Thursday, April 28, 2005

One For Writing Instructors

The Onion, continuing its great tradition of mocking its college-age readership, does a better job of alerting students to the dangers of hyperbole than I ever could. Warning, this link to The Onion's "Amazing New Hyperbolic Chamber Greatest Invention In The History Of Mankind Ever" (Vol. 41, Is. 17, 27 Apr. 2005) will expire in about three weeks. A couple of useful quotes:
"Hyperbole researchers have arrived at, without possibility of argument or refutation, the single greatest moment in all of creation, now and forevermore," said the project's lead scientist, Dr. Lloyd Gustaveson, activating the hyperbolic chamber's gazillion-ultra-watt semantic resonator at a gala launch party Monday. "The divine flame kindled by our new hyperbolic chamber will cast its light down through the centuries, making the Promethean fire that brought forth life on earth seem like a brief and guttering spark. Behold—we recast the cosmos in the image of the ultimate!"

[...]The EHC-1 Alpha survived many rounds of budget cuts, however, in no small part because of the tireless efforts of lobbyists who decried the chamber's congressional detractors as "Philistine Nazi Neanderthals."

"Today, we do not merely silence our critics," Gustaveson said. "We commit them to that newest, foulest level of eternal indignity and unending infamy: the dark, ignorant era before the amazing, incredible hyperbolic chamber!"

Although it is difficult to find critics of the EHC-1 Alpha, those who oppose the machine do so vocally. The project's most prominent critic is Sandia National Laboratories' Dr. Owen Comstock, who argues that hyperbolic-chamber research has little social value and that federal funds would be better spent on his project, the high-energy, lowest-common-denominator-inductive Supercolloquial Mundane Adjectival And Onomatopoeic Accentuator.

"EHC-1 Alpha?" Comstock said. "Pfft. More like the craptastic crapobolic crapulator of crappity-crap-crap. Blarf. In addition, it is ugly as ugly can get, raises several safety issues, and is so freaking stupid I had to puke at how stupid it is."

Another teaching classic is the 2003 (?) "I'll Try Anything With A Detached Air Of Superiority." A choice excerpt:
A few weeks ago, my friend Curtis organized a bowling party for his birthday. Can you imagine anything more tacky and all-American? But contrary to what you might think, I was more than game for it. I even bought a personalized borling shirt so I could fit in with the common folk. I only bowled a 76, but I loved it. The people there were so into it, some of them actually did little dances when they got a strike. There was this one guy I called "One-Fist," because after every frame, he'd pump his fist in the air like some blue-collar Billy Idol. Never in my life have I had such a great time participating in townie culture while simultaneously sneering at it from a distance.

Some classes can just teach themselves.


Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Collounsbury, Edward Underscore, PG Wodehouse MASH!

After that lurid title, I'd better do some explaining.

I just discovered the mystery-thrillers of Kyril Bonfiglioli, specifically the first volume in his series, Don't Point That Thing At Me (1972). The "hero" of the tale, Charlie Mortdecai, is an amoral art dealer (with occasional shady dealings in thieving and brokering). The 2004 American reprint informs me that the series has become a cult classic in the UK. So late to the party!

Mortdecai has a real eye (and it looks like Bonfiglioli was seriously in the art world), so there are a few flights of almost genuine feeling about art (hence reference to Edward Underscore, also at Obsidian Wings). But the pervailing sentiment is the drone of wasted talent and the sensation of crisis brought about by the incompetency of others; this frustration with the stupidness of the world is filtered through brief and cruel sketches of the incomprehensible and irrational self-delusions of other people (hence the reference to the tetchy ruminations on North-African and Mid-Eastern business of the very-undercover Collounsbury).

And Wodehouse is clearly stated within the novel as both a stylistic and a structuring paradigm: the first-person narrator (Mortdecai) not only cites Wooster but uses Wooster's tactics of torturing high-art references as a method of self-abnegnation, even though he knows he's much smarter than Wodehouse's characters, and there's a twisted Jeeves character (Jock Strapp), who is much less threatening on the intellect-front but perhaps more interesting on the homo-erotic front.

In all, a novel that bears borrowing from the library. Quite a convergence of strands here, and the result is, I've got to agree with Julian Barnes's featured quote, "a rare mixture of wit and imaginative unpleasantness."


Posting From Well Behind The Technology Curve

I love listening to my local NPR affiliate, WNYC, home of the excellent Brian Lehrer (politics), Leonard Lopate (culture), and On The Media (journalism)--and, of course, broadcaster of many national shows that I also consider part of the necessary background of my life. A.M. 820 has become a tether to me--ever since that early afternoon in September 2001, when I finally came to terms with the fact that classes were cancelled and returned to my tv-less apartment, alone and confused, and looked up the local NPR station in my tourists' guide to NYC. In order to preserve some modicum of autonomy in my increasing addiction to news, I went out and bought a walkman so that I could at least do laundry while fretting about the world. I've grown used to listening to NPR while exercising, commuting, cleaning, blogging, grading... Even when I lived in Germany, I got my NPR fix via the American Forces Radio Network.

Now, walkmen (walkmans?) are fragile and easily lost, so I end up replacing mine about once every two years. Over the last six months, I have endured an increasing amount of mockery about the size and unwieldiness of my cassette-radio walkman from my IPod-carrying peers. Then, about two weeks ago, I lost my walkman. I dithered a bit, thinking I might finally move into the portable-digital-audio thing for real (mind you, I still have a lot of my favorite music on cassette). This morning, contemplating the mind-numbing boredom that awaited me in the form of indexing a 700-page book on postmodern novel, I said "fuck it" to myself and bought a cheapo walkman at Rite-Aid.

I cannot begin to describe to you what it feels like to hear Leonard Lopate overlaid with Rush Limbaugh. And this evening, trying again to zero in on A.M. 820, somewhere where NPR should be presented an uncanny mix of a New Jersey Limbaugh-wanna-be with an Evangelist and with Arabic music. Granted, this is an auditory sensation that some might pay good money for.

So. I'm thinking again about an MP3-player of some sort (I'm working off a PC). The downside of that format for me is that one would have to plan ahead, download material rather than simply switch the machine "on." Some of the best material I heard from WNYC--live broadcasts from Senate hearings, commentary on Presidential speeches--is the kind of thing I might hesitate to download but get totally engrossed in when it's broadcast live. Still, almost everyone I know has digitized their music collections, and my collection of cassettes is degrading fast...

Trivial dilemmas, dilemmas. Any advice, ye five readers? Or are you spam-bots? (My newly installed site meter is not so finely tuned as to be able to distinguish.)


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist

For all of his amiable uncles and tyrannical aunts, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse prefered his young women independant, self-determined, and equal. His wife, Ethel Newton, was a widow when he met her, and she was quite a character, much flashier than the rather shy Plum. He adopted and adored Ethel's daughter by this previous marriage, Leonora, who died in 1944, which was a lasting tragedy for Wodehouse. His letters to her are very personal, full of tactfully phrased advice and hopes. Some--but not enough--are contained in the volume Yours, Plum (Heineman, 1990).

As usual, this first note is the prolegomena to an excerpt. This time, it's the proposal scene from PG's first published novel, Something Fresh (1915). See that date? This scene strikes me as a remarkable reversal of Oscar Wilde's 1893 quip: "Men marry because they are tired, women, because they are curious: both are disappointed" (A Woman Of No Importance, Act 3.).

In Wodehouse's version, a bare 18 years later, the woman has already had an adventurous life: she's worked a variety of jobs (including magazine-writing), lives alone in a London flat, introduces herself to the young man she'll eventually marry, and has excellent ideas for scarab-stealing. In fact, she's structurely similiar to the later Uncle Fred character: she's the shenanigan-engine of the plot. So how does such a plucky young lady get hitched? Click through to find out.


In the first block of dialogue, Joan is speaking.
"My life has been such a series of jerks. I dash along, then something happens which stops that bit of my life with a jerk, and then I have to start over again--a new bit. I think I'm getting tired of jerks. I want something stodgy and continuous. I'm like one of the old bus horses who could go on for ever if people got off without making them stop. It's the having to get the bus moving again that wears one out. This little section of my life since we came here is over, and it is finished for good. I've got to start the bus going again on a new road and with a new set of passengers. I wonder if the old horses used to be sorry when they dropped one set of passengers and took on a lot of strangers?"
A sudden dryness invaded Ashe's throat. He tried to speak, but found no words. Joan went on.
"Do you ever get moods when life seems absolutely meaningless? It's like a badly-constructed story, with all sorts of characters moving in and out who have nothing to do with the plot. And, when somebody comes along who you think really has something to do with the plor, he suddenly drops out. After a while you begin to wonder what the story is about, and you feel that it's about nothing--just a jumble."
"There is one thing," said Ashe, "that knits it together."
"What is that?"
"The love interest."
There eyes met, and suddenly there descended upon Ashe confidence. He felt cool and alert, sure of himself, as in the old days he had felt when he ran races and, the nerve-racking hours of waiting past, he listened for the starter's gun. Subconsciously he was aware that he had always been a little afraid of Joan, and that now he was no longer afraid.
"Joan, will you marry me?"
Her eyes wandered from his face. He waited.
"I wonder," she said softly. "You think that is the solution?"
"How can you tell?" she broke out. "We scarcely know each other. I shan't always be in this mood. I may get restless again. I may find that it is the jerks that I really like."
"You won't."
"You're very confident."
"I am absolutely confident."
"'She travels the fastest who travels alone,'" misquoted Joan.
"What is the good," said Ashe, "of travelling fast if you're going round in a circle? I know how you feel. I've felt the same myself. You are an individualist. You think that there is something tremendous just round the corner, and that you can get it if you try hard enough. There isn't. Or, if there is, it isn't worth getting. Life is nothing but a mutual aid association. [...Ashe is still talking, but after a bit more dialogue.] You crash into my life, turn it upside down, dig me out of my quiet groove, revolutionize my whole existence, and now you propose to drop me and pay no further attention to me. It is fair?"
"But I don't. We shall always be the best of friends."
"We shall. But we shall get married first."
"You are determined?"
"I am."
Joan laughed happily.
"How perfectly splendid. I was terrified lest I might have made you change your mind. I had to say all I did, to preserve my self-respect after proposing to you. Yes, I did. But strange it is that men never seem to understand a woman, however plainly she talks. You don't think I was really worrying because I had lost Aline, do you? I though I was going to lose you, and it made me miserable. You couldn't expect me to say so in so many words, but I thought you guessed. I practically said it. Ashe! What are you doing?"
Ashe paused a moment to reply.
"I am kissing you," he said.
"But you mustn't. There's a scullery-maid or something looking out of the kitchen window. She will see us."
Ashe drew her to him.
"Scullery-maids have few pleasures," he said. "Theirs is a dull life. Let her see us."

P.G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh (D. Appleton & Co., 1915.) New York: Penguin Books, 1986.


Monday, April 25, 2005

Green Economics, German Style

A commenter in a mostly unrelated Matt Ygelsias thread suggested that the German style of bottle deposits was ideal, and I have to disagree.

Drew wrote:

I would love a German style bottle deposit system in this country. It'll never happen because retailers don't want to have a stiff $0.25 deposit put on their bottles of water.

So then I wrote:
I lived in Germany for awhile and remain convinced that their recycling system could stand some retooling. Standing in line after a little old lady pulling bottle after bottle out of her sack--"Could I have bought this one here?"--will do that to do [one]. Most of my friends seemed to accept the conversion of their private automobiles into bottle-ferries as a temporary solution; they knew it was ridiculous that their trunks and backseats were occupied entirely by crates and bottles, they were proud to recycle, and they wished they were wealthy enough to afford the pick-up service.

As it stands, the German deposit system--when it forces consumers to return to the exact spot of purchase--is an unreasonable and unsustainable imposition on consumers. I recycled diligently, but I didn't have a car, so collecting deposits was incredibly inconvenient. I support the values of the Greens and wish that reusing bottles were easier; the particular mechanism used right now in Germany, however, puts too much onus on the individual consumer.

Here, I'd like to expand a little on what I'd like to see for the German communities I saw.

Charging consumers for plastic bags is a good. Carry on. Most Germans have already learned to carry their own bags or to suck up the charges as a public penance.

Forcing consumers to return to the exact point of purchase to recuperate the pfand (deposit) is pointless: I abandoned most rights to pfand during my year in Germany, simply accepting the charge as the tax levying on the irresponsible and iternerant. However, watching my very responsible German friends carry freights of glassware from one spot to another convinced me that a more efficient system could be devised, one that optimized both the well-meaning laziness of an American such as myself--who nonetheless triaged all my trash, putting even the Pfand bottles in the bottle section--and the self-sacrifice of those Germans who were willing (or felt compelled) to shuttle their bottles back to the point of sale for those not-insubstantial euros. The answer, clearly, is recycling centers. Ones with automized machines to distribute money from the deposits. If there were such beasts in my community, nobody I kvetched with knew about them.

The more advanced--or more retrograde, I'm losing track--answer is pick-up and delivery of bottles. The wealthier in Germany are already contracting such services, but many still can't afford this simpler answer. This is no longer a question of milk delivery, after all, but water, apfelschorle, coke, and sundry other liquids. Wine, curiously enough, is exempt from most Pfand duties...



One of the more annoyingly triumphalist insults that someone sure about their moral code can levy against an opponent, any opponent, is that of being a relativist. The alleged relativist is then forced either into making some kind of stand on first principles (which is very difficult to do on the fly) or into drinking cavalierly from the poisoned well. The charge has always been reductive, and it has often been mobilized to perpetuate real injustices.

Gay teens being harrassed and committing suicide at disproportional rates? We mustn't mitigate social stigma against homosexuals; that take a relativistic stance on homosexuality! Black students not performing as well on SATs as white students? The SAT doesn't need to be overhauled, that's crazy relativistic talk! Arab nations are uncomfortable with Western human rights declarations about women? Damn the torpedoes and force a regular diet of Baywatch on those Afghans!

Relativism makes bigger headlines in America than it does in Europe (although my limited experience with Bavarians, the state from which Benedict XVI hails, suggests that there a real sense of moral-cultural identity still obtains), but there is a serious global problem involved, as my last example should have suggested. Relativism is a charge that is invoked in domestic politics, where it tends to be used by reactionary religious people and fellow-travellers, but it is also, and more importantly, used on the international stage as a code-word for a position on the problem of modernization. Simply put, some countries are still operating within tribal social systems that often inflict great harm on their individual citizens. How is the international community to interact with such countries?

Long before 9-11, academics were pondering such questions, and I recall there being a heated debate on the left about how best to confront the specific injustices being perpetrated on the women of Afghanistan. The moderate-left consensus seemed to hope that a gradual engagement with the area would over time produce conditions less oppressive. It remains unclear to me whether this is a relativistic or a realistic position, according to current definitions of such terms.

That these very serious debates about the universality of human rights declarations in the modernizing world should, for me, come home to rest in domestic debate makes me sad. Yes, we are entering a new age of hyper-mediality, in which every freshman in my Comp class types faster than she or he writes manually, in which anyone with any agenda can open a blog to advocate a world-view, in which the online community one belongs to may be more determinate than one's physical location, in which someone, somewhere, will produce fantasies that encourage the worst side of anyone. Still, I remain convinced that the real danger of this over-consumerized age in the West is that of selfishness and self-righteousness, rather than a sincere meditation on how other people live. Far too much of the relativism-talk has been used to justify an unthinking defence of our own pleasures and preferences.

Anyway, all this is prolegomena to my finding thought-provoking David Velleman's recent post at Left2Right, defining "relativism" from a very "ivory tower" (as one commenter noted) position. He gives a taxonomy of relativisms, saying, in effect,"I do not think that word means what you think it means."


Sunday, April 24, 2005

Thumbnail of Turkish History

From the War Nerd. An example:

They turned the great Byzantine cathedral into a mosque and settled down to enjoy city life before starting on a second wave of conquest, this time as the Ottoman Empire. This Turkish wave hit its peak in the 16th century, when the Turks smashed the Hungarians at Mohacs (1526), grabbed most of the Balkans, and pushed south and east into Persia and Arabia.

The Europeans got scared enough to unite for once against the Muslim threat. That's how you know the Europeans are really, really scared: when those quarrelsome bastards actually stop bitching and work together. A combined European fleet crushed the Ottoman galleys at Lepanto (1571) in the Mediterranean. But the Turks hadn't run out of steam. They said to the Europeans, "You have only shaven our beard, and the shaven beard grows faster."


Saturday, April 23, 2005


This film is mostly a character study. It was often long, difficult to watch, yet I won't forget it.

Set in Istanbul, the movie presents an interval of the lives of two men, Yusuf and Mahmut. Yusef is a young working-class man who has seen his expectations turned upside-down at the beginning of the film. He moves into the apartment of Mahmut, a mostly successful commercial photographer who has recently been divorced. Throughout the movie, Yusef is trying to find a job 0n a ship and Mahmut is trying to understand how to be divorced. Both are attempting to find ways to salvage dignity and autonomy from conditions they weren't prepared for. Yes, there's something of the middle-class mid-life crisis here, but it's entrenched within the particulars of the global economy: Yusef speaks endlessly about US dollars, and one feels that his goal in travelling is not knowledge but oppertnity; Mahmut, as more financially stable (indeed, the main tenant who subcontracts to Yusef to provide the impetus for the plot), has the leisure to be more existential. He has no idea what t0 do with himself, now that his wife has left him--and, at the end of the film, when Yusef has shipped out.

One of the reasons I like this movie is that at first you think that Yusef is the main character. Mahmut is just that skinny, friendly guy watching porn when he thinks nobody is paying attention. Yet gradually, you understand that Mahmut's is the complex psyche that might not heal. And the more beautiful phtography tends to adhere to him.

"Distant." Turkey, 2002. Dir.: Nuri Bilgel Ceylon.


Morbid Fascinations and Mark Mason

An embarrassing admission: since discovering that registery on Blogshares was part of the Blogger package, I've become morbidly fascinated with the "stock value" of this blog (hence the title of this post). I wouldn't have been so interested had not someone started buying shares in the blog before I figured out how to claim the damn thing and buy the requisite 1000 shares in my 5000 share-"company."

I have exactly one investor: one Mark Mason, who appears to be gaming my stock in order to increase its value. He bought all available shares, then sold them en masse, then proceeded to buy them back gradually. I imagine there's a strategy involved there somewhere, but it remains opaque to me, since only four blogs have linked to me. So, if you actually read this blog in addition to speculating on it, Mark Mason, I'd be interested in hearing about your strategy.


Another Argument Against Literary Events

David Galef at Inside Higher Education gives a taxonomy of the contemporary modes of delivering poetry for an audience. A couple of examples:


The other day...I the water... [whoosh of air]
which was a bell...sounding... [inhale].
I swam...for hours until... [exhale]
I developed a cramp and sank [glug glug]
to the bottom...where...I’m speaking from...
right now...
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...


The lake is blue! Cobalt or Safire! Yet
Bluer than blue, like the way I get
When I realize I’m wasting all my time
Messin’ around with rhythm ’n’ rhyme.
Who prints this stuff? Don’t think I don’t know it—
Folks who don’t like a performance poet.


Production Values

This article from the Canadian Broadcasting Company discusses the problem of prolificness: do otherwise good writers get down-graded in the literary pantheon because they're perceived as overproducing?

Prolific authors mentioned: Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie, Peter Robinson, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, John Grisham, Maeve Binchy, Anne Perry, John Updike (about whom David Foster Wallace is quoted as having said: “Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”), P.G. Wodehouse, Joyce Carol Oates, Neal Stephenson, William T. Vollmann.

The journalist should probably have mentioned romance authors Jayne Ann Krentz (a.k.a. Amanda Quick, a.k.a. Jayne Castle) and Nora Roberts (a.k.a. J.D. Robb), whose output is so high and whose names are so branded that they've taken to multiple noms de plume.

The article goes back to Wodehouse, but I would be interested to see someone look at how the prolific author was considered earlier. Anthony Trollope's admission that he worked by the clock damaged his reputation, but Scott and Balzac's writing their ways out of debt was figured as almost heroic. What book/year ratio was considered "normal" when?


Friday, April 22, 2005

Woe! The Decline of Prosody

David Yezzi laments that, in these latter days, aspiring poets and poetry critics are no longer even being taught to understand the crafts of metrics and rhyme.


Thursday, April 21, 2005

Indexing Bloopers

As I tried to figure out what the "Just Broke the Water Pitcher" categorization meant on Crooked Timber, I ran across this metapost on the logic of indexing. In that I'm about to re-index (oh, gods, spare me) the magnum opus of an emeritus scholar, I figured this post was for me.

The participants in the thread give some of their favorite examples of, er, striking index categories, but they fail to note one of the ur-examples of snarky indexing, the indices of The Spectator. This proto-blog has some of the most provocative index categories I've ever read; I need to figure out exactly when they date from, as the latest edition I've so far consulted goes back only to the 1790s (the Spectator started publication in the 1710s). I'd comment on Crooked Timber, but the post was in 2003.

Some examples (from a handy 8 volumes in one edition from Philadelphia's Hickman and Hazzard, 1822):

--Bawdy-Houses frequented by wise men, not out of wantonness but strategm
--Biting, a kind of mongrel wit described and exploded by the Spectator
--Crazy, a man thought so by reading Milton aloud [not cross-listed under Milton]
--Drums, customary, but very improper instruments in a marriage concert
--Gentry of England, generally speaking, in debt
--Heads never being the wiser for being bald
--Marriage, always a vexatious or happy condition
--Politicians, the mischief they do
--Some at the Royal Exchange [That is the full listing under Politicians]
--Thinking aloud, what [A particularly bloggy title, I think]
--Women: Not to be considered merely as objects of sight
--Women: Signs of their improvement under the Spectator's hand

It should be noted that when you go to the specific entry, the argument suggested by the index might get to a paragraph's length, out of a letter of maybe six pages.


Academics can be catty too

Over at Crooked Timber, they're collecting the best academic put-downs of all time. This may be a thread worth returning to. So far:

“So young and already so unknown.”

“This book fills a needed gap in the literature.”

(Russell’s?) remark on H.G. Wells: “His mind is like a rice paddy: miles and miles of shimmering water—one inch deep.”

“This article has problems, but none that couldn’t be fixed by a change of approach, topic and author”

“it is generally agreed that, ceteris paribus, the fertility of a field is roughly proportional to the quantity of manure that has been dumped upon it in the recent past. By this standard, the term structure of interest rates has become an extraordinarily fertile field indeed.” (Edward Kane in the Journal of Finance, 1970)

And there’s always the review that notes that the book contains many good and original points, though the good points are not original, and the original points are not good.


Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I am just thrilled about the discovery of imaging techniques that will allow scholars to decipher the scraps of Ancient Greek literature that were discovered in an Egyptian trash heap. According to the Independent:
The previously unknown texts, read for the first time last week, include parts of a long-lost tragedy – the Epigonoi (“Progeny”) by the 5th-century BC Greek playwright Sophocles; part of a lost novel by the 2nd-century Greek writer Lucian; unknown material by Euripides; mythological poetry by the 1st-century BC Greek poet Parthenios; work by the 7th-century BC poet Hesiod; and an epic poem by Archilochos, a 7th-century successor of Homer, describing events leading up to the Trojan War. Additional material from Hesiod, Euripides and Sophocles almost certainly await discovery.

So much of Greek culture has been lost, and since it's been assigned such importance in the development of our culture, these gaps of knowledge about the period are disturbing.

In the Crooked Timber thread about the discovery, I debated briefly with Des von Bladet, whose position was, basically, that the past is irrevocably past and that the only potential interest such texts could have was in their direct influence on the present. I'd like to restate some counter-arguments from that thread:
--The arguments that were then going on influence on our inheritance of Greek culture.
--The literary forms that were then competing influence our understanding of what survived from that period.
--The expansion of data of work from that period gives lexographers more points to work from in interpreting canonical texts.
--The rediscovered work might be cool (moving, interesting, problematic) in itself.

And it seems that BYU scholars have really put Mormon archeology on the map with this one. BYU scholars came up with the imaging technology that would make this "discovery" (actually the ability to read what had already been discovered) possible. It seems that BYU has channelled some of its interest reading ancient texts for traces of the Mormon historiography (metonymized by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies--FARMS) into a more generally useful study of ancient religious texts and technical mechanisms by which to recuperate and study them (Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts--CPART). I for one am extastic--both by this evidence that BYU scholars can make disinterested discoveries and by the discovery they have made. Go on with your bad selves!


Prehistory of a Jackmormon

In a interesting post at the liberal Mormon blog By Common Consent, John Hatch reflects on his childhood version of Mormonism and solicits readers' sketches about "What Brand of Mormonism" they grew up in.

Here was my answer:

I had a somewhat different experience growing up in the church, and from my handle, you'll see I'm not practicing these days.

My father was not a member; he was a scientist and an atheist. My mother, on the other hand, had the maiden name of Smith. But because the religion and culture went so far back, was so deeply entwined with her family identity, she wasn't particularly interested in theological problems or exact obedience.

We went to the ward my mom had attended for decades, in the town she grew up in. It was a small ward in a mostly secular university town. My father characterized the congregation as the "newly wed and nearly dead." Most of my Sunday School teachers were graduate students. My teachers emphasized that the terrestrial kingdom was like earth and that the only punishment for these sinners was to be far from God; one year was marked theologically by two lesson plans, one on Milton as proto-Mormon, and one on the old paradox of "If God is good, and God is all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?" One of my teachers got me a subscription to Sunstone when I was about 14, warning me that it might not be a great idea to talk about reading the magazine. At the time I had no idea what the problem might be because my church was harmless to the point of inanity, the members uninsisting to the point of grandmotherliness.

When I went to summer camp, however, I mixed with Mormons from other wards and found a very different culture. Initially, I was jealous: these other young people attended wards with lots of other young people! (My average Sunday School class had about three students on average.) Over the years of attending these (admittedly short) summer camps, I began to realize that what I experienced there was more typical of the Mormon experience--and I didn't like what I saw there. Tearful exhortations against abortion (whereas I had never considered having sex before marriage), whispered late-night conversations about spirit-possession, in general, a much gloomier version of the religion I had grown up with as a cultural given.

I don't want to give the impression that Mormon summer camp was the factor the clinched my decision to move away from the church, but it was my most important exposure to the broader culture of the church when I was growing up. My rather insular ward was very inclusive, nurturing, and scholarly; the broader church structure I encountered in my teens seemed more prohibitionary and anti-intellectual.

Anyway, there's a data point for you.


Sunday, April 17, 2005


I haven't been following the rock renaissance in New York City (or anywhere), but last night I ended up at a small, short show of Les Sans Culottes, which I can only say was fun and very silly indeed.

[I should have mentioned, when I last published this entry, that Les San Culottes sing in French although only one of their six-odd members is actually French in origin; accorinding to this NPR interview, the rest are working on their French-influented English accents.]

They covered one of my favorite late-60s French rock anthems, Jacques Dutronc's "Les Cactus." Sample lyrics:

Le monde entier est un cactus
Il est impossible de s'asseoir
Dans la vie, Il n'y a qu'des cactus
Moi j'm'pique de le savoir

Aïe! Aïe! Aïe! Ouille! Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!

Which could be translated as:
The whole world is a cactus
It's impossible to sit down
In life, there are only cacti
I am hurt [pricked] to learn it [or perhaps, I shoot up on learning it?]

Source: (It looks like a sound file might be available there.)

[update: Lord Zim, in comments, directs readers to his insider-account of tensions within Les Sans Culottes. It's a well-told story of a common complaint: the smartest, most conceptual member of the group is tempted out. And the other moral lessons? From Lord Zim:
Be careful whom you trust with your work. Don't surrender control. And establish safeguards to help you resume control if you have to. And don't place your faith in someone who refers to himself in the third person, especially if he uses an article in his sobriquet.

In other news, it looks from Lord Zim's account that we were at the same show. I would give identifying features, but since I spent most of that evening making out with a hottie in public, I hesitate.]


Valiant Attempts to Bring Lit Theory to a Wider Audience

I admire the work they're doing over at the Valve, particularly as one recent post pointed me to John Holbo's Socratic (or rather, Wildean) dialogue (pdf) that attempts to explain why literary theory has evolved in the directions it has. The crew over at the Valve has been fielding some harsh criticism from people who love literature and believe almost all theory to be politically correct musings from sinecured twits. With such opening premises, these commenters have been, well, difficult to debate with.

Literature professors are a favorite punching bag of the blogs; a recent post by Dan Drezner criticizes the admittedly ill-considered public comments of an associate professor of English on Saul Bellow's work, and the virulence of the comments is just typical, if, it being Drezner's site, comparatively well-put. Lit professors are handy synecdoches for the general loathing of academics, with the added bonuses that:

1. Lit professors themselves are insecure about their exact disciplinary boundaries
2. Lit professors and grad students, in the guise of introductory writing and intro to English lit instructors, are often the first or only contact non-humanities students have with contemporary thinking
3. Lit professors teach stuff that a lot of people do for pleasure (even more so than art professors or communications professors)
4. The unfortunate irony of literary theory's being so difficult to read when it's often about or meant to explain beautiful writing
5. Other disciplines in the humanities rally round for academic freedom but feel free to dump on literary theory and Literature professors, departments, and the discipline as a whole.

I could go on, but that'll do for now. The Valve, then, is fighting an uphill battle on the internets. Fortunately, however, Lit professors are also ably represented in the blogosphere by the stylish Michael Berube whose smooth readings of rhetoric don't so much explain literary theory as demonstrate its power and versatility. So don't give up, guys! I think when some of the dust settles, folks might come to realize that lit theory is one of the most important tools we have of understanding our crazy, spun-out-of-control, media-saturated times.

Digby once made this case admirably:

This means that we are on the right track because understanding post-modernism, relativism and the rest is the single most important key to understanding how the right is operating right now. Any party that can win the presidency by saying that hand counting uncounted votes is inherently unreliable compared to the machines that failed to count the votes in the first place cannot be said to be a party that doesn't understand relativism. Michel Fouccault is a much better guide to modern politics in the radical Republican era than John Dewey could ever be. We should be dragging all those ivory tower Derrida-ites out of the classrooms and hiring them at think tanks to deconstruct Republican rhetoric. (In fact, the most valuable person in the Democratic party may be Michael Berube )


NYT Lovecraft Review

In Sunday's NYT, Lemony Snicket reviews the new Library of America edition of Lovecraft's tales, and man, do I wish they'd found somebody else. Snicket's stock-in-trade is an arch, ironic style. Lovecraft's work is vulnerable to the kind of pitiless superiority of this attitude, but the job of a reviewer in this sort of case should also entail showing a wider readership why it is that so many people return to Lovecraft, respect his work, see him as a seminal figure for the genre, and thought him important enough to anthologize in the US's nearest equivalent to the Pleaides.

Comments like this---

''There are horrors beyond horrors,'' one such trembler says, just as the beast is arriving at last, ''and this was one of those nuclei of all dreamable hideousness which the cosmos saves to blast an accursed and unhappy few.'' Oh, come on, this reader couldn't help thinking. Tell me what the monster looks like already. Tucked in an anthology, between the cloaks and daggers of Bram Stoker and the ravenous monsters of Dean Koontz, Lovecraft out-cloaks, out-daggers and out-ravenous-monsters them all, but after four or five of these stories the effect is bludgeoning. Lovecraft has mastered, paralyzed and annihilated the reader, and now the reader's ready for a little P. G. Wodehouse, thank you very much.

miss the point of Lovecraft entirely. Lovecraft is coming out of a tradition of the fantastic: readers of his time wanted the suspense before the storm. And most readers, even of this anthology, are going to read the stories one or maybe two at a time. Snicket could have perhaps mentioned that these stories first appeared in small-circulation magazines (and as the writer of a rather repetitive "series" himself, he could perhaps have identified with Lovecraft's technical challenges).

Snicket generally blows the historical significance of Lovecraft's writing, and nowhere worse than in the paragraph intended to explain it:

This is a fine tradition, and Lovecraft's shadow looms large in it. But like so many seminal influences -- modern practitioners, from Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates, hail him as a crucial figure -- he's not read nearly as widely as he is regarded, and frankly it's not difficult to see why. Just as Oscar Wilde noted that ''one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing,'' it's tough to venture into a Lovecraft story with a straight face, let alone with chattering teeth. Lovecraft's stories are so overwrought that they make Jules Verne look like a homebody and Edgar Allan Poe a well-adjusted realist; he pushes at the already extreme boundaries of the Gothic, horror and science fiction genres -- not so much in the way that John Ashbery pushes at the boundaries of poetic form but more as Spinal Tap pushes at the boundaries of heavy metal: by turning the volume up to 11.

So, Snicket, why is it that King and Oates hail Lovecraft as a crucial figure? And is it not possible that Verne and Poe are writing from and to a very different literary situation? He makes almost no attempt to explain what happened after Lovecraft: that science fiction and horror went very deep underground so that writers and readers could organize around the kind of fiction they loved without being sneered at by the Snickets of the world.

Towards the end of the review, however, we do get one genuine insight:

If you spend enough time in Lovecraft's lonely landscapes, fear really does develop: not the fear that you will come across unearthly creatures, but the fear that you will come across little else. And what first seems horridly overdone accumulates a creepy minimalism. Taken as a whole, Lovecraft's work exhibits a hopeless isolation not unlike that of Samuel Beckett: lonely man after lonely man, wandering aimlessly through a shadowy city or holing up in rural emptiness, pursuing unspeakable secrets or being pursued by secret unspeakables, all to little avail and to no comfort.

Here, though, Snicket is just scratching at the surface of what the crowd over at Crooked Timber have called "Intellects Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic," an archive category created during the leftie blog fad last year for talking about Bush's presidential campaign in terms of lonely, scattered encounters with vast cruelties from beyond our ken. Snicket might have taken a look at Houllebecq's book, which the NYT blurbs just below Snicket's review:
It is well known that life has no meaning. But nor does death. And that is one of the blood-curdling things that one discovers in Lovecraft's universe. The deaths of his protogonists have no meaning. They bring no peace. They in no way permit the stories to conclude. Implacably, HPL destroys his characters without suggesting anything more than the dismembering of a puppets. Indifferent to these lowly happenings, comic terror continues to swell. It spreads and becomes distinct. The great Cthulhu comes out of its sleep.

What is the great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us. Lovecraft's horror is rigorously material. But it is very possible that, by the free play of comic forces, the great Cthulhu has available a power and ability to act that are considerably superior to our own. Which, when you think about it, isn't particularly reassuring. (Speedy translation mine)


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Postmodern Art Museum

In a rather densely theoretical post on the postmodern collapse of the ideal of the dominant narrative of art (rather melodramatically entitled "The End of Art and the Last Contemporary Museum"), NYC gallerist and curator Edward Underscore of Obsidian Wings suggests that the effect of this crisis will be that major museums will attempt to stock ever more art, buying up trends and genres that might never result in a clear, linear exhibition:
In a New York Times article titled "Outside In: Non-Western Art Moves Into the Main Gallery" (no longer available without a fee), critic Holland Cotter described the way major museums have started opening up their galleries to non-Western art in response to this new sense of pluralism, placing work by those who would have been "outsiders" very recently next to kings of the Canon. Despite the trend in expanding museums, however, this new non-limiting approach will result in much larger inventories for those institutions who pride themselves on having "deep" contemporary collections, and even still, they'll---by definition---be forever hopelessly incomplete.

Edward Underscore identifies the dilemma facing museums that hope to represent an avant-gardish, unified notion of The Progress of Art. My hope is that museums will recognize that attempting to be totally representative is futile. There is, frankly, too much art--Western and Non-Western, high-art and low-art, avant-garde or experiments cut off--for a museum to hope to embody the whole. So much of what an institutitionalized museum buys in the name of completeness ends up in the basement anyways.

Instead, I'm all for a dispersion of artistic forms into specialized genres and media. I have a French friend who's mad into 17th century etchings. In order to see the Louvre collection of Jacques Callot--which is extensive, comprising period printings and the original plates--he first had to apply for a special archivist's permit and finally ended up using family connections to get into the underground lair of people interested in art printing. This was of course in France, where bureaucratic hurdling is practically a spectator sport, but can American museums really boast that their "minor arts" are so democratically displayed? are the "minor arts" more available to the average fan? Of course, I do have to say that the new MoMa in New York is making gallant efforts to showcase its minor-art collections--the print and drawing galleries are prominently located, and the contemporary artists are, incredibly, on the first exhibit floor--but it's starting to seem like a rear-guard effort.

I'm reading a lot of eighteenth-century history of print right now--please don't ask--and one of the more amusing avenues of research has been the evolution of the old "tree of knowledge" model of organizating everything that was known into the more familiar encyclopedia model. See, the "tree of knowledge" related all the bits back to each other: the lineage of each idea was supposed to be known, and the categories were supposed to be clear. With the encyclopedia, on the other hand, the only ordering is alphabetical. It's supposed to be a break-through in the Enlightenment project, but in many respects it's more like a break-down: "we can't construct a master-system any more, so just look it up yourself!" I guess it is a break-through if you look at it one way: the first step, after all, is to admit you have a problem.

So, that's what I think about the universal art museum--and particularly as the institution has evolved in America. The attempt to have every museum construct its own little system of everything, represent every important movement, and put everything into relation is meeting a day of reckoning. This break-down is an important break-through because it means that there's more art out there being produced than can be comfortably fit into a totalizing system. Or shunted off into a basement as inconvenient.

[And I recommend highly reading the entire thread of Edward's post: he discusses the problem of valuing art with a number of readers with wildly different exposure to art and art theory and manages to keep his cool and his enthusiasm at the same time. Edward, I'm impressed.]


Sunday, April 10, 2005

University Trustee Elections.

Dartmouth Trustee elections seem to be hitting the alumni grassroots in a semi-scandal. John Quiggan of Crooked Timber gives the links and a summary of the affair:
Apparently Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki[1] are running on a free speech platform, promising to “rescind all infringements on freedom of speech while promoting a climate in which every man or woman on campus feels genuinely at liberty to speak his or her mind.”, views Scott finds “powerful” . But what concerns him most is that ” Some alumni banded together several weeks ago to put up a site (“Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth”) attacking Robinson and Zywicki in apparent violation of the college’s rules against campaigning. ” Following a couple of links, we find one supporter who’s alive to at least one of the contradictions that the great minds at Powerline apparently missed, saying “The campaigning policy may be one freedom of speech limitation that I actually support”.

I agree with John that the academic diversity stuff is dangerous and nutty, that this particular campaign clearly violates university restrictions, but there's something more here that intrigues me.

In fact, this post made me do a little self-interrogation because no matter how clearly I know the how I feel about this particular attempt to destroy academic freedom, I had a touch of sympathy with the means employed.

Data points:
--I am a grad student instructor at a university that has successfully destroyed a unionization drive.

--In a conversation recently with a union organizer, I suggested that the best way of putting pressure on the mostly invincible and indivisible trustees was to contact alumni.

--I met a trustee once: he bought at least $5,000-worth of historical documents off me for his sixteen year-old son, who was kinda into the Civil War.

--Shareholder proxy ballots (all two of them--don't get excited) have been arriving in the mail this month.

--Over the last, oh, six years, I have learned that perhaps the corporate officers' recommendations were not entirely void of self-interest: I read very carefully the propositions brought by shareholder advocacy groups and tend to support them.

At the end of the day, no matter how I struggled with my analogizing mind, an alum is not a shareholder, and a university is not--not exactly--a company.

The only way that a alum could be considered to be like a shareholder, by the way, would involve accepting the Marxist-sociological model of the very French Pierre Bourdieu: the cultural capital of the diploma could lose some of its exchange value if the granting university was widely understood to be fraudulent. I don't see that happening.

And while universities have massive capital holdings and employ many people in what is increasingly claimed to be service-sector jobs, the good that the university exists to produce is...wait for it...truth. Oh, heavens, I sound like a conservative there, don't I?

We're in the face of another incredibly well-orchested, neo-conservative/deconstructionist attack. Invert the values, and substitute the new order. Co-opt the means. Force the self-critical intellectuals to stand on institutional traditions and older values; the conservatives will run with all of our well-meaning cultural-economic analyses produced over the last twenty years to destroy us.

If I think about this too much it'll depress me, so here's what I'll think about instead: the idea of trying to funnel all of this self-righteous desire for fairness in academia into forcing think tanks to provide undergraduate degrees. Now there's something I could get behind. You'll have your market share of diversity, and you'll slow down production of crack-crazy white papers, all at the same time!


Friday, April 08, 2005

Art Blogs Added

From Edward Underscore's links at Obsidian Wings, I've added two art blogs.

Art Addict is the blog of a low to mid-range collector. Paige West is a New Yorker who frequents some of the same galleries that I do but presents the buyer's perspective on the art scene. Here's an example of strange synchronicity: about two weeks before finding West's blog, I was interested (but not compelled) by this very same artist in the very same gallery, and if West's entry weren't dated 2004, I would swear that I'd handled that specific work. Her blog is rolling, but she doesn't seem to post often. She doesn't seem to have attracted commenters who have the same perspective, however.

ArtBlog is the blog of an independent artist, Franklin Einspruch, based in Florida. His blog is mainpage with comments. He sometimes presents images from a single exhibit and discusses the quality of the art and the curation; othertimes he discusses issues within the art world. The comments threads here are usually feisty (not the current one, so far), with arguments piling up. The regulars tend to be anti-concept art--a defensable position!


Thursday, April 07, 2005

18th-Century Missed Connection Ad

A Mask in a Fryar’s Habit

The Gentleman who was at the Masquerade the 4th of February last, in a Fryar’s Habit, and a remarkable String of Beads, is desired to be in the Park Tomorrow or Thursday evening, between Eight and Een o’clock; ‘twill be in vain for any other to personate him, as has been attempted already, for it is supposed that he alone can answer a certain Signal, when given.

In Love at first sight; or, the gay in a flutter. Being a collection of advertisements, chiefly comic, ... London, 1750. 287pp.


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Ultimate Mormon Blogging Site

I finally got around to figuring out how to track readership and linkage (short answer, register at Technorati), and I discovered that this site has been listed at the truly comprehensive index of the Bloggernacle site.


Labor Theory of Value

A post from Brad DeLong worth hanging onto. In it, Brad provides an example of an expanded and improved farm that might not be, in and of itself, exploitative and unethical, despite its being profitable.

The comment thread is, um, lively, and commenters tend to be smart and serious. A couple of themes stand out:

Marx was responding to a given, not an ideal situation. The holders of capital (and givers of jobs) had chosen the right parents.

Marx was writing from within the Classical Economic paradigm, before the new movement's refocus on the utility of the given economic system to the individual.

Brad's exposition of Marx ignores the dialectical method.

Marx accepted or was even for capitalism as a means towards an end.

Just a start, just a placeholder on this very dense debate on a subject I don't understand very well.


Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Writing, Style, and Fandom

John Banville writes a wonderful article for Bookforum about Houellebecq's reading of Lovecraft and how Lovecraftian themes and insights get reworked for today in Houellebecq's work. (via The Elegant Variation)

There one part-paragraph in the article that I would have liked to see more developed:
The French, as we know, have peculiar tastes. One is thinking not only of frogs' legs and andouillettes; these people also consider Poe a great writer, Hitchcock a major
artist. Can they be serious, or is it just a Gallic joke at the expense of the rest of us? Houellebecq seems entirely sincere in his deep admiration for the work of Lovecraft, but his enthusiasm is a little hard to credit.

Two really problematic things are compressed here.

1. The problem of style. American style has tended towards the plain. Even Hawthorne can seem baroque to a modern reader at times. Poe's prose sentence was within the aesthetic conventions of his time, although distinctly towards one end, an end that was getting rapidly marginalized. Unlike someone like, say, Thomas De Quincey, Poe used a florid style with some overtly sensationalized thematics.

Okay, but here's the tricky part. French prose style has different conventions and aesthetic conventions. Baudelaire, Poe's French translator, is one of the great stalking giants of 19th-century French thought and writing. I have tried on many occasions to translate some of Baudelaire's Poemes en prose; the temptation to cut down the embedded clauses, run-on sentences, and exclamations is overwhelming. Baudelaire's sentences work wonders in French, and my French-language mind oohs and aahs over the tricky-tricky turns his sentences take. Shove the same material into English, and my English-language mind is appalled by the sinuous lack of directness. I recently taught both Poe and Lovecraft in English to German students. At a certain point, I had to explain rather coarsely why some of their sentences sounded ludricrous to modern American ears. It's not self-evident.

The most interesting question, when evaluating matters of taste, would be formulated in terms of "how" and "why." To assert the old de gustibus non disputandum est is to foreclose inquiry. Working through the stylistic conventions of different languages and their traditions is of course about the most difficult and dry thesis one could imagine; I'll bet that some crazy, devoted scholar tried it before 1950, though, back when scholars could tinker with ideas without fear of losing their teaching positions.

But to get away from the metaphysics of taste, Poe's writings, both fictional and critical, have some real importance in the history of ideas, which have generally come through the French tradition, as Poe's style has generally annoyed American readers so much that his work has tended to be marketed for young audiences and forgotten. His "imp of the perverse" is an important precursor to the psychoanalytical understanding of the death drive, or, in its mitigated form, why people purposively act in a way to undermine themselves. He's one of the first American writers to embrace Continental themes and forms. His perhaps overstated "Philosophy of Composition," describing making a poem as a rational, mechanistic process had tremendous influence on modernist and surrealist thinking about poetics as a structural and controllable practice. And Poe's "Man of the Crowd" tale gave rise to Baudelaire's famous figure of the flaneur, which proved such a great focus for Walter Benjamin's theory of the individual within consumer capitalism.

2. Fandom. Neither Houellebecq nor Banville deal intelligently with the throngs of SF readers for whom Lovecraft is a major precursor figure; fans have been doing Lovecraft studies since the man first started working. Lovecraft is in this sense a turning-point figure. He used a lot of the 19th-century themes and generic forms of the high-art Fantastic Tale (Hoffmann, Poe, Gautier, Nodier, Maupassant...), but he was publishing in, and had his greatest impact on, the burgeoning underground literature of science fiction, weird tales, alternative universe literature, fantasy, whatever you want to call it. You know, the stuff that makes booksellers so much of their money? I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the early contours of SF/Fantasy publishing or fandom (my survey course of the 19th-c American Fantastic ended with Lovecraft as a sign of things to come), but I do know that HPL is seen as a giant in the origins of the genre, that the Cthulu myth has something unusually detachable about it, and that hordes of SF fans would find a rabid enthusiasm for HPL's universe to be an entirely comprehensible condition. It's not a French thing.

I'm at a university and mostly study older texts; I haven't really followed any of the various fannish cultures that my interests might lead me into. I've kicked it with only one Janeite (rabid fans of Austen), I note eagerly the (very few) articles about the Drones' Club's shenanigans (r.f. of P.G. Wodehouse), the Sherlockians register vaguely on my consciousness through prefaces, press releases, and that bizarre case of the Holmes scholar who made his suicide look like a murder, the Buffy cult has permeated grad student life entirely although actual participation in Buffy fan fora seems beyond grad student fannish means, neither I nor the couple of people in my department whom I know to read and study SF have ever attended a WorldCon...

While we don't have the time or energy to join fandom, literary scholars and critics need to stop acting so damned surprised that subcultures flourish around artistic production that doesn't meet their generic, stylistic, or formal values. The more interesting question, which, to be fair, both Houellebecq in his HPL book and Banville in his article eventually get around to answering, is how these texts provoke fannish reactions or are interesting in themselves.

Fandom is sociologically interesting and can be understood from within a historical perspective of media culture, but fans also produce some really good critical analysis. One blog that really opened my eyes to the dimensions of fandom is Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light. Teresa is an editor at the Tor publishing house, which specializes in SF titles. This is one particularly good post on the insights into making fiction that fandom has generated. In that post, I learned that fandom has come up with a wonderfully brief term to classify those characters in a first-person perspective-tied narrative who are almost bare id-constructs, entities whose purpose is solely to enact private fantasies of the author. Fandom calls these kinds of characters "Mary Sue"--and sometimes "Gary Stu." Teresa's wise post about the kinds of Mary Sues floating around has given me a whole new perspective on some of my favorite first-person narratives from the 19th century.

And here's why, really: fandom produces utter crap, unmitigated garbage, intimate fantasies, and mindless dithering--as well as a few rare sparks of real creative potential. The people who participate in fandom see this stuff unedited, unfiltered, and uncensored. They are empirically deriving criteria to determine the utter dregs from that which is worth encouraging. Critics and scholars aren't really in this position: many of our rules are deductive (that evidence that will fit into the theoretical argument we are trying to make), and much of our evidence has been pre-selected by our disciplinary requirements. We are supposed to be professionals, after all! Enthusiasm is suspect! We read only good writing! We are a serious discipline!

Lovecraft is a wonderful borderline case. I didn't do him justice in my class because I pared him with the more conservative but more stylistically consistent MR James--who, it should be noted, has not had nearly the impact on aspiring writers as Lovecraft had. I didn't open up Lovecraft's work to the phenomenon of fandom. The reception of Hoffmann in 1830s Paris is a version of fandom; why should the enthusiasm engendered by Lovecraft be so different? And, in the context of the Banville article on Houellebecq on Lovecraft, why does it take a high-art mediation for a popular artist to be recognized?


Saturday, April 02, 2005

Democratic art?

One realization most college students work out at some point is that art isn't fair. The general public isn't always right. Components that should produce a great work of art often fall flat; and great works of art often can't be explained by analyzing the individual components. Art falls outside of the rules that Americans want to apply to other fields of knowledge and power.

Two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, have set out to demonstrate this concept. They contracted with a public opinion polling company to conduct a survey of popular artistic taste. The first poll targetted Americans, but they have since expanded their pool to the global community. They used the results of the survey to produce paintings that correspond to the reported "preferred" and "least preferred" results.

The people like blue, outdoorsy scenes. (So do I.) Americans like paintings that include lots of water and sky, some wildlife, and George Washington. The Dutch seem to be the only people to prefer abstraction. The Chinese want their paintings to be the size of a wall; the Russians want their paintings to be the size of a television. The paintings produced, of course, are pretty ghastly, although very competent.

The Dia Center hosts the artists' website, which provides more information about the survey, its goals, and letters received by the artists from the general webpublic.

(Via Grammar.Police.)



There is a pernicious new trend stalking the corridors of Barnes and Noble. It is wearing a kilt, and it is sweeping women off to ramshuckle highlands castles to seduce them with its burr.

From the Scotsman:

Books with covers showing brooding, muscular, kilted heroes gazing out over the hills and glens are topping the best-seller lists.

The authors, some of whom can barely contain their passion for a land they see as impossibly romantic, say their books are successful because Scottish men in kilts are so breathtakingly beguiling.

Sue Ellen Welfonder, author of the bestselling Devil in a Kilt, said: "It’s the kilts. That or the men that fit in them. Scottish men are unbelievably sexy."

From the Times:

It may be hard to believe, but 41.4m female readers cannot be wrong. Scottish women might think their men are about as attractive as a plate of cold porridge but in America, a man in a kilt is the most exciting thing since Mr Darcy hung his frilly shirt on a tree and went skinny dipping.

Via the Literary Saloon.


Friday, April 01, 2005

Kerik's Confessions

The New York Magazine managed to swing an interview with Bernie Kerik, and the resulting profile is sympathetic, but goes over the details of the scandal point by point. The article features big quotes from Kerik, which give you a sense of the guy's voice and personality. About the moment the problem with the nanny surfaced, Kerik says:
“Then somebody walked in,” Kerik says. “I don’t remember who. In fact I don’t remember much about that moment other than hearing these words: ‘We have a problem with the domestic. It appears the Social Security number is registered to somebody else.’ Suddenly I could hear my heart pounding in my head,” Kerik says, “and I wanted to take the fucking gun off the desk and shoot him.

“I said, ‘Somebody get Rudy. I gotta talk to Rudy.’”

Noir! I'm astonished 1) that Kerik works with a gun on his desk and 2) that he would admit to a journalist such a raw emotion. Kerik speaks pretty frankly in this article, which might indicate that he feels he has little to lose on the political front. He is, however, looking to mend some parts of his reputation: he spends quite a bit of time refuting the mafia connection story. His explanation seems decent to me, elevating his connection out of the illegal to the unsavory and stupid. And of course he isn't entirely candid all the time, despite his profanity:
“I dropped out for what I thought was the right reason,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be a huge distraction for the president. But, shit,” he says disgustedly, “I would not have dropped out over this other stuff, all of which is either untrue, exaggerated, taken out of context, or has an explanation.”

That last sentence sounds a bit massaged, don't you think?

The burning question so many people have had--why the hell did Kerik go ahead with the nomination process if he had so many skeletons in his closet?--gets a partial answer in two moments in the article.

In describing the nomination, Kerik says that after initially rejecting the offer, then reconsidering after a second personal call from the President's headhunter Dina Powell, he walked into a meeting with the President and was offered the job. Kerik says:
“He used an expression I’d never heard before,” Kerik says. “He told me he wanted someone to go in there and ‘break some china. [...]“There were no policy questions,” Kerik says. “His mind was obviously made up before I walked in.”

Moving right along without comment, the next moment when Kerik addresses this, we public's burning question, is contained in a throwaway line that the New York Magazine reporter (Craig Horowitz) probably could have made more of:
The one thing Kerik says he didn’t discuss with the White House is what he calls the “gossipy stuff,” his affairs with Jeanette Pinero, a Corrections officer, and with book publisher Judith Regan.

Later in the article, the reporter does mention that "people close to Regan" suggest that Regan herself was responsible for a lot of the nastier stories floating around about Kerik. (A recent profile of Judith Regan in--maybe--Vanity Fair makes her sound terrifying.)

What is fascinating about this line of Kerik's is his naive assumption that "gossipy stuff" wouldn't sink him on a national political stage (where was he in the 90s?), and, perhaps more importantly, that the White House didn't pressure him to disclose this sort of stuff. From everything I've heard about security clearances for CIA or State Department posts, romantic liaisons of any sort are cause for investigation and interrogation. And cabinet appointments, while usually rubberstamped, are often treated by the media with the same sanctimoniousness that senators and presidential candidates get. The politics of personal destruction is the phrase, and while I tend to think that this White House is trying really hard to move away from that political environment (often by fiat and obfuscation), the Republicans built a scandal-machine to bring Clinton down that hasn't stopped running.

Rudy Guiliani, of course, features prominently, with Kerik denying that it was by Guiliani's influence that he was considered (although he admits that Guiliani may have had some role), with Kerik talking about Guiliani as helping him through the political process (hence the "I gotta talk to Rudy" moment above), with Kerik talking about his plans to set up a private security company that would basically take the cases that Guiliani's firm considered beneath them. But for me, the most intriguing part of Kerik's reflections on his friendship with Guiliani was here:
Both Kerik and Giuliani claim to have seen The Godfather more than 50 times, and the movie provides a bizarre code of behavior for them (as it does for gangsters) in much the same way that The Art of War serves as some weird manual for ambitious corporate climbers. But even in The Godfather, loyalty has its limits.

I grabbed the stuff around the statistic because the idea of business execs' studying The Art of War is so terrifying and because it's true that Guiliani, like Michael Corleone, eventually cut some subordinates loose. The fact remains, though, that two men who have been widely bandied about as up-and-coming politicians on the federal level are fanatical followers of The Godfather. I like The Godfather; I've probably seen movies from the trilogy about 10 times. Maybe Kerik and Guiliani justified some of their viewings as research for their famous investigations into the mafia. But Kerik's statements about his personal loyalty to both Guiliani and Bush make the Godfather's code seems rather more personal. His comment on why his application was prioritized is telling:
Though the rumor has long been that Giuliani engineered Kerik’s Cabinet nomination, Kerik says it’s not true. “Rudy did make a call, but I don’t think it was necessary. I’d gone to Iraq for President Bush, I campaigned all across the country for him, and I was given a key speaking role in prime time at the Republican convention.”

In the (admittedly unfair) mafia analogy, Guiliani becomes the capo, with Bush the godfather; Kerik was working directly for the man, proving his personal loyalty, and while Guiliani, as the immediate supervisor, made a recommendation, Kerik had more than proved his devotion to the top guy.

My absolute favorite part of the article, though, is rather removed from politics, at least sorta. Kerik had had a mostly acquaintance-type relationship with Richard "Dick" Grasso, who recently came under intense media scrutiny for his exorbitant salary as (former) head of the NY Stock Exchange. But when the scandal-machine started up, Grasso contacted Kerik and gave him a crash course on surviving media scrutiny:
He told him to stop reading the papers and stop watching TV, and not even let any friends or family recount what they read or saw.

Grasso also helped Kerik to escape the media scrutiny by directing him to a country estate, where Kerik stayed, in isolation (with $3,000-worth of Grasso-provided food) for three days. I'm not quite sure why this part of the article resonates so strongly with me. I always like to see people coming together under adverse circumstances, of course, but I was appalled by the Grasso payout, and Kerik's various sins were also worthy of exposition--and, yes, there were also very entertaining. Still, I think that destroying people has become easier. I can understood the motives for launching such attacks at this time, and I understand the political history of such attacks. It remains interesting to me, however, that one target of attack should reach out to another target of a rather different attack. Yes, they're on similar sides; neither are reaching out to, say, Joseph Massad of Columbia University. But there is developing a common consensus and feeling about how to respond legally, politically, and emotionally to public attacks on one's personal life. This is interesting.

[This initial link via No More Mister Nice Blog.]