We went back to the scene of our last auto-da-fe, Bryant Park, to once again witness Werner Herzog in fevered conversation with an unknown property, this time a so-called geographer and artist name of Trevor Paglen.
I'd been in the library since before two, working in the Jewish Division. It was freezing in there, since they had the AC cranked up high as it'd go. I emerged into what was probably a balmy evening shivering. Met wife on the steps -- in fact, by the lion who is called "Patience" - and shrilly remarked "Christ - let's go to H&M and buy a jumper."
We went to get a seat in Bryant Park for this free event "under the stars" and there were no good seats close to the stage, although there was everywhere evidence of that dastardly practice of seat saving.
Here is a sight of humanity as it really is rather than how it loves to think it is; craven , vicious, sneaking, conniving. In a word: seat-saving. It is like this when you alight on a bus and everybody it seems is sat on the aisle seat, jealously keeping the window seat vacant. And these are nominally "grown adults". There used to be one bloke on the coach to college, the Wallingford to Henley route, who did this every morning . We made fun of him.
This day I got in protracted arguments with two people on the subject of seat-saving. I said, "It can't be done." They said, "It can. It is." My first combatant was a leering, jaundiced-looking Spanish female to whom I said, "You cannot save seats in these United States. This land is your land; this land is my land. From California to the New York islands. From the redwood forests--" She laid out across the seats and defied me to move her. She was full of Zuccotti Park green bile and defiance. I had a great urge to tip her off the seat. She would have me call the police. Shouldn't leave unless it were in chains. I said I would find a friendly gendarme presently and went off, fuming, looking for a higher authority with whom to plead my case.
In Bryant Park you might as well plead with the granite face of the squatting statue of Gertrude Stein for all the good it'll do you.
I shall say little of this undignified to and fro that after all diminishes me. I got into a further, more protracted ruck with a liberal-arts wealthy hip grandmother-type, Blythe Danner with a colourless pencil-line moustache and bobby-soxer's pony-tail, who was sitting with pursed lips (sucking pensively on her bleached moustache) tapping away at her laptop as I berated her. Pretending to ignore me as I hectored her, sounding for all the world like my father.
"I almost hate to interrupt your blogging," I said. "It seems a genuine shame. It's a loss to the Western Canon. But I know you," I said. "I know you of old." (I resisted the urge here to sing "You Jack of Diamonds") "I say that I know you and I do. You pledge faithfully to NPR and Channel Thirteen. It's sort of a principle with you. You subscribe to the New Yorker and you are a regular at the 92nd Street Y. You simply cannot wait to see Zadie Smith in conversation with Chris Ware. You really are the life-blood of the arts in New York City, and I say that without exaggeration." I don't think I could have been much crueler if I tried (short of mentioning her moustache.) I saw that I was nevertheless veering off my subject by broadening the critique somewhat. I ended up perching like a leprechaun on top of the paperback that she had pedantically laid down to save the seat. I said, "There I have sat on your little paperback; now what for us, you and I, grandmother?"
Ha. It all worked out because the person she was saving the seat for phoned her even while I was sitting on the book that stood in so manfully for that person, and said they couldn't make it. There is a moral lesson embedded in this somewhere but it escapes me.
After a while of that gig-goer's delight, the sight of roadies bumbling about the stage while the pre-show tape blares loudly (this time playing Harry Smith-style old-timey backwater plunder), and after an award-winning female poet suffered us to sit through her humdrum Weltanschauung, Trevor Paglen mounted the stage and explained to us with humility and brio and unctuous charm how he was sending a sort of platinum-plated Viewmaster reel of photos up into the satellite ring around the earth, where it is supposed it will represent the Earth's culture to anybody who chances upon it for the rest of eternity.
It was interesting, if inevitably rather willfully Quixotic, but then Werner Herzog loped onto stage and disabused this man Trevor of all confidence he might have ever had in his project.
"Treffor, I don't believe in it," he rumbled, seconds after beginning. "It will never be discovered by aliens." With Teutonic logic he quite briskly proved conclusively that Trevor's project, years in the making, was folly. "It would take a spacecraft from the nearest galaxy hondreds of thousandts hoff yeahrs to penetrate our solar system; they would have to have generation after generation continuing the flight through space, inbreeding each time to produce a new generation of idiots..."
It was a convincing argument, even if I was meekly thinking (a keen reader of Fantastic Four comics) "What if the aliens can teleport by the use of an elementary wormhole?" (Herzog dealt with wormholes later.)
Herzog was on form. I was chary, not only after my last set-to with him at the Library (see previous post), but also having recently seen the extras on the Grizzly Man DVD which includes a deadly-dull documentary about the making of the film's soundtrack, which has such exciting figures as Richard Thompson, Henry Kaiser and Jim O'Rourke twiddling and noodling in a studio.
We see Herzog "sitting in" on the session, getting all sentimental over the female cello player. It even has Herzog wishing aloud that he could play the cello: "I vould giff ten years off my life to master the cello."
"Has this man never read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons?" I thought, in which excellent novel the nihilist Bazarov sneers at "a paterfamilias learning the cello."
On this evening in Bryant Park, however, Herzog was in a refreshingly pithy frame of mind.
They were having problems with the microphones. As much as they talked, street hubbub from the restaurant nearby and the streets beyond us kept carrying on to the microphones. Herzog had a microphone on his lapel which he could only be heard on if he held his lapel up and lowered his head to it. Moderator Paul Holdengräber kept fretting about Werner's microphone, but Herzog was pithy about it. "I am fine in this strange position, Paul."
After freewheeling through an array of whimsical images that said next to nothing about life on this planet they showed a slide of a Paul Klee daub of an angel which had been ridiculously over-interpreted in purple prose by Walter Benjamin. When Herzog quite rightly laughed savagely at the Benjamin paean ( -- such laughter a blasphemy in Old New York --), the moderator, Paul Holdengräber, blurted out with weird animation that he had spent ten years of his life in the study of Walter Benjamin and his works, during which years he was an active participant in a menage a trois.
I couldn't see the relevance of this unprovoked revelation at all.
Didn't want to picture the squalor in my young mind.
Indeed, the audience could be heard to recoil as one, at this unnecessary nugget of "T.M.I.".
The audience could be heard to think it would be a very good thing if the future alien visitors (but they can never exist!) are spared this particular piece of information about the sex life of "The Libertine Holdengräber".
Then it was, I think, that we all thought as one: "Isn't it time for this night beneath the stars to pack up and go home? Isn't it time for the stars to go out and the universe to discreetly end?"
On the way home my wife said to me, "Do you think the menage a trois was with two men or two women?"
I said, "I think it was him, the cat and a houseplant."