a necessary condition for happiness, it was certainly not sufficient.

The human species is so successful due at least in part to it’s extraordinary sex drive. A human male, when it comes right down to it, will fuck almost anything. Human females love their offspring beyond all else.

Human sex drive is so strong it crushes us. Aschenbach thought he could avoid it entirely. But Eros’ due could not be denied. Aschenbach paid his debt in Venice.

BTW: In the stage presentation, the actor would shift into the voices of those with whom Aschenbach interacted. I realized that throughout the story Aschenbach talks only with members of the serving classes or occupations—gondoliers, hotel managers, barbers, travel agents, etc. He never speaks with a peer. And he never speaks, or is directly acknowledged by Tadzio, except by glances, never, say, a head nod. This seems odd to me.

The story makes more sense if we assume that Aschenbach is felled by a stroke or something, back in Munich when he encounters the red-haired man with the rucksack, from which he never regains consciousness. The trip to Venice is Aschenbach’s deathbed dream.


In his first throes of love, Aschenbach tries to think what kind of relationship he could possibly form with Tadzio, and he considers two paradigms from Greece, Zeus’ “rape” of Ganymede, and Socrates’ relationship with Phaido.

At one point Aschenbach approaches Tadzio from behind and is about to touch his shoulder and speak to him for the first time but Aschenbach gets heart-flutteringly weak in the knees and pulls back. He is not Zeus. He is not Socrates. Why would Tadzio want to interact with Aschenbach?

Tadzio, as we see him in the novella, has no male-adult contact. The father is absent. Tadzio would probably enjoy some supportive, fatherly attention from a kindly grown-up man, but Aschenbach, stupefied by physical attraction, is much needier than Tadzio. Nope, it just can’t work.

What we see in the Mark Foley hit-on-pages scandal is an alternative to true love called “trade.” This was a pre-Stonewall gay term of art I heard when I was coming out. It’s was used to describe a class of potential sex partners, who were “not gay” but were more than willing to engage in gay sex in exchange for some non-sexual valuable consideration. I heard terms like young trade, butch trade, rough trade.

Foley, apparently, was looking for male pages who wanted help along their career paths. Association with a sitting congressman could be extremely helpful for a young person with certain ambitions. Some pages could experience revulsion at Foley’s first innuendos. At the other end, some pages might already have a crush on Rep Foley. In the middle we might find pages who would put up with a certain amount of sex-talk, or even sex acts, in return for the congressman’s attention. That’s trade.

Foley’s activity is called “sexual harassment on the job.” It’s against the law and it’s against the golden rule, regardless of the ages of the people involved.

The most pathetic line in the revealed communications is Foley asking a page, “do I turn you on?” And the page replies, “a little.” Hey, Mark, if you have to ask, the answer is “no.” Foley has been mocked by comparison to Austin Powers sticking out his plaid-polyester-clad butt to his lovely costar and asking her if that turns her on.

Needless to say, this is not a question Zeus would ever pose to Ganymede, nor Socrates to Phaido.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006


The defensive scramble we see in the GOP House leadership’s offices is nothing compared to the turmoil in Pud’s fact-check “mill” this last week. Forget about middle-aged politicians hitting on 16 year-olds, which has been going on at least as long as gambling at Rick’s. SFWILLIE’S BLOG was charged last week with MAKING A MISTAKE!

Apparently a new reader had nothing better to do than to put the entire archive of SFWILLIE’S BLOG under painstaking scrutiny. Our new reader’s effort produced news that is both good and bad: he found one factual mistake (alleged), in a June '06 post regarding zero (much ado about nothing).

As CEO of this enterprise, I was pleased with this result—even gold glovers make errors. But Pud was upset beyond belief.

To his credit Pud took full responsibility. “It’s my fault for hiring these incompetent assholes,” he said, referring to his fact-check crew. “You get what you pay for,” Pud said in disgust when I mentioned that his fact-checkers don’t get paid. “But I gave them business cards,” Pud exclaimed, “and a reason to live. In Oz, a business card’s as good as an occupation.”

It’s true, Pud’s three fact-checkers are old, decrepit, and mostly depressed. Their major qualification, according to Pud, is that they answer their phones. And Pud is right, they do enjoy the charade. “And no one will accuse me of hitting on these subordinates.”

So Pud called a meeting (actually he took them out to lunch), and read them his standard riot act “…Fact-checking is more than spell-checking, etc…” Pud returned elated!

“We weren’t wrong! Arabic numerals WERE invented by the Arabs. The story that Arabic numerals, especially zero, come from India is a Nazi lie! The German pre-eminence in classical studies was turned to the service of the Thousand Year Reich in a despicable intellectual ripoff .

“The Germans have a reputation for valuing precision and detail. Numbers are important to them. They wanted to kill all Jews, for instance, but they wanted to know exactly how many that was.

“Just as Hitler had to obliterate knowledge of his own Jewish ancestry, so too, he couldn’t stand the idea that the numbering system which was to quantify the glory of his Reich was invented by Jews, well, Semites. So he put his Nazi scholars to work.

“And what did the Nazi scholars come up with? They ‘discovered’ that Arabic numerals, especially zero, weren’t invented by Semites (Arabs) after all.
“And guess who the Nazi scholars say DID invent so-called Arabic numerals especially zero? The ARYANS (Indians). Surprise, fucking surprise!

“So it’s bullshit, just more blond haired blue eyed Euro-fascist bullshit. Of course the Arabs invented Arabic numerals. Duh!

Pud actually took a bow.

“My fact-checkers are geniuses. I should give them a raise!”

“So, Pud,” I asked, “how did you find out about this Nazi plot to alter history?”

“Oh,” he replied, “it’s just a theory. But history is just theory.”

“But you’re accusing lots of researchers and scholars of being Nazis. You can’t really mean that.”

“Ok,” Pud said, “’Euro-centric’. But let’s face it, Nazism is just an extreme manifestation of Euro-centrism.

“And,” Pud concluded, “Arabs already hate us enough. Even if the Aryans actually did invent Arabic numerals, this is not a great time to bring it up.”

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006


On my block, no-parking due to street cleaning is 1 – 3pm, Tuesdays my side, Fridays the other side. A violation is probably around $35. The good news is that they actually clean the streets during those times. The meter-maid precedes the sweeping vehicle by a couple of blocks. So if you get a ticket, at least you know that you actually got in someone’s way.

Not so in Los Angeles, where the street-cleaners come around only once a month, but the meter maids (parking enforcement officers) come around every week. So, if you get a ticket in Los Angeles for violating street-cleaning parking restrictions, chances are they didn’t clean the street that day anyway.

The city council, in response to citizen complaints about this, admitted that it seemed unfair, but that the existing revenue stream coming from weekly ticketing was funding necessary programs, and that, blah, blah, blah, the overall best thing for the residents of Los Angeles was to continue the weekly ticketing. So it’s actually a strange kind of hidden tax, a regressive tax.

This in the long run is terrible public policy and breeds disrespect for the law. Law and penalty must serve a public purpose other than just generating public revenue. It’s not a huge deal. I thought of it because I just heard the street cleaner rumble by.

Consider how pathetic is the job of the meter maid in LA giving tickets when no street cleaning will happen. Obviously parking officers have personal goals that brought them to their jobs, and the compensation is probably pretty high in relation to skill level, but there is no value delivered. It’s a charade. It’s soul-less.

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