Culture Clash

Let Your Soul Stand Cool and Composed

From the National Portrait Gallery in Washington comes an exhibition on one of my favorite subjects: the cool. “American Cool” offers up its representative icons of cool in portraits by renowned photographers, such as Avedon, Arbus, and Henri-Cartier Bresson, who are sure to add to the alure of the exhibit, but that I don’t  think necessarily give us their subjects at their – how shall I put it – coolest.

This Steve McQueen definitely does the trick.

“I have said that the soul is not more than the body.”

Here is a companion Paul Newman, not part of the exhibit, atypically bearded.

“And I have said that the body is not more than the soul.”

According to the curators,

Cool carries a social charge of rebellious self-expression, charisma, edge and mystery.

Cool is an original American sensibility and remains a global obsession. In the early 1940s, legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young brought this central African American concept into the modern vernacular. Cool became a password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a dynamic mode of performance, and a certain stylish stoicism. A cool person has a situation under control, and with a signature style.

Speaking of Lester “Prez” Young:


Young may have been the daddy of jazz cool, but its epitome, of course, was Miles Davis


who gave us so many cool Milestones.

If you came of a certain age in the 1950s and were not a jazz man or woman, James Dean was probably the cool cat of your emulation or dreams.


Urban Dictionary tells us of cool that it is

American now global slang, 1950s-present
1) superior, desirable, worthy of approval
2) in or beyond the current style; in harmony with an ineffable sophistication
3) graceful despite pressure
4) relaxed, calm, low-key, mellow
5) agreeable
6) trustworthy; not a narc
7) under self-control, despite appearances
8) reconciled
9) above and beyond a situation
10) characterized by strange masteries and hidden resources

“Hey, be cool.”

“You cool?”

“It’s okay, man, I’m cool.”

Even though cool walks the edge of transgression, according to Patricia Cohen of The New York Times,

Being cool embraces contradictions. It assumes authenticity and integrity, being comfortable in your own skin. Yet it is also the ultimate performance art, a posture created for the public and disseminated through media.

So someone as polished and non-transgressive as Fred Astaire was cool.



Djuna Barnes, dressed as “performance art, a posture created for the public,” was cool.

Barnes, Djuna

Lauren Bacall, even when – especially when – teaching someone how to whistle (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and — blow.”) was cool as a cucumber.


The Times’s Cohen tells us of the exhibit,

More unexpected is when “American Cool” reaches back to the 19th and early 20th century to recognize those who exemplified the ideal even before there was a word to describe it. Walt Whitman, a radical advocate of self-expression and equality, was the progenitor who created the conditions for cool to be born by exalting personal experience.

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul;
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to his own funeral, drest in his shroud,
And I or you, pocketless of a dime, may purchase the pick of the earth,
And to glance with an eye, or show a bean in its pod, confounds the learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe,
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.

People wonder sometimes about the longevity of cool, why that word, unlike so many others after that pretended to expression of the same ineffable quality, has lasted and persists in its perfection for every time. I say that it is because while cool promises so much, it gives up, ultimately, nothing.

The essence of cool is in its root meaning, the absence of warmth.  Warmth is open and emotional.  It shows itself and consumes itself in heat.  Cool remains hidden.  It is contained.  It is detached.  (By the end of his career, Miles Davis was turning his back on the audience.)   Cool is ironic, and irony, in its contradictory negation, is emblematic of all cool cultures. This: not this.  While cool celebrities may become “hot,” the heat comes not from them, but from the burning of the public that desires them.  The object of the public’s desire – the “cool” one – is like the exemplary black box, upon whose hidden mechanism is conjectured the reality-in-itself that is the nature of its workings.  But black remains black.  It absorbs the heat. It does not give it off.  Cool people remain forever other, irreducible and apart, inexplicable.  Cool is in and of itself.  It is, as they say, what it is.

“Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”


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Israel The Political Animal

Reflections on the Spirit of Resistance


Paul Newman’s 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, the apex of journeyman Stuart Rosenberg’s directorial career, imbued popular culture with many iconic scenes and memorable lines. (“What we have here – is failure to communicate.” “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”) Among the famous scenes is that of the prison camp boxing match between George Kennedy’s alpha prisoner (the role that won him an Oscar and made him famous) and Newman’s smaller Luke.

As expected, Kennedy’s “Dragline” beats Luke good. But Luke will not stay down. He is woozily staggering with every blow, even knocked down by some of the head shots, but each time, against cries from his fellow prisoners and advice from Dragline finally to stay down and put an end to his whupping, the unconquerably recalcitrant Luke keeps rising up for more. Finally, Dragline just walks away, defeated in victory, and Luke has earned the heroic worship of all.

In addition to its inherent quality as a film and the quintessential, natural, non-hipster cool of its leading man, Cool Hand Luke was a film for its time. In an age of defining cultural rebellion, the film exalted the spirit of resistance against crushing, inhuman authority – in the film itself, the sadistic authority of a chain gang, for the culture that received it, any presiding force that would quash individual autonomy and personality.

The valorization of resistance as a human attribute is longstanding. From the slave rebellion of Spartacus and Masada to democracy creating revolutions and the Warsaw uprisings, the human spirit is stirred and encouraged to persist by the spirit of resistance. Most commonly since the Enlightenment, we see an ultimate expression of human nature in the natural uprising against oppressive forces.

In the United States, on Thanksgiving, we celebrate a story of resistance. That is not how most people think of the day, but that is one perspective on the story. We say we honor some congenial meal in which surviving Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony feasted with Massasoit and his men. But celebrations of survival, too, are testaments to resistance – resistance to the elements, to the forces of nature and circumstance, to those who may be aligned against us. We resist defeat in many ways.

Native America has a different perspective on the Thanksgiving holiday. That attendee of the first Thanksgiving Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, engaged in his own resistance. He resisted over his lifetime as best he could the encroachment of the colonists on Wampanoag land and attempts to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity. Massasoit and all those who came after him lost in their resistance.

A lesson in this is that resistance, for all we exalt its spirit, neither endows any instance of it with justice, nor ennobles the goal in the service of which it stands its ground and refuses to bend. Neither victory nor loss are determinants of justice. The spirit may be willing, but the cause is weak. In the United States, the Mafia has resisted American law and its enforcement. In Mexico, drug cartels resist even the government’s militarized effort to stamp them out. During the Iraq War, there was an Iraqi insurgency – a resistance movement – and those even who claim to promote social justice who supported it and cheered the idea of it.

In the world today, many of the values of the international regime of laws, of human rights evaluation and critique, and of ideological sympathy are misguided by just such a disjunction between the spirit and the flesh – the actual substance of justice. The rules of a legal and human rights superstructure – the products of millennia of moral development – are abstracted from their substantial existence in the free, democratic nations that haltingly advance them and, in reality, often used as weapons against these very embodiments of the spirit.

Even honesty in itself is an empty shade if it is not in the service of a good. Shall we honestly express every critical and even accurate opinion of every potentially hurtful kind to those around us whom we love?

Resistance in itself is nothing. In the name of what – what ideas, what dream of human relationship – do we resist? Against what do we resist?

No honest consideration of ongoing conflict between Hamas controlled Gaza and Israel, between any anti-Semitic or Islamist culture and Israel, can take place without addressing these questions.

An anecdote:

Just over ten years ago, I was present at a large show and party at my wife Julia’s relatively new gallery – before, after that night, we both understood that security would always be necessary. I was alerted midway through the evening that a man none of our friends knew had been obnoxious to several women. None of the women had complained or made a scene, however, and there seemed no overt basis on which to take any action.

At the end of the evening, while saying goodbye near the door to some last visitors, I was told by a good friend that back in Julia’s office, where a few close friends were gathered privately, this man was present and refusing to leave. I went back to speak to him. He was beside Julia. I politely, regretfully advised him that the show was over and that we needed visitors to leave. He ignored me, asked a personal question of Julia, who uncomfortably declined to answer it, and when I saw that, though I was standing right in front of him, the man would not even look at me, I told him, at the point that he reached for Julia’s arm, that if he did not leave, I would have to call the police.

“How fast can you get to the phone?” the man replied, and lunged at me.

Taken by surprise, I was backed against a wall, where I began to struggle with the man. Two male friends quickly jumped in and the four of us tumbled to the floor in a heap of grappling bodies.

We have probably all seen video of men apparently very high on a drug who display extraordinary strength and require multiple police officers after very great effort and struggle, to restrain them. This man was such a man. He seemed high and irrational. One person who vaguely knew him thought, on the contrary, that he might actually be off his meds. Regardless, though all four of us were of roughly equal size, it took all the effort that three of us could muster to gain control of the man and restrain him on the floor, where he never ceased his resistance. Any let up by any one of us saw the serious attempt by the man to throw that person off him. Any one of us would have been beaten by him. Even two of us would not have been able to control him.

Others present called the police. In the meantime, for the twenty minutes it took the police to arrive, there was no let up for the three of us in exerting ourselves to retain control. We told the man many times that if he calmed down, we would ease up on him. He only fought back harder in response. Sometimes one of us might feel exceptionally angered by the man’s ferocity and exert himself, arguably, too forcefully, and the other two would check him. The man all this time, whenever his face was positioned to do it, would spit on us, until we had to expend ourselves to assert even more control and hold his face pressed to the ground so that he could no longer reach us with his spit.

More naturally violent people than we, of whom there are many, would not have been satisfied with controlling the man’s violence and would have brutally ended the conflict with what would necessarily have been a very violent beating. Indeed, were there no police to come to the rescue, there would have been no alternative to that violent beating, and there would have been much bodily and other physical damage all around.

When the police finally did arrive, the scene they found was one of four bodies so entwined on the ground that in taking control of the situation they had actually to touch arms and legs and ask to whom each one belonged. Certainly, the entangled circumstance into which they walked told no obvious story, though it would have been easy to conclude that three men had ganged up on a fourth.

Everyone present confirmed the same account, however, and our troubled gallery goer was escorted to a cell.

That’s my account anyway, the only one you have. You have to believe me, and if you think you have some reason to mistrust me, perhaps some ideological dispute, you may think I have slanted or even entirely misrepresented elements of the story. I think I am a fairly swell guy, but wouldn’t you know that there are people out there who, on the basis of things I have written, have had some not very nice things to say to me?

Of course, there are some events and histories that have considerably greater public and evidentiary records than my wrestling match just off the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Oddly, for some people, that does not make a difference.

People resist the truth, too.


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Culture Clash

CineFile – Nobody’s Fool

In my previous post I offered a couple of links to video excerpts from Paul Newman films. Sometimes, though, people don’t click on links. (What’s that all about? Don’t they know how web surfing works? How else are they going to go down the rabbit hole?) So I thought I’d offer one of those excerpts again, directly.

After all of the emblematic performances of Newman’s career, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler and Hud, to Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, and The Sting, he capped the later autumnal performances of The Verdict and The Color of Money, with his performance as Sully Sullivan in Robert Benton‘s film adaptation of Richard Russo‘s novel, Nobody’s Fool. Sullivan, an aged and breaking down good-for-nothing is a cross between a proto holy fool and an energetic Bodhisattva in the making. He’s every Newman rake and ne’er do well finally arrived at a creaky sixty.

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The Privilege of Being Here

My last post, about my nephew Rob’s birthday, got me to thinking. (There are exits all around.) Over a pre-birthday, birthday dinner this past Saturday, Rob acknowledged to me that he actually doesn’t feel very celebratory on his birthday. Actually, neither do I, though birthdays in our family, as in most others, have for years been traditional family occasions. On my own, after our dinner was over, I got to wondering just what the big deal is all about.

The celebration begins in childhood, promoted by parents, and children quickly understand the birthday fete as a celebration of their specialness – what parents want their children to feel about themselves. Quickly enough, too, children come to conceive the birthday as marking their advance in life. They are supposed to (they understand) grow up and mature, become big people, which most of the child wants to happen. (Another part of the child wants to remain a child.) So for children, then, we get it easily enough. They are marching toward their natural goal of adulthood, and the birthday celebrates their progress.

But what about once we reach that stage? Why do we keep celebrating? There may be further age-related goals, like the inheritance at twenty-five (ahh, missed that one) or the plan to run for congress that cannot be fulfilled until thirty, but otherwise, past some point in adulthood that each individual will consider prime (I conceived it, wrongly for me, as thirty-five), it becomes, in various considerations, a downward momentum.

Why, then, do we keep on celebrating?

If you are the naturally celebratory type, like the well-known Julia of this blog (check out her photo gallery above), the happy occasion is like putting on a show was for the 30s Mickey Rooney type. It’s Friday? Let’s have a party! It’s life! Let’s have a party! Let’s celebrate life.

Some of us are less psychologically salubrious, more constitutionally lugubrious.

I’m another year older? Waaahhhh!

One year more of physical decline, one year closer to death – what’s to celebrate? That you’re still alive? Hell, you can do that any day. It doesn’t have to be the one day that reminds you that you’re still alive, but for one year less than you were last year. What’s with that?

Maybe it helps to think more fundamentally, more originally, by which I mean not thinking something new, but thinking about something as if it were new, as if you had never thought about it before. Back in the mid-20th-century heyday of Continental philosophy and of Existentialism, the question of why there is something rather than nothing was considered most fundamental and profound. (Because God created the world, you understand, being a philosophical cheat.) It is rather extraordinary how that question has lost its cogency. Analytic philosophy decided that the question, like all questions not amenable to analytic approaches, is meaningless. The only fields that remained interested in the question were particle physics, cosmology, and theoretical physics. Their considerations are the closest thing we have to what Continental philosophy used to attempt. (Now Continental philosophy concerns itself primarily with counter-intuitions that serve admirably as the bases for disruptive political ideologies, but according to which, by my last count – two billion and proceeding – no one actually lives.) The approach of physicists, however, is decidedly more … physical than philosophical, with a dollop of speculation thrown into the mix once the physical inevitably hits, as seems fitting, a brick wall.

Why we are here. Or maybe, more simply, just that we are here. Seeing, feeling, hearing, imagining. The warmth of the sun on our flesh. The cool of the water. The wind. The sea salt smell. Our consciousness. Aliveness. Love. And maybe the melancholy we have to feel about the inevitable loss of it all – of life – and its final absence, is all that needs to be said about the magnitude of its presence.

Paul Newman, whose name often comes up in these considerations, was, if I have figured it correctly (and I’m quite certain I have) in every genuine, non-hipsterish sense of the word, the coolest physical and astral body to have graced the planet. And in addition to his deep and affecting talents as actor and director, his joy in auto racing, and his political and philanthropic commitments, it turned out he was something of a Bodhisattva as well. It was widely reported after Newman’s death from lung cancer at the age of 83, nearly three years ago, that in the final days of his life, he sat with his daughter one late afternoon in the garden of his Connecticut home and quietly said, “It’s been a privilege to be here.”

Thinking on the subject can’t end so simply, though. There are the tortured, the starved, the enslaved and abused, the beheaded and the crushed lives, and, as Ivan Karamazov complained, the suffering of innocent children. What privilege in that?

All that may be more than one can consider on a birthday – more, no doubt, than most want to, though a few minutes would do no harm and almost surely do a little good. If you’re having a birthday, it may be no privilege for the sufferers of the world – of the suffering beyond redemption – but it is some kind of privilege for you. Thinking about that won’t answer the larger questions, but it will focus us on what Newman seems to have perceived so finally, just as he was about to lose it, about what he had had. That has to be a start.


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Culture Clash

CineFile: The Birth of Cool Hand

The emblematic performance of Paul Newman‘s career. The scene that gave the character his name. Too little recognized is Stuart Rosenberg‘s directing accomplishment, that gratifying work of assured artistry that only some journeymen get to achieve. Note here how the characters are arranged around the table, where and how Kennedy stands in relation to Newman, and just how Newman is placed, his face partly hidden from the other players, just like his hand. Note, too, the shadow on the left of his face when we see it full. And see if you can pick out all of the actors early in their careers who went on to greater success in film and television. Kennedy won best supporting actor. Newman created a legendary character and cemented his own.

“Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

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