Have Americans, in the aftermath of Trump and in the time of COVID, lost our ability to appreciate beauty? And without beauty, how will we combat the ugly threats of the 21st century: the climate emergency, racism, violence and the most extreme wealth inequity in a century? Join Dr. Reisner as he looks for guidance from Oscar Wilde, Boris Karloff, Cornel West, Keats and Freud, who together make the case that when death beckons, we must face it together, drawing our courage from the soul’s yearning for truth and beauty, beauty and truth.
Hello everyone. I’m Steven Reisner. And this is madness, where psychology and capitalism collide.
I am back in France, in the small village of St Thomas de Conac, after three long months in New York City, where I had gone to do my part to rid our country of the tyrant Donald Trump. And I joined my fellow New Yorkers dancing on Broadway when we succeeded, even though I felt in my gut that we had only put out the most obvious of the fires threatening our democracy, and that decades of abuse and neglect meant that an election alone would not protect us from a new conflagration, that could ignite at any moment, which of course it did on January 6th.
But it was not only the election that brought me back home to New York in the midst of a global pandemic. It was a longing to see my family and my friends – and equally important, a desire to see for myself how my city – New York City – was holding up.
I was born and raised in New York. And until recently, I had never lived anyplace else. Both of my children were born in the city and both of my parents died there. I was a child, but I still remember the great blackout of 1965. And the second blackout of 1977. And the third.
On September 11th, I was a practicing psychoanalyst with an office downtown. I remember the sound of the first plane as it flew over my building. I watched the towers burning from lower Fifth Avenue, and then went to help at St. Vincent’s Hospital, along with other volunteers, therapists and neighbors, to give blood and provide support for the families of the missing. And I was in NY during Hurricane Sandy, when downtown was flooded and we were without power for a week. I kept my office open, lighting the hallway and bathroom with candles.
But none of those compared with the state of the city as I found at the end of 2020, after months and months of the COVID pandemic.
I felt it first in the way people were dressed. New Yorkers during COVID seemed a bit like children, believing that if they are covering their face, no one else can see them. Manhattanites now dressed like they had only just gotten out of their pajamas for a moment to run to the grocery store to buy milk.
Journalists had a name for the new style: sadwear, or worse: hatewear.
I felt it, too, in the way people treated each other in the hallways of my building – people who had partied with us in our apartment, now anxiously kept their distance, avert their eyes altogether and shrink into corners as we passed each other, treating one another more like threats than neighbors. When I smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve had COVID; I have antibodies,’ people looked at me like I had two heads.
On the streets, it was no better. That look New Yorkers used to give one another in adversity, the look that says, we will get through this, because, hey, we are New Yorkers, that look of sexy confidence in the midst of, I don’t know, a crack epidemic, a terrorist attack, a blackout was gone.
New York City, the city that invented the beautiful and majestic skyline, the city that embodied modernity with strength and fortitude and diversity had, in COVID, become ugly and polarized. The rich had become more isolated and suspicious and much richer, while the poor and working class became poorer, sicker and hungrier. Over a million New Yorkers lost their jobs, with Black and poor New Yorkers making up the bulk of the newly unemployed. One out of five of the city’s children and senior citizens were relying on food banks to eat. Even the well-healed were experiencing enormous stress: psychological pressures that had physical consequences – dentists reported a 10-fold increases in teeth grinding and cracked teeth – and this level of anxiety and suspiciousness was in spite of the fact that healthy people under age 65, the very ones whose teeth were cracking from anxious grinding – were 100x less likely to be hospitalized or to die of COVID than the poor, the unhealthy or the elderly.
No, New York in the time of COVID was nothing like New York after September 11th. Something fundamental had changed in the city, and COVID brought the changes to the surface. But COVID did not cause them. It’s hard to remember this, but in the five years before COVID struck, storefronts in the city were already closing by the thousands because of landlord greed and razor thin profit margins; before COVID, 10% of NYC’s public school children were homeless while at the same time there were 250,000 empty luxury apartments. And before COVID, New York City had the most extreme wealth disparity and the most segregated schools of any city in America.
And now, with no distractions, with streets empty and people with time on their hands, New Yorkers can no longer pretend that we are some exotic island off the coast of America. That we are a culture unto ourselves, immune to middle America’s lies, hatred and polarization – COVID and capitalism have revealed that we, too, share in the ugliness that divides America.
COVID punctured the urban picture of Dorian Gray that we had commissioned for ourselves – the New York City self-portrait: forever hip and rich and stylish and young. A self-image personified in the now-abandoned shrine to wealth and opulent greed that is the Hudson Yards, and its centerpiece, the “vessel,” which the developers had the temerity to call New York’s “Eiffel Tower.” Covid has revealed it for what it is – a monument to death, forced to close not only because the well-heeled no longer venture out to fancy offices and luxury shopping malls, but also because the Vessel turned out to be the perfect place for New Yorkers to commit suicide. COVID has taken a knife to the vessel, revealing its poisoned soul, an urban correlative to the moment when, in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey, Dorian took a knife to his own portrait:
There was a cry heard, and a crash, so horrible in its agony that the frightened servants woke and crept out of their rooms. They knocked at the locked bedroom door, but there was no reply. Finally, they forced the door, which yielded easily—its bolts were old.
When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings on his boney disfigured fingers that they recognized who it was.
When I returned to St Thomas after three months in New York, I was in a kind of shock. I felt like I had when I worked with the trauma team at the United Nations, after missions in cities recovering from war or earthquake. I had nightmares. I couldn’t concentrate, I was angry.
France was on lockdown, so I was restricted to my home. Weeks passed, and still, I couldn’t find my bearings. What had happened to my city? To America? What was happening to the world?
After a month in St Thomas, the lockdown was replaced by a nationwide curfew, and travel was possible again. I knew instinctively what my soul needed. I needed to see beauty again. And not the beauty of nature, though that helped. I needed to see for myself whether beauty was still possible in a city during this plague. I needed to see if culture could survive this level of threat. And so, in the middle of, the bleakest winter of the bleakest year of my life – I boarded the train to Paris. Paris? Without cafes, without museums, under a 6PM curfew, in the rain, in the midst of a pandemic? Paris?? Sounds like MADNESS.
On a per capita basis, France has had nearly as much COVID as the United States. Paris has had nearly as many cases and deaths per capita as Manhattan, and the outlying areas have been hit as hard as the boroughs of New York. Just as in New York, the poor and minorities and the elderly were hit harder. Hospitals had been overwhelmed, doctors and nurses shocked and scared, working without protective equipment. In other words, COVID had shaken both cities. And even today, the restrictions in Paris are far more severe than New York’s: all museums, all theaters and concert halls, are closed, bars and restaurants are closed, indoor and outdoor dining is prohibited.
But when I arrived, and took a taxi to my Airbnb, what shocked me – moved me to tears, really, was that the streets of Paris were alive with people, the shops were busy, and there was absolutely no sense that the people were frightened or suspicious, or that businesses were hanging by a thread or that workers were desperate. When I settled in and walked from neighborhood to neighborhood, I was happily surprised to find that people on the streets were completely at ease. Even in masks, Parisians still dressed with style, people greeted one another with none of the rage or anxiety that I found in New York when a passersby came too close. It seems that, when assessing risk, Parisians have decided that their quality of life is as important as their safety.
They complained, of course, about the closed restaurants and bars and especially the curfew. But still, they enjoy their lives; you can feel it on the streets. They smiled at one another, as if to say, isn’t our city beautiful without the tourists? Paris is ours once again!
And so, you can get hot wine and oysters on the street and enjoy them on a park bench. You could still have hot chocolate in front of the Ritz hotel, or walk through the Luxembourg gardens, hear children laugh on the carousels erected in every neighborhood and in every park. And every evening, from almost anywhere in Paris, you could see the beauty of the Eiffel Tower, the real Eiffel Tower, sparklingly illuminated every hour on the hour on the banks of the Siene.
Yes, I am romanticizing Paris and France. I admit it. I know that here, like in the US, there is terrible inequity, and racism, and poverty. There is a scary far-right movement that is increasing in its popularity. But today I want to focus on two fundamental differences between France and the US and between Paris and New York.
The first, is civilization, what Freud called Kultur – the idea that people living together in society must aspire to act on principle and not on impulse.
And the second is the central place of beauty in French daily life.
These two together are the reason that artists and musicians in Paris are secure, assured by the government of a basic income during these turbulent times, assured of a future in the arts, while artists in New York are devastated, abandoned by the government, and forced to find other work in order to survive.
The truth is, I bought this house in France three years ago not only because of what Trumpism portended for American society, but also because, frankly, New York City, along with urban and suburban landscapes in the rest of the country, had lost their sense of beauty – and what made things worse was the fact that New Yorkers had become deadened to the ugliness; deadened to the empty storefronts, to the buildings scarred by scaffolding, to the homeless.
“I love Paris, in the winter, when it drizzles”
In France, in every village and town, there is a memorial, usually near the church, to the local boys who died in the great war. Some memorials have added the dead of the second world war. Some include the names of those taken away by the Germans during the occupation – but what is clear from these memorial sites is that the death of well over a million young boys in the Great war brought home to the French, an intimacy with death, with lives cut short and with mourning. The names on the monuments are the same as those of families that continue to live in the villages – the history is present. Mourning is a part of life.
Across the border, in Vienna, the mass casualties of the Great war moved Freud to rethink the theory of psychoanalysis. Before the war, Freud explained human activity primarily in terms of pleasure, but his compatriots and colleagues’ bloodlust for war left Freud disturbed and disillusioned. So, when his disciple Karl Abraham wrote excitedly, “The news is excellent now, isn’t it? The German troops are barely one hundred kilometers from Paris, Belgium has been liquidated, and England is on its last legs,” Freud responded, “I have faint memory of discussions about an earlier gigantic battle which, after some partial successes, ended quite drearily. It is like remembering an earlier existence according to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls.”
And so, Freud went beyond the pleasure principle, adding an urge for destruction to his theory – a death drive. He postulated that in civilized times, this death drive works inwardly. Alongside our capacity for love, the inner awareness of mortality mobilizes self-criticism and conscience – it is the basis of shame and morality. But in hard times, the death drive splits from Eros and is directed outward, interested only in self-protection, and so, morality evaporates, and culture dissolves in a fever of hatred, violence and destruction. But Freud added a necessary, but under-appreciated note to his theory: the death drive provoked not destruction, but ugliness, a “lowering of aesthetic standards” that was as offensive to civilization as the cruelty of war was to life.
Thus, Freud was inspired by war to posit what we might call the great psychoanalytic paradox: war – the culture of death – arises from the denial of death. And Eros, the embrace of life and beauty, can only come from the acceptance of the poignant truth that life is fleeting, and death comes to us all.
As Freud put it succinctly: “If you would endure life, prepare for death.”
In 1976, I graduated from Princeton University. I was a Jewish hippie from Brooklyn who focused on theater, antiwar activism and creative writing, in High School And so I believed, unlike Groucho Marx, that if Princeton accepted me, it might actually be a place worth going to. But when arrived, I found myself a stranger in a strange, Southern influenced, mostly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant land.
At Princeton I experienced two things for the first time: the first was an environment where everyone was really smart, and the second was casual antisemitism. And so, I spent four years developing my intellect, my political consciousness and my Jewish identity. I joined with a few other Princeton Jews to form a guerrilla theater group called the Radical Jewish Union, our motto was “Go Tigers, Beat Nixon!” I wrote my senior thesis on how to harness the power of traditional rites of passage to provoke revolutionary change through film and theater.
Basically, I spent four years, avoiding everything that, for most people, made Princeton Princeton – I never attended a football game, I was allergic to the idea of joining an eating club. In fact, I could say, that my first real experience of Princeton-as-Princeton came, ironically, at Graduation, when, I, along with my entire class, participated in Princeton’s venerable graduation rite of passage: the P-rade.
The P-rade is a reunions tradition that dates back over a century, where the all the gathered alumni classes line a parade route in reverse order of their seniority. The eldest alums lead, the next oldest follow, down the years until the newly minted graduates join the procession at the end. I had to admit, it sounded cool and humbling, celebrating the dignity of old age and simultaneously giving us 22-year-olds a sobering reminder that, even with our Princeton degrees and privilege, we were part of a mortal journey.
And so, I waited on the parade route with my class for the arrival of the “Old Guard” – the oldest living alumni, which, in my day, included graduates from the 1800’s. But when the Parade finally came into view, the elder gentlemen I expected were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the P-rade was led by an unruly group of middle-aged men, cheering, drinking, cavorting and howling, and wearing the most garish and hideous reunion outfits, orange and black Blazers designed to look like patched hobo clothing. It turns out that the honor of leading the parade was not given to the elders at all, but to the men celebrating their 25th reunion, men in their 40’s, at the height of their political and economic power, reveling the pride of place that power offers, and celebrating ugliness and faux homelessness, in Princeton colors of orange and black – a Halloween costume for the wealthy.
This was the side of Princeton, that I had worked so hard to ignore: the socioeconomic trajectory that reminds us all that it is the rich and the privileged who lead. The poor are objects of derision, the aged fall behind and the young are taught to aspire to this one value: one day, you too, will join the immortals; one day, you too will have the power to jump to the head of the line and push everyone else out of the way.
I managed to ignore this side of Princeton for four years, because in my day, the values of the wealthy formed a separate world from the values of the rest of us. But times have changed. Neoliberalism has made aspiring to wealth and power a national philosophy. America, particularly the middle class, has embraced these values, believing that we, too, can be immortal, if we just purchase the right products, take the right medication, communicate the right image. It is the bait and switch that American capitalism offers – immortality is possible; you just have to keep running and running and running after it.
But increasingly, the emptiness of this promise has been catching up with us. Even before COVID, America was coming apart because the unstoppable force of capitalism, met the immovable object of the climate emergency. It was becoming clear to our senses, if not to our consciousness, that something fundamental had changed – with fires in the west, earthquakes in the north, floods in the east and now snow in the south – we were now living beyond our means. We had borrowed not only from the banks, from our children and from our parents, but from the earth itself, and it is too late to pay off our debt – the planet is coming to collect.
COVID pushed us over the edge, Trump made matters worse, but we have reached the point where more than half a million Americans have died horrible deaths, because the strong and healthy in America are protected and the poor, aged and vulnerable have been left to suffer and die, in most cases, completely alone. This is the tragedy that neoliberalism has left in its wake. America’s resources from the beginning of the pandemic to today are distributed in inverse proportion to the need. And that’s because no one questions any longer the fact that aid is processed through corporations and banks and drug store chains, and that these institutions naturally favor customers rather than citizens. Let me give two examples from close to home.
First, in New York City, the whitest and richest neighborhoods, with the lowest COVID infection and mortality rates, have the highest vaccination rates, and the neighborhoods of color, with the highest infection rates, have the lowest vaccination rates. The Upper West Side, where I live now, has double the vaccination rate of Coney Island, where I grew up, even though Coney Island has a death rate from COVID that is 6 times higher than the Upper West Side. This situation is improving, with huge centers opening up, but that doesn’t change the fact that the vaccine rollout in New York, and everywhere else in America, was like every other aspect of the COVID response, designed to first serve the privileged and only later serve the needy and vulnerable. And what’s worse is that the privileged had no problem with that.
Second, it’s not well-known but even before COVID, privately-owned nursing homes in New York CITY – and across the country – had a 10% higher death rates than not-for-profit facilities. Since COVID, that number has risen to 60%. And it turns out that for-profit facilities with five-star ratings are the worst offenders – apparently because they put more money into improving their ratings than they do in improving their care.
The old guard in America has simply been pushed out of the way, isolated, left in the care of the underpaid who themselves are deprived of protections, or simply to fend for themselves. As a result, 40% of America’s COVID deaths were suffered by the elderly in nursing homes, who make up less than 1% of the population. Think of it: what would it have taken to ensure that there were resources to protect that tiny sliver of the population? It would take a culture that cares for its elders as much as for its corporations, that cares for our elders as much as we care for ourselves. A culture that is willing to look after the old and the dying and acknowledge that this is the destiny for us all.
A culture that still wants to hear the stories that our elders have to tell us. Like this one, that begins as they all do
Boris Karloff: “Once upon a time, many, many years ago …”
It’s a story of a servant who, after seeing death in the marketplace asks his master to loan him a horse so that he may escape death and flee to Samara:
So, the merchant loaned him the horse and the servant mounted it, dug his spurs into its flank, and as fast as the horse could gallop, he wrote towards Samara.
Then the merchant went to the marketplace and he saw death standing in the crowd. And he said to her, “why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” And Death said, “I made no threatening gesture. That that was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad; for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara.”
Like in every village in France, the village down the road from me has a memorial to the dead of the Great War. Next to the War memorial there is a small, additional memorial, in the form of a question mark, with five words written underneath: “For our friends of Schweyen” And there is a road sign with an arrow pointing East, that reads: “Schweyen, 963 kilometers.”
It turns out that on the 7th of September, 1939, death came to Schweyen – it was here and in the surrounding countryside that the Second Great War erupted between France and Germany. The villagers fled, not knowing if death was preparing a meeting for them in another village. Eleven days later, they arrived just down the road from St Thomas, in St. Sorlin de Conac. The residents took them in, and they remained there, and in the surrounding villages, protected and cared for, for over a year.
When school children visit this monument to the war dead, they also learn about the people of Schweyen and about how their grandparents embraced the opportunity, in hard times, to do good. The question mark is a reminder that when the people of Schweyen fled their village, they did not know where they would end up.
When we look back at this time, when we build the memorials to what 21st century neoliberal capitalism has unleashed – the pandemic, the climate emergency, the great wealth disparity and the hatred of strangers, what will our generation ask of ourselves? Will we have the courage to identify with the dead, to recall our own mortality and our own complicity?
What can we draw upon to guide us?
In a series of lectures given at the New School in New York City during the Vietnam War, Hannah Arendt addressed the question of how we might navigate our own responsibility in a time of horror. She turned to the philosophy of Emanual Kant, and what she took from Kant was that the judgment of what is right and wrong, true or untrue, could only be approached through a more humble, more human judgment – taste, the ability to tell the beautiful from the ugly. Arendt quoted Kant: “In determining beauty and ugliness, we renounce ourselves in favor of others… In taste, the ego is overcome.” In other words, it is through a shared discernment of what is beautiful, that I can learn to judge what is right and what is wrong, what is true or untrue. In determining the beautiful, Arendt said, we “make our thinking manifest in the world of appearances”:
The manifestation of the wind of thought… is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And this indeed may prevent catastrophes, at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down.
When the chips are down, it is easy for the mob to erupt into a celebrate of ugliness – the painted faces, the horned headdresses, the awful noise of hatred, the patched hobo clothing, the white robes of racism – ugliness is the forever stamp of domination and death over the ephemeral, the beautiful, the true.
Have we, in New York, and in America lost the ability to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, the truth from the lie?
Have we forgotten what Cornel West continuously tries to remind us of? That when the soul speaks in a genuine quest for truth, it is beauty that the soul seeks?
Allow your voice to be heard from the deepest levels and corners of the dark corner of your soul. Such that you will engage in a genuine quest for truth. And the condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak. Everybody’s suffering no matter what color, no matter what gender sexual orientation, no matter what national identity, and then connect it to a love of beauty and beauty is always something we grasp for in the face of terror.
(Cornel West on YouTube; 1:54-2:25)
Beauty is a practice, like music, like medicine, like art, it must be taught and learned and perfected. The wonder of beauty is in its temporality, its mortality: a flower that blooms for a night.
Growing up, I could barely look at my mother’s face. She was a very beautiful woman – movie star beautiful, so beautiful that I could barely look at her.
She, on the other hand, was constantly in awe of the beauty of the world around her. I remember one summer, at the bungalow colony in the Catskills my parents shared with other Holocaust survivors, I was lying on a chaise lounge by the pool. My mother and some other women were swimming in the bright August sunshine. Suddenly my mother started to shout. “Isn’t it glorious, this sunshine! This sky! Aren’t we lucky, let’s celebrate this beautiful day!” The women waved their arms and hands in a kind of survivor sun worship. I looked away and felt embarrassed.
The truth is, my mother’s beauty and bubbly optimism frightened me, because I felt instinctively that the light reflected in her eyes danced on the surface of very dark waters and that if I looked at her for too long, I would fall in and be enveloped by the desolation underneath. I knew, even though she didn’t speak of it, that just under the surface there lurked a history of loss, of death. Of the murder of her parents and brothers and sister, and that that history haunted her. I could not look at my mother’s beauty because I was afraid that if I did, I would feel all the pain underneath, and if I felt it, then she would feel it, and if she felt it, she would die. And I would die. That’s how beautiful she was.
Now, half a century later, I understand that I became a psychoanalyst because I didn’t want to be forever afraid of the suffering beneath the surface. I wanted to help people face and accept whatever darkness lurked in their past, whatever suffering is in store for their future, so that when we experience moments of true beauty, fleeting as they might be, we can take them in, resonating with our deepest selves. I became a psychoanalyst out of a longing for precisely what frightened me as a child – to develop the practice of awe and wonder, even in a world capable of horrors.
Keats summed it up for us in his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn,’ which brings together for a moment the eternal longing for youth and beauty and the fragility of the vessel upon which it is inscribed: the urn that, like us, can turn to dust in a moment, but while it exists, offers libation and story and sustenance and beauty:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
This is Steven Reisner and you have been listening to Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide. If you like what you hear, please write a review and share this podcast on social media and with your friends. And like to take this opportunity to thank my producer, Ted Strauss and my editor, Dae Courtney and everyone at Sur Place media, a collective of media artists in Montreal, who make this podcast possible.