Tag: Marlene Dietrich

Damon Linker is Concerned About the Height of Young People’s Happiness (Sigh)

Why do it do this to myself? Why do I read The Week. I know Damon Linker’s there. I already think of him as a gasbag and a twit. Nobody’s paying me to research his work. Reading him and giving him more than a passing thought must be akin to my impulse to tug at a hangnail.

So, come tug with me, gentle reader. (Yes, I suspect there’s only one of you, at this point.)

Today in Stuff Damon Linker Is Fretting About is Tinder, which I’m told is some kind of dating app that people use to meet people.

The sexual revolution is finally complete.

At least it is among those interviewed for a chilling feature in the September issue of Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.'” For these millennial graduates of elite colleges who are living and working in New York, the anything goes, non-judgmental attitude about sex that’s spread throughout the culture since the mid-1960s has combined with technological advances (smartphones and dating/hook-up apps like Tinder, Happn, and Hinge) to produce a way of living unthinkable until about five minutes ago in civilizational terms.

Welcome to a world in which sex has been completely disconnected from norms of fidelity and courtship. At work and at play, men and women spend their waking hours gazing at their phones, continually swiping left or right, dividing potential sex partners into two categories (Yes or No) on the basis of a snapshot. A handful of messages later — for some the exchanges consist entirely of pre-verbal flirtation conducted with emojis, for others it includes photographs of genitalia that serve as a kind of second interview — and a “date” has been set. It’s often a date without dinner or a movie or a show or a walk or a concert or even a single conversation. Just copulation with an optional kiss.

Then it’s over, maybe in less than an hour, maybe to be repeated again in a few days, weeks, or months, but in many cases not.

Okay. Let’s break this down. The Vanity Fair article that’s gotten Linker in a lather is one of those trend pieces designed to get people to think that the behavior of a certain subculture is much more common than it really is. In this case, we’re talking about the Tinder habits of Manhattan yuppies. Linker falls for it, extrapolating far beyond the incredibly narrow social world of the article’s subjects to conclude that all these kids today just can’t stop having furtive sexual encounters with strangers.

And yes, Linker thinks the kids are all disgusting.

I suspect many of these liberals — Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (like myself) — will find this vision of dating as a series of technologically facilitated one-off hook-ups with near-strangers to be pretty appalling. I know I do. There’s just one problem: In order for this reaction to amount to more than an old fogey’s sub-rational expression of disgust at the behavior of the young, it has to make reference to precisely the kind of elaborate account of morality — including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation — that liberals have worked to jettison, in the name of sexual liberation, for the past half-century.

I’m not quite sure why making reference to an elaborate account of morality would rescue Linker, or anyone unlucky enough to be like him, from the charge of making old fogey rationalizations. Most of those elaborate accounts of morality–including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation– were developed by old fogies, so that the sexual habits of the young (particularly young women, whose sexual agency is a favorite target for fogies of all ages) would be less likely to offend their delicate sensibilities.

But for me, the key bit here comes when he suggests not just that he personally finds this form of dating appalling, but that many liberals do too. Speaking as a liberal Gen-Xer, I confess I don’t find the dating practices described in the article appealing. I’ve tried hooking up a few times in my life. (Yes, a few. I’ve never gotten out much.) And it wasn’t for me. As Jerry Seinfeld once put it when weighing the prospect of a threesome, “I’m not an orgy guy!”

But appalling? That’s an awfully strong word to throw around. I prefer to reserve it for genocides and war crimes and torture, not for discussing who Phil from Accounts Receivable did on Saturday night. Actually, I have a hard time even summoning up an interest in the habits of Phil From Accounts Receivable’s naughty bits . They may not match my own, but unlike Linker, I lack sympathy for the idea that the human race ought to be a multiplied me. I prefer monogamy. It suits my temperament, and I think I’ve chosen my companion advisedly. But I don’t assume that everyone would flourish in it or think of people as degraded because their erotic interests don’t align with mine.

But Linker is appalled, and he begs us to please think of his children:

The world recounted by Sales — or, more likely, a world even less judgmental and even more saturated by even more advanced forms of technology — will be their world. And yet I want so much more for them than that. Though “more” isn’t really what I mean. Not quantity. Quality. Something higher, nobler, less tawdry, more deeply fulfilling and longer lasting than a life devoted to satisfying fleeting desires for physical pleasure and status.

I’m glad Linker has managed to arrange his monogamous, child breeding life as he likes it. Truly, I am. If his children decide they want that too–and, like many “kids today” they just might–bully for them. But doesn’t he recognize how obnoxiously self-flattering it is to define his preferences as “higher, nobler” than those of others?

Let’s let him elaborate:

I want them to enjoy the fulfillment that can only come from devoting themselves to something that transcends the self — a spouse, a child, a family. I want them to experience falling in love and feel their hearts opened to hopes of a higher, more enduring form of happiness. I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that’s pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.

“Transcending the self” and reaching ends pursued for their own sake rather than for instantaneous rewards sound like exciting pastimes, particularly when contrasted with “baser instincts” and “animal desire”. But Linker presents these pursuits and desires as mutually exclusive, as if a hedonist would be so distracted by the constant boinkfest that is his or her life that they can never achieve anything that lasts or devote themselves to something beyond their own sexual gratification. (Linker restricts these somethings to children, spouses, and families, but this strikes me as arbitrary.) Does Linker’s take have merit?


Albert Einstein devoted himself to figuring out the laws that govern space and time and in doing so changed everything about how we see both. He also wrote books on politics, religion, and international peace and, for good or ill, got the U.S. atom bomb program started.

He was also…well…a hound.

We can also discuss brilliant naughty people like Rousseau, Schroedinger, Martin Luther King, Tallulah Bankhead, Angelina Jolie (In the past, at least. So I’ve heard), Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, James Joyce, Mozart, FDR, Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and many many more who devoted themselves to the sciences, politics, humanities, and arts, pursuits that require plenty of discipline in putting off instant gratification for the sake of long term goals. Some of them also had happy family lives, while others didn’t. Such is the way of people who throw themselves into their work.

I guess Damon Linker wasn’t around to inform them that they have to restrict themselves to being pervs because…um…old fogey reasons.

I think we can stop here. Linker’s made way too big a deal of the Vanity Fair article, and I’ve surely made too big a deal of him. Since he begged me to think of his children, though, I do have some good wishes for them. I hope that can they take what’s helpful from having grown up with a man as silly as Linker and drop the rest. I also hope they’ll find useful and interesting work and social lives that deliver whatever form of happiness suits them.

Falling In Love Again: Marlene Dietrich and The Blue Angel

“Then Marlene Dietrich appeared. Klara released her grip, as if daring Rolf to move. Rolf couldn’t.” –Summer of Long Knives, page 113

The Blue Angel, based on a novel whose title translates more or less as Professor Garbage, was intended as a starring vehicle for Oscar-Winner (actually the first Oscar Winner) Emil Jannings. Jannings had made a good career for himself in silent pictures playing variations of aged sad sack characters. The Blue Angel was to offer Jannings in another, similar role, as a tight-assed middle aged teacher whose lust for a cabaret girl leads him on a downward spiral that ends with him as a performing clown.

But it is Marlene Dietrich who ends up walking away with the picture, in her role as Lola-Lola. Her acting style seems far less mannered and beholden to the legacy of silent pictures than Jannings’. He gesticulates and rages. Marlene dominates him, and the screen, with nothing more than a look, or a slight smile, or a drag on her cigarette. Her performance hints at what she’s thinking instead of indicating it. Her performance achieves sensuality without apparent effort, which is what makes the signature song of the movie, “Falling in Love Again”, feel like such an apt description of Lola-Lola’s character.

The end of the silent era ruined Emil Jannings’s Hollywood career–his thick accent made him hard for U.S. audiences to follow, a common fate among silent-era actors–but it started Marlene Dietrich’s. She and The Blue Angel‘s director moved to Hollywood, where Dietrich became a screen icon. Jannings’s and Dietrich’s political fates would diverge just as sharply. Jannings would go on to make propaganda pictures for the Third Reich, winning awards from Josef Goebbels for his performances. Dietrich opposed the Nazis and performed for U.S. soldiers during World War II.

The Summer of Long Knives Playlist

I write to music. I’ve never conducted any sort of survey to see how common that is among fiction writers, but I do it. The rhythm keeps me moving when I’m looking for excuses to pack it in, and the proper playlist keeps me in the right mood.

With Summer of Long Knives (of which a great deal more will be said in the next few months), I had to go with material far out of my usual range. The novel’s set in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, so to keep my head in the milieu, I had to find music that fit, or at least reflected, the time.

Der Koeningraetzer Marsch

I first heard this tune when it popped up during a Nazi rally scene in the third Indiana Jones picture. The march long predates the Third Reich, but the Nazis did use it during parades and rallies, most famously during The Triumph of the Will. It was helpful whenever I had to picture Nazi ceremonies.

Falling In Love Again

Inspector Rolf Wundt, the protagonist of Summer of Long Knives, saw the movie The Blue Angel starring Marelene Dietrich because his wife, Klara, had dragged him to it. He’d been reluctant to go because he didn’t want to see Emil Jannings, the bearded man in the video, playing another middle aged sad sack. But after witnessing Dietrich’s performance, he went back to see the movie several more times. He saw in its modern (for the era) take on sensuality the things that had attracted him to Klara, fourteen years earlier.

Rienzi Overture

According to Sir Ian Kershaw, whose two volume biography of Hitler helped me understand both the dictator and the ways in which his personality shaped the Nazi power structure, taking Hitler’s prewar chum August Kubizek’s portrait of Hitler as a young man at face value has certain hazards. (He wrote his book under the editorial direction of the Nazis, changed details to conform with the notoriously unreliable narrative of Mein Kampf, and invented where his memory failed him.  Still, he did tell a story about Hitler which may be at least partly true, centered around a performance of Rienzi, a Wagnerian opera about a man who rises to be tribune of the people, only to be betrayed and die in his own collapsing, burning palace. Kubizek claims that after the opera, he and Hitler walked the streets of Linz in silence, before climbing a hill in town. There, under the stars, Hitler lectured Kubizek about his desire to become, like Rienzi, a leader who rises from the masses. Now some of this Kubizek probably amended and embellished to fit the narrative of Hitler as a figure of destiny, but I consider it likely that Hitler, who seldom talked to people so much as harangued them, would have led Kubizek up a hill where he could blather about his new, Rienzi-inspired daydreams. I played this during scenes in Summer of Long Knives set on the Obersalzberg, and particularly during the scene where Inspector Wundt briefs Der Fuehrer on his investigation.

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

This song from Cabaret isn’t of the period, but it reflects a theme that runs through Summer of Long Knives–the passions that animated the Nazi way of thinking, the seductive grip it had on so many Germans, and how the protagonists of the novel, who before 1933 considered the Nazis a joke who’d never be able to hold power even if they somehow managed to blunder into it, struggled to deal with the reality of the Nazis’ tightening control over every aspect of German society. It’s chilling to see the conservative playboy’s shrug when Brian asks, “Do you still think you can control them?”

There were other songs, period and not, that kept me going while writing Summer of Long Knives, but these were the crucial ones. For those of you who write, what playlist took you through your most recent work?