Melania Wasn’t “Sad”, She was Slavic

During Donald Trump's inauguration, his Slovene wife Melania looked sober and serious most of the time. This has led Americans to believe she was sad, depressed, horrified, anguished, perhaps even trapped in an abusive relationship.

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What these slightly fatuous Americans don't understand is that the European conception of personal dignity and institutional respect demands that public figures taking part in official ceremonies look serious at all times. In Europe, there is no penalty for looking stiff, even scowling, during official ceremonies; that's expected. There can be a significant penalty for a smile, or for any sign of levity. So everyone plays it safe and refrains from all except fleeting smiles.

Let me make my point with pictures of Supreme Courts. First, the American:

US Supreme Court

By my count, we have a whopping six smiles: the entire back row (Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Kagan) and two in the front (Roberts and Kennedy). Justice Scalia, the balding Italian man sitting next to the black guy, is wearing a sort of half-smile. Justice Thomas, the black guy, is wearing an angry scowl, his resting face, which seems out of place in this photograph, but would be perfectly normal in Europe.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the far right, seems to be cringing in terror. In fact, she seems to be looking at the same thing which has attracted Justice Thomas' attention. Maybe this photo was taken just seconds after the naked knife-wielding maniac broke into the photo studio screaming about CIA mind control: so far, only Thomas and Ginsburg notice him. Fortunately, he was tased by security before he could reach the Legal Minds.

Anyhoo, where was I? Oh right, facial expressions. Since Melania is Slovene, here's the Slovenian Supreme Constitutional Court:

Slovene

The first thing you notice about this official picture from the Court's website is how shitty it is. It's only 71 KB in size, and 60% of that is the surroundings. The picture is so crappy that if you zoom in to try to see whether any of the Justices are smiling, their faces devolve into pixelblurs. You get the definite impression that the Justices probably thought the entire idea of having their picture taken is a ridiculous waste of time, and tried to make it as unrevealing as possible. Nevertheless, I think we can still safely say: no open-mouthed smiles, possibly a mild expression of amusement on the woman in the center's face. That's all.

Bundesverfassungsgericht-senat_2

Here's the Second Senate of the German Federal Constitutional Court. Two open-mouthed smiles, the rest tight-lipped neutral expressions. Here's the First Senate:

Bvg_senat_1_2010

One open-mouthed grin. I can't even find a decent group photo of the French Court de Cassation (which has 85 members divided into a bunch of different groups), but the individual photos of the group leaders here (f) feature no open-mouthed smiles I can find.

And just to round things out, the European Court of Justice:

RTEmagicC_European-Court-of-Justice-Members-2013.jpg

A few smiles, a few scowls, but mostly neutral, purposeful expressions.

And in this particular respect, Slavs seem to be even more serious and scowly than Western Europeans. Here's the Polish Constitutional Tribunal:

Members-of-Polands-Supreme-Court

Being a Slav, as they say, is serious business.

So Melania wasn't "sad", you chirpy, fleering American flibbertygibberts. She was just showing respect by adopting a serious Slavic scowl.

Review of ‘To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore’

Domestic bliss chez les Gottliebs

Theodore Gottlieb, the subject of 'To My Great Chagrin', was born in 1906 in Düsseldorf, to parents who each came from wealthy families. The family industry was fashion publishing, and they circulated among the highest circles of inter-war society. Albert Einstein was a frequent guest of the family, and a favorite chess opponent of the precocious young Theodore. Theodore completed Gymnasium, visited the University of Cologne, and became something of a man-about-town. Judaism seems to have meant little to the Gottlieb family until the mid-1930s, when it suddenly became overwhelmingly important. The family moved to Vienna in 1938, hoping to escape the Nazis, but as Gottlieb puts it, Hitler 'followed him to Austria.'

Gottlieb was imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp, and forced to sign over his inheritance rights to his family's wealth in return for being allowed to leave the camp. Gottlieb had been promised that the paperwork he had signed would permit his family to live unmolested, but instead they were all deported  and murdered by the Nazis. After Gottlieb's release, he lived in Switzerland for a while, before Einstein helped arrange the complex paperwork that permitted him to emigration to the United States. He eventually settled in California, penniless and with a much younger bride (Else Gabriel). To make ends meet, he worked as a janitor at Stanford University and hustled chess.

 

During the late 1940s, he tried to establish a career in Hollywood, acting in a few obscure B-films and Orson Welles' 'The Stranger.' Yet it was as a monologist that be really began to make his mark. Theodore's act was a combination of mad scientist and nihilist metaphysician. In his German accent, he would launch himself into paragraph-long, spittle-flecked tirades ending in a crescendo of shrieking, arm-waving, desk-clearing  mayhem. Or he would begin fingering his face as if it were a strange rock, or stare intently at one audience member, and deliver the monologue directly to him (or, more frequently, her). His topics ranged from 'non-existence, advisability of' to 'death, welcome relief provided by' (his gravestone reads: 'As long as there is death, there is hope') via 'teeth, unhealthy obsession with' and 'God, probable non-existence of; if existing, depraved nature of.'

 

Californians didn't know what to make of this literate Mitteleuropäer with his peculiar brand of Weltschmerz-cabaret (he called it 'stand-up tragedy'), so Theodore moved to New York City, where the bohemian life beckoned. His only marriage dissolved in the late 1940s, and Theodore set about enjoying the company of young female admirers, which his old-world charm won him in droves. He was fondly adopted by the Beats, and seems never to have had much problem getting invitations to perform, even appearing on early television shows with the likes of Steve Allen and Jerry Lewis. Woody Allen hired him to play the Commissar in his early play 'Don't Drink the Water', but he proved too erratic for regular stage work. Nevertheless, Allen seems to have kept up a life-long friendship with Theodore. Despite attempts, Theodore never broke into the mainstream, although his legendary appearances on David Letterman ensured him a cult following that lasted until his death in 2001, at the age of 94.

 

'To My Great Chagrin' is a documentary every bit as distinctive and disorienting as its subject. Director Jeff Sumerel eschews the trappings of ordinary documentaries, such as on-screen talking-heads interviews and timelines of dates and facts. All of the voices from Theodore's friends and colleagues (including Dick Cavett, Eric Bogosian, and Woody Allen) come from offscreen, and are not introduced or identified in any way. The focus is relentlessly on Brother Theodore (as he began calling himself in the 1950s): he dominates almost every frame of this hour-long documentary. When he himself is not onscreen, a puppet — inhabiting an odd, sepia-toned brothers-Quayish dressing room — 'narrates' interviews conducted with Gottlieb. It's a bit disconcerting at first, hearing a mournful-looking puppet answer questions in Gottlieb's voice , but it doesn't take long before you understand the dream-logic of it all. The movie itself a litmus test: If you're the sort of person who 'got' Brother Theodore, you will instinctively understand why it would be too safe and too predictable to describe him in a conventional, fact-driven, linear documentary. If not, not

 

'To my Great Chagrin' is as funny as the man himself (one commentator compares his wit to Dorothy Parker's) and unexpectedly touching. Gottlieb seems to have spent his life  between two stools, as the German saying goes. In fact, many more than two stools. He understood the comic potential of his German accent and peculiar habits in America, but had too much dignity to fully exploit the Mitteleuropäisch mad-scientist, crazy-philosopher shtick. He was capable of saying spectacularly funny things, but never wanted to be seen as truckling to his audience. He craved mainstream success in Hollywood horror films, but was either unwilling or unable to work in a team. Finally, Theodore had the deep aversion to confessional self-revelation typical of the European educated elite — Lenny Bruce once advised him to talk about the Holocaust during his act, whereupon Gottlieb told Bruce to stop using profanities — yet his entire act consisted of sublimated references to his experience of alienation, rootlessness, and senseless death. The overall impression is of a man whose profound sense of identification with the values and the Weltanschauung of Europe frustrated his intermittent twinges of longing to adapt to life in America. He died alone, but not friendless.

 

'To My Great Chagrin' is available for a 'donation' of $20, which you can make here. The DVD is rather bare-bones (it contains only the film), but the producers have promised more features and bonuses as resources allow. So keep the Paypal donations coming!

Amos Oz on Cosmopolitanism

Die Welt publishes an interview (g) with Amos Oz (title: "Israel is a Collection of Fiery Arguments"), in which the grand old man of Israeli letters talks about Israel’s image in the European media and doles out advice to Young Cosmopolitans (my translation):

To those who want to acquire a sense of cosmopolitanism, I recommend: read fiction – novels and short stories. When I look at the German media or other European media and see the picture of Israel they deliver, Israel seems to be made up of eighty percent religious fanatics, ten percent settlers in the West Bank, nine percent brutal soldiers, and just one percent intellectuals, who criticize the administration and are wonderful writers. Of course, that’s a distortion of reality.

Israel is basically a secular country, a moderate and pragmatic country. Eighty percent of its population doesn’t live in the West Bank or in the Gaza strip, or even in Jerusalem. They live in the coastal regions. Israelis are Mediterranean people, very warm-hearted, who come from the middle class. They’re also materialistic people, who can be loud, and who love to argue. They belong to a Mediterranean society, like Greece, Italy, or the south of France. The country Theodor Herzl dreamed of – a Vienna in the Middle East – never became reality. And now I come to your question: The only way to learn about the real Israel is through its books. This was how I found a way to Germany, through its books. When I was a young man, I wanted nothing to do with Germany. I thought that for the rest of my life I would never have any contact with Germany. The reasons were clear: The Holocaust, other atrocities, the stories I had heard, all the survivors I met in Jerusalem. But then I broke this self-imposed taboo and changed my views — because I read Germany’s post-war writers: The writers of Group 47.

As I began to read Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, and Siegfried Lenz, and all the others (in translation, of course), it became impossible for me to continue hating everything German. I could simply no longer generalize. As I read these novels, I found myself forced to share these peoples’ feelings. So I say it’s always the case, not just for Germany and Israel, that the best bridge between nations and cultures is literature.

If you want to learn about another people, turn your back to the newspapers and read the literature, because only through literature can you acquire a deep appreciation of other peoples and their cultures. When you buy a ticket and fly to another country, you see only the museums, the historical sites, and the attractions, perhaps also a bit of the countryside, and then you fly back. But when you read a novel, then you’re invited into these peoples’ living rooms, in their children’s bedrooms – even into their bedrooms. The best way to forge an intimate bond with another culture is to read its literature.

For a fine profile of Oz in English, click here.