Author: James Livingston

Dreaming of Despair

Last night my dreams were soaked in the cold sweat of despair–a function, I believe, of two small waking events from the day before. First, I endured a remote session with the shrink (yeah, I know, I’m privileged, I don’t have to show up for work, and, with my solid insurance, I can shop for mental health). In psychotherapy, the rule is you talk about yourself, not everybody else, on the assumption that each of us is a unique individual in the grip of a highly specific set of intimate or familial circumstances.  That rule is now moot, because nothing stands between the world and me.  The shrink would keep asking how I felt, and I’d keep responding with rants on Trump’s murderous lies, by saying, “How do I feel, I feel the same way everybody else feels,” as if his words and deeds had immediately lacerating effects on my body, and, more to the point, as if I’ve become an interchangeable part in a rhetorical machine rather than a unique individual with opinions of my own (about myself to begin with). I disappeared from the conversation because I had become, and clearly wanted to be, the anonymous mouthpiece of people I don’t even know.  And vice versa. Second, I had a low-key argument with my cellmate about resistance through writing.  She worries that I stress myself out by too...

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The Modern Decameron, Books IV-VII

Now we’re in the thick of it, now we know God himself is on trial, because his representatives on earth are so cunning, lustful, stupid, and wise.  These four “novels” compose a suite, a kind of story within a story–within a story–that tells of how the men of the Church have betrayed its promises, and will, accordingly, soon lose their hold on the hearts and minds of the masses.  Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” are the contemporary complement (and remember that Geoffrey stole from Giovanni). Dioneo (Boccaccio’s stand-in) tells the story of the monk and the abbot, the man who, caught by his superior in sexual shenanigans, exposes the boss to the same temptations and, having recorded the sordid results, prevents his dismissal from the monastery and guarantees his future as a cleric.  How to succeed in business without really trying.  Fiammetta (Boccaccio’s nickname for his real-life lover) follows with a lesson in how to say “No” to a man with superior standing and powers.  It ain’t easy.  Emilia then explains why charity–philanthropy, we call it, that’s how we dress it up these days–is worse than death without last rites.  How so?  And then Filostrato the straight arrow tells us stories of men who admitted their sins of greed, who tried to “give something back” (of what they had previously taken from others), having been embarrassed by their own greed.  Would that...

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On Lenox Ave

My girlfriend and I are holed up in Harlem, just south of its epicenter at 125thand Lenox Ave, a.k.a. Malcom X Blvd.  Since there are no delivery dates available from any purveyor until far into next week (I write on March 31), I’ve been going out to shop for groceries every three or four days at 7:00 AM, when Whole Foods opens its doors for one hour to customers 60 years and older, then lets the less vulnerable in to hunt and gather. There’s a police-style metal barricade that runs 50 feet west on 125thStreet from Lenox, channeling us senior citizens into a socially-distanced single file so that security guards can check our ID.  Once inside, it’s clear sailing–the aisles are bustling with employees stocking the shelves or filling carts with food for delivery, but the masked customers are few, no more than 20 percent of the store’s current population. Outside–a security guard has to let you out–there are even fewer civilians.  Used to be that at any given morning hour, dozens of addicts of all kinds would be gathered on the corner of 124th, waiting for the rehab/detox clinic behind Whole Foods to open.  Not yesterday.  Maybe three or four old guys waving canes, talking trash, smoking cigarettes.  The hallal truck wasn’t there, either, nor the tented vegetable stand.  Suddenly you can feel a lot of social distance...

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The Modern Decameron, Book 3

Filomena goes next, with another story of another Jew, Melchisadech, who also must reckon with Christianity as both a moral problem and an intellectual prospect.   Filomena frames it as a story within a story within a story, because now all three of the great monotheistic religions that rose on the southern and eastern extremities of the Mediterranean are in play–as competitors for the loyalties of people on the verge of the end times, all desperate for the right answer to the wrong question, which is, who or what will save us? In The Decameron story, Saladin the Saracen summons Melchisadech to a meeting where the intricacies of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity–the last for once absent an advocate–will be debated, as preface to an offer that can’t be refused.  If your answer is wrong, Saladin says in so many words, I’ll have you hounded or imprisoned, whereupon, as Sultan, I will seize your assets (these are liquid because Melchisadech the Jew, is, of course, a money lender).  If your answer is right, again in so many words, I’ll let you lend me money to pay off the debts my profligate kingdom has accumulated. Melchisadech responds with a story about debt, inheritance, forgiveness, and forbearance, about the man who would be King.  King Lear, that is. Yeah, I know.  So did old Will. Filomena leads with a playful critique of reason...

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The Modern Decameron, Book 2

Neifile goes next in The Decameron, Book/Novel 2, ca. 1348.  She tells the story of Abraham the Jew, a devout adherent of the faith, who, being a friend of Johannot de Chevigny, a fellow merchant, is constantly subject to proselytization–convert now or forever find no peace!  That is what his friend keeps saying to Abraham, who finally says OK, OK, but I’m going to the headquarters, all the way to Rome, to see what your religion is made of, where it got built.  There he finds strange grounds for new belief–he converts to Christianity because its practitioners are whoremongers, pedophiles, mendicants, and morons, yet their empire keeps expanding.  Here is my retelling of that story for our times, as a screenplay, of course. ____ INT. Abraham bent over a church pew, the reverse shot shows his old friend John, another stalwart of the garment trade, standing in the aisle, at the back of the church, arms folded. The camera rises, we survey the incredible wealth and majesty of this cathedral, and the 2000-year old Church it represents. ABRAHAM: Jesus fucking Christ, wouldja?  I’m a Jew, what do you want, a conversion experience?  How can I be a Christian, what are you people FOR–except, what, the end of everything?  You hope for death, you live for it, you wish for the end of the fucking world so you can see the...

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