Antibes! Antibes!

Wrote and recorded this for NPR a while ago for a canceled series called Wish You Were Here, about places writers remembered. They never published that audio, but an FB message on Juan Les Pins from great friends of mine gave the memory back to me. It was written for radio.

 

Antibes! Antibes!

[for Nastasia]

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“Antibuh! Antibuh!,” the train conductor sang approaching Antibes, in the south of France, between Alpine foothills and the Mediterranean: a Greco-Roman port with medieval ramparts and silver glints of a storied sea—the sea of Odysseus, Picasso, Zorba the Greek. It was The Joy of Life. It was Tender is the Night. Graham Greene’s haven. Kazantzakis’s chosen exile. A winter refuge where I imagined Fitzgerald working on a problematic manuscript, maybe Trimalchio, later called Gatsby.

We were unpublished novelists writing our second books. In 1996, the franc was weak and we were bold. Rents were cheap. We paid, sight unseen, for a summer hovel near Placette Kazantzakis, thinking the name was a sign.

We had blundered into bliss. The patchwork of Provencal facades stuck out in unplanned streets with crooked lanes, like a child’s pastel mosaic, or a Matisse. Bougainvillea enflamed the air and hid the writer’s plaque: Zorba had been here. We saw sailboats from our window, cutouts in a livid blue. The sea breath of mussels mingled with the malingering scent of lavender from the Alpilles.

Daily we saw the sea.

The Mediterranean throws sunlight back up in centrifugal shards that boomerang into its azure. This brilliant economy of light spreads a glut of haze across the water: material, luxuriant, blinding. And the beach—orgastic overload of naked breasts with careful tans, bronzed grandmothers, babies glittering in the sun—gleams as if in gold.

Sounds of travelers—Swedes, Spaniards, Swiss—kept us awake in an endless loop of sensuous alertness. Cicadas’ songs, lovers’ fights in unknown languages, vagrant wafts of moules frites, whistling waiters walking home among Monet’s leaning pines at four a.m. Our senses never deserted us.

We’d wake up to buy croissants from the boulangerie girl who looked vaguely familiar. Later, I understood why—she looked different with clothes on. We’d become communards, joined by neighborly nakedness, lying spread-eagled like cultists embracing a voluptuous mortality, baking our bodies as if death had already been conquered—we were in paradise.

Going home on warm cobbles wet with beach footprints, we’d revisit sellers of Proustian magic lanterns and Victorian silhouettes, jugglers by the toyshop, old men throwing balls in the sand—ancient arts in living guises. Everywhere on the Riviera the old men played boules, an infinite regression that made you believe the game went on forever.

Our daughter acquired a habit: she’d end with gelato, clutching her merry-go-round ticket, a neon-colored heart. As Baudelaire described it: Luxury, calm and pleasure. She’d spin slowly around on that carousel—a snapshot of eternal joy.

Years later, I bought a poster of Picasso’s painting of Antibes—The Joy of Life. A naked girl dancing with piping fauns and happy goats in blue and yellow Antibes. After the war, Picasso had found a site of immortal pleasure in defiance of disaster. Antibes! Antibes! In my novel begun those summers, I slipped in slices of Antibes, as if by writing one could preserve it, the joy of life, forever, even though, of course, one would not.

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that’s the Joy of Life, hanging on a wall…

 

Overdetermined

My third post on the World Cup in tickytocka.tumblr.com, with Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi.

OVERDETERMINED

Recently, I read how one fierce activist refuses to watch the World Cup because it is 1) a capitalist extravaganza; 2) killer of workers; 3) “nationalist, and by extension racist”; 4) “a celebration of manhood, therefore also homophobic and sexist”; and 5) “a distraction from things that really matter.”

On the other hand, there is the blond nitwit who says anyone watching the World Cup in America is a socialist foreigner anarchist who blah blah blah blah—actually, I did not even bother to read what the wingnut said. She was as predictable as a flop from Arjen Robben (now, don’t get me wrong; Robben is probably the best player right now in the Cup, but yes, he flops).

Oddly, my response to both is: fuck you. I feel a bit of shame for my kneejerk annoyance at the killjoy vibe of the feminist activist on truthdig. And I feel superiority over anything Ann Coulter says. We are all wrought in ideology, so say Althusser and Calvin & Hobbes, and yes, our pleasures are hamstrung and cloven to the interwebzz of our collective Umwelt (whatever that means as Ubaldo just referred that to me from Wikipedia). Every four years, my pleasure in this spectacle is resurrected—but in what does my pleasure lie?

That’s so overdetermined, a colleague of mine at that curmudgeon’s paradise, Deerfield Academy, used to say, whenever he went batty over some “avant-garde,” “progressive” idea about education that assaulted his belief that teachers should stick to the English canon. By overdetermined, he meant the opposite of the word: he meant that progressives had only one way of looking at, say, Dickens. A believer in teaching “mastery” of words (his vocab quizzes were legendary), he constantly misused the term, overdetermined.

A term from psychoanalysis, overdetermined, of course, means “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary; having more than one cause; giving expression to more than one need or desire” [OED]. I imagined the reasons for his solecism might be overdetermined, but whenever this guy misused the word I could think only one thing—ass.

As a mediated space for the nakedness of ideology, as a primal spectacle of overdetermined desire, the World Cup is without parallel.

A friend texted me about the Mexican-Dutch game—did you think it was a foul, she asked.

I texted—it depends if you are a striker and Dutch, or Mexican and neutral.

LOL, she responded.

I laughed as I listened to ESPN’s Ruud van Nistelrooy explain with an earnest, straight face why it was entirely correct for Robben to drag his leg to earn a penalty and so send Mexico weeping out of the octavos de final. Ruud is not only Dutch but was also a striker, so his absolute conviction about the referee’s call was just as correct (thought still comical) as the Mexico coach Miguel Herrera’s operatic rage against the referee. (If Ruud had been a defender, Ken said, maybe he would have had some slight jot of doubt about Robben, but maybe not.)

For me, Herrera’s response and Ruud’s reasoning were equally amusing and equally understandable. Constantly, through soccer, I find evidence that reality is plagued by the principle of uncertainty—not only as we experience the game itself but also in the perspective that arises after. Heisenberg lives! Given a particular vantage in place and desire, truth shifts. And for some reason this naked display of ambiguity is compelling and hugely pleasurable to me.

Multiple and disparate ways of seeing are endemic in soccer, in which the paradoxical quality of the subjective perspective is personified by the imperious position of the referee, whose vision is acknowledged without irony as fallible yet final. (And it’s why jokes about the new goal-line technology occur in soccer, though it is ancient in American football: the technology that soccer fans have long endured, quite correctly in my view, has been the naked human eye.)

One drama of soccer is that a game’s result is definitive yet can be infinitely argued.

A knockout match’s outcome has no alternative (the winner wins, the loser loses—and too often with only minutes to spare, as with Mexico, or a shave of an inch off the crossbar, as with Greece, so that a nano-bite determines an entire country’s horror or euphoria, as with #ItalyUruguay)—there is no alternative, your country goes out, but the trauma of “what-if” can haunt a game forever.

It’s one of the weird, recurring joys of sport, but especially of the Cup: watching indeterminacy run rampant. It engineers narrative. Chance passes and missed goals—so like life. And one never knows how things will end, unless you have replay. At the same time, the Cup also operates those semiotic machines—nationalism, notions of art and tactical beauty, sexual excitement, class systems, race, and so on—which intensify the multiplicity of perception endemic to the game. It creates internationalists (Italians for Belgium, Filipinos for Colombia). It engineers fallacy. And yes, the game = the nation is a fallacy, but try telling that to the wailing fans of Chile or triumphant Brazil last Saturday. Because the fatality of your identity does matter.

As Ubaldo says, soccer is like a book that mediates reality, and we must learn to respond in at least two ways: as if the book were real, but knowing also that it is not—soccer is a screen. And unlike a book, the livid game is played by real people with terrible intensity (Neymar cries for Brazil even before the game starts), with an audience dragged into drama by what it believes is its own free will, with corporate greed, racial trauma, historical battles, athletic rivalries, and the backdrop of a truly malevolent, capitalist, masculinist, imperialist hegemonic system hovering about it, creating it and creating us.

Soccer has more determining factors than the minimum necessary. It gives expression to more than one need or desire.

In the end, I’m never neutral. I felt for Mexico. I was for Nigeria, then sick for Algeria. My reasons, if I counted, were overdetermined: 1) heartbreak loss (e.g. Mexico in 88th); 2) gutsy teams—Algeria in 1st half!2) cuteness—i.e., Enyeama, Nigeria’s Mr. Smiler; also Memo Ochoa, the gum-chewing goalie with the glacial composure of a four-year-old in a trance; 3) my reflexive binaries, e.g., Third World versus First; 4) fans—crazy Aztec garb versus Orange clowns; and 5) so on and so forth. But then, to be honest, I also liked Netherlands because 1) fake expertise—Mexico got annoying in second half; and I liked France because 2) Pogba; but I will always wish Germany out because 3) TMWC—too many World Cups.

(There are, of course, other pleasures of a Cup—the sudden fiesta of camaraderie among nations in the city of New York, but also haircuts, the fun of hearing Borges playing against Sokratis [Borges won!], upsets, male bodies, scandals [subsets: vampires, the bickering of Cameroon], jerseys [Ghana had the best], brackets, watching with Ken, emails from Eric, Noel and Ubaldo, atmosphere in certain bars, conversations with fellow fans, and, most satisfying, emerging attachment to new teams [Chile! Costa Rica! Nigeria!], and so on.)

Does this mean that I do not care that people are dying in Abuja, Brazil is in shambles, and some of America’s fans end up sounding like fucking exceptionalist bozos when they sing their I believe chant? I can see the specter of my righteous colleague, pointing his finger at my pleasure, the desire of a soccer fan—and I respond, it’s so overdetermined.