Author: James Livingston

Before and After the Fall

50 years ago today, I fell 24 feet to my death.  On that June 1st, I died to my old self, a lazy, drunken lout, an ex-jock frat boy who had recently been expelled from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the grounds that I never attended class, was instead always drinking or sleeping or starting fights in bars–and was, therefore, “just not cut out for higher education,” as the Dean of Students put it during my exit interview. He solemnly echoed my high school counselor, who had explained to me in my senior year that I wasn’t “college material,” and had accordingly urged me to get with the building trades. They were both right, and I say this as a tenured Professor of History who has spent the last 40 years teaching at public universities as well as small colleges and prisons, in four different states.  I’m near retirement at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, having published six books–two more are in progress–written dozens of articles, lectured to thousands of undergraduates, attended many meetings, and, not least, started this little online magazine, POLITICS/LETTERS. Still, the dean and the counselor were right, I wasn’t cut out for higher education.  So how did I get there, and last this long? Let’s start over, on June 1, 1970, on the fifth floor, the top floor, of an office building under...

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Angel From Montgomery

This is John Prine’s signature song, released in 1971 on the album of that name, most memorably covered by Bonnie Raitt in 1974.  Since he died on April 7th of C-19-induced complications, I’ve been working on this cover, this tribute, with my brother Andy over there in Illinois.  We had a hell of a time synching our tracks until his producer Robert Rose stepped in and made us whole.  Andy is the real musician in the family–that’s him playing those sparkling riffs and singing harmony in the refrain.  I hope old John hears us singing his song....

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The Modern Decameron Book 3, rev. ed.

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 astonishment and then a story about debt, inheritance, forgiveness, and forbearance, about the man who will be Lear. Filomena leads with a playful critique of reason or restraint that might as well be Nietzschean,...

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The Modern Decameron, Book II, rev. ed.

Neifile goes next in The Decameron, Book/Novel 2.  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!  Abraham finally says OK, OK, but I’m going to the headquarters, all the way to Rome, to see what your religion is made of.  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’s 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, pacing in the aisle.  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?  [the cameras descend into standard shot-reverse shot format at eye level] 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, the end of the fucking world, so you can see the large one, the big guy who tortures us because he thinks it’s good for us?  This is not a...

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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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