Ed Kemp's Eyeless in Gaza

The Following is A Copy of Ed Kemp's Eyeless in Gaza blog, hosted by Sobriquet Magazine 


Virgin Post 6-25-04

Oh, let the blogging begin. I was originally going to start a fansite for the Olsen twins, but my Google search generated conclusive evidence that this has been done many times before. Alas. Instead, I begin a blog, under no illusion that the world wants or needs this exercise in self-indulgence. I’m not even sure what I’m going to write about exactly.

It’s strange, because, in doing this, I realize that some piece of my identity has become the two-dimensional screen right before my eyes. This shouldn’t be too stunning, since one might imagine the same thing happens with, say, every paper I’ve written and submitted in a college class. One’s identity becomes, in part, the mish-mash of words typed in bland font upon 8.5’’ by 11’’ paper. However, I don’t think anyone has ever read my work who didn’t know me personally. I mean it is probable that I turned in a biology test or two in a large lecture course, where the professor hadn’t a clue as to the person who submitted it (definitely a good thing, now that I think about it), but I would say that hardly counts. Now, for anyone in cyberspace unfortunate enough to stumble upon this blog, I am simply this collection of prosaic thoughts that I see before me. I guess I had better choose a good template.

Subject of the next foray into Blogdom……………

I go see Michael Moore’s new movie tonight! I’ll post my thoughts tomorrow….

posted by Ed at 1:27 PM 



Michael Moore: astute political observer or moral conscience of the free world?

I have this idea for a documentary. I’ll call it Catch-2002, since Joseph Heller is currently in no condition to protest my ripping off his title. In it, I will assert that George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein are really one and the same person. The argument will run something like this: back in the early 70s when George Bush Sr. was director of the CIA, the agency planted his son as the leader of Iraq in order to ensure a client friendly to United States’ interests. However, something went terribly awry: the son escaped the master’s hand and went to the dark side. He committed acts of genocide, invaded Kuwait, and in a particularly twisted episode of Oedipal pathology, attempted to have his father assassinated. Just when things were looking quite grim indeed, however, the neocon cabal, impatiently awaiting its return to power, abducted young Bush and reprogrammed him from a sadistic Middle Eastern dictator into a buffoonish born-again Christian, who now innocently spent his days capering among the Texas hills guided by delusional voices from God (a la, say, Joan of Arc or John Brown). Ahh, a happy ending you might think….but there was still more work to be done – how to make sure that this devious conspiracy never made the light of day? Upon rigging the election to have their man become president, the neocons convinced Bush to invade Iraq and organize a sham capture of Mr. Hussein, under the guise of a religious crusade to drive out the infidels (Mr. Bush is a simple man – upon asking for the translation of deus vult, he fairly jumped to the task at hand). All went well in this endeavor: our CIA managed to find a cobbler on the streets of Baghdad who bore a striking resemblance to Bush/Hussein in his duskier days, and the American public was not a whit wiser for it. That is, until my shocking documentary found the light of day. Oh, by the way, I’ll also be arguing that Laura Bush is really Pol Pot, proving that the current president’s opposition to gay marriage is really an attempt to cover-up his homosexual dalliance with a Cambodian mass murderer.

Oh, the members of the current administration are a nefarious lot….hmmm…..it’s just come to my attention that there are some factual discrepancies in my narrative. But, surely, my version of events is as credible as Michael Moore’s utterly insipid Fahrenheit 9/11. I had the distinct displeasure of viewing this bit of fiction upon its release last night, and I can safely say that I haven’t had such an unpleasant movie-watching experience since watching a man get bludgeoned to death with a fire-extinguisher in Gaspar Noe’s equally grizzly Irreversible. In fact, the only pleasure was witnessing the audience’s smugly cynical orthodoxies confirmed at every turn (Bush stole the election – check; the United States is in Iraq for purely mercenary reasons – check again; the Bush administration is simply trying to keep Americans afraid of an illusory threat – check; Bush is the stupidest man alive – check yet again), though it would be nice, if fatuously idealistic, to think that one or two of its members resisted the film’s mind-numbing exercise in brainwashing.

It’s hard to begin cataloguing the film’s crimes against well…..truth, good taste etc. We could start with the idealized depiction of pre-war Iraq where children prance along flying kites, women smile joyfully in the streets (no patriarchal oppression here), and cafes hum with the energies of a stabile, busy urban life. Interestingly, our friendly dictator’s secret police does not make an appearance, nor does the camera attempt to locate the graves of massacred Kurdish civilians. Then there’s the focus on the seven minutes…..oh, those seven minutes that might have saved the world!... during which Bush participated in a storybook reading at an elementary school after hearing of the airplanes flying into the WTCs. The attention paid to this is frankly ludicrous, especially if we accept the rest of the film’s schema. I mean, if Bush really doesn’t give a damn about the 3,000 who died in the bombings and has absolutely no interest in capturing Osama Bin Laden, but would, instead, prefer waging the infinite Orwellian war for oil profits, are we really going to get upset that Bush didn’t display alert leadership during these precious minutes?

Moreover, of course, there’s the portrayal of U.S. soldiers as a bunch of crazed metalheads slinging off rounds of ammo at innocent women and children with ghoulish delight, presumably while headbanging to their favorite tunes (and by the way, it’s exclusively women and children who are the casualties of war in Moore’s selected footage). But, mind you, just as one is about to lose faith in our military, the film does strike up a different tune. Suddenly soldiers are described as making courageous “sacrifices;” grieving parents of their dead sons take center stage in shamelessly protracted interviews in the film’s embarrassing attempt at moral seriousness. How do we explain this apparent niggling contradiction? Well, our intrepid filmmaker has the answer: you see, when the people in charge send soldiers to war by means of “a lie,” inevitably those brave men and women will themselves start behaving badly. What bullshit. Only an idiot or a thoroughly dishonest person would assert, as the film implies, that unjust wars alone breed civilian casualties and soldiers who dehumanize the enemy. Would Moore contend that in America’s “just” wars (and I assume that he believes that there have been a couple, since he solemnly concurs that America’s “a great country” during grieving parent interview #1), no innocents were ever killed, and soldiers loaded their weapons knowing that the target of their bullets were people as fully human as they are? But, of course, he wouldn’t contend anything so absurd. There is not even an attempt at an argument here – just an endless stream of horrifying images cobbled together to ensure we’re worked up to a frenzy at the current man in charge. Orwell anyone?

Oh, I could go on. But why bother? This is a stupid, irresponsible film produced by a stupid, irresponsible man. It’s the kind of propanganda that Goebbels would have rejected as too obvious. But, I don’t really wish to spend my first full-length blog railing against Michael Moore necessarily. Rather, it’s the people who celebrate this man and this film whom I find particularly distasteful. I first attempted to first view this film in an Uptown theatre, where the film was being shown on three screens about once every 10 minutes. Every showing was sold out. Instead, I found myself at a megaplex, where the crowd gave a rousing ovation to the film upon its conclusion, with some senile fool loudly exhorting the rest of us to “take our country back”. Perhaps, my fellow filmgoers were simply looking for some sort of release for their pent-up hatred of President Bush. If they were, they found it in an utterly facile fairytale. Fahrenheit 9/11 refuses to address any of the complexities of the current world: the clash between Western and Islamic values that expose the strengths and weakness of both sets of value systems; the danger posed to the world by radical Islam; the question of what to do with a dictator such as Saddam Hussein, who, if left unheeded, would continue to pose a threat to his countrymen and his neighbors. Rather, the film’s business is simply to reassure us that life in the modern world is quite simple really: the wealthy elite send off the economically underprivileged to fight its perpetual, meaningless wars for personal profit. That such a jaded message is untenable is beside the point; it's also one that has been reiterated so often as to become a substitute for real thought. In short, Moore's film is replete with ideas as empty as any collection of threadbare patriotric slogans trotted out in defense of this war. Perhaps, he and Britney Spears should get together for a tet a tet.

posted by Ed at 10:04 PM 



Beating a dead horse

Read over the last blog and realized that is more of a screed than a critique. Perhaps, it is not always best to write about a movie after you have just seen it.

I spent a good portion of yesterday exchanging emails with a person who avers the intellectual integrity of Mr. Moore, despite his (perhaps) penchant for overkill. Here’s what I have to say on the matter:

Imagine I’m making a film and, in it, I assert that my government has little or no interest in capturing a man who is responsible for bombing some of my country’s most important business and military institutions that resulted in 3,000 dead. This lack of interest, I maintain, is evidenced by the bungled war in one foreign country where too few troops have been deployed (ostensibly because my president is more interested in getting kickbacks from pipelines than actually catching terrorists) and the diversionary war in another country which is transparently irrelevant to the “war on terror.” As a result, this man now roams freely about the world, unheeded by my government. In such circumstances, would I not devote a sizeable portion of my film to alerting the audience as to the grave danger we face because of our government’s negligence? In fact, would not my film virtually scream the warning that this man who has bombed my country once before (and considers himself to be waging an unending campaign against my country) might, and probably will, do it again? Or if this sounds too alarmist, would not my film, at least, introduce the possibility of more terrorist attacks and soberly recommend that precautionary measures be taken?

But, Moore’s film doesn’t do any of this. The danger of further terrorist attacks is a nonissue in this movie. Does it hold back in the desire not to make President Bush look too bad? Ha… Why not then, one might ask? Probably because the sleazy man behind it doesn’t actually believe the pack of lies he parades before his audience…..

posted by Ed at 10:49 AM 



Kitsch as Kitsch Can


Sometimes one’s eyes glance over a word or phrase used often before, and one is immediately struck, as if seeing it for the first time, by its strangeness. I had such an experience glancing over a recent article from the Houston Chronicle entitled “Kitsch and culture equal lots of fun at Louisiana's eccentric museum.”

Kitsch…..it seems the perfect word for what it means, but what does it mean precisely? I have often used it to describe that which is tacky, maudlin, and lowbrow, but have never attempted to pin it down beyond that. Certainly I can locate it in certain….ahem…cultural artifacts. It is the plastic figurine of the boy with the bowed angelic head kneeling down to pray; or the oil portrait arrayed in gaudy, lifeless colors of the grey-haired mother hugging her middle-aged daughter; it is “Silent Night” transformed into elevator music as one trudges through Macy’s on Christmas Eve; it is just about any musical number involving Lawrence Welk.

Glancing in my Random House dictionary, I find the following definition: “art or literature of little or no value, esp. when produced to satisfy popular taste.” Hmmm…..this is not particularly helpful. John Grisham’s novels possess doubtful artistic merit, but they hardly qualify as kitsch. Even the etymology doesn’t serve to clear up matters (it comes from the German “to throw together.”).

It is perhaps more helpful to examine some of the characteristics of the items listed above. First, there is the strong odor of sentimentality to kitschy art; one can feel one’s skin almost tingle with its smarminess. Second, there is the hint of burlesque, or the debasing of high art into something common and comical. Take any fugue by Bach, jazz it up with a synthesizer and a swinging bass or render it folksy with an accordion and xylophone, and we guarantee you a slice of kitsch. Though the skeleton of the master’s work remains, the serious nature of the music has been completely eviscerated. It is as if the very spirit has been removed from the notes.

The idea of debasement is closely linked to that of sentimentality, for what is sentimentality, after all, but a degrading of real emotions? It is the overreaching for the condition of pathos and purity (hence its sticky, effusive quality), because the emotion that drives it is hopelessly contrived.

If we look at a painter Norman Rockwell who managed to tread gingerly around the mire of kitsch, despite being a prime candidate for its pitfalls, we may glean a couple of other characteristics of the dreaded kitsch. Rockwell’s paintings seem to present a glossy, misty portrait of middle-class America, complete with white-picket fences. Yet, the emotions conveyed in his work never leave us feeling nauseous. This, I think, is because Rockwell’s characters retain a certain rueful humanity, and the painting’s themes rarely lack a sense of humor. Kitsch art is almost always humorless, shamelessly piling on the schmaltziness without so much as a smile.

However, all of this fails to capture some of the word’s subtler implications. Why do we both abhor and revel in kitsch? To return to a previous example, no one would trumpet their collection of Grisham novels as amusing examples of bad art. Or if one did, one would find a very limited audience. Yet, kitsch has a certain quality that attracts a clique of admirers who relish its wretchedness. The question then, is where did kitsch come from, and why do we enjoy it?


Roger Scruton, in his essay “Kitsch and the Modern Predicament” makes an important point in terms of its history. Prior to the Enlightenment, man experienced his highest feelings as divine impartations. In other words, God was credited as the source of man’s most dignified emotions: love, pity, grief, etc. With the retreat of religious feeling, it was incumbent upon man to create for himself a sense of religious aura – in Scruton’s words “to re-enchant the world; to look on human beings as though they had the significance and the dignity of angels.”

Such a mission, however, required immense discipline: a subtle mixture of effort and restraint that only a few artists could achieve. Most artists who endeavored to stake their imaginative claim simply invoked the same well-worn images of their predecessors and contemporaries, namely the summoning of an ethereal never-never land that lay somewhere beyond this quotidian veil of tears. Thus, in the artistic world, imaginative vision, which had attempted to supplant orthodox religious feeling, lost its claim to seriousness.

Concomitant to this is the fact that man’s higher emotions were once directed almost exclusively towards the divine. In order to express these feelings, he articulated them in the act of ritual (pilgrimage, the sacraments, mass or church service), the significance of which was understood by all. Thus, no showy displays of emotion were needed. Instead, the acts themselves were adequate to convey religious piety, because the faith in their meaning was shared by the surrounding community of believers.

Nowadays, of course, this is simply not true. The calendar with the picture of puppies in a basket with the caption “God is love” strains for a certain sham sentiment, and it strains because it attempts to assure the viewer (consciously or unconsciously) of a message that is not assured. God, after all, may not “be love;” God may not even exist.


This, however, fails to explain certain forms of secular pre-Enlightenment art that are both threadbare and overwrought and yet not kitsch. How often has an English student been assigned (usually in an effort to distinguish the genius of Shakespeare) to read a poetaster from the Renaissance whose sonnets are filled with hackneyed conceits? Yet, we would not, I think, define the poet’s clichés as kitsch. The reason is that the poet’s emotions, however trite, are essentially private and are directed towards a single object (the woman he loves). They are not public displays of pandering emotion intended for mass consumption.

Here, I think, is the key to kitsch. Kitsch arises in an age of mechanized, mass produced art. We are apt to question the sincerity of a figurine of a girl hugging her kitten for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that it has come off the assembly line with thousands of exact duplicates. Or, even if we have not seen the precise replica of that particular figure before, we have seen enough of its kind to render it emotionally sterile.

We can understand, then, why Victorian England became the first breeding ground of kitsch. The age witnessed the decline both of religious faith and the romantic project that attempted to fill the void. And, because of immense material prosperity and the ever-expanding industrial revolution, which created both a large middleclass with an appetite for “art” and the mechanical means to satisfy it, the age also oversaw the first onslaught of the commercial art industry.

The result was a sort of emotional fatigue, with dozens upon dozens of books, painting, and songs devoted to rosy-cheeked children passing through heaven’s gate and related nonsense flooding the market. Victorian sentimentality has become a term synonymous with the age, and even a few serious artists (most notoriously Charles Dickens in The Old Curiosity Shop) fell, on occasion, into its snare.

The raison d’etre of kitsch can be summed up quite neatly, I think: people with little imagination or originality churning out, in mass quantities, pretentiously vulgar art and literature for middlebrow people who wish to experience a tame dose of life’s sorrows and joys – without becoming too engaged.

The Modernists, of course, were the first to lash out against this cheapening of art. They attempted to recapture the spontaneity of genuine sentiment (think Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Gauguin’s Tahitians, or even Eliot’s medieval Christians). In this sense, they were not too removed from the Romantic project, which also looked to recover untainted visionary moments in works such as Wordsworth’s The Prelude.

But the most important movement against (and paradoxically with) kitsch has come in its postmodern appropriation by artists such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons (the “princeling” of kitsch, to quote Robert Hughes). Here is where our love-hate relationship with kitsch first spawned. In an age where there are seemingly no imaginative territories left to explore, postmodern culture collapses back in on itself through motifs such as parody and pastiche. In Koons’ work in particular, we have the blank mimicry of middlebrow kitsch, but its display as art immediately distorts its usual range of significations. It is at once a celebration and a satire. In Scruton’s words, “the artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretends to judge his product, and the avant-garde establishment pretends to promote it.”


So, artistic “kitsch” is really an elaborate joke. But for those who wear no avant-garde stripes, the love of kitsch is a slightly different matter. In an age where pop culture saturates every aspect of our lives – complete with cardboard cutout celebrities and inane movie plots and song lyrics – and where smarminess abounds, from a Katy Couric smile to a “The More You Know Message” on network television, the affection for kitsch is a kind of defense. It is the attempt to deftly deflect the endless barrage of bad taste with a bit of irony. However, this affection is also a surrender: it acknowledges that kitsch is pervasive, and there is no escape from it – no great intellectual or artistic project to which to turn, so that we may gaze haughtily at the circumscribed world of middlebrow taste. In this sense, our love-hate relationship with kitsch reflects our loss.

posted by Ed at 8:25 PM 



In This Dark

Contemplating a winter of discontent.....

"If there were a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Words, “theory” would long ago have been granted protected status as an Abused Noun. Academics wishing to use the word would be required to apply for a special license, submit character references from three persons never convicted of exposure to graduate-school education, and contribute to a fund for other unfortunate words."

- Roger Kimball

posted by Ed at 11:12 PM 


Politics...as usual

Wiled away my morning hours responding to a conservative column regarding the death penalty. The originial column can be found here:

Dear Mr. Prager,

I must take issue with a July 17, 2003 article you wrote entitled “More innocents die when we don’t have capital punishment.”

I wish to say at the outset that I am against the use of capital punishment in homicide cases. I do appreciate that there is a valid opposing viewpoint to my position, however. I am writing this letter in response to what I believe is a poorly-reasoned defense of capital punishment – one that maligns the position of those who oppose it for the sake of avoiding possible miscarriages of justice.

I believe your argument falls short because of its foundation in a false analogy. The source of the false analogy, I believe, lies in the improper usage of the word “innocent,” or, to be more precise, the failure to realize that “innocent” contains multiple shades of meanings. Let me explain. You state that in order for death penalty abolitionists to be logically consistent in their desire that not one innocent be killed, they must also be in favor of banning the automobile, because this “social good” also puts innocent people at risk. Thus you imply that an innocent person dying via capital punishment is the same as an innocent person dying in an automobile accident.

However, there is an important distinction missed here in what it means to be an innocent victim in both these situation. In the case of the wrongful execution, the innocent victim has no agency in the events that determine his death. A person wrongfully tried and convicted of a crime is simply a victim acted upon by outside forces (the state). The innocent victim of the traffic accident, however, does have some responsibility for his fate. No matter how much his death may be the result of the negligence of others, the victim did make a decision to get behind the wheel of his automobile in the first place – a decision he knows to incur some risk (however slight) of a serious accident. The same applies to the man who decides to get on a roller coaster ride rather than to take a quiet stroll in the park.

This distinction is not a minor one. This initial decision underscores the individual’s right to make such a decision. Matters such as highway speed limits and legalized amusement park rides entail a negotiation between individual rights and the rights of others (or the overlapping, more nebulous concept of public safety). Individual rights take priority, except in cases where such rights infringe upon the rights of others or where these same “rights” put the safety of others at undue risk. Hence, my right to use narcotics is nullified by the risk such usage presents to the community. I do have the right to drive my car, however, but only if I obey certain laws that due not put others in excessive danger. I can drive 55 mph on a state highway, for example; I cannot drive 110 mph.

Indeed, there are a number of activities we perform daily that could potentially put innocent life at risk of death. We take a chance whenever we cook with a gas stove, or drive an automobile on a highway, or go swimming in a private pool. However, if the state interceded and prohibited us from doing these things, we would consider our rights to be violated. It is the individual’s right to perform these acts responsibly and to weigh the risks that such actions entail. To restrict the individual from making these calculations would be an unfair restriction upon his freedom, with very little benefit in terms of innocent lives saved.

This consideration of individual rights removes it far from the realm of capital punishment. No one would argue, I think, that to abolish capital punishment would affect individual freedoms, i.e. a person’s right to do something. The difference, then, between abolishing the death penalty and outlawing automobiles is the difference between the state enacting policy that could put innocent life at risk and the state forbidding individuals to perform an activity that could put innocent life in danger.

Your automobile analogy is suspect for another reason, even beyond the issues of individual freedoms. You state that people who are opposed to the death penalty on the grounds that innocent life might be lost should therefore be against any activity that could result in innocent death. However, you have not fully stated the case of those who are opposed to the death penalty, and therefore you have made an unreasonable leap into a flawed slippery slope argument. To return to the automobile bit, it is obvious that to abolish it would imperil more lives than it would save. What about the inhabitants of a coastal city who need to evacuate immediately because of an approaching hurricane? What about the man who has just suffered a heart attack and needs to be rushed to the emergency room? Indeed, if we follow your argument and ban all vehicles that potentially put innocent life at risk – airplanes, freight trains, semis, even the stagecoach! – the result would be a societal crisis. Necessities such as food, gas, oil etc. could not be transported. Needless to say, our society would cease to function.

Now, are the people who are opposed to the death penalty clumsy Orwellian statists who would enact nearsighted policies that both unfairly restrict individual freedoms and render society unable to function? I would say no. To suggest this is the case is to construct a straw man argument. People who are against the death penalty for reasons involving innocent life do not believe that it is the state’s duty to guarantee that no “innocent life” is at risk. Such a position would be tyrannical and impossible to ensure. Rather, they believe that the state should not take human life when the benefits of such an act do not outweigh the possibility that innocent life may be taken.

Of course, there is a counterargument to this position, and you make it well. There is the possibility that the dangers inherent in allowing convicted murderers to live outstrip the threat of executing an innocent person. After all, murderers who are not executed can and have killed again. They pose a serious threat to fellow prisoners and wardens, as well as to the public at large if they escape from prison. Moreover (something that you did not mention), the possibility of parole presents the alarming possibility of the state enabling murderers repeat their crimes by allowing them back into society.

The last item is unsettling: a reason why I believe that any morally responsible person against the death penalty should also be in favor of abolishing the possibility of parole for convicted murderers. In my opinion, one cannot hold the former position without also holding the latter. However, the dangers that you cite are more complicated that you make them appear. It is not a slam-dunk case that we should execute convicted murderers on the basis that they may escape from prison and kill again. A prison escape represents a failure on the part of the state to adequately protect its citizens. It does not seem convincing to me that we should automatically guard against a potential failure of the state in one area by enacting a policy that risks a potential failure of the state in another (the execution of an innocent person). Rather, the threat of each problem should be weighed in terms of their ability to be prevented. Given that a society should have an easier time fortressing its prisons against potential escape than ensuring that each person it convicts of a crime is guilty, I would suggest that the threat of an innocent person being executed is greater than a murderer escaping. I will concede, however, that the argument could be made in the opposite direction.

The other argument that you make is that a convicted murderer might take an “innocent” life in the person of a fellow prisoner. To me, it does a disservice to the word to describe any prisoner as such. Given the high probability that the prisoner is guilty of the crime for which he has been convicted (something upon which we both agree), a prisoner can hardly be termed “innocent”. He has, after all, made decisions that have landed him in such a high-risk environment. We might sympathize, for example, with a prisoner who has been the victim of a prison rape, but it would not compare, I think, with the degree of outrage we would feel regarding a rape victim who had been attacked walking down a city street. To use the same word “innocent” to describe both a person wrongly executed for murder and a prisoner killed by a fellow prisoner – thereby equating the two – unfairly loads the dice in your favor. The level of injustice is not the same.

In addition, I would argue that steps can be taken to ensure that convicted murderers have no access to their prison-mates. Thus, once again, I think we need to weigh the peril of a convicted murderer killing a fellow prisoner with that of an innocent prison being executed. I side once again with the latter outweighing the former.

That is my critique. I would be interested in your response. As a final note, I would like to add that I do not believe that the execution of innocent people is in any way a rampant problem in our justice system. However, I do think that it has occurred often enough to give us pause.


Edward Kemp

posted by Ed at 3:20 PM 



Let America be America again...indeed

Further depressing proof that the Democrats have nominated yet another empty suit for the upcoming presidential election. Who is the genius behind Kerry's campaign slogan? What is the process of the mind that comes up with this?

“Hmmm, let’s see….let’s take the title (intended to be ironic, of course) of a mediocre poem by a mediocre poet who dabbled in the once fashionable art of writing paeans to Stalinist Russia. We’ll just ignore the irony in order to generate a little wistfulness for 'better days,' thereby willfully misintepreting the poem’s original message and creating a new message that is just downright silly."

I mean how do you do this? It isn’t like the poem is rich with nuance, layered with multiple meanings, susceptible to misinterpretation...that sort of thing.

Anyway, here’s the poem, as well as an interesting response from a columnist at Slate magazine. I think my favorite part is Kerry’s nice little abridged version to commemorate Brown vs. Board of Education. Good lord.

posted by Ed at 3:34 PM 



Celebrating Bastille Day the right way

I was pleased to find today that a book has just been released about the friendship and falling out between John Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The title is Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It by Ronald Aronson. Aronson, a professor at Wayne State, continues to build a strong resume in the field of Sartre studies, having published two other books: Jean-Paul Sartre - Philosophy in the World and Sartre's Second Critique. The story of Sartre and Camus should be of particular interest, given that this is the first book-length study of their friendship.

Here is a review of the book, as well as a fairly long excerpt from the book's first chapter.

posted by Ed at 4:25 PM 



What I'm Reading

I just finished Christopher Hitchens’ A Long Short War and am now embarking upon A Passage To India.

Hitchens’ work is a good read.  In essay after essay, he energetically makes the case for the war in Iraq.  Particularly strong, I think, are his essays “Evil” and “The Rat That Roared.”  The former debunks the flap concerning Bush’s use of the word evil to describe Hussein’s regime.  Rather than serving as an example of the president’s simplistic moral absolutism, the word, Hitch argues, provides a terse and accurate description of a brutal and murderous regime. 

The latter essay gives us a less than ennobling picture of France’s head man, Mr. Chirac.  As such, it provides a valuable service.  I can still recall that old refrain of 2003: how can we go to war when the French so obviously disapprove?  Weren’t the French our moral compass, or, at the very least, our world weary elders who had much to teach us regarding the delusions of empire?  (I remember a particularly absurd open letter from Michael Moore to President Bush, in which he rhapsodized, “we love France…have you forgotten we wouldn't even have this country known as America if it weren't for the French?”  The irony of celebrating France’s involvement in the Revolutionary War – an intervention based on imperial power rather than “national security” – was, of course, lost on the dolt) 

Well, as it turned out, Chirac’s unwillingness to topple Hussein might well have had something to do with the business transactions between the two, which the great dictator was in the process of paying off when his little empire crumbled.  Not a great surprise from the man who, in Hitchens’ words, “helped build Saddam Hussein a nuclear reactor and who knew very well what he wanted it for.”

Not that everything Hitchens puts down is air-tight.  In an otherwise fine essay entitled “Recruitment” concerning the fallacy that preemptive war plays right into the hands of terrorist recruiters, Hitchens irritatingly observes that those who argue the causal relationship between war and recruitment are the same people who “scoff” at any connection between Saddam and Bin Laden.  Very well.  But this apparent contradiction can easily be exploded by anyone who examines the various meanings of “connection.”  I can argue that Iran will become belligerent or, conversely, accommodating in response to U.S. military operations in Iraq.  In that sense there is a connection between the two countries.  But it would be a stretch to glean from this argument that the Iraqi and Iranian regimes are somehow in cahoots.  So, there is no contradiction here necessarily, just Hitchens being too clever by half.

Moreover, Hitchens seems reluctant to be overly stern with the radical left.  He argues that hardliners on both the left and right show a disdain for the Iraqi conflict that is rooted in antipathy for America.  Fine.  But Hitchens’ tendency to divvy up the hate equally doesn’t fly.  Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell  may have made impolitic (and stupid) statements regarding divine retribution after 9/11, but I daresay an overwhelming number of 700 clubbers put out their flags on September 12, 2001 and have had them flying ever since.  Can the same be said for those who listen to Chomsky and Finkelstein with baited breath?

Speaking of Noam and Norm – that leftwing comedy duo – one cannot mention Hitch these days without addressing the charges leveled against him of betrayal and opportunism.  Indeed any mention of Hitchens these days on, say, Znet has that “thirty pieces of silver” ring to it.  Well, Hitchens did start life off as a firebrand Trotskyite Leftist but has in recent years broken off ties with those sympathetic to the cause.  The apostasy began with Hitchens’ open revulsion for President Clinton in the early and mid-90s – a position that put him at odds with mainstream liberal pundits who frequently mouthed the same clichés in their casting of Clinton as some tragically-flawed figure who squandered his brilliant talents on parsing the meaning of “is” (usually such ruminations were accompanied by a little fist-shaking at the Republican “witch hunt”).  Hitch, however, less generously termed Clinton a liar, a fraud, a murderous thug (for the Sudan bombing), and even a CIA informant (during his Oxford days).  The fissure calcified with Hitchens’ brief in the Monica Lewinsky trial in which he submitted evidence that his old friend Sidney Blumenthal had perjured himself. 

Hitchens’ break with the radical left began with his dismissal of Chomsky’s 9-11 statement – a sparse few paragraphs that you sorta have to read to believe.  The question, of course, is who left whom?  On the surface, the answer appears easy, given that Chomsky’s political positions have been set in stone for the last four decades.  Yet the issue is more complex.  It strikes me that Hitch’s stance on Iraq flows naturally from his long-entrenched liberal beliefs.  If one cherishes the concept of the “open society” where religion and state are kept in separate spheres and pluralism is considered paramount, and one also happens to support a host of related positions such as women’s rights and gay rights, one is not going to be too impressed with the fare offered up by autocratic and/or theocratic regimes.  Not that this is in itself a call to arms, but add the fact that these regimes responds to civilians who find democracy desirable by liquidating them en masse and that they align themselves with terrorists who wish to blow you to kingdom come – well you might wish to facilitate the spread of democratic values in that part of the globe.  This may sound like a euphemism for spreading democracy at the barrel of a gun – a supposed irony that leaves many a leftist chortling – but then how are the seeds of freedom planted in police states?  Of course, one can always argue that the West is trapped in a mode of discourse that guarantees the impossibility of understanding, and hence correctly responding to, its exoticized “Other”; or, less elliptically, that American foreign policy is the cause of all repression and terrorism in the first place.  These too are euphemisms for sitting on one’s hands – a tactic that Hitchens’ rightly argues will embolden our enemies rather than pacify them.

As for Hitchens being an opportunist?  Hitchens is against the death penalty and in favor of reparations; he recently eulogized Reagan by writing that the man was “dumb as a stump;” he is still hot on the trail of Henry Kissinger for the purpose of trying him as a war criminal,   Is this the new face of conservatism?  And if Hitchens won’t be on the staff of National Review anytime soon, where has Hitchens opportunism led him except out of the good graces of the Chomsky/Cockburn crowd?  Currently, Hitchens holds a myriad of positions that in their totality is bound to make any political partisan a bit uncomfortable.  Such opportunism indeed.

posted by Ed at 2:56 PM 



What a piece of work is a man

So we have another chapter in the atrocity known as the Terri Shiavo case.  Her husband has now filed to overturn Terri’s Law.  I wish him luck.

This issue is quite simple.  What is in the patient’s best interest?  Terri Shiavo herself cannot determine this matter.  Even if we were to concede that Mrs. Shiavo had once expressed the desire to live artificially (when, in fact, the weight of evidence suggests the contrary), how could we deem this a responsible decision?  Does not a responsible decision entail a mature understanding of the situation?  Yet, precisely because of her current condition, Mrs. Shiavo cannot have such understanding. 

In fact, the argument of Terri’s parents that a trial should determine their daughter’s current wishes is frankly preposterous.  Consider the tortured logic of the following, as reported in the Tallahassee Democrat.

"Would Terri, with full knowledge of the present circumstances, want to starve and dehydrate herself to death?" the Schindlers (Terri’s parents) asked in the legal filings. "If Terri learned that her husband was now living with another woman, would Terri - out of an instinct for self-preservation or perhaps out of sheer feistiness - refuse to die a death of her estranged husband's convenience?"

But, of course, Terri cannot have “full knowledge of the present circumstances.”  It is a theoretical question that could never be anything but theoretical – that is the point.  We cannot sit here wondering what Terri would do if she had full knowledge, because if she were in any way able to possess “full knowledge” this issue would not have been raised in the first place. 

Responsible men and women should be able to determine that Mrs. Shiavo’s agony is simply prolonged by her current state.  Any informed member of the medical profession would agree in this matter. It is obvious that the parents have proven themselves unable to make an intelligent decision.  Mr.  Shiavo, whatever his motivation, is only person who has exercised anything resembling good judgment in this matter.  His wishes should be respected. 

People who argue in favor of Terri’s Law are doing so on grounds of the sanctity of life.  In fact, the law erodes this very sanctity.  Human life is not sacred simply because it is human life.  We do not posit the dignity of man because of the outer shell of the organism: it moves; it breathes; it responds to stimuli.   Rather, we deem it sacred because of a less tangible bundle of traits that constitute the core of human existence: traits that are intimately connected with the life of the mind.  If a person is severely brain damaged to the point of being incapacitated mentally and physically, he or she has lost that core.  It is incumbent upon the rest of us to allow that person to die with dignity, rather than continuing on in a vegetative state.

Terri’s Law is vile.  If we are to be honest about this issue, it amounts to a desecration of a corpse.  A 14-year long desecration.  In the ancient world, it was believed that such an act would trigger the wrath of the gods.  Today, a large portion of our society endorses the act as somehow harmonious with the will of their god.  That this perversion of human dignity is supported by the state is outrageous.  Governor Bush should be taken to task for his interference in this matter.

Here is a link to an article concerning a dissenting catholic priest’s response to Gov. Bush.  It is worth the read.

posted by Ed at 3:47 PM 



Lost Fridays

Thought I’d toss something off today. Except what I want to say I don’t have time for – and besides, it’s raining...interminably.

So here's a poem instead.

"Friday Night At The Royal Station Hotel"

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high

Clusters of lights over empty chairs

That face each other, coloured differently.

Through open doors, the dining-room declares

A larger loneliness of knives and glass

And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads

An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,

And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,

Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How

Isolated, like a fort, it is -

The headed paper, made for writing home

(If home existed) letters of exile: Now

Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.

- Philip Larkin

posted by Ed at 6:00 PM 



Where is My Mind?

A recent conversation with Sobriquet Magazine prompted me to write this. We were discussing mental illness and the relationship between mind and brain in the treatment of depression. It provoked me to reexamine the question of mind-brain interaction.

Let’s go to the beginning. My first contact with philosophy was a modern philosophy class I took freshman year in college. Not exactly a life-changing experience: just a sobering reminder that I didn’t know a damn thing, especially when I was entering the field in the middle of the game. Consequently, my first exposure to a philosophical problem was not, say, Platonic forms and the problem of infinite regress (thank god), but rather the Cartesian dilemma of mind-body dualism. The problem, in very simplified terms, runs like this:

In his Second Meditation, Descartes fragments mind from body in an attempt to uncover an irrefutable ontological argument. A malicious demon may trick me as to the existence of my body, he posits, but he cannot trick me as to the existence of my mind. Even if everything I am thinking is wrong, I am still thinking. Hence the famous cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. The end result of this proof is that man exists primarily as a mental being, while his physical self exists separately, coming into his field of awareness as an idea (a conclusion that Berkeley later capitalized on).

Descartes furthers this divide throughout the rest of his meditations, arguing that the world is split between non-corporeal thinking substances (minds) and corporeal, extended substances (bodies). These two substances are the antithetical, irreducible components of reality.

Now, this dualism has proved irksome for a number of reasons. For Descartes’ contemporaries, it jarred with the Principle of Sufficient Reason, namely that in a cause-and-effect relationship, the cause must contain the same elements as the effect. Now we know that mind and body interact, as proven by stress-related ulcers and fever-induced hallucinations. Yet, if mind and body have such disparate, opposing qualities, how could they work together, given what philosophers believed to be true about causal relationships?

Succeeding philosophers such as Malebranche and Leibniz dealt with this problem in fascinating, if not fantastic, ways. The latter, for example, offered the idea of Preestablished Harmony, which posited that cause and effect relationships do not actually take place. Rather, God has programmed his “monads” (Leibniz’s term for substances, which he defined as varying combinations of mind and matter) to act in certain ways under certain situations. Hence, my giddy thoughts after drinking a large quantity of beer are not actually caused by the beer; instead, my thoughts have been predetermined by God to harmonize with the act of drinking beer.

This solution neatly avoids the polarized duality of mind and body (mind and matter are no longer strictly antithetical substances) as well as the problem of cause and effect. However, it lacks a certain believability. In addition, Leibniz’s determinism spurred him to proclaim that this world is the “best of all possible worlds” – a brocard incurring the scorn of Voltaire in his satire Candide.

The only way to navigate out of quandary was for philosophers to change the terms of the argument. The culmination of the Hume-Kant-Schopenhauer tradition denied mind and body as essential substances, but relegated them to the world of appearance. The only dualism, argued Schopenhauer, is that between the idea and the will. Mind and body constitute appearance: both are produced by the noumenal will, which is the driving force of existence. Schopenhauer’s conception of the will proved irresistible, of course, to his philosophical successor Nietzsche, who, in turn, shifted the emphasis of philosophy from pure metaphysics to the hodgepodge of psychology, historicism and linguistics that it is today.

The problem of mind-body dualism thus was consigned to a narrower branch of philosophy, one that was closely linked to developments in the sciences. In the middle of the nineteenth century, T.H. Huxley proposed a valuable theory to the modern discussion of the problem. It was called epiphenomenalism, and it conjectured that the mind or consciousness simply reflects the brain’s neural activities. There is no mind influencing the brain, then, but rather a mechanical brain that, in its neural processes, “produces” consciousness. To employ a popular metaphor of that mechanistic Victorian Age, the mind is the steam given off from the engine of the brain.

Developments in the field of logical behaviorism occasioned another mind-body theory. Best articulated by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, the theory posited that the original dualistic philosophy put forward by Descartes was built on a categorical error. Descartes and his successors had assumed that there was a private mental world, and thus they had attempted to reconcile that world with palpable physical actions. But, the behaviorists argued, there is no private mental world. I do not think something and then act upon it. Rather my behavior demonstrates, defines, and is my mental process. In other words, I do not think I am angry and then scowl. Instead, my scowling is my anger. Hence my anger is not private, but can be observed by other people. (Incidently, one can trace the roots of this sort of behaviorism to the logical positivist tradition where statements only achieve meaning if they are able to be verified)

So there is no immaterial mind affecting my material brain, but rather the purely physical world of neural activities triggering behaviors – and the “mind” simply comprises a series of concepts that we associate with these behaviors.

With the developments in the neurosciences, there are now a number of theories concerning mind-brain dualism. It would be helpful, perhaps, to categorize them in the following manner (along with their concomitant problems).

Avoiding the Problem (no dualism)

Behaviorism: The mind-brain problem is a categorical error. There is no private mind: only moods and dispositions as demonstrated through behavior.

Problem: Why is it that people act in different ways in response to the same stimuli? Why do their observable mental states differ when watching, say, the film Gone with the Wind? This would seem to leave the door open for a private unobservable mind at work.

Idealism: the idea derived from Bishop Berkeley that the world is simply a series of mental events. What we perceive are simply ideas that have no corresponding physical reality beyond our senses. The problem then of mind-brain dualism is erased, because there is no brain, as indeed, there are no physical objects whatsoever.

Problem: If there is no ultimate physical reality, how is it that we all experience physical objects in pretty much the same way? Idealism is predicated on the existence of a Higher Being who ensures that we have universal experiences. Naturally, assuming the existence of God raises a whole host of questions.

Identity Theory: This is the strictly materialistic view that mind and brain are identical. As such it effaces the individual self. Our experiences begin with sensory input and end with neural activity, without an independent self processing the results of neural activity.

Problem: The theory implies either a) everyone has identical brain activities corresponding with certain moods or mental states, or b) everyone has different brain activities, but they still correspond to these mental states in the same way, or c) there is no correlation between brain activities and mental states – just between brain activity and individual thoughts. The trouble is that there is really no way of proving any of these things to be true or to be demonstrably false. In the first case, it can be argued that I can never conjure up precisely the same moods for different individuals, thus explaining away any discrepancies in brain activity. In b and c, the hypotheses are so variable that they can never be verified.

Weak Non-interactive Dualism

Epiphenomenalism: As explained above, consciousness is the mist of the brain.

Problem: There are two problems with this once-fashionable theory. The first stems from the perspective of evolutionary biology. If consciousness is merely the steam given off by the mechanical brain, then it seems to serve no real purpose. We could just as easily have evolved as insensate zombies. Yet it seems unlikely that such a major development in human evolution is an unnecessary fluke.

The second problem is perhaps more damning. It is one advanced by Titus Rivas and Hein van Dongen in their article “Exit Epiphenomenalism: the Demolition of a Refuge.” If consciousness is the byproduct of the brain’s working, how is it that we actually know about it? Consciousness must have an effect on the brain’s neural sequence, but that very effect contradicts the premise of the epiphenomenal argument. The engine should not be cognizant of the steam.

Reverse Epiphenomenalism: the brain reflects the processes of the mind. The mind is essentially autonomous, free of the influence of neural events. This view, then, is most attractive to those who believe in the concept of a free will.

Problem: Neural events undoubtedly affect the mind, as witnessed by mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.

Strong Interactive Dualism

Mind-brain Symbiosis: Here, the brain does the majority of the footwork – memory recall and cognitive thinking, but the mind also provides some input, namely informing the brain of consciousness.

Problem: This idea solves the problem posed by epiphenomenalism. However, in so doing, it raises the question as to how an immaterial mind shares and produces thoughts in the material brain. We’re back, I’m afraid, to the problem raised by the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

Obviously, all of these theories have their sticking points. As the field of the neurosciences expands, it is quite likely we will have a clearer understanding of this issue; we may even solve the puzzle. But, of course, the question arises – what then? To quote Tom Wolfe from his essay “Sorry, your soul just died,” man is about to confront two fascinating riddles in the 21st century: “the riddle of the human mind and the riddle of what happens to the human mind when it comes to know itself absolutely.”

posted by Ed at 5:29 PM 



Must there be a Reason?

Yes, I have unveiled a new template. Will this remarkable turn of events translate to an improvement in the blog’s content? Sadly, probably not.

Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy the new format: the bold color scheme with its dizzying contrasts of sluggish grays, greens, and not-quite-whites; the Google-sponsored ads urging all comers to support a myriad of right-wing causes; the “About Me” box that, curiously enough, has precisely nothing to say about me.

All of it is my gift to you.

My Quote for the day:

"The Lefty starts from an unfocused dissatisfaction with the way things are. One need not drag Freud into the argument in order to suggest that the “way things are,” the social system, will strike the young or the youngish as a product of authority, of parents, schoolmasters, vicars and employers, the people who seem to limit freedom for the sake of doing so. Stage two prolongs this: the frustrations of trying to get on in a competitive society where most people by definition cannot get on very far. Then, like fire from heaven, the hint of an explanation and an ideology. The reason we are failing to get on, or simply not having a good enough time, is not because we are lazy and stupid but because of the system. So we now oppose the system ... An increasing bitterness develops as the system, having been repeatedly shouted at to pull itself together, chugs on much as before."

- Kingsley Amis

posted by Ed at 5:47 PM 



Humbug, I say

I was fishing around the internet today and found this fairly entertaining website featuring Dickens’ trivia, games, and odd bits of useful information. It echoed with another experience fresh in my mind.

Recently I landed in one of those year-round Christmas stores (quite by accident, I assure you). The merchandise was the usual kitsch – monstrous plastic reindeer with flashing lights, tree ornaments in the shape of duffers playing golf in tweed berets – that sort of thing. Naturally, such a place is not complete without those miniature Christmas villages, and this one had the requisite New England Village and Dickens Village prominently on display.

Now, Dickens Village is admittedly rather well done, and one takes a certain pleasure in being able to identify the Cheerybles’ firm and Eugene Wrayburn’s lodgings with their respective novels. It raises the question, though, why does Charles Dickens have a village – a miniature village, no less, that usually sits quaintly in people’s windows showered in fake snow flakes, with the soft glow of 15-watt light emanating from within each building? It is hardly necessary to add that these tiny ceramic products are intended to evoke a fanciful world of flickering street lamps, horse-drawn carriages, and flocks of cherry-cheeked moppets caroling in front of the local apothecary.

There is an irony to this, of course. Dickens did not inhabit an uncomplicated world, nor did he write of one. He was one of his age’s most important social critics, and anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of his novels remembers passages of didactic fervor directed against England’s social ills.

In his early work, these ills were localized in concrete places: the boarding school, the blacking factory, Scrooge and Marley’s. They could be overcome through the goodness of opposing forces (as invariably they were) or even through a moral change in the evil itself. Gradually, though, Dickens became much more pessimistic. Evil, in his works, no longer existed in isolated pockets, but spread out as a film over an entire society. In its pervasiveness, it also became more systemic. Hence, in Bleak House, we arrive at the murky dealings of Chancery Court, where an interminable court case poisons every life it touches without anyone having any idea what to do or how it came about.

Such a change naturally arose from Dickens’ maturation as a writer and a social observer. Youthful whimsy invariably gives way to a harder view of life. But the shift also reflected a change in the fabric of life around him. England in 1835 (when he wrote Pickwick Papers) was a very different country from the England of the 1850s and 1860s. With every track of rail being laid and with every new textile mill and steel factory mounting to the sky, England was assuring its position as the foremost industrial power in the world. Along the way, it was relentlessly pursuing laissez-faire economic policies, dabbling in utilitarian pedagogical ideas, and embarking upon disastrous military expeditions in the Crimea.

Dickens, then, could look around him and see an industrialized landscape slowly being drained of its personality and color. For a man skeptical of social reform and disdainful of revolutionary movements, the options in combating this unsettling shift were limited. This is not to suggest that Dickens denied positive reforms, but he was doubtful as to the extent these reforms could truly change things. Most often, his social program consisted of something along the lines of people having a “change of heart,” a moral transformation that would work hand-in-hand with the renewal of familial ties. Hence we see the importance of Dickens’ slightly-fantastic female heroines, who are the agents of this change as they perpetuate the creed of love through mother-child relations.

This essentially moral philosophy also explains many of the author’s other “good” characters. Dickens’ most memorable archetypes of goodness are either old men or young children. The former tend to evoke a bygone age, one that existed before the flattening of individuality that was taking place in an increasingly mechanized world. Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Fezziwig, the brothers Cheeryble: they sprightly wander about England in a perpetual state of eccentric innocence. These characters are old, but significantly we cannot envision them as getting any older. Though relics of the past, they are essentially timeless characters, because they exist apart from their society. And they exist apart from their society, because the mercantile world of buying and selling holds no currency for them.

Dickens’ children also partake in this timeless quality; mostly because the author chooses to take them away amid a whirl of pathos. Paul Dombey, Little Nell, and Johnny Harmon all die very young. They are innocent children who die with their innocence in tact. The implication of these deaths is that there is no other way: the greater society has lost the tools to properly nourish innocence and mold it into a richer adulthood. A world of textile mills and short-sighted economic values can only blight the innocence of childhood.

In part, I think these aspects of Dickens’ novels explain his appropriation by those wishing to equate Dickensian England with some sort of Merry England. In much of his early work (the work most people are familiar with), Dickens creates a gallery of characters that transcend their increasingly corrupt society by existing apart from it: enclaves of light in a world of darkness, if you will. It is this gallery and the world they inhabit that we latch onto.

This is surely not all of it. Dickens’ gift for caricature of a wide range of character-types must also be taken into account: the bold portraits of misers, petty thieves, and cockney ne’er do-wells that linger in the mind even after the cumbersome plots are long forgotten. Moreover, we cannot forget the separate life that A Christmas Carol has achieved through its various film versions over the years – so much so that for many people this work is Dickens. Naturally, it is easy, in watching the movie versions, to see this particular work as the story of one miser’s redemption, rather than the more sweeping social criticism that it really is.

posted by Ed at 4:29 PM 



Where’s our Defense of the English Language Bill?

Well, this is rather amusing, courtesy of BBC News.

President Bush, speaking at a White House signing of a new Defense Bill, managed to scare the women and children with a bit of his fractured syntax.

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."


George, George….time to look over those note cards a little more closely.

posted by Ed at 4:56 PM 



The start of something new

After a five month absence, I have decided to restart my blog.

Much has happened in the interim - I have been writing a paper on a playwright whose work I don't especially enjoy, downloaded an excessive number of audiobooks (the virtues of which I may dilate upon at a later date), and have learned to cook quite a few vegetarian meals.

So, determined to begin anew, I have decided upon a theme to be discussed at some length in the coming posts. I set it down now (perhaps a little more crudely than I wish) as: what makes a poem work? Issues of tone, meter, rhythm, and others related to versification were once studied rigorously, not to mention hotly debated and contested. Now, judgments regarding poetry seem limited to the rather vague standards of "this poem sounds pretty" or "this poem speaks to me," while the academic work confines itself to unmasking a particular poem's ideologies or - if we happen to be reading a work by someone who is female, black, or gay, or most desirably all three - revealing how a poem subverts the prevailing power structure. The point is your typical English graduate student doesn't discuss trochees much anymore.

Anyway, that is all for now. I leave you with a winter poem to enjoy.

"Winter Trees"

by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details

of the attiring and

the disattiring are completed!

A liquid moon

moves gently among

the long branches.

Thus having prepared their buds

against a sure winter

the wise trees

stand sleeping in the cold.

posted by Ed at 5:01 PM 



The Prodigal Blogger Returns

Two months ago I pledged to illuminate the blogosphere about the intricacies of poetic craftsmanship, now I reappear shamefaced and sheepish with nothing to show for my promises. It’s not that the subject no longer interests me; I have been reading quite a bit of Apollinaire’s poetry recently and found myself in the queer position of feeling both enthralled and vexed. Enthralled because many of his poems are marvelous and strange – the type that cannot be shaken easily from the reader’s consciousness. Vexed, however, because I feel a sort of dilettantism in my readings: I’m achieving a passing familiarity with certain themes and ideas, without giving the poetry the rigorous attention it needs. Good poetry, after all, requires labor on the part of its reader, and I have been too lazy up until now to hold up my end of the bargain.

So, I’m keeping this project somewhere close at hand, because it is worthwhile. However, I do want to write about other things as well. I find that I have been re-reading a lot of literature lately. I did Beowulf about a month ago, and am now two-thirds of the way through Stendhal’s Rouge et Noir. I think once Stendhal is completed, I will move on to Brave New World again. Perhaps this is all part of some vague nostalgia for my late teens and early twenties; perhaps I am slowly realizing that I am very different from what I was five years ago and wish to gauge how this change affects my view of certain books. I’m not quite sure. I do know that I hate forgetting things, and I feel that, regarding certain books and poems, I am beginning to forget.

Anyway, as soon as I begin Brave New World, I will blog about it, particularly concerning its relevance to life going on right now. Obviously, I am not alone in thinking the contemporary world has taken a wrong turn. Furthermore, I think Huxley’s work, more so than other noted dystopian novels, provides a compelling insight into what precisely has gone wrong.

But we shall see.

posted by Ed at 4:54 PM 


Talking books, you see

A few days ago my friend Erik mentioned that he was finishing Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake for his graduate English class. Now both of us had read and praised Lahiri’s earlier work, a fine collection of short stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies, so I asked him how he was enjoying her first novel. “Not very,” he replied, and then described the work as a sort of postcolonial handbook. He proceeded to relate one scene in which one of the central characters, an Indian immigrant, is asked by the typically obtuse American if he or she speaks “Indian.” “Nobody talks like that,” my friend griped.

I sympathize with my friend’s complaints. Lahiri’s new novel sounds regrettably disingenuous. Of course, there is a class of Americans who think that people from India speak Indian; there is probably even a sizeable pool of Americans who would be fat-witted enough to ask the question and display their ignorance for the world to see. These are probably the same people who could not tell you who America’s president was during either World War and would stumble in answering what the acronym GDP represents. In other words, there are certainly Americans who are uneducated and uninformed about almost everything, with the exception perhaps of the recent performance of their favorite sports team. I wish it were otherwise, but that is the reality.

Now, if I were to write a novel depicting my countrymen as such, I would probably be dismissed as snobbish and simplistic. Write a “culture-clash” novel, however, and include the ugly American either at home or abroad, and suddenly one has hit upon a representation of a type that the intellectual class in Academia can all recognize and shake their heads at with knowing disapproval. “Yes, this American who cannot identify Rwanda on a map and does not know the difference between the Tutsis and the Hutus,” our intellectual can intone, “he is a large reason so many immigrants feel alienated and unrecognized in this country.” From this sweeping conclusion, he is naturally free to make other similar leaps of and from logic, i.e. “America’s attitude towards the rest of the world stems from its cultural ignorance,” and “it is our duty as intellectuals to educate,” etc.

This speaks to the problem regarding post-colonial literature when it is written consciously as such. It fails to depict people as people, but rather portrays them as types that fit the theoretical mold. If indeed Lahiri has written a “postcolonial handbook,” this is an unfortunate departure from her first book Interpreter of Maladies. In that work, Lahiri wrote characters with subtlety and depth, especially in the opening piece “A Temporary Matter.” Her stories were, at heart, humane, and open to a variety of critical and theoretical interpretations. Post-colonial literature eschews such ambiguity. One comes to the text knowing the destination, simply needing one’s post-colonial decoder ring to get there. It is literature fated to pass away when people are ready to move on to the next critical or theoretical fad, but this should not be lamented, since it was barely alive to begin with.

posted by Ed at 12:43 PM 



And They Disappear, One by One

One of the problems with having a fairly extensive knowledge of popular music and movies from the 1930s and 1940s is the depressing reality of watching, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the principle figures of that era die off, one by one. More disheartening is the fact that these deaths are rarely front page news, and one rarely learns of them until some time after the fact. If, heaven forbid, Britney Spears should shuffle off this mortal coil, I would learn about it within minutes, but, in the case of someone with actual musical talent – the bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw – I found myself uninformed for two months.

It is with sadness then that I report the March 6 death of actress Teresa Wright. Teresa will be remembered for three films: Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of our Lives, and Shadow of a Doubt. The first is a fairly charming piece of patriotic fluff from World War II, which netted Wright a best supporting actress nomination. The second is a more serious venture: the realistic examination of people struggling to return to everyday life in the aftermath of the Great War. Both are interesting for varying reasons, but I can’t say they have aged particularly well. The last film is an entirely different matter and merits further discussion.

Wright’s film career is noteworthy for another reason. Remarkably pretty, but hardly glamorous, she stood out as one of the last Hollywood actresses who actually looked like a normal human being. Wright’s star ascended briefly in the mid-1940s, before trailing off into perpetual obscurity. After Wright came Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and the awful decade of the 1950s, when Hollywood film producers dolled up their women to look plastic and platinum: a hideous masturbatory cross between department store mannequin and drag queen. Think Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo – this was the rule, not the exception. Only in the mid-1960s, a much different era, did Hollywood actresses begin to resemble women again.

Wright’s greatest role came in a Hitchcock film, the aforementioned Shadow of a Doubt. It is, I think, a remarkable film and one of Hitchcock’s very best. The movie is a wonderfully-paced story of a teenage girl (Wright) living in carefree small-town America who gradually comes to realize that her visiting uncle (Joseph Cotton) is a wanted murderer. It is a story of innocence lost and helplessness in the face of evil; it is light turning to shadow and dropping off into darkness. My father once remarked that he first saw the movie under circumstances in which he missed the opening scene (a sequence that portrays Cotton under a noir-ish cloud of moral ambivalence; the only such sequence in the first hour of the film). He proceeded to explain that the absence of this first scene made the unraveling of the rest of the movie completely stunning. I can certainly see how this would be, prompting me to wonder if the film might have been better without the opening section.

Regardless, the movie is great as it stands. Thornton Wilder gets credit for the screenplay, while the under-rated Joseph Cotton gives one of his best performances. But it is a tribute to Wright to note that Cotton does not outshine her in this film; they star as equals, and it is their fierce interplay that gives the movie its enduring power.

R.I.P. Teresa

posted by Ed at 9:15 PM 



As The Day Winds Down

Okay, so today’s been lousy. I spent my afternoon at the Johnson City Mall, which was even more chaotic and miserable than usual. I do think there needs to be a law that requires dog shows be held exclusively outdoors. I think there also needs to be something done about so many people congregating in a single place. But these are idle dreams – besides, what should I expect? Going to the mall on a weekend is like being dragged through the bowels of hell, with Virgil hightailing it at the front door.

Also, the dinner I made turned out badly. And my girlfriend is leaving for Nashville for an entire week – which is very depressing....

But, regardless, a change of season is almost here. I go outside and the closeness of spring is palpable. A good thing too, because St. Patrick’s Day has just passed me by, and, with it, the annual date to plant peas. I’ve decided to garden this year. It’s an activity that I think will help keep me sane for a little while.

Besides, I want to see if I can grow a cucumber.

Anyway, that’s it for now (along with a poem).

Loveliest of Trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride,

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

-- A.E. Housman

posted by Ed at 11:44 PM 



As The Day Winds Down

Okay, so today’s been lousy. I spent my afternoon at the Johnson City Mall, which was even more chaotic and miserable than usual. I do think there needs to be a law that requires dog shows be held exclusively outdoors. I think there also needs to be something done about so many people congregating in a single place. But these are idle dreams – besides, what should I expect? Going to the mall on a weekend is like being dragged through the bowels of hell, with Virgil hightailing it at the front door.

Also, the dinner I made turned out badly. And my girlfriend is leaving for Nashville for an entire week – which is very depressing....

But, regardless, a change of season is almost here. I go outside and the closeness of spring is palpable. A good thing too, because St. Patrick’s Day has just passed me by, and, with it, the annual date to plant peas. I’ve decided to garden this year. It’s an activity that I think will help keep me sane for a little while.

Besides, I want to see if I can grow a cucumber.

Anyway, that’s it for now (along with a poem).

"Loveliest of Trees"

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride,

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

-- A.E. Housman

posted by Ed at 11:44 PM 



Movies I Want To Watch, Books I Want To Read

It’s a rainy day in Binghamton, and I think the cat is going to drive me crazy. One moment it is sitting silent at the window, elegantly outlined against a darkening sky; the next second, it stands howling piteously at the door. I’m sure someone can explain this behavior to me.

I’ve been thinking about things I want to read and watch (the planning of things is so much more wonderfully undisciplined than the doing). I’ve decided that I absolutely must see Ivan The Terrible at some point in the near future, for a few reasons:

1. The film is directed by Sergei Eisenstein, who stands as one of the great Russian film directors (he also directed the Battleship Potemkin)

2. Sergei Prokofiev composed the film score. No elaboration required, I think.

3. The film is actually in two parts. The first was released in 1947; the second part, however, was withheld by Soviet authorities. Apparently, Stalin did not appreciate the Machiavellian depiction of Ivan in the second part of the film, seeing uncomfortable parallels to his own despotic reign. Not until 1958, ten years after Eisenstein’s death, did it see the light of day.

4. I’m just in the mood for 3 hours of black-and-white Russian cinema.

I also want to read Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They?. It’s a book that has always intrigued me ever since I watched the fine movie of the same name, especially given my friend Erik’s promising review of the book. Interestingly, he is writing a play based on the novel for his Crime Fiction class. Needless to say, I’m intrigued.

Perhaps, it may even necessitate a blog review - if the author is willing, that is.

posted by Ed at 9:57 PM 


Take That, Spring.

Which Is The Right One?

I once knew a certain Benedicta who filled the air with the Ideal and whose eyes radiated a yearning for grandeur, for beauty, for glory and for everything that makes one believe in immortality.

But that miraculous young woman was too beautiful to live very long, and indeed, soon after I had first encountered her, she died. And on a day when even the cemeteries had fallen under the spell of springtime's censer, it was I myself who buried her. Yes, it was I who buried her, shut tight in a coffin of scented and incorruptible wood, like those chests from far-off India.

And as my eyes remained fastened on that place where my treasure lay buried, I suddenly saw a little being who bore a singular resemblance to the deceased Benedicta and who, stamping furiously and with wild abandon on the fresh earth, was laughing hysterically while shouting: "It is I, the real Benedicta! It is I! A famous wench! And as punishment for your folly and your blindness, you shall love me such as I am!"

But enraged, I replied, "No! No! No!" And the better to emphasize my refusal, I slammed my foot on the ground so violently that my leg sank up to my knee in the newly filled pit. And like a wolf caught in a trap, I remain to this very day stuck fast, perhaps forever, in the grave of the Ideal.

-- Charles Baudelaire (trans. L.M. Friedman)

posted by Ed at 12:52 PM 



I May Be Wrong, I May Be Right

After he [the city mouse] had placed the peasant then, stretched at ease, upon a splendid carpet; he bustles about like an adroit host, and keeps bringing up one dish close upon another, and with an affected civility performs all the ceremonies, first tasting of every thing he serves up. He, reclined, rejoices in the change of his situation, and acts the part of a boon companion in the good cheer: when on a sudden a prodigious rattling of the folding doors shook them both from their couches. Terrified they began to scamper all about the room, and more and more heartless to be in confusion, while the lofty house resounded with the barking of mastiff dogs; upon which, says the country-mouse, 'I have no desire for a life like this; and so farewell: my wood and cave, secure from surprises, shall with homely tares comfort me.'

-- Horace Book 2, Satire 6; trans. John T. Kirby

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I have been re-reading Stendhal’s Rouge et Noir. The novel is an interesting one, and I plan to write about it further in a future post. For now, however, I will limit myself to discussing a prominent motif in the work, which I have been thinking about recently in terms of how it has evolved through the history of literature. Briefly, I have been wondering about the opposition of city and country life in literature, and the transformation of that opposition through the ages.

The first sustained juxtaposition of the country and the city of which I am aware is in Horace’s Satire 6 (Book 2). Here, Horace writes to his patron, expressing gratitude for the gift of a farm. In the process, he dilates upon the simple virtues of country life, as opposed to the clatter and strife of living in Rome. When in Rome, Horace finds himself continually assaulted because of his intimate relationship with his patron. The brutish crowds jostle him in the street as he attempts to fulfill his job duties; ambitious acquaintances ask him for favors or confront him with rumors they wish to have confirmed or dispelled. It is all such a waste of time, Horace laments, and his recurring theme holds that life in the city is just a giant exercise in triviality. Hence, Horace’s famous cry for his country home:

o rus, quando ego te aspiciam! quandoque licebit

nunc veterum libris, nunc somno et inertibus horis,

ducere sollicitae iucunda oblivia vitae! (lines 87-91)

Oh rustic home, when will I see you? And when will it be permitted, sometimes with the texts of the ancients, sometimes with sleep and quiet hours, for me to find sweet oblivion from life’s troubles? Trans. my own

For Horace, obviously, the country becomes a place in which exists the opportunity to live peacefully and contemplatively, far removed from the bustle and empty social-climbing of the city.

While Horace is the only to compare explicitly the city with the country, his contemporaries reinforce the opposition. Juvenal, in his Satire 3, rails against Rome, not merely as the seat of superficiality, but as a place of complete moral debasement and vice. Virgil, on the other hand, continually evokes the country life in his Eclogues and Georgics in much the same vein as Horace: a place of peace and gentle reflection, far removed from the maddening crowd.

These writings, I think lay down a solid framework for the country/city binary for at least 1500 years, if only merely for that fact that people perceived the classical world as the font of wisdom: the source of timeless values and ideas. Hence, we see the enduring popularity of the pastoral romance, and the stock traits of guilelessness, innocence, and naturalness that are associated with people from the provinces.

Let me skip ahead then to two works: one from the 17th century and one from the 18th century: William Wycherley’s play The Country Wife and Fielding’s novel Tom Jones. Here we see a striking new twist on the opposition of country and city. In Wycherley’s play, country life is no longer depicted as the seat of virtue, with the city as the sole source of vice. Rather, folly resides in both places: the only contrast to be found is in the manner of its expression. In the country, specifically in the character of Mr. Pinchwife, folly is blunt and bullheaded. The city, however, is more sophisticated in its deployment of vice, as characters achieve their ends through serpentine duplicity.

Tom Jones possesses similar characteristics to the old view. Certainly, Tom Jones himself is an ingenuous character, and one cannot imagine Squire Allworthy (a paragon of virtue, if not always the most penetrating discerner of character) in any other setting but a rustic one. Nonetheless, the depiction of folly is similar to that in The Country Wife. In the country, Squire Weston is obtuse and uncouth, managing his family affairs through bluster and violence. He makes us laugh through his obviousness; we cannot take his rudeness that seriously. The saturnine Blifel, on the other hand, is a genuine hypocrite and rake, but even his art of deception does not hold a candle to the sinuous workings of the city. In the country, the rogues are amateurs; in the city, they are pros.

This marks a development, which is not to say that the old view disappears entirely. In fact, I would say that it remains a vital current in art, appearing in Grey’s famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” for example, and many Romantic writings on both sides of the pond. However, there is, at the very least, a complication of the traditional view, which brings me to two 19th century French novels: Rouge et Noir and Madame Bovary.

In Stendhal’s work, Julien Sorel, the hero, begins his life in a provincial town and eventually progresses to Paris. Again, there are certain similarities in pattern to Wycherley and Fielding. Stendhal depicts provincial life as rife with petty bourgeois politics: it is the seat of small-minded men wrestling for power. Now in the city, the politics loom just as large: important people fill their drawing rooms with gossip; everything is scrutinized. People are marked by the way they dress, by the way they speak, and the way they act and react to social situations. However, the stakes are higher here than in the province, and the horizons of the participants broader. For an ambitious man like Sorel, only this environment can do, for only here can individual greatness reveal itself to its fullest extent.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary also addresses the petty bourgeois preoccupations of provincial life. Madame Bovary feels suffocated by the insular world around her, and she wishes for escape, primarily into the romantic world of the novels she has read, but also to the cosmopolitan world of the city. A fruitful comparison can be made here to Carol Kennicott’s predicament in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, which also involves a lively individual suffering the deadening effects of small-time life. In essence, we are witnessing a reversal of Horace’s lament. Now, it must be clear that Flaubert and Lewis are not facile in their probing of the issue. Madame Bovary and Carol Kennicott ultimately come across, not so much the victims of their environment, but the victims of themselves. Nonetheless, the framework has changed.

We may also mark this shift in some of the works of exclusively urban writers. In the writings of the fin-de-siecle poets beginning with Baudelaire, we find new visions of the city. Through the eyes of the poet, we witness a place that is dingy, dirty, and morally decrepit. Yet, there is not that concomitant longing for a far-off place that we see in Horace. Instead, the poet finds himself irresistibly attracted to the seediness about him. The city provides him with a snapshot of the grotesque. The poet, in turn, must examine this snapshot in minute detail and look into the lower depths of his fellow creatures. He must recognize man fully as a debased creature, one in need of redemption through that elusive ideal Beauty. The city then does not distract the poet from life; it is life. Only here can one truly be an artist.

Some of this mentality re-emerges in the attitudes of the expatriates who flocked to Paris in the 1920s. In addition, we see in these intellectuals the calcifying of an outlook that prevails to this day. For them, Paris represented the freedom to think and write. Intellectual were at liberty to gather and circulate their ideas however radical, without danger of rebuke from their less liberal brethren. In the province, the intellectual stood isolated, while his thought risked fettering by all types of convention: nationalism, Protestantism, bourgeois mercantilism, and various petty bigotries etc.

This polarity continues on. We see its present incarnation in the “blue state/red state” divide that has become increasingly popular to document and dissect. It quite clearly emerges in the reaction of a New York academic if you express to him or her your desire to go to graduate school in Texas. It is also far removed from the thought of Horace.

That is all I have to write now. I think there is much more to be said and questioned (for example, at what point did “provincialism” become a pejorative term?), and it is more than likely that I have glossed a great bit of history relevant to my argument. But I weary and must buy bread.

posted by Ed at 2:39 PM 


A Change For The Better, I Hope

Okay, so I have changed my template once again. Not because I disliked the old one, mind you; as a matter of fact, I liked the old one immensely, much better than this sickly green mess that abuses the untrained eye. Rather, I made the change to accommodate the new feature: a section of links on the right-hand of the page. Try as I might I could not get a links section to work with my old template, so the necessary concession was made. After all, no blogger is an island entire of itself; he functions, instead, as a link in the chain – a bridge to bigger and better internet locations. I hope to uphold this communal spirit.

Most of the links require little explanation. I enjoy the works of Beckett and Melville; I am very fond of the music of Prokofiev and find this particular webpage astonishingly comprehensive. The Hitchens brothers, I include, because of their intractable opposition on just about every issue relevant to man. The Flying Inkpot provides some very good analysis of classical music releases, if you are willing to sidestep gingerly the reviews of Alanis Morissette records. And so on.

One link may surprise and disappoint you: the blank page at the end of the Whirling Cretin Girl link. I’m at a loss for this. I know the person behind this blog, and she is a woman of lively wit and intelligence. She is, however, distressingly recalcitrant about updating her blog. My response to this is a firm warning that if she doesn’t begin writing soon, I will simply have to write it for her.

Now, I’m off to see what I can about updating my profile. I have written more than 15 posts and 9,900 words, I assure you.

posted by Ed at 2:17 PM 



It’s That Time of Year, I Guess

Oh, to be a baseball fan now that April will soon be here. Young men limbering up their muscles after a winter’s repose. A few hardy souls applying oil to their unyielding gloves to shag flies in the outfield. Battle-tested veterans checking cautiously to see if their fastball still has its usual pop. Young rookies lacing up their spikes with the hope of making the big club this year. Scores of beefy sluggers testifying in front of Congress about the prevalence of illegal drug use in their profession. Hmmm. . . Grantland Rice, it is good that you are not here to witness this. . .

Regardless of other circumstances, however, there’s nothing better than a rousing Hall of Fame debate, especially for those like me who have a weird obsession with statistics (the idea of watching a midseason baseball game without knowing anyone’s ERA, batting average, or home run total gives me the chills). Sobriquet Magazine's most recent post examines Mark McGwire’s HOF credentials and finds them lacking. I disagree.

Let me start by positing that the question of Hall-of-Fame merit contains two very distinct issues. First, there is the issue of whether a player merits election based on the observer’s ideal criteria for what a Hall of Famer should be. Second, there is the issue of whether a player should be enshrined based on the real-life precedent set by previous inductions. Fred McGriff, for example, does not pass muster on the first count, in my opinion, but is certainly worthy of induction based on the second criterion.

Here’s why. First, there is the glaring fact that no player with as many home runs to his credit has been rejected from the Hall. Many people, however, point to McGriff’s recent drive to 500 home runs (a quest that ultimately failed) as an example of a good-but-not-great player profiting from the power inflation of the 1990s, and that in an era of more balanced pitching and hitting, McGriff would not have even come close to putting up Hall of Fame numbers. Hence, his case for induction is absurdly weak.

What people overlook is that prior to 1994 (the generally agreed upon advent of home run inflation), McGriff won 2 home run titles and hit 228 home runs. In fact, the breakdown goes like this:

1987-1993: 228 home runs, 32.6 home runs per season

1994-2003: 263 home runs, 26.3 home runs per season

(I have excluded both his abbreviated 1986 and 2004 campaigns, in which he hit a combined 2 home runs)

Now let’s speculate for a moment that during the years 1994-2003, home runs were inflated from their normal worth by a full 50%. In other words, the player who hit 50 home runs during a season from 1994-2003 would in a “normal season” have hit 33 home runs, while 30 becomes 20, etc. Under this calculation, McGriff’s robust 26.3 home run per year average suddenly shrinks to a less impressive 17.5 home run per year mark during that span. This represents quite a drop from the 32.6 of previous years, which suggests in all likelihood that my inflation conjecture is a little severe. Yet, even when you add this new 10-year total of 175 to his ‘87-93 total of 228 home runs, you still arrive at 403 home runs (I exclude his 2 home runs from 2004, because it’s pretty obvious that he was re-signed in order to pursue 500 home runs – a scenario that under our revised system would not exist). And, the fact remains that no player with as healthy a combination of batting average (.284) and home runs (403) has ever received the Hall of Fame snub. Fred McGriff, then, belongs in Cooperstown.

So where does this leave McGwire? Well, in terms of precedent, no player who has hit 500 home runs has been denied the Hall – even players with relatively low batting averages such as Jackson and Killebrew. And, if we apply my fuzzy math to McGwire’s totals, we still end up with 465 home runs, which combined with his .264 average, has historically been Hall-worthy. But does this mean he is a Hall of Famer in the first sense, as explained above? I think first we must address Erik’s argument.

Erik’s case against Hall of Fame enshrinement boils down to this. 583 home runs looks very nice, but if we take a closer look at his other statistics, we see the lead beneath the black enamel. There is his mediocre .263 average, for instance; 1626, his number of hits, also stands out as very ordinary. Let’s not even start about his 252 doubles, 6 triples, and 12 stolen bases. Needless to say, all signs point to a decidedly one-dimensional player, which is hardly what we are looking for in a Hall of Fame inductee. If we are to elect people to the Hall, Erik reasons, let’s look beyond one statistic and view the totality of his credentials. Then, we will know how good a player he really is.

There are, I think, two problems with this. First of all, McGwire was not quite the one-dimensional player that Erik portrays. He was, as a matter of fact, a consistently good first baseman, even winning a gold glove for the Oakland Athletics in 1990. Take that for what you will, but he was much better defensive player than, say, Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson.

More importantly, there is one-dimensional, and then there’s one-dimensional. There’s a difference between someone being a marvel at drag bunting and little else, and someone limited to hitting mammoth home runs at an astounding clip of 1 out of every 7.8 at bats (his rate from 1995 to 2000). The fact is that from 1992 to 2000, Mark McGwire was, by far, the best power hitter in the game. If he had been fully healthy for the duration of this period, I don’t think that there is much question that he, not Bonds, would have been the third person to reach the 700 plateau.

Now nine years is a long time. Only Babe Ruth, I think, put together a longer stretch as the most prolific home run hitter in the game. Moreover, if we extract the years 1996-2000, we realize a player who quite simply intimidated pitchers as few ever have. Let’s take a statistic that does not concern home runs. In 1998, McGwire drew 162 walks (followed up 133 in 1999). That is a remarkable total; it means he averaged over one walk per game for that season. Did he accomplish this feat by means of his exceptional batting eye? Not at all. Rather, it was the product of pitchers living in complete fear of his ability to hit home runs. This is what separates his one dimension from other players who have prospered off of one skill (i.e. Vince Coleman). It also renders any comparison to Tino Martinez untenable. Mark McGwire swung the balance of power from the pitcher to the hitter in the way that no one had since Babe Ruth. It is a fact that we forget in the wake of the even greater domination exacted by Barry Bonds in the last few years. But this shift is one that, I think, merits Hall of Fame induction.

Certainly, Erik makes a valid point about the commonplace nature of his other statistics. I will say, though that a few require some qualification. His low career batting average is the result largely of his first five years (especially ‘89-91) and his horrific final season. During the period I cited above (1992-2000), McGwire batted a much more respectable .286. The relatively slight quantity of hits has a great deal to do with both his injury-prone back, which limited his play in several seasons, and the number of walks issued by pitchers during his most spectacular seasons, which reduced his number of at-bats for those seasons.

The stolen bases cannot be explained away. He simply was a very slow man. But then again, so was Dwight Eisenhower.

Incidentally, all that I have just written is dependent, of course, on a steroid-free McGwire. If indeed he was a user, and the “real” McGwire was the man who burst onto the scene with 49 home runs and then began to slip into mediocrity once pitchers figured out the giant hole in his swing, then he certainly does not deserve induction. The sad thing is that we will probably never know for sure.

posted by Ed at 7:41 PM 



College News, Both Good And Bad

Okay, first the good news (and it is really good news). My girlfriend was just accepted, with a full tuition scholarship, by the University of Notre Dame for their Creative Writing Program. Even better, she did not receive this news in the mail; rather the director called her on her cell phone to tell her of this development and added that she was their top choice for admission. Well done, Beth. And cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame.

The disheartening news is this. I was drifting through the internet today and found that Minnesota Public Radio bought WCAL, the classical radio station of my alma mater St. Olaf College. This is unfortunate, because WCAL was easily my favorite radio station while living in Minnesota. The station displayed a rare devotion to both actually playing music (rather than treating it as filler between DJ babbling sessions) and playing the music in its entirety. In other words, a listener had a reasonable expectation of hearing the complete Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, rather than, say, getting just the first movement.

This, however, is no more. Now one might suppose that the purchasing of one classical music station by another classical music station would not be such a drastic turn of events. As a matter of fact, however, MPR has decided to relieve its new purchase of its classical repertoire. Classical 89.3 has re-emerged as “The Current 89.3,” deciding to put on a hipper, more “eclectic” brand of music for the young folks. As MPR’s program director rather smarmily puts it, the station “is finally recognizing that there is music for informed, thoughtful people beyond ‘classical.’”

Now, this development is not entirely bad. Alongside such boring alt-rock acts as The Honeydogs and Soul Asylum, the station also plays the Arcade Fire and occasionally The Jam. Now I don’t mind a station that plays “Going Underground;” as a matter of fact, I welcome it. However, I wish that such musical developments came at the expense of radio stations featuring Matchbox Twenty and Eminem rather than ones featuring Sibelius and Beethoven. The fact is that the airwaves are becoming a rather boring mix of stations that either feature mainstream music (pop, classic rock etc.) or embrace that delightful misnomer, “indie-alternative” music (90% of which is derivative, short-lived junk). Classical music meanwhile is relegated to one station: a public station that literally spends half its time not playing music.

It raises the question as to the future of classical music in America. I happen to think it is a bleak one, for a myriad of reasons that I will discuss in a future blog. Certainly this particular development represents one small step in a rather troubling direction.

posted by Ed at 2:49 PM 



Thoughts On Housman

Into my heart an air that kills

From yon for country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

It is a troubling thought that the fortunes of artists depend so greatly on the fluctuating tides of critical popularity. Gerard Manley Hopkins seemed fated for obscurity until a few New Critics discerned in his work the beginnings of a modernist sensibility; Christina Rossetti lay dead and buried until recent critics resurrected her as a proto-feminist, etc.

Others naturally have not been so lucky. Arthur Symons, sic transit gloria mundi. An equally striking example is the 19th century British poet A.E. Housman. It is not that Housman has entirely ceased to be a recognizable name. The recent Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love, which took the life of Housman as its central theme, speaks to a certain degree of cultural familiarity with the man. It is hard to imagine a successful play with the poet Edward Thomas at the center. Yet, go to your local university library, and compare the number of critical works lying on the shelf for T.S. Eliot and A.E. Housman, and you will see that the latter’s poetry has received short shrift from the scholarly world.

This discrepancy between the fortunes of the man and the poet is understandable, I think. Housman’s life has a certain plaintive quality that we find attractive. Here was a man seemingly destined for great things as a classical scholar, when he stunningly failed his final examination, presumably as the result of inner turmoil caused by a homosexual crush for a fellow student. This event spun his life on a markedly different course. He first took up teaching at a grammar school and then became a clerk in the London Patent Office, all the while pursuing his classical studies in isolation. Eleven years after the Oxford calamity, his reputation as a classicist, built on several articles published in scholarly journals, earned him the appointment as Professor of Latin at University College, London. Eventually he would move on to Cambridge.

Housman achieved renown during his life in two disparate fields. He had a genius for scholarship, producing extraordinary editions of Juvenal, Lucan, and Manilius (in 5 volumes). More importantly, he was a great poet, though his output proved slight: two slim volumes published 26 years apart. It was for his first publication, A Shropshire Lad in 1896, that Housman cemented his reputation. The esteem for this collection of pastoral poems, however, has diminished considerably in the 100 years since.

Housman’s poetry has suffered neglect, I think, because it cannot be readily classified. It has certain affinities with Romantic and modernist sensibilities, without really embodying either. Certainly, one can see Romantic elements in his poetry: the transience of time, the lament for lost youth, the omnipresence of nature, etc. Yet, it cannot really be termed Romantic, because it lacks a necessary component: the Ecstasy. If one examines this particular poem, this absence becomes quite apparent.

Loveliest of trees the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my three score years and ten,

Twenty will not come again.

And take from seventy years a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom,

Fifty Springs is little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

One sees here a subdued reverence for nature. The narrator measures his life and sees value in it by his need to observe the cherry hung with snow. There is a parallel drawn between the transience of the blossoming cherry tree, and the fleeting quality of a man’s youth and life. Underneath this layer, there is also a hint of something else unexpressed. The poem touches on one of life’s tragic truths – that Nature and man exist on two separate planes. Nature exists cyclically outside time, while the individual lives within time, moving from point A to point B before becoming extinct. Even as this year’s blossom fades and withers away, next year will bring another bloom, but the individual cannot be reborn this way, and will find himself in a year’s time just another step closer to his end.

We may ask ourselves, then, whether the narrator, in attempting to lose himself in nature’s beauty, and thereby escaping the reflection that “twenty will not come again,” will only achieve the melancholy awareness of his mortality in the presence of that which is eternal. But the narrator, himself, does not ask this directly. We are left, instead, with the narrator’s quiet resolution to make the most of his short time alive.

It is beautiful lyric that has certain Romantic qualities. What is missing, however, is this:

O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being

Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill

(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)

With living hues and odours plain and hill;

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear

In Shelley’s poem, nature contains a vital being – one that is both frightful and exhilarating. The poet is not simply reverential in its presence, but also quite afraid of its dual role of “destroyer and preserver.” This spirit of nature, such a vital current in Romantic poetry, does not exist for Housman. Rather, for him, nature appears a passive force rather than an active one. It is the measure of a man’s life: the home of his childhood, the faraway land of his adulthood – forever enshrined in his memory – and once again the eternal home when he dies.

Housman’s modernist strain is also apparent, but also quite limited. Certainly his poetry bears little resemblance to the verse of Pound, Apollinaire, and Eliot. Yet, I think we see something of the modernist in his use of clean, sparse language, and elusive narrative. Take this poem for instance:

When I came last to Ludlow

Amidst the moonlight pale,

Two friends kept step beside me,

Two honest lads and hale.

Now Dick lies long in the churchyard,

And Ned lies long in jail,

And I come home to Ludlow

Amidst the moonlight pale.

Certainly in terms of form, Housman seems to exist in a different universe from the poets we classify as modernist. His choice of the ballad-form could not be more different from the idiom of vers libre. Yet, the story, told in simple language, is mysterious and vague. It poses a score of questions that it will not answer. What happened to Dick and Ned? How do two people, described as “honest,” end up dead and in jail? Was an injustice done to them? Were they corrupted somehow (Ludlow is the site, after all, of Ludlow Fair)? How did the narrator manage to avoid the fate of his companions?

The poem asks these questions, in part because of its complete lack of sentimentality. If a tear were shed about Dick and Ned, we might at least get a sense of how we should feel about what happened, even if we don’t know the circumstances. Instead, we only sense the narrator’s detachment.

Moreover, the repetition of the line “amidst the moonlight pale” (in congruence with the ballad form) suggests the indifference of the natural world to human fortunes. When life was good, and Dick and Ned were hale, the moonlight shone pale. Now that something seemingly brutal has happened, the moonlight still shines pale. Nothing changes.

All of these characteristics, elusive narration, detachment, and nature’s indifference, reveal a decidedly modernist side to the poetry. However, for obvious reasons, it would be hard to say with a straight face that Housman was a modernist. There is little experimentation with form, no fidelity to the concrete image, no confrontation in theme with a fractured social order, few allusions to the rituals and myths of the cultural past. I could go on.

It is only fair, I think, to understand Housman as an admixture of many different things. There is Romanticism; there is modernism. We may also add a certain dash of neoclassicism. The Norton Anthology of English Literature introduction to Housman notes the “gather ye rosebuds” theme in his poetry, but remarks that it departs from the traditional employment of that theme through its “undertones of fatalism and even doom.” This is quite true. There is something of the-Cavalier-poet-meets-Thomas-Hardy in the way that Housman depicts the fleeting nature of time. Naturally, of course, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is simply a 17th century twist on Horace’s words “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” (seize the day, put no trust in the future), and this classical version comes closer than Herrick to expressing Housman’s sentiments on the matter.

Indeed, one may discern other characteristics of a classical strain in Housman’s poetry: his stoic posture towards suffering and death, his elements of tragic fatalism, and his ironic reflections on the ravages of time. Certainly, one senses the lengthy shadow cast by the Greek and Roman world in this particular poem:

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields were glory does not stay

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut

Cannot see the record cut,

And silence sounds no worse than cheers

After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,

The fleet foot on the sill of shade,

And hold to the low lintel up

The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head

Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,

And find unwithered on its curls

The garland briefer than a girl's.

The narrator invites us to consider the young athlete’s death, not as a tragedy, but as a good thing. The athlete, in dying, will never know the fading of his glory or the diminishment of his accomplishments. The poem’s subject and imagery seems not of rural England, but of Ancient Greece. The poem evokes the classical veneration of the athlete and the tradition of bestowing laurels upon his head; even the description of the athlete’s curls suggests something classical.

One cannot help citing here, as the critic Norman Marlow does, Solon’s story told to Croesus (recounted in Herodotus’s Histories) of the two young men who died directly after performing a noble deed to be enshrined as statues at Delphi. They died happy, Solon tells Croesus, at the height of their glory. But the emotional current is stronger here than even Solon’s Aristotelian story conveys. It is a sentiment expressed quite similarly in Dylan Thomas’ famous romantically-charged plea: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (i.e. burn out, do not fade away). It has faint echoes of Keats looking at the urn and wishing somehow to grasp its eternity. In other words, this poem represents Housman being a classicist and a Romantic and many things at once.

A few other things must be said. One of Housman’s recurrent themes concerns the irreversibility of time. The individual cannot traverse the same path twice, either because he has changed or because the circumstances around him have. We see this theme in two poems cited above. It is also a prominent theme in this poem:

With rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

This wistfulness for a past that can never be retrieved is, I think, a prominent theme in the works of many homosexual poets and writers. It also points to Houseman’s real-life experience of failing his Oxford examination: here was a life snatched from its original path and sent spiraling onto a very different one. Obviously, Housman recovered from this blow to fulfill his potential as a great scholar. Nonetheless, the poet must have felt for a long time the burden of that failure that could not simply be reversed or wiped away.

Housman, I think, deserves a better fate. He is a poet of wonderful simplicity and reserve; a craftsman of extraordinary lyricism. If one suddenly felt a craving for poetry a little off the beaten path, I can think of no better place to start than A Shropshire Lad.

posted by Ed at 7:40 PM 



Good Friday

Even though God did not exist, Religion would be none the less holy and divine.

God is the sole being who has no need to exist in order to reign.

That which is created by the Mind is more living than Matter.

-- Charles Baudelaire (trans. Christopher Isherwood)

And it was the third hour, and they crucified him. And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS. And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the Scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.

And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself, and come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him reviled him.

And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, E'lo-i, E'lo-i, lama sabach'thani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, he calleth Eli'jah. And one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone; let us see whether Eli'jah will come to take him down.

And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.

--Mark 15:25-39

posted by Ed at 10:41 AM 


Words. . .What Are They Good For?

In addition to other wonderful features of my blog, I have also decided to start something else that interests me (and, with any luck, you). Inspired a bit by Owen McGrann’s sporadic attempts at his site to remind us of the vital, necessary words of our language, I have decided to begin a periodic etymology blog. I’m not sure often I will update it, but I promise that it will appear here from time to time.

It’s discouraging how little we think about the origins of the words we use. We toss about words and phrases as if they have magically appeared one day for our convenience. We act as if their meanings are held in a state of perpetual suspension. But our words have a history, and it may prove fruitful occasionally to ask a few questions about that history. Where does a particular word come from? What language is the source? What is the original meaning? What can we learn from a word’s original usage?

Take, for instance, the word “educate.” Everyone knows what it means to educate someone. The teacher feeds a student a body of information of some kind; the person receives it, perhaps gratefully, perhaps grudgingly, and stores it in his or her brain for a while. Eventually, voila! The student receives his or her diploma as an educated person.

But, wait. Take a look at the etymology for a moment. The word’s origin is the Latin verb “educo” (ex + duco) meaning “to lead,” “draw out,” or “develop.” In other words, the process of education is not one in which the teacher starts scribbling facts upon the blank slate of the student’s mind. As a matter of fact, that particular activity comes closer to the origin of the word “indoctrinate.” Rather, the teacher’s role is simply the drawing out of that which already exists in the student (it is hard not to think here of Socrates “teaching” the slave-boy the Pythagorean Theorem). Education is not the transformation of lead into gold; it is the developing of gifts and talents that are already there. Remember that, the next time some witless teacher begins spewing out facts in mind-numbing rapidity in front of a classroom.

Today’s etymology: Thespian

We know the word thespian to mean an actor, one who practices the crafts of the stage. In common parlance, it is usually employed to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in the acting profession. Vin Diesel is an actor, while Jeremy Irons is a thespian, for example.

However, do we know its origin?

The word is a Greek one; it comes, in fact, from a Greek name. Thespis of Icaria was the very first actor in the history of the stage. How did this come about? Well, it may be said that he spun the axis of the Greek play from form to content. Prior to Thespis, the play had been centered solely on the ritualistic chanting of a song (in observance of Dionysius). By detaching a single individual from the chorus, Thespis shifted the focus to the story actually being recited and revealed the capacity for drama and conflict within it.

Thespis proved innovative in many other areas. He brought masks, makeup, and costumes to the stage. He also introduced the genre of tragedy to Greek drama, for which he incurred the ire of the Athenian lawmaker, Solon. Plutarch reports of Solon visiting one of Thespis’s plays in his Lives:

Thespis, at this time, beginning to act tragedies, and the thing, because it was new, taking very much with the multitude, though it was not yet made a matter of competition, Solon, being by nature fond of hearing and learning something new, and now, in his old age, living idly, and enjoying himself, indeed, with music and with wine, went to see Thespis himself, as the ancient custom was, act: and after the play was done, he addressed him, and asked him if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people; and Thespis replying that it was no harm to say or do so in play, Solon vehemently struck his staff against the ground: "Ah," said he, "if we honour and commend such play as this, we shall find it some day in our business.”

We see the seeds here for the argument that would germinate with Plato. The theatre is not reality; rather it is a shadow reality and thus a form of lying. Moreover, Solon touches upon a criticism of art that reappears, in various forms, to this day, i.e. what a man sees before him on the stage can carry with him into the other avenues of his life. We must be careful lest this influence be a bad one.

And this whole thing began with Thespis.

posted by Ed at 12:05 AM 




My goodness! Finally, a conservative who has not gone off the deep end regarding the Terry Schiavo case. John Derbyshire comments on the situation at National Review Online, and I reprint some of it here. It’s a refreshing perspective beyond the frequently abstract arguments bandied about of whether Schiavo has no consciousness, minimal consciousness etc.

Derbyshire writes -

I myself have never had a loved one in that situation. I did grow up among medical chatter, though. My mother was a professional nurse -- an exceptionally dedicated and conscientious one, from all I have seen since. I spent several hundred hours of my childhood sitting in rooms with Mum and her colleagues (a high proportion of whom, by the way, were Catholic women from the Republic of Ireland -- that's how the nursing profession in England was structured) listening to their nurse talk. A recurrent theme was some patient in a terminal condition being kept alive on tubes and drips by, as these nurses would say, some damn fool doctor. (The nurse-doctor relationship is a very fascinating one.) "Let the poor thing die!" one of the nurses would say, to sympathetic nods of agreement all round.

People who deal with the human frame and its ailments every working day develop an understanding of the rightness and natural-ness of death that isn't often vouchsafed to the rest of us.

* * *

Yes, John Derbyshire, quite true, though this fact doesn’t seem to stop certain state governors from interfering.

posted by Ed at 9:01 PM 


Just Don't Forget Your Hat And Gloves

“I am going to see her,” is my first cry in the morning when I rouse myself and gaze at the sun in a perfectly serene mood. “I am going to see her!” And thus I have no other wish for the rest of the day. Everything, everything is drowned in this prospect.

--Young Werther, The Sorrows of Young Werther

posted by Ed at 9:47 AM 



Final Thoughts On Florida

I have written in a previous blog what I think of the Terri Schiavo matter. It is a sad affair and one that I find rather frustrating.

What continually stuns me is the utterly bull-headed approach of Mrs. Schiavo’s supposed advocates. They have determined that she must be kept alive at all costs and, in the process, are willing to throw all principles and beliefs to the wayside. Look at the damage that is being done as a result. Conservatives, who, on most occasions, prudently encourage a limited government role in people’s daily lives, are suddenly endorsing a heavy-handed federalism in order to rectify this matter. The fact that Governor Bush and his brother in Washington repeatedly expressed their willingness to override the decisions of the local courts is a matter of serious consequence.

More troubling, I think, is the demonizing of a husband – a suspect tactic from people who purport to advocate “family values.” Michael Schiavo may or may not be a man worthy of our respect. It is difficult for us to say. Certainly we have a heard a great deal from people wishing to impugn his motives. He lives with another woman and has fathered two children by her. That is the sign, his critics tell us, of an indifferent husband. He has supposedly expressed irritation at his wife’s continued existence (limited as that existence may be). And so on.

But, of course, there are plausible explanations for his behavior that don’t cast such a dark shadow on Mr. Schiavo’s character. I shouldn’t even have to account for why a man, who confronted with the reality of a wife in a vegetative state with no hope of improvement, might move on with his life and live with another woman. To condemn that requires a similar rebuke of all men and women who have remarried within a short time of the death of a spouse. I think it crass to go there.

Moreover, if Mr. Schiavo has indeed directed anger towards his wife on occasion, does this necessarily mean that he has no regard for her? To chastise such behavior reflexively is to deny, I think, the ritualistic value of the funeral. A person dies, and we feel weighted down by sorrow and anger. But, the communal act of burying that person’s body in the ground, while reflecting upon that person’s life, relieves us of some of that burden. It is a way for us to achieve a sense of finality to a person’s life. The prolonging of Mrs. Schiavo’s existence, however, has served to prevent this necessary act of finality. There has been no ceremony to remember her life and make peace with her death. Rather, there has simply lingered an organism that possesses only the faintest traces of the individual that was. She is no longer the woman that Mr. Schiavo married and once loved, but rather a bundle of minimally-functioning cells that has become a burden to support. I think that anger at this state of things is understandable, even when the anger finds its object in the victim herself.

Again, though, Mr. Schiavo may not be a good man. It is a dubious ploy, however, to cast him as the bad guy in this ongoing drama, without attempting to give a more rounded picture of what may be motivating him. It is even more dubious when it is done by people who are willing to cast aside their professed ideals in the process.

posted by Ed at 1:29 PM 



Rendering Unto Caesar

I will be away from my blog for a few days, because the taxman beckons (even now, he transfixes me with his glittering eye, while grasping for my silver). I am not heartless, however, and leave you with a delightful poem from Robert Graves:

"The Starred Coverlet"

A difficult achievement for true lovers

Is to lie mute, without embrace or kiss,

Without a rustle or a smothered sigh,

Basking each in the other's glory.

Let us not undervalue lips or arms

As reassurances of constancy,

Or speech as necessary communication

When troubled hearts go groping through the dusk;

Yet lovers who have learned this last refinement --

To lie apart, yet sleep and dream together

Motionless under their starred coverlet --

Crown love with wreaths of myrtle.

posted by Ed at 5:37 PM 



More Hard-boiled Than An Egg, Honey

I have just finished Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It is a dark, tense wonderfully-crafted novel. It is one that, for various reasons, merits close examination as an important landmark of the crime fiction genre.

A few preliminaries should be said, and I must start with the author. Horace McCoy entered the literary scene as a newspaper man and then a pulp writer in the 1920s. His most prominent early work featured the exploits of Captain Jerry Frost in a series of pulp stories published in Black Mask Magazine. Critics at the time noted its terse use of language and hard-boiled style, and a few of these stories were subsequently anthologized in crime fiction collections.

In the 1930s, he moved to Hollywood and for the next several decades began writing screenplays for westerns, crime dramas, and other assorted genres. Among his most famous is 1952’s The Turning Point. His experience in Beverly Hills also provided the fodder for several novels, including They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and I Should Have Stayed Home. I have not read the latter work, but these two novels have been grouped together as noteworthy for their unflattering depictions of the Hollywood world, akin in their scathing viewpoint to Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? achieved little popular success upon its publication in 1935 and garnered mixed reviews from American critics. More receptive to this work were contemporary European audiences, particularly those in post-war France. In this modest novel, certain French philosophers saw the budding outlines of an American literary existentialism. Not only was this novel a success abroad, but his second novel No Pocket in a Shroud and 1948’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye also reaped praise from the Europeans.

Nonetheless, Horace McCoy died in 1955, without much of a reputation in the United States: a reality that continues to this day. While They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has generated a fair amount of scholarly attention over the years, the work still languishes in comparison to, say, the novels of Hammett and Chandler. It has certainly been unjustly forgotten by the reading public at large.

Second, I should mention the movie based on the novel. When I first saw the movie directed by Sidney Pollack, I found its depiction of a depression-era dance contest riveting and shocking. I still very much recommend the movie as a powerful piece of 1960s cinema. Having read the book, however, I think it important to note that the movie distorts several of its vital aspects. The character of Gloria Beatty in the movie is merely hard-edged and cynical. In the book, she is both these things, but also exhausted and consumed with death. She is a woman who has seemingly collapsed into her own nihilistic black hole - one from which nothing can escape.

The depiction of Robert also suffers in the movie translation. In the book, Robert displays, at times, innocence and simple optimism, but he also has a certain seriousness and resolve. The movie overplays the former and leaves out the latter. The result is an all-too-familiar tale of “innocence lost” that is not to the film’s credit.

Furthermore, the movie mutes the strong parallels McCoy draws between the dance contest as a purveyor of false dreams and the Hollywood film industry. It omits, for instance, the opening scene in which Gloria and Robert discuss their movie ambitions on a park bench. One may note a certain convenience to this absence, given that this is, after all, a Hollywood movie. Moreover, the time of the film’s production is relevant here. The movie was made in 1969, during a period in which many Hollywood filmmakers saw themselves as part of an artistic counterculture striving to unmask the contradictions of American Identity and the deceit inherent in the American Dream. In this scheme, putting Hollywood under the microscope as an accomplice in that deceit simply would not do.

Now, on to the book.

There is a great deal to recommend They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The prose is clean and crisp. McCoy flattens the potential for melodrama in the work with his unsentimental tone. He also capably develops the plot that interweaves a trial with a flashback of the dance contest. I could go on.

What I find most attractive about the McCoy’s novel, however, is its ambiguity, particularly in its use of metaphor. The unfolding of the dance hall marathon is a striking metaphor. It is a marathon in which people must remain in continuous motion to compete. It is a contest that attracts participants with the promise that the last man standing will win a large monetary prize. It is a spectacle with spectators drawn in by the publicity of the stagers of the event who advertise it as a human drama. It is rigged so that the contestants who are considered unable to attract audiences (and therefore make money) are cheated of their place in favor of contestants who are. It is unclear that there will ever be a winner in the marathon or that the promised reward will be presented.

But it is a metaphor for what precisely? It can serve as a vehicle for many possible meanings. The contest can symbolize the absurdity of human existence, with the participants running around in circles under the illusion that they are getting somewhere. The contest can be seen as an expose of the American Dream, in which the participants buy into a mythology that hard work will yield success, whereas, in reality, the game is rigged to make money for those in power. One can build on this and formulate a Marxist argument that the contest represents capitalist exploitation, with the participants are turned into commodities that can be marketed and sold. One can approach the novel from a more conservative perspective and read the contest as symbolic of Hollywood’s particular brand of moral debasement, in which people’s real-life suffering is packaged as entertainment (there are eerie echoes of “bread and circuses” and “Reality TV” about an affair that features derby races and arranged marriages). The metaphor is supple enough to sustain a general misanthropic message, equally applicable to both the stagers of the event and its participants, about the lengths that people will go to make a buck. And so on.

There is another metaphor that contains a layer of ambiguity, albeit less obviously so – the one contained within the title. At the end of the novel, Robert explains his fulfillment of Gloria’s death-wish by asking, “They shoot horses, don’t they?” This question, of course, comes on the heels of Robert’s sudden childhood memory of Nellie, an old plow-horse put out of its misery after breaking its leg because “it was the kindest thing to do.” The event that spurs this vivid reminiscence is Gloria’s request to be killed, and the equation, in his mind, of Gloria with a wounded, useless animal is fairly obvious. The question that requires answering is: what do we make of this metaphor?

Now, a wounded plow-horse is one that left to the devices of nature would endure unrelenting pain and anguish. The human intervention in shooting this animal signifies his understanding of nature’s indifference to suffering. Robert’s use of the wounded-horse metaphor in relation to Gloria represents such an understanding and is quite different from his view of nature at the beginning of the novel. At one point, for example, Robert opens the door of the dance hall and views the sun sinking into the ocean. This image fills him with a sense of wonder, but it also evokes a seemingly grotesque memory of two men set on fire by the gunpowder they were working with and consequently rushing into the ocean. The point of this memory seems clear. Just as the water provided relief for the intense suffering of these men, so the image of the setting sun on the water soothes Robert with its beauty and gives him hope that something better lies beyond the confines of the dance hall.

Later on, however, we have this bit of dialogue:

“You’re hipped on the subject of waves,” Gloria said.

“No, I’m not,” I said.

“That’s all you’ve been talking about for a month –”

“All right, stand still a minute and you’ll see what I mean. You can feel it rising and falling –”

“I can feel it without standing still,” she said, “but there’s no reason to get yourself in a sweat. It’s been going on for a million years.”

“Don’t think I’m crazy about this ocean,” I said. “It’ll be all right with me if I never see it again. I’ve had enough ocean to last me the rest of my life.”

Such a turnabout in Robert accords with Gloria’s jaded sensibility. Not only does she see the futility of the dance-marathon, but she derives no hope from anything that exists beyond it. As evidenced by the above quote, she perceives nature to be on a separate and unrelated plane to human endeavors. Tellingly, the majority of her death-wishes throughout the course of the novel involve some sort of human action. She wishes, at various points, that she could die in a war, from a stray bullet flying off-course (in the incident of the dance-hall shooting), and finally, she expresses regret that the poison she once took in Dallas was not strong enough to kill her. Only once does she invoke something beyond the human realm, when she utters the wish that “God would strike me dead.” But any and all supplications to God are useless, as Gloria herself knows, for He is nowhere to be found. Hence, Gloria’s final plea to Robert to shoot her and “pinch-hit for God.”

This leads, however, to another implication in the metaphor of Gloria as a crippled animal – that is, it implies a being that has lost its autonomy. One of the most compelling questions raised by the novel is why doesn’t Gloria kill herself? Why does she instead ask Robert to do the work for her? Obviously, on a human level, we can sympathize with a person who sees the uselessness of life, but cannot work up the desperate courage to end it. Yet, her paralysis undermines our sense of her isolated revolt against a brutal and meaningless existence. We are left, moreover, with a vision of a woman who asks for the ultimate act of compassion from another human being (an act that implicates him under the law), and yet has no compassion to offer anyone else. Throughout the marathon, she shows nothing but contempt for her fellow contestants. Her response to Ruby’s pregnancy, for instance, involves a detached and heavy-handed pragmatism (‘what’s the sense of having a baby unless you got dough enough to take care of it”). We may read into this a pity for life that is thrown into existence to suffer, but there is something unduly remorseless in her attitude toward the mother. Even her relationship with Robert displays little concern for his well-being. She lives in a solipsistic universe – the solitary horse on life’s endless merry-go-round. This is all right, of course, except when it requires the intervention of another to jump off.

Naturally, this makes her a dubious existential heroine. She is certainly not of the class of the hero-in-revolt that we see in the works of Camus and Heller. There is not that compassion for humanity that accompanies an awareness of life’s futility that we see in the works of Beckett. We may best approximate her attitude to the repugnance expressed by Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea. Indeed, her awareness of the marathon as a pointless enterprise, her estrangement from the natural world, and her understanding of the heaviness of time makes for a compelling comparison. But, even, Roquentin’s character embodies a sense of positive revolt that is beyond the reach of Gloria’s boundless negation.

I do not raise this last issue as a critique of the book, but rather to underscore the complexities of the novel. It successfully sustains an existential reading, but it also leaves space to question how far we can go with it. What certainly cannot be questioned is that it is a book worth reading.

posted by Ed at 6:22 PM 



Much To Be Done

I watched The Asphalt Jungle two nights ago with Erik.

The film has some wonderful touches. Sterling Hayden’s myriad facial expressions. Sam Jaffe’s controlled performance. The layers of Louis Calhern’s character: his measured, aristocratic speaking-manner belied by the rather substantial volume of smoke that hangs continuously in the air about him – the product of countless cigarettes nervously smoked through the course of the action. There is also that terrible and sad last act before he kills himself in which he writes and then rips up a suicide note to his bed-ridden wife. Etc.

It is a very good film. I would not rank it among the greatest of the noir genre, but it is close.

Incidentally, Erik and I have decided to write a book about Film Noir. The format will be brief 500-word impressions of each film in the genre, combined with tidbits such as memorable dialogue, awards bestowed on the film, and other trivia. You may expect to see a few of these reviews posted on my blog from time to time.

I believe this project has some promise.

posted by Ed at 1:51 PM 



The Loved One: A Review

The Dream

Behold I dreamed a dream and I saw a New Earth sacred to HAPPINESS. There amid all that Nature and Art could offer to elevate the Soul of Man I saw the Happy Resting Place of Countless Loved Ones. And I saw the Waiting Ones who still stood on the brink of that narrow stream that now separated them from those who had gone before. Young and old, they were happy too. Happy in Beauty, Happy in certain knowledge that their Loved Ones were very near, in Beauty and Happiness such as the earth cannot give.

I heard a voice say: “Do this.”

And behold I awoke in the Light and Promise of my DREAM I made WHISPERING GLADES.


(Sculpted on the entrance of Whispering Glades)

Poor Sir Francis Hinsley. Scuttled out the door by the Hollywood studio for which he works, without so much as a thank-you or retirement mug, the weary British expatriate attempts to exit the stage with dignity by hanging himself. Alas, however, there is no dignity in 1940s Hollywood. Degraded in death as he was in life, Sir Francis’s corpse falls into the ghastly clutches of Whispering Glades, a funeral home that commemorates its departed dead with obscenely garish burial services. All done in a non-sectarian way, of course.

Thus unfolds Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy, his pitiless satire of Hollywood, America, and death. The plot centers on Dennis Barlow, a minor British poet, who comes to Hollywood commissioned to bring Percy Shelley’s life to the big screen, but instead settles for employment at a pet cemetery called the Happier Hunting Ground. Life at the H.H.G. is rewarding: where else could one experience the satisfaction that comes from scattering the ashes of a tabby cat from an airplane over Sunset Boulevard? It presents one problem, however, namely the ire of the British expatriate community in Hollywood (yes, there is one) who see Dennis’ career choice as another sad example of a Britisher “going native.”

When Sir Francis kicks off, however, Dennis proves indispensable by arranging his funeral at Whispering Glades, a tasteless affair set in the flowered gaudiness of the Orchid Slumbering Room. In the process, he falls in love with Aimee Thanatogenos, a junior cosmetician at the Glades, whom he woos with the classics of British poetry (which he pretends are his own). It’s a strategy with promise; unfortunately, Dennis finds he has a rival. As the plot proceeds, Aimee is hopelessly torn between the affections of young Dennis and a Mr. Joyboy, the innovative and “morally earnest” mortician at Whispering Glades. This rivalry occupies the remainder of the book, and in typical Waughian fashion, all does not end well, though the final result is much more darkly comic than tragic.

There is much in this book that is funny and true. The core of Waugh’s satire is a particular brand of American dishonesty. We witness repeatedly people's tendency to avoid life’s harsher realities and shroud them in absurd euphemisms. The dead at Whispering Glades are not, in fact, “dead,” nor are friends and relatives of the deceased deemed “mourners.” Rather, they are the “Loved Ones” and “Waiting Ones” respectively. This denial of death as death extends to the treatment of the corpses. The morticians work on their facial expressions and postures so that they give the appearance of full vitality. In the process, they come to view their work as art and the corpses as the medium with which they can do whatever inspires them. The solemnity of death, of course, is long forgotten.

Also in play is the American myth of self-invention and re-invention. Hollywood with its relative newness, its confluence of uprooted people from all parts of the country and the globe, and its movie industry that constructs and sells image over reality, provides the perfect setting for this theme. Anyone can set up shop as a non-sectarian minister. The local newspaper features the advice columns of Guru Brahmin, who is, in reality, neither a guru nor a person, but rather composed of two separate, taciturn individuals, one of whom is named appropriately Mr. Slump. In his final mission at Megalopolitan Studies, Sir Francis is charged with transforming the actress Juanita del Pablo into a completely different person, ethnicity and all, in the attempt, we guess, to revive her career. Of course, he fails and is fired. Perhaps if Sir Francis had been a little less British, he might have taken his dismissal in stride and become a new-age faith healer or some such nonsense. Doubtless there would have been a receptive audience.

Instead, Whispering Glades does the re-invention for him, transforming his corpse from one that embodies his terrifying death to one that supposedly shows him at his most buoyant and life-affirming (though, it doesn’t quite work out that way). Indeed, Whispering Glades is the place for all types of re-invention. No matter how undistinguished a literary life one has led, one can be permanently entombed in the Poet’s corner under a statue of Homer, provided, of course, one has the money to foot the rather extravagant charge. This is the American way.

The meaning of this is that Americans are too guileless, too devoid of tradition, and too egalitarian for their own good. The British, at least, possess their sense of British elitism to look down at Dennis’ ridiculous job at the Happier Hunting Ground. The Americans never look down - simply up - at whatever transient authority is en vogue. Hence, Aimee comes to rely on Guru Brahmin for wisdom in dealing with her affairs of the heart, presumably because he (more accurately, they) calls himself a guru and therefore must has some knowledge of the ways of the world. The spectacle of Whispering Glades itself is an attempt to transport a hodgepodge of spiritual acts, gestures, and ceremonies from various religions across the world, but mingled together without the traditional foundation which imbues them with meaning, the whole thing simply becomes a kitschy farce. Indeed, the popularity of non-sectarian ministers in Hollywood neatly sums up this point. If the ministers mimic enough of the rituals of their sectarian brethren, what’s the big difference? But, of course, the book’s point is that there is a vast difference.

There is more here that can be said. I will simply add that Evelyn Waugh writes with an attractively dry style of understated irony, directing his satiric eye at nearly everything that comes within sight. It is a book I heartily recommend.

posted by Ed at 2:02 PM 



Go Figure

Artistic Development? It happens every now and again, to the relief, I suppose, of those aspiring artists whose first works lie smoldering in ashes or crumpled at the bottom of trash bins. Compare, for instance, these two drastically different achievements, written by the same author.

The night doth cut with shadowy knife

In half the kingdom of the sun;

The red dawn meets with her in strife;--

Vassal of mine I hold each one.

The sailors chant beside the mast,

The tempest lash the riven foam,

But I, the King, am striding fast

Before the prow, to guide it home.

I am the lover wed to tears,

I am the cynic cold and sage,

I am the ghost of noble years,

I am the prophet lapp'd in rage.

I am the fane no longer trod

That moulders on the wild hill-brow;

I am the fresh and radiant god

To whom the young religions bow.

Perfection woo'd in many a guise

Is in my charge, a stabled beast;

The myriad moons look from my eyes;

The worlds unnam'd sit at my feast.

My glance is in the splendid noon,

The golden orchid blown of heat;

My brow is as the South lagoon,

And all the stars are at my feet.

The lost waves moan: I made their song.

The lost lands dream: I wove their trance.

The earth is old, and death is strong;

Stronger am I, the true Romance.

-- Raymond Chandler, “The King” 1912

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill. You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet on his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And, in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

-- Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939

The span of thirty years between these two works reflects the maturation of a man – that is true. But, it also vividly encapsulates the radical turn in artistic sensibility occurring about him. Chandler’s first poems capture something of the spirit of Late Victorian poetics: the quest for the Romantic vision in a world where that vision seemed more distant, more elusive. But, whereas many of the Victorians merely attempted to escape the dreary world around them by creating fantastic, often antiquated, worlds of passion and romance, Chandler appears, at least in this poem, more optimistic about the vision. He asserts, I think, that one can uphold the vision of the dream-world even in a world that is breaking apart from it. The King, a ghost of nobler years, appears to be at a transition point in the world’s history, the point where the night meets the dawn in strife. Yet, the King is the lord of both, holding them as his vassals. The idea of his mastery – that he is the master of Time and not its slave – recurs in the line “I am the fresh and radiant god / To whom the young religions bow,” as well as the final stanza in which the King asserts that though death is strong and the old lands gone, he is stronger - “the True Romance.” Perhaps, I read this last part incorrectly, but I see the King as metaphor for the poet, extolling his romantic vision as vital in transcending and transforming the world about it.

The poem is not very good. It suffers from, among other things, what T.S. Eliot termed the blight of all second-rate poets, i.e. “that they have not the sensitiveness and consciousness to perceive that they feel differently from the preceding generation, and therefore must use words differently.” Chandler was not fated to remain this way, however. Flash forward thirty years, and we see a harder, brisker use of the language. It is a language heavily influenced by the Modernist aesthetic, particularly the path blazed by Stein and Hemingway. Indeed, it is a language that could only have been fashioned at the moment in which it was fashioned.

Hemingway’s shadow may be discerned in the philosophy as well. Similar to Manuel and Santiago in “The Undefeated” and The Old Man and The Sea respectively, Chandler’s hero Marlowe follows a heroic code the bygone era in a modern world that no longer sees value in it. In some sense, this is not terribly different from the premise of certain Victorian poets, or even of the younger Chandler, himself. But, unlike the theme of the earlier poem, Marlowe’s code cannot shape the surrounding world. Indeed, time and time again, Marlowe senses its futility amid corruption and deceit. And if the code is futile not simply against the workings of a corrupt society, but also against the backdrop of a universe that culminates in the nothingness of “the big sleep,” then Marlowe is simply a part of the world’s nastiness – nothing more. It is a nihilistic vision diametrically opposed to the vision of Chandler’s poem written thirty years before.

Incidentally, I have just finished The Big Sleep and am now moving on to The Long Goodbye. Good stuff.

posted by Ed at 5:06 PM 



I Give You Words

Paris;this April sunset completely utters

utters serenely silently a cathedral

before whose upward lean magnificent face

the streets turn young with rain,

spiral acres of bloated rose

coiled within cobalt miles of sky

yield to and heed

the mauve

of twilight(who slenderly descends,

daintily carrying in her eyes the dangerous first stars)

people move love hurry in a gently

arriving gloom and

see!(the new moon

fills abruptly with sudden silver

these torn pockets of lame and begging colour)while

there and here the lithe indolent prostitute


with certain houses

-- E.E. Cummings

posted by Ed at 3:14 PM 



Oh, Those Ivy Walls

End tenure now.

Just as the Roman statesman Cato the Elder concluded each speech before the senate with the injunction “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed), so I feel the need to begin and end this blog by proclaiming “end tenure now.”

Why, you might ask?

I have an anecdote to relate, and I admit, up front, that it comes to me second-hand. My girlfriend recently attended the dissertation defense of a Creative Writing student at Binghamton University. During the course of the proceedings, a Comparative Literature professor on the committee announced that she had once been a rape-victim. Startling and sad, no doubt, but the relevance...? She went on to state that her experience disinclined her to read anything that involved either violence directed towards people or animals (meaning, I suppose, that she simply doesn’t read anything anymore) Therefore, she admitted that she had skipped over sections of the student’s dissertation.

Thus, our creative writing student, under great pressure to defend his work, did not receive the full attention of a member of the committee designated to scrutinize that work, because his writing included, say, a knife fight or maybe just a motorist running over a raccoon.

Now, I do not wish to make light of this professor’s traumatic experience. But, there is a certain code of professional conduct, isn’t there? I can’t imagine the noted critic and Cambridge Reader F.R. Leavis telling a student: “Look here, old boy, I can’t possibly read your dissertation on Wilfred Owen’s poetry in its entirety. I was shell-shocked in the war, you see, and the experience would doubtless conjure up a lot of bad memories. You’ll understand, of course. By the way, your analysis of Owen’s early years, ages 5-9, was quite perceptive. Keep up the good work.”

No, F.R. Leavis would not have said that. He would have borne his scars bravely and given the work the thorough examination it deserved. After all, that was his duty as a teacher.

But the concept of professional duty loses some of its vigor in an environment in which one is given free rein to behave as one pleases. Tenured professors, if they so choose, may give scant attention to classroom teaching, do slipshod scholarship, perhaps even sleep with a student or two, and all the while live off the fat of the land. They may choose to do this, because they can – without accountability.

Now, I realize that there are sound arguments for bestowing tenure in an academic environment. One can reason that it gives the professor full security to say or publish what he wants, without outside political pressures. It also relieves the professor from the “publish or perish” mentality that burdens all who enter the humanities. These seem to be points in favor of the institution.

Now, I am all for alleviating the “publish or perish” pressure; I just happen to think that it would be better if that pressure weren’t there in the first place. Moreover, I have a feeling that the other reason I cite has become nothing more an archaic ideal. It is very well to say that the tenured professor is one who can think freely, without worrying that the nature of his thoughts might land him penniless on the street. But I wonder if the politicized nature of humanities departments across the country, coupled with the specific leftist bent of this politicization, might render this idea moot.

Indeed, I think it fair to say that the academic community is not the public square in which a thousand flowers are allowed to bloom, in which all sorts of perspectives are bandied about and given their fair hearing. Rather, the environment is one in which the professor must hold certain orthodoxies to maintain credibility and relevance. I don’t think I need elaborate here. Suffice to say, that an attitude of profound reverence towards contemporary criticism, as well as a dabbling in leftist politics, are more than a little helpful.

Now, upon showing the proper yachting club colors, a professor may, of course, drift unmoored into whatever inanities the current brings his way. Thus we see esteemed 80-year professors spouting a brand of politics in an indecipherable language that most high school students would find rather absurd. But the politics, at root, are shared by everyone else in our octogenarian’s world, and it is for this reason, rather than a respect for his so-called academic freedom, that his views command deference.

Thus, we have this. If a tenured English professor wakes up one morning and decides to throw his books of theory into the fire in favor of the type of close-readings favored in the 1930s, he will be dismissed as an irrelevant fossil. If he wakes up one morning, and realizes (my fingers tremble as I type this) that he is a political conservative, he risks being ostracized by his colleagues, not to mention teaching in front of empty classrooms. This is the pressure to conform that perpetuates the cycle of conformity.

Now, I’m not saying that ending tenureship will solve this problem. Far from it. I’m simply saying that the supposed benefits of granting tenure don’t really hold a candle to their drawbacks. The institution doesn’t uphold academic integrity – that was lost when the notion of being an intellectual was conflated with being a progressive and a lefty. Rather it licenses irresponsibility. Professors can live secure in their ivory tower, knowing that the way they conduct themselves will never have any consequence.

And thus a professor can look a student in the face and tell him that she was too sensitive to perform her job and read his work.

A problem, no?

End tenure now.

posted by Ed at 4:51 PM 



Night and the City

"You've got it all, Harry Fabian - but you're a dead man."

--Night and the City (1950)

I watched Night and the City two nights ago with Erik. It is a very good film. I’m not quite as enamored with it as Erik is, but I agree that the movie represents quintessential noir. If you want to watch a half-dozen or so films that aptly represent the genre, this one should make your list.

The story presents Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) as a small-bit con artist who thinks that he can swindle his way to the top. His scheme involves wringing control of the London wrestling business from the underworld giant Kristo, via his manipulation of a legendary wrestler named Gregorius (who also happens to be Kristo’s son) to partner a competing league.

Harry is a pretty smart cheat, but ultimately reveals himself to be deluded to the grim conditions of his universe (if only he would stop running for a second and think!). He doesn’t grasp either the powerful forces set in motion to stomp out his ambitious scheme or the simple fact that he can’t control the uncontrollable. The latter proves deadly. In the movie’s tautest sequence, Fabian watches his ploy to get a match between Kristo's top wrestler and Gregorius go horribly awry, when human emotions, at their most naked and fearful, get in the way of his plans.

Thus Fabian’s desire to “be somebody” ultimately results in his undoing, as we the audience, with a detached awareness of his doomed condition, watch him run like a trapped rat through the urban jungle.

In typical noir fashion, the film can work on multiple levels. One may view it simply on the level of a morality tale, as Fabian gets his just punishment for deceiving honest people, notably his love-interest played by Gene Tierney and Gregorius. There is also a strong sense, particularly in the final scene between Widmark and Tierney, that Fabian pays for measuring people’s worth in money and power.

But, there is more to it, of course. Relentlessly, in scene after scene, the film slowly peels away for us a shady, claustrophobic world ruled by brutality, deception, and chance. Fabian may be a player in this world, but he is a small fish in a pool of sharks. One can view his fate only with a degree of ambivalence, I think.

I will refrain from saying much more, because the film really does require a second viewing. I will add that the acting is uniformly very good and the camera work fantastic. Particularly striking for me is the scene in the aftermath of the brawl, in which the Strangler begins his hunt of Fabian. The camera plays fast from the Strangler’s viewpoint with no dialogue, and we simply see a flurry of faces being questioned in silence. Magnificently at once, the camera conveys both the confusion of the fight’s aftermath and the swiftness of the retribution to be visited upon Fabian.

Harmless Trivia:

Here are a few interesting details about the Night and the City

1. The film was directed by Jules Dassin, who was actually on the brink of being blacklisted as a Communist at the time of the film’s production. Daryl Zanuck, the producer of the film, sent him to London to keep the wolves at bay for awhile. Once in London, Zanuck forced his director to produce the film at breakneck speed. Indeed Dassin himself later admitted that he did not even read the novel upon which the film is based until after the film's release. The result is a jittery, paranoid noir set against the atypical backdrop (for a noir, anyway) of London.

2. There is actually an alternate British version of the movie. Zanuck took the film after its British release and made some important changes. From what I gather, the British version departs from the American production in two important ways. First, the former gives more camera time to the character played by Gene Tierney and develops her relationship with Adam, a man living in her building (Hugh Marlowe). Secondly, it attempts to soften Fabian’s character by attributing his nervous ambition to a large sum of money he owes a hotel manager. There is also a difference in musical scoring with the British version considered weaker. In fact, as perhaps you guessed already, the British version as a whole is considered inferior.

3. Stanislaus Zbyszko, who played Gregorius marvelously, was not an actor, but rather a real-life professional wrestler. Night and the City was his only film.

4. Richard Widmark, Herbert Lom (Kristo), Googie Withers (Mrs. Nosseross) and Jules Dassin are still alive. They are 90, 87, 88, and 93 years old respectively.

posted by Ed at 11:40 PM 


Dear Heart

For Beth on the eve of her reading (Tonight, 7:30; at the Incognito in Binghamton). Singing beyond the genius of the sea, making the sea her song. A poem.


As I would free the white almond from the green husk

So would I strip your trappings off,


And fingering the smooth and polished kernel

I should see that in my hands glittered a gem beyond


-- Amy Lowell

posted by Ed at 5:04 PM 



Ah, The Wonder Of It All

This is pretty amazing. A real breakthrough for classical scholarship. Do read.

Here’s a little background to supplement the article. El-Bahnasa is an Egyptian city that lies about 100 miles southwest of Cairo. Two thousand years ago, however, during the height of the Roman Empire, it was not named el-Bahnasa, but rather Oxyrhynchus.

Now, there’s something peculiar here, as perhaps you can guess. The city’s name is certainly not Egyptian, but rather Greek (literally meaning “town of the sharp-nosed fish”), and its history is intricately tied with the Greek World.

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in the third century BC, the invading Greeks transformed this rather inconsequential city (originally named Per-medjed) into a regional capital. The city prospered during the ascendant Hellenistic age and through the emergence of the Roman Empire, surviving until the 7th century. At which point, unfortunately, the Arabs conquered the city and neglected the upkeep of its canal system. The result was ruin and abandonment.

For 1000 years, however, Oxyrhynchus was an important Greco-Roman outpost, a seat of political power. During this period, its citizens would dump their garbage at rubbish heaps among the desert sands at the city outskirts. The key here is that Oxyrhynchus existed far beyond the reaches of the Nile, so that when the river flooded each year, the city remained impervious to its effects. This fact, combined with the fact that lands west of the Nile receive little or no rain, ensured that the piles of papyrus dumped there daily for a millennium only fell prey to safe coatings of sand, rather than the ravages of water.

In the 19th century, British archeologists began excavating the site. They found a great deal, including a great many plays of Menander, poems of Pindar, and fragments of plays of Socrates and Euripedes. Also, because the city was a bureaucratic center rather than an intellectual one, the vast majority of finds involved census returns, edicts, codes, tax returns etc. As such, then, the site provided valuable insight into the mundane details of people's daily lives during this period in history. However, not all the papyrus uncovered in the rubbish heap survived the passage of centuries in good shape. Indeed, much had proven to be simply unreadable and thus frustratingly useless. Until now, it seems.

posted by Ed at 4:25 PM 



Poetry In The Early Morning

I’ve been compiling a list of important 20th century American poems, and I ran across this article on the internet. I love debates like this. The piece is five years old, but still worth perusing. I advise reading additionally the response by Mr. Moramarco and Ms. Houlihan’s counter-response.

My own observations:

- I’m mainly on Houlihan’s side in this. I do think, however, there is a space in literature for prose poetry, or poetry that has a conversational tone with few standard poetic devices and without the expansiveness or depth of a story. I agree with her (and I suppose indirectly with Dickey) that such a medium can be a lazy copout when it comes to poetic expression, that one can fall in love with one’s voice and blather on without saying much of anything. But there is room here, I would say, for a modest form of expression that is artful and engaging.

- I think it is also possible to have a flat, conversational, “unpoetic” poetry that reflects the world in which we live. In other words, poetry that echoes a certain flatness of contemporary life – a world eviscerated of the sacred and significant – in the same manner that Eliot’s fragmented imagery in The Wasteland reflected his vision of societal disintegration. (Indeed, Hall’s poem cited in the article may be attempting to do just that, it’s difficult to say for sure)

- Nonetheless, Houlihan’s dissects well a problem in contemporary poetry.

- Moramarco’s rebuttal, on the other hand, is lax to the point of being worthless. To say that Houlihan has missed the boat on the twentieth century’s rejection of poetic pretense doesn’t ring true with her endorsement of “The Shipfitter’s Wife” – a poem devoid of any kind of pretense, unless you define the use of imagery and metaphor as pretense. In that case, the twentieth century’s rejection of “poetic pretense” sounds more like a rejection of poetry altogether.

- Furthermore, Fred Moramarco’s use of MM’s definition of poetry in his rebuttal is a curious and very unsatisfactory one, even for his own argument. Does the WCW poem “This is Just to Say” really make his neck-hairs stand on end? Does Brehm’s “Sea of Faith” do it for him? If so, one is forced to conclude that Fred is a strangely excitable creature. The problem here is that in order for a poem to truly create electricity, it has to employ language in ways that reach well beyond the scope of anecdote and matter-of-fact narration. Which is precisely Houlihan’s point.

- Moreover, Moramarco’s implication that the removal of poetic conventions (and not just rhyme and meter, but even metaphor, simile, repetition etc.) leads to a rawer, more truthful expression of what lies in our heart, souls, bones - whatever trope you wish - etc. is a dubious one for many reasons. Not the least of which is that colloquial language can mask and hide honest emotion just as artfully as an Elizabethan conceit. Is there anything more affected than Kim Addonizio’s poem? More cursory and superficial in its examination of the human experience? There is, in fact, very little that is raw or true about this poem. Very little that pierces to the bone.

posted by Ed at 2:29 AM 



Poetry In Motion. . . Almost

In 1955, the Ford Motor Company asked the poet Marianne Moore to help name a new car it was producing (by the way, how remote a time is this? Can anyone envision today a car manufacturer dropping Seamus Heaney a letter or email and asking for his suggestion on a name? Probably not – sadly. I imagine he would have some interesting alternate names for the “Hummer”).

Marianne Moore’s responses? They were:

The Intelligent Whale

The Arcenciel

The Ford Silver Sword

The Resilient Bullet

Andante con Moto

The Mongoose Civique

The Pastelogram

The Turcotingo

The Utopian Turtletop

Alas, the Ford Motor Company demurred on all these eccentric suggestions, and decided, instead, on the Edsel.

(Read more about Ms. Moore in William Logan’s “The Mystery of Moore”)

posted by Ed at 12:13 PM


 A Post About The Pope

Here’s an amusing, on-point article from the London Financial Times about the recent papal election entitled Shock! New Pope a Catholic. It nicely tweaks the noses of those who are up-in-arms that the Church elected a "conservative" pope.

I have one thing to add. It has been repeated ad nauseam that the Church's entrenced stand against modernity threatens to splinter its base and hasten its demise as an inconsequential relic of the past. But consider this counter-case. It’s a curious, but hardly surprising fact that the Church of England, which has been far, far more accommodating to external pressures than the Roman Catholic Church, has seen its pews gradually emptied of people and replaced by dust and the occasional wayward field-mouse.

The reason, I think, is obvious. If an organized religion fails to assert the immutability of its “truths,” but rather defers to the climate of the times – in other words, if it puts god on a leash to be dragged about by the academics, the social scientists, and whoever happens to be on the television at any given moment – then what is the use of this god in the first place?

Western religion is supposed to provide an answer to the problems posed by a fallen world. If it inverts this dictum, and confesses, instead, that its doctrines are the problem – with the requisite answers to be found in the shifting sands of our temporal world, then it has become irrelevant. One would be better served putting one’s faith in science or some flesh-and-blood visionary: the truths uttered in both cases would be much more palatable and their authority certainly no less fleeting.

posted by Ed at 3:01 AM 


Fame And Fortune Visit Gaza

My weblog host Erik at Sobriquet Magazine informed me last night that my blog was mentioned on MSNBC’s Connected Coast-To-Coast yesterday. Apparently, David Weinberger of Joho the Blog routinely appears (or used to appear, I’ll get to that in a second) on the show to inform people of the hot topics circulating in the blogosphere. My post concerning the recent deciphering of papyrus scraps found in Egypt crossed Weinberger’s lips as representative of the buzz being generated by this event. Furthermore, my weblog actually appeared on the screen for a full five seconds, and Erik’s web address was featured as a source for news on “Ancient Findings.”

Obviously, this was a startling event for both Erik and me. We’re not sure why Weinberger decided to choose this particular topic or, even stranger, why he decided to pick my blog as an example of this topic. Nonetheless, if you happen to be passing through on the basis of Weinberger’s comment, I offer a pleasant welcome and hope you enjoy my site. I would suggest you visit Erik’s blog as well as a place of intelligent and lively commentary.

To make this story even odder, Weinberger quit MSNBC today, because he refused to discuss the reaction of bloggers to the Jane Fonda spitting incident. Apparently, he believes that such a story represents the kind of trivial media-driven pap that he wishes to escape. We wish him the best and thank him for the plug.

posted by Ed at 3:43 PM 



O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag

Today is the birthday of an important figure in our cultural history: William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 (admittedly, an uncertain date - though his baptism on April 26 would lend it credence). A poet, a playwright, and an actor, his literary output consisted of 154 sonnets, 2 long narrative poems, and 36 plays. His influence, of course, has been enormous.

I give you here a slight, yet endearing example of the man’s art: one of Feste’s songs from Twelfth Night. It represents a coy and playful take on the “gather ye rosebuds (carpe diem)” theme. The music of these lines is plain, yet charming. Besides an obvious correspondence in theme, one can hear, in the simple language of the final line, a presage to the unadorned directness of some of Mr. Housman’s verse.

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?

O, stay and hear! your true-love's coming,

That can sing both high and low.

Trip no further, pretty sweeting;

Journeys end in lovers meeting,

Every wise man's son doth know.

What is love? 'Tis not hereafter;

Present mirth hath present laughter;

What's to come is still unsure:

In delay there lies no plenty;

Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,

Youth's a stuff will not endure.

- Act II, Scene iii

For a good website on Shakespeare’s poetry, I suggest The amazing web site of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It provides useful, in-depth commentary for each poem in his sonnet sequence.

posted by Ed at 7:01 PM 



Mr. Eliot In The City

I remember a conversation I had once with an English professor during my undergraduate days. His area of interest was Romantic poetry and prose, but he had arresting things to say about almost any literary subject. I asked him what he thought about T.S. Eliot. He responded with a few trenchant observations, which included terming The Waste Land “a vast echo chamber of Western Civilization” – an apt description, I believe, of the work’s intent and power. He concluded, however, by saying that he derived little enjoyment from Mr. Eliot’s work, that he found its language and imagery too intellectual to form an emotional bond with it.

This last observation was difficult for me to swallow. I did not have a problem with the tacit assumption of his statement, i.e. that “enjoyable” poetry cannot simply appeal to the intellect, but rather requires an emotional response as well. I, too, share that in that belief. It’s simply that my delight of Mr. Eliot’s poetry had always been primarily an emotional one, with my intellectual understanding of his images and themes a source of pleasure built upon that foundation.

I don’t think my reaction is an eccentric one; rather I believe that the nature of the poems, especially his early poems, demand this response. Take, for instance, The Waste Land. Eliot certainly leads us into an echo chamber of countless allusions, symbols, and metaphors, but he does not do so in a vacuum. Rather, he encircles us with a swirling atmosphere of anxiety, dread, emotional sterility, and deadness (the latter is just as palpable as any other, for to feel emotionally dead is, of course, to feel something). Who has not felt a chill reading these few lines?

'My nerves are bad t-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

'Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.

'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

'I never know what you are thinking. Think.'

I think we are in rat's alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.

'What is that noise?'

The wind under the door.

'What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?'

Nothing again nothing.


'You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember


I remember

Those pearls that were his eyes.

'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'

The “pearls that were his eyes” is a reference to Ariel’s song in The Tempest, but we do not need to recognize the allusion in order to feel the power of these lines. Rather, we recognize the tone of these disembodied voices in its various shades of anxiety, isolation, and dread, and we too feel a sort of dread. It is a passage that, with its maddening syntactical repetitions and terrifying images (rats’ alley and the wind under the door) fills us with a sort of nameless terror even as we attempt to decipher its meaning.

Eliot’s ability to touch an emotional chord within us comes across most vividly in his early city-poems. Eliot’s vision of the city may be traced to his extensive readings in the poetry of Baudelaire; it was also an outgrowth of the mood of the times, expressed in the musings of fin de siecle poets who saw the city as a place of sordidness and decay. Eliot himself paints the city as a place of grime, ash, and dirty fog, with the street seemingly suffocating from layers of trampled mud. There is also a distinct atmosphere of life’s transience: the wind sweeps things about, evenings trail off into darkness, and things vanish beyond rooftops. In the midst of this, the human soul feels empty and alone – and withers.

Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” gives us one of his most famous impressions of city-life, though I would not qualify it as a city poem per se. Rather, it is a poem centered in the drawing room, a place where superficial women can come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Yet, the poem opens with the narrator inviting us to view the city about him.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

The imagery here is vivid and almost comforting. The language invites us to picture the fog as a dog or cat, nestling itself as dogs and cats do among dark corners and tight spaces. One could not envision a more pleasant scene, if it were not for the fact that the poet begins his extended metaphor by describing the fog as “yellow” and then interchanging it with “smoke.” The resulting sense is decidedly not pleasant, but rather one of foulness and pollution. Moreover, the final gesture of the all-pervading fog falling asleep serves to reinforce the earlier image of the evening as a patient “etherized upon a table.” It alerts us to the depth of Prufrock’s plight: how will this man be able disturb a universe that is both sick and dormant? It reveals to us something discomfiting about his life and ours, that there can be something soothing – like the pleasant after-effects of ingesting a narcotic – in the condition of emotional paralysis. It is a frightening portrait of the miasma of modern life.

In his other city poems, Eliot cultivates the persona of the flaneur: the spectator of the human condition within the confines of the city. A descendent of Baudelaire, the flaneur, according to the critic Keith Tester, rummages about the city “in order to find the things which will occupy his gaze and thus complete his otherwise incomplete identity; satisfy his otherwise dissatisfied existence; replace the sense of bereavement with a sense of life.” We see this trait quite vividly in Baudelaire’s poetry. For instance, in his prose poem "Windows:"

Above the wave-crests of the rooftops across the way I can see a middle-aged woman, face already wrinkled--a poor woman forever bending over something, who never seems to leave her room. From just her face and her dress, from practically nothing at all, I've re-created this woman's story, or rather her legend; and sometimes I weep while reciting it to myself.

Some poor old man would have sufficed just as well; I could with equal ease have invented a legend for him, too.

And so I go to bed with a certain pride, having lived and suffered for others than myself.

Of course, you may confront me with: "But are you sure your story is really the true and right one?" But what does it really matter what the reality outside myself is, as long as it has helped me to live, to feel that I am alive, to feel the very nature of the creature that I am.

In Eliot, this sense of fulfillment is much more restrained, even non-existent. More often than not, the poet expresses his vision in a tone of disinterest and detachment. Occasionally, though, the poet's empathy for his subject breaks through the ice, as in the final stanza of his poem “Preludes.”

I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing.


In the poem “Morning at the Window,” the poet as flaneur cannot go quite so far as to say he is “moved” by what he sees. Nonetheless, he expresses his awareness of city scenes that range from the plaintive to the sinister.

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,

And along the trampled edges of the street

I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids

Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me

Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,

And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts

An aimless smile that hovers in the air

And vanishes along the level of the roofs.

The first stanza combines at once a sense of the hectic tumult of the city with a sense of its loneliness. The breakfast plates are making such a racket that the noise carries from the basement to the consciousness of the narrator residing in an upper floor. The image of the trampled street-edges suggests hordes of busy pedestrians marching to and fro upon it.

But the narrator is also aware of what lies along the street (and thus slightly beyond it), i.e. “the damp souls of housemaids/Sprouting despondently at area gates.” The inclusion of the housemaids in the poem resonates with our sense of the paradoxical nature of the city: with its vast assembly of people in the streets, the city seems a place of openness and community. But beyond the street, there are a million houses with fences, gates, walls and doors that are locked, and within them, reside people who we know nothing about. It is an isolating environment.

But the narrator, as observer, gives us so much more here. The housemaids’ souls are damp and sprouting despondently. Given that the poet’s use of organic imagery dominates his body of work, this is hardly a surprising metaphor. In The Waste Land, for instance, the cyclical nature of the seasons serves as an ironic metaphor for the cultural crisis facing modern Europe, with the perverse implication that Spring does not bring fertility, but rather exposes the world and its inhabitants to dryness, sterility, and the relentless beating of the sun.

On a smaller scale, the same thing is happening in the above poem. The souls of the housemaids are growing (sprouting), but their growth appears blighted. The reason for this becomes clear once we scrutinize the metaphor more closely. The necessary condition for growth is water and fertile soil, and we do not have either here. The housemaids’ souls are described as damp, but this suggests the conditions of the cellar or the bog – places where very little that is considered beautiful thrives (and it also locates the soul opposite to its traditionally-desired places of elevation and exaltation). Moreover, the readers’ mind cannot help associate this dampness with the “brown waves of fog” in the second stanza, which like the “yellow fog” of Prufrock, implies pollution rather than fertility.

Even so, though the housemaids’ souls are enmeshed in the waves, something does elevate in the final stanza. The narrator observes an aimless smile, detached from one of the passer-bys, ascend to his eye-level before vanishing beyond the roofs. This disembodied smile connotes a great deal. It is the fragmentation of the individual in the modern urban setting; it is the pointlessness of this life, with its energy – like in the “muttering retreats” of Prufrock – leading nowhere. It is the absurd and sinister smile of the Cheshire Cat that lingers in the air even after the rest of it has vanished, suggesting something menacing suffuses seemingly innocuous gestures. One senses some indistinct nightmare that lurks about the trivial daily-life of the city.

For 10 lines, this poem is remarkably suggestive. Yet, it must be reiterated that the reader’s response to the verse is primarily on an emotional level. The poem does not represent an intellectual exercise: there is no grand idea to be debated or obscure allusion to be deciphered. Rather, the poem moves us emotionally with its carefully-crafted imagery and language. And, that is what the best of Eliot’s poetry does.


To read, some of Eliot’s city-poems, I would suggest the site What the Thunder Said. Here you can find the following works that best represent this class of verse.


Morning at the Window


Rhapsody on a Windy Night

Dans Le Restaurant

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

In addition, the site The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot as hypertext gives good, in-depth commentary to the vast assortment of symbols and allusions employed in this poem.

posted by Ed at 8:20 PM 


She Arrives With Trepidation - But There Is Nothing To Fear

I'm pleased to announce the entrance of my girlfriend into blogdom. She is a sweet and intelligent girl, and I have a hunch her blog will be well worth reading.

Her new site is www.convergenceofbirds.blogspot.com, so please update your links accordingly.

posted by Ed at 3:16 AM 


A Few Thoughts

I was browsing through Andrew Sullivan’s blog, and I came upon this post, entitled “Novak On Communism.” The post links to Michael Novak’s article “Culture in Crisis” in National Review Online. It’s an interesting topic, and I suggest reading Novak’s article in full.

I have reprinted just Sullivan’s post here, however, followed by my thoughts on his analysis.


NOVAK ON COMMUNISM: Michael Novak's attempt to buttress the notion that one either has to agree with Joseph Ratzinger or endorse complete moral relativism is less than persuasive. I won't address all its flaws. But here's an interesting digression. Novak wants to posit communism as a triumph of the post-Nietzschean relativism that Ratzinger is horrified by. Money quote:

Ratzinger experienced another set of loud shouters in the 1968 student revolution at Tubingen University, this time in the name of Marxist rather than Nazi will. Marxism as much as Nazism (though in a different way) depended on the relativization of all previous notions of ethics and morality and truth — “bourgeois” ideas, these were called. People who were called upon by the party to kill in the party’s name had to develop a relativist’s conscience.

This is a big stretch. The philosophical appeal of Marxism was and is, for the handful of fools who still cling to it, its claim to absolute, scientific truth. Similarly, Nazism asserted as a scientific fact the superiority or inferiority of certain races. These totalitarian ideologies allowed for no dissent because the truth had been proven. You see precious little relativism in Communist or fascist regimes. They created absolute leaders to embody and enforce the maintenance of their truths. And they believed in the conflation of such truths with all political life, the abolition of autonomy and conscience. In structure, they were and are very close to the structure of a decayed version of Catholicism that asserts one version of the truth, suppresses any and all open discussion of such truths within its power, and elevates a cult-like leader and mass demonstrations to reinforce its propaganda. Querulous, brave and ornery dissent - dissent designed not to obscure the truth but to understand it better - is quashed.


Novak is right for the most part, I believe, and Sullivan very wrong. I’m not sure why Sullivan is so off-base, though I believe his disdain for the current pope is clouding his thinking a bit.

Now what is the problem here? Well, Sullivan is quite correct when he states that the Marxists believe in the scientific truth of their philosophy; he is also spot-on when he states that there is “precious little relativism in Communist or fascist regimes.”

Both of these points only serve to buttress Novak’s argument.

Novak’s point is that the relativist strain in modern thought razed to the ground traditional truth-claims and allowed for the building of new authoritarian philosophies. In other words, the consequence of declaring the relativity of values is not that certain people began to believe in nothing, but that a large number of others began to believe in almost anything.

So, it is true that both Marxism and Nazism asserted “truths,” but it also must be stated that these truths were different in principle than the transcendent moral and ethical claims put forward by Christianity or even the universal truth-claims of the Enlightenment.

Marxists believed in the historical necessity of their socio-economic philosophy; the Nazis believed in their inherent racial superiority as the “master race.” Both groups made moral considerations the servant, not the master, of their respective ideologies. The Marxists believed that once communism achieved historical consciousness, a universal morality would fall into place – the manifestation of a classless proletariat state. Until then, all moral systems should be viewed as myths promulgated by the power elite (the ones who control the means of production), who wished to maintain the class system to their advantage.

The Nazis saw morality as simply the expression of power: the will of the master race in action. The state, as the embodiment of this collective will, would create a master-ethics that would reign triumphant in the world.

In other words, these ideologies did not see truth as transcendent and universal, validated either by human reason or a timeless deity, but rather manifested in a particular moment in time and/or located in a nation, race, or class.

Now both these ideologies are extreme examples of relativism, but Novak’s point is that the constant undermining of truth-claims as merely subjective makes for fertile ground for such authoritarian orthodoxies. There are two reasons for this, I think, though Novak only chooses to list one.

The first is that once people deem truth as merely subjective, many give up the quest and search for other values to fill this void. One sees such an end in a blind and unwavering nationalism. The urge for social justice (which is really a coded quest for egalitarianism – a rage against the powerful that masks a love of power) that I see among my colleagues is another example of this tendency. No one bases their activism on finding truth or gaining moral certainty. Rather, it is social and economic equality for the sake of equality, irrespective of other considerations. Without any firm moral grounding, this quest can disintegrate into a cause in which anything is justified: Lenin’s rhetoric of omelets and eggs.

The second reason that Novak points out is that the relativistic strain is rife with paradox. The logical outcome of relativism is that all points of view are equally valid and therefore demand tolerance. But this outcome places tolerance in a position it cannot go: the position of an absolute. Therefore, tolerance itself becomes a problematic value, constantly facing its own extinction in the face of dictatorial impulses and thus imperiling the pluralistic society.

Admittedly, Novak could be clearer in some of what he writes. Sullivan, however, sweeps into absurdity with the broad parallel between the rigid dogma of Communist and Fascist regimes and the current state of the Catholic Church. Well, one sends you to the gulag or Dachau, if you disagree with it; the other tells you to repent and prays for your salvation. You can leave one and not the other. There is a difference, right?

posted by Ed at 11:31 AM 



Another Poem

I picked up a volume of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry last night in Erik's library, while he was on the telephone with Vlada. While skimming through it, I found this poem that I thought was rather nice:

"The Unexplorer"

There was a road ran past our house

Too lovely to explore.

I asked my mother once -- she said

That if you followed where it led

It brought you to the milk-man's door.

(That's why I have not travelled more.)

The poem is a metaphor. On the surface, it seems to be about childhood and a child's imagination confronted with the dreary, "adult" knowledge of reality. Yet, it is just as much about an artist's imagination and the rejection of that which obtrudes upon the vitality of one's vision.

The inclusion of the milk-man's door is one of its best touches, in my opinion. Not only does it suggest a colorless end to a lovely path, but it evokes other ideas as well. The milk-man, after all, is a person who journeys to your door every morning to drop off a bottle or two. But he makes this trip because he is compelled by duty to do so, and thus his journey is probably just a mechanical routine for him.

The poem thus raises the idea that there are different types of paths in life. There are those that we are obligated to go down, because circumstances dictate that we must. But there are also those roads that we can choose not to go down, if we have the courage to say no. To leave a thing a mystery is vital to the health of the mind, giving the fertile imagination freedom to play about its possibilities.

Good poem.

posted by Ed at 11:04 PM 



The Merely Very Good

A new biography of Stephen Spender by John Sutherland has recently been published, entitled Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography. You can read reviews about the work at The New Criterion and Slate Magazine.

Both give the biography lukewarm reviews, primarily because the subject matter is lacking. A few years ago, the essayist Jeremy Bernstein wrote that Spender as a poet was relegated “to the category of the merely very good . . . saddened by his knowledge of what was truly superior.” Stephen Metcalf, in his Slate article, is less generous in his assessment of Mr. Spender, siding with Virginia Woolf's description of him as "a loose jointed mind."

Nonetheless, Spender’s life is not totally devoid of interest – friend as he was to the likes of Auden, Isherwood, and even Anne Sexton (a pupil). I would recommend Paul Dean’s review in the New Criterion. My favorite quote:

Harold Spender [Stephen’s father] was a cultural philistine, propelling his children past Renoir nudes in the galleries with a cry of “Boiled lobsters, don’t look!” He was appalled to find Stephen reading that dangerous radical, Bernard Shaw.

I wonder what he would have thought of young Stephen’s taste for Gauguin?


There are a few Spender poems that remain worth reading. I leave you with two of them.


The word bites like a fish.

Shall I throw it back, free

Arrowing to that sea

Where thoughts lash tail and fin?

Or shall I put it in

To rhyme upon a dish?


Come home with white gulls waving across gray

Field. Evening. A daffodil West.

Somewhere in clefts of rock the birds hide, breast to breast.

I warm with fire. Curtain shrouds dying day.

Alone. By the glowing ember

I shut out the bleak-tombed evenings of November.

And breast to breast, those swans. Sheep huddle and press

Close. Each to each. Oh,

Is there no herd of men like beasts where men may go?

Come home at last; come, end of loneliness.

Sea. Evening. Daffodil West.

And our thin dying souls against Eternity pressed.

posted by Ed at 10:57 PM 


The Unexplorer (cont.)

For some reason I continue to think about “The Unexplorer” and wish to add a few things to what I wrote two days ago.

Essentially, the poem asks us: what is a road? We may even imagine this as the child’s question to her mother.

For the mother, the road is simply what it denotes in our language: a place intended to lead somewhere. When the child asks about the road, she responds with its definition: “oh yes, the road. Well, when you follow it, it leads to a destination, in this case the milk-man’s door.”

In other words, the road has a purely functional purpose. Indeed, there is a metaphor here of sorts: just as the road functions to get you to point B, so the word “road” functions to get you to the signified road.

But for the child, the road cannot mean this; otherwise her description of the road as “too lovely to explore” would be nonsense. Instead, she understands the road beyond the trappings of its traditional signification, and sees beauty in the road as a road and nothing more. It is like a woman who has used an urn daily to transport water to and fro, until the urn has become just that – a conveyer of water. One day, glancing at the urn, she suddenly realizes the elegance of its form and the beauty of its craftsmanship. In that act, it magically ceases to be just a conveyer of water and becomes an urn again.

In a certain sense, the child’s act is similar to the poet’s craft. Most of us employ words purely on a functional level, until we come to know them solely for their function. They become mere placeholders in our language. As a result, we overlook the words themselves and drain the language of its vitality.

The poet, however, steps in and uses language in new and unexpected ways. We are faced with the fact that the words used are signs that may not have their traditionally-appointed meanings. They may have different meanings or no meaning at all, forcing us to look at the words as words and things as things again. In the process, we gain a new knowledge of reality.

posted by Ed at 9:30 PM 



As The Evening Darkens

A wonderful, wonderful poem.

"Lying In A Hammock At William Duffy's Farm In Pine Island, Minnesota"

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year's horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

-- James Wright

posted by Ed at 10:35 PM 



It Never Ends

Pity the poor bloke who shells out $160.00 for this catastrophe.

The New Criterion outlines a few of the errors and omissions that plague the new Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature. Some are laughable; some are not. Check out these howlers from the index.

In 1926, D.H. Lawrence wrote The Plumed Serpent, a novel drawing heavily on his experiences in Mexico. What is a plumed serpent, you might ask? Well, if you buy this anthology, you actually won’t be bothered by that question at all. The index lists this work with a comparably elliptical title: The Planned Serpent.

Thomas Pynchon once wrote a short novel called the The Crying of Lot 49. In the index, it has been curiously truncated to the The Crying of Lot.

A fellow named Giles Cooper apparently wrote The Lord of the Flies.

Famed British theatre and film producer, Oscar Lewenstein not only directed the plays The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Threepenny Opera for the stage, he also seems to have written them.


There are more. At least, however, one can dismiss these errors as examples of sloppy publishing. The real sin, as The New Criterion further points out, is that the edition has supplanted the real literary achievements of the Twentieth Century with the faux accomplishments of contemporary theory.

P.G. Wodehouse and Anthony Burgess? Stand aside for Gayatri Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha.

Poets and writers who make fresh and creative use of the language? Make way for the dull and incomprehensible twaddle of the theorists.

We live in a time where people are simply not reading anymore. Volumes like this one don’t help. Indeed, such works only abet the current state of cultural ignorance, by promulgating the destructive notion that literature has no value in itself, but is simply a tool, one of many tools, to achieve political ends. Indeed, The New Criterion sums it up best here:

The Introduction to this new Cambridge History assures readers that the “very category of ‘English literature’” has now become “suspect.” If English literature were what this book describes, we should have to agree—indeed, we would have to go further and admit that English literature never really existed as literature but only as an appendage of politics and sociology. But, like so many academic productions these days . . .The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature describes a parallel universe, one that exists alongside, but without ever touching, the real universe of literary and cultural experience. It is a universe fraught with perfervid political imaginings, inspissated prose, and baseless scenarios of grievance and exploitation. It is a sad, impoverished country that is charted in its pages, far, far removed from the actual workings of literature.


posted by Ed at 11:42 AM 



A Vow

Okay, so I have decided that if I ever become a noted book reviewer, and I am asked to write blurbs recommending this or that work of literature, I will consciously avoid the adjective “luminous” in anything I write.

You will never see:

So and so has a noble and luminous imagination.

You must read so and so’s luminous and heart-wrenching prose.

Enough with it. It is used so often that I think it has become a refuge to the helpless reviewer who realizes uncomfortably that he has nothing to say about a particular work in 15 words or less. Or maybe it just flows automatically from the reviewer’s pen, i.e. “okay, I used ‘lustrous’ and ‘passionate’ in describing this author’s previous two books of poetry. It’s time to trot out ‘luminous’ and give it a ride.”

This points to the problem with these little blurbs anyway. Who needs them? Has anyone ever picked up Don DeLillo’s Underworld randomly off the shelf at their local bookseller and said, “hmm, I’m not familiar with this DeLillo fellow, but Michael Ondaajte says that Underworld is both a wolf whistle and an aria. I must read this 827-page tome.”

I doubt it.

I can certainly see the value in noted authors and critics giving brief endorsements for another work to be displayed on the back cover or opening page of its publication. But how about simply writing, “I really recommend this interesting and complex work; you should read it too”?

That would serve the purpose quite nicely. Usually, anything more becomes an exercise in self-indulgence or clichéd mindlessness.

Just a thought.

posted by Ed at 3:06 PM 



Election Day

Today is election-day in the U.K. This should be interesting.

According to the latest poll at BBC news, Labour has a slight edge over the Conservative Party, with the Liberal Democrats none too far behind.

For a little background on British electoral system, here goes. An Englishman goes to the polls to vote for a candidate to represent his constituency in the House of Commons. There are 646 constituencies in Britain. The political party that has the majority of winning candidates becomes the majority party in Parliament and forms a government. The head of the majority party is the Prime Minister.

There are three major parties in Great Britain: the Conservative Party, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. We can make rough analogies between the Conservatives and the Republicans in the U.S., with Labour as the Democrats. Both parties have dominated the political landscape, winning all the general elections since World War II. The Liberal Democrats are a recent phenomenon: the result of a merging between the centuries-old Liberal Party and the Socialist Democratic Party the in 1988. Though shut out of majority rule, the Liberal Democrats are a much stronger third party than anything put forward in the U.S. In the last election, they took 52 seats in Parliament.

The issues in this election have ranged from the abolition of the House of Lords to the European Union to the battle over immigration-policy. Surprisingly, the war in Iraq has not been as central an issue as one might suppose. Nonetheless, Tony Blair has suffered political damage from taking Britain into a war that had only lukewarm support and was not deemed necessary in defense of the country. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been virulently opposed to Blair's war.

For more material on the election, check out Christopher Hitchens' article at Slate magazine regarding his support for Tony Blair. He outlines the discrepancy between the political fault-lines in Britain and the United States over the Iraq war. Also of interest is Andrew Apostolou's article on the attempt of the Liberal Democrats to manipulate the British Muslim vote.

My prediction? Labour holds on again.

posted by Ed at 1:10 PM 



Election Update

Final Results:

Labour: 37%

Conservative: 33%

Liberal Democrat: 22%

Labour retains power, but with a vastly reduced majority in Parliament. The BBC projects that Labour will take 79 seats more than its opponents combined: a number much diminished from its previous 161-seat margin.

What to make of it all? The preponderance of reports I've read attribute the decline of the Labour majority to a growing distrust of Blair, especially concerning the Iraq war. Yet, what kept the fallout of this distrust in check was an even greater skepticism about the Tories regarding both their ability to handle domestic issues and their unabashed fondness for attacking Blair as a liar on the Iraq front.

So Blair is seriously weakened, perhaps to be replaced mid-term by a party rival; meanwhile the Tories look increasingly ineffectual as the opposition party. Not really much to rejoice about, I would say. The only comfort is that a pro-American European leader did manage to keep his party’s ship afloat, albeit with several leaks and a badly battered mast.

posted by Ed at 12:33 AM 



The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): A Review

I watched The Man Who Knew Too Much a couple nights ago with Beth. It was the 1934 version with Peter Lorre, rather than the 1956 remake.

I realized upon watching it again that the movie deserves more credit than I had originally given it. I had seen it twice before, both times on a cheap videocassette with muffled audio that made it difficult to pick up the dialogue. As a result, I had always dismissed the film rather unfairly, ranking it a distant third in comparison to other early Hitchcock efforts such as The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Now having just watched it on a cheap DVD with much better audio, I still rate the film behind those other two, but the difference is a great deal closer.

The film begins in Switzerland, where British couple Bob and Jill Lawrence are vacationing with their daughter Betty amid the grandeur of the Alps. In this cosmopolitan environment that mixes people from all parts of Europe, the Lawrences appear urbane and relaxed. We see them mingling with German and Frenchman alike with unconscious ease, unperturbed by any issues of national identity. This benign cosmopolitanism comes to an abrupt end, however, when Frenchman Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) dies in Jill’s arms, the result of a gunshot received while dancing with her.

His dying words to Jill are to go to his room and find a brush and take it to the British Consul. Suddenly we are enmeshed in the treacherous world of international espionage that pits one country against another. Husband Bob finds the brush and an obscurely-worded message within it, but just as he is about to report it to the British consul, he receives another note. This one warns him that his daughter has been kidnapped and will be killed if gives his message to the Consul. The trick is that if he does not report his findings, a diplomat will be assassinated with international chaos to ensue.

So begins the suspense. The acting is very good: Leslie Banks and Edna Best are convincing as the debonair-turned-distraught British couple, while Peter Lorre is captivating as the sinister German, Abbot. Hitchcock displays a deft hand with his camera shots and pacing as well, a sign of his increasing confidence as film director. There is a wonderful scene at the Royal Albert Hall, in which Jill attends a performance of Arthur Benjamin’s The Storm Cloud Cantata, having been warned in advance that something terrible is about to take place. She surveys the concert-hall and gradually realizes with horror the method by which the assassination plot of an attending diplomat is to be enacted. Hitchcock manipulates the performance skillfully, so that the outward, contrived drama of the chorus singing the cantata begins to mirror Jill’s own, very real, internal drama: her conflicted anguish between her desire to save her daughter and her awareness of what will take place if she does not interfere. It is quite wonderful.

This is not a perfect film. There are a few clumsy moments throughout the film that one must do one’s best to overlook. There is a scene, for example, in which the kidnappers telephone the Lawrences warning them yet again to keep mum with the authorities. In the course of the conversation, they put daughter Betty on the phone with Jill to assure her that her daughter is still alive – for now. As they talk, husband Bob stands close by, urging his wife to ask Betty where she is being held. The reason for this I cannot quite fathom. Does Bob think that his daughter will simply tell them the location and the mystery will be solved? The result is quite the opposite, of course. Upon Jill asking the question, a shriek is heard on the other side and the line goes dead.

Moreover, the final shootout at Sydney Street is artfully done. Nonetheless, one would think that as the number of spies whittles down from the 7 to 6 to 2, Scotland Yard might swarm in and overwhelm their opponents. But no, this does not happen. Rather, the pesky spies manage to stave off seemingly hundreds of policemen, even as they dwindle down to their last gun. Oh well. At least, this implausible device serves to guide us to a very satisfying climax.

Anyway, these are minor flaws in a very good film, one of Hitchcock’s best from his days at British studios. I have two things to add. The Man Who Knew Too Much was Peter Lorre’s first English-speaking role, and I think that anyone who sees the film will concur that his debut in British cinema comes not a moment too soon. Also, if you happen to see the 1956 remake of the film, be prepared for a vastly inferior movie. I hate Doris Day (just as an actress, mind you), and the climax to that film features her singing “Que Sera, Sera." Ah…if only I were joking.

posted by Ed at 12:25 PM 



I Have Lost Control

After today's buying spree, I believe I now have enough books in my collection to fill up every waking second of the rest of my life. Indeed, it seems a pleasant thought to make the effort and try to read everything I own.

Will I make the effort, though?

In a word, no.

Instead, I will buy more books. I will waste my time doing frivolous things, usually involving following the exploits of my favorite sports teams. At times, I will even declare myself bored.

All the while many of the books I bought today will be collecting dust on the shelf.

Oh well. At least they look nice enough.

posted by Ed at 9:13 PM 



Another Hitchcock

I watched Psycho with Beth last night. I've always been a little grudging about the movie; I've never quite taken to its ubiquity, the fact that it has become almost synonymous with both the director and the horror genre. Yet I have to admit that the movie is a stunning achievement, one of the best Hitchcock ever produced.

I have very little else to say about the movie. One of the scenes I keep trying to figure out comes in the closing moments of the film. No, I'm not talking about Norman Bates leering at us with a blanket draped about him and a fly crawling unmolested on his hand. Brilliant as it is, it is hardly baffling. Rather, I mean the scene that comes right before it, with the psychiatrist explaining Bates' behavior to Janet Leigh's boyfriend, sister, and the deputy sheriff. It is a strange moment in the film: after an hour and forty minutes of tight, unrelenting suspense, the taut rope suddenly goes slack, and we find ourselves subjected to a rather longwinded explanation of motive that wanders on for, at least, two minutes too long.

A professor with whom I discussed this film recently described this scene as a sort of parody of one of those detective films which ends with the sleuth and suspects gathered in some drawing room together. But, instead of, say, Hercule Poirot neatly wrapping up the loose ends of a baffling case to an anxious and open-mouthed audience, we have a new character, a psychiatrist who has not spent one second on screen prior to this scene, gesticulating wildly as he explains Norman Bates' character in overwrought psychological jargon that seems to leave his audience dazed and hardly enlightened. The result is actually funny.

Whether it is intentionally funny is another matter. It could be that Hitchcock felt he needed a respite from the action to explain what the hell just transpired. Certainly to a 21st century audience, inundated with pedestrian psychoanalysis, Hitchcock's absurd Freudian nightmare comes as little surprise. Indeed we would expect nothing less from a horror film. That would not have been the case, though, for a film-going audience in 1960 that might have been taken aback by a man slashing people dressed as his dead mother.

I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that Hitchcock is doing something else in this scene - that he is acknowledging the comic possibilities of what has gone on before. After all, there is a great deal in this film that, cast in a slightly different light, could be viewed as downright hilarious: Janet Leigh's hopelessly inept stealing of her boss's money, in which she almost goes out of her way to look suspicious; Norman Bates' twisted relationship with his overbearing mother. As we are viewing it, though, it really doesn't seem funny, because Hitchcock does such a masterful job of cultivating a mood of dread and foreboding.

But, in this culminating scene, it is almost as if the director is telling his viewing audience, "Look. Now that I have lifted this ominous mood, isn't what you have just watched a bit over-the-top, a tad ludicrous? Haven't I, in fact, given you nothing more than a B-horror film?"

That is all for now. By the way, Burt Lancaster won the Best Actor Oscar in 1960 for his turn in Elmer Gantry, not Anthony Perkins for Psycho. In fact, Anthony Perkins was not even nominated. Ridiculous? You bet.

posted by Ed at 12:25 PM 



The Man Who Knew Too Much Revisited

I posted my review of The Man Who Knew Too Much at Blogcritics a few days ago and received an interesting mix of responses. One person, averring the divinity of Doris Day, chided me for my heretical position that Ms. Day was not a particularly impressive actress. We sparred for a bit and then called it a day. After all, you either see transcendence in her platinum-straw hair, chirpy voice, and bug-eyed looks of astonishment . . . or you don’t. I must confess I do not.

Nonetheless, one poster did alert me to an interesting fact. In my original blog, I noted the implausibility of the Sidney Street shootout, specifically its unlikely standoff between hundreds of policemen on one side and a few spies on the other. The poster responded by stating that the Sidney Street shootout was based on an actual event (called the Siege of Sidney Street) and that the reason for the extended gunfight was the police fear of rigged bombs in their opponents’ house.

This bit of information prompted me to investigate the matter further. There is not a great deal to be found on the siege, but I did locate comprehensive descriptions of the event both at eastlondonhistory.com and The Churchill Centre. The story goes like this.

In December, 1910, a group of Latvian anarchists living in London’s East End attempted to burglarize a jeweler’s shop for the purpose of raising money for revolution in Russia. The method they chose for their crime was to tunnel underneath the shop and break in. A neighbor, however, heard the hammering caused by the tunneling and alerted the police. When the authorities arrived, they caught the gang of anarchists red-handed in the act. Unfortunately, however, they came unarmed, while the gang was well-stocked with weapons. Three dead constables later, the leaders of the gang escaped to plot again.

The deaths of the policemen created a furor of outrage in London. In early January of the following year, however, the police got a tip that two key members of the gang were hiding out in a Sidney Street lodging. Two hundred officers arrived and quickly cordoned off the block. Yet things went far from swimmingly after that. The police came with single-shot rifles, revolvers, and shotguns; they were confronted with the gang’s rapid-reloading Mauser semi-automatics. This advantage in weaponry quickly offset the officers’ heavy advantage in numbers.

The opening standoff brought a call for more troops from the Tower of London; it also brought the Home Secretary Winston Churchill into the fray. Straight from his bath to the front line, Churchill managed to maneuver himself to the fore of the action. As he mulled over different strategies to attack the house, the house itself suddenly became ablaze. As the fire brigade rushed in to stop the conflagration, Churchill gave the order not to put out the fire. Naturally, the house quickly was consumed by flames, rendering life inside impossible. The charred bodies of two anarchists were later discovered, while the body of an unfortunate neighbor was also found, the victim of a collapsed wall.

The greatest aftershock of the siege involved the reputation of the home secretary. Churchill was immediately taken to task by both the press and parliament, not for his command to the fire brigade, but rather for his mere appearance at the siege. Many accused him of grasping for publicity (apparently a not unreasonable charge, given Churchill’s penchant for flamboyance), and that his proper place was in the less conspicuous centers of command.

So, it was this event that inspired the shootout in the original The Man Who Knew Too Knew Much, and it was the superior weaponry of the anarchists’ gang that repelled the police – at least for a little while. Thank you Brent McKee for alerting me to this little bit of background to the Hitchcock film.

posted by Ed at 12:08 AM 



To-night Golden Curls, To-night Golden Curls

Recently, I purchased a collection of nine early Hitchcock films on DVD. All the films are products of his work at British film studios and range from the obscure (1926’s silent work, The Lodger) to enduring classics such as The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty-Nine Steps. The set is put out by St. Clair Vision and cost me a reasonable $7.50.

I would hesitate to call this the greatest bargain in the world, chiefly because St. Clair’s efforts to remaster these old films seem pretty paltry. Hence, one finds oneself straining from time to time to follow the frequently rapid-paced dialogue. But, I imagine this is to be expected when one is paying roughly $.80 a film. I think of the collection as a survey of early Hitchcock anyway – a beginning, rather than an end. Perhaps one day I will obtain a cleaner, costlier edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps; I’m pretty sure, however, that I will never be scouring Amazon for a remastered version of Hitchcock’s Number 17, so I’m pretty content having the rough and crackling edition I have right now.

I suppose I am starting to give the impression that I am quite the Hitchcock devotee. Well, it is true that I admire Hitchcock’s work quite a bit. When I was very young, I loved movies like North by Northwest, The Saboteur, and The Thirty-Nine Steps, primarily because I thrilled to the “wrong man” theme in these films: the individual man, accused of a crime he did not commit, forced to take to the road in order to find the real culprit and prove his innocence. There was something in the dual themes of self-reliance and being “on the road” – entirely removed from and even opposed to society – that I found quite appealing. I imagine it’s why I consistently read books with characters like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, or built forts in my backyard and pretended to be George Rogers Clark on the edge of the frontier. I even had a corncob pipe I pretended to smoke (the only justification for this I can offer is that I was nine years old).

I grew out of these youthful fantasies obviously, but Hitchcock has remained a favorite. I’ve never been an avid student of film, but it has always been quite apparent that, in movies such as Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, and Psycho, Hitchcock was doing things that no other contemporary director was doing and accomplishing them at an incredibly high level of craftsmanship.

Yet, there is a limit to my ardor for the director. I suppose one reason is that I can never put film on the same plane as other artistic endeavors. I admire great movies, but I don’t marvel at them in the same way that I wonder at great poems, novels, symphonies etc. Something about them is never quite as fulfilling.

But, the other reason is that, with just about every fine actor or director whom I like, there seems to be an alarmingly high percentage of his or her work that can only be described as pure, unnecessary dross. Take John Huston, for instance. I can think of few better movies than The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Alongside that, however, there lies The Bible (!), Night of the Iguana, and other tepid productions that leave me fumbling for the eject button.

Hitchcock’s work is no exception. There are about a dozen Hitchcock films for which the prospect of watching again would bring a frown to this viewer’s face. Certainly I include the films that are almost universally decried as artistic failures (Topaz, Marnie, Torn Curtain etc.), but also some films that have garnered great acclaim. The tendency of recent film criticism is to hail Vertigo as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but I have always found the movie melodramatic and unconvincing. Lifeboat, Foreign Correspondent, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the remake) also do not rate very highly on my list, despite a high amount of critical praise for all of them.

Suffice to say, then, my admiration for Hitchcock is a bit tempered. Nonetheless, I am a fan. In the coming weeks, I will make the attempt to watch all nine films of my new collection and give reviews of the ones worth viewing. So stay tuned.

posted by Ed at 12:28 PM 



Not As Exciting As A U2 Concert, But Still. . . .

I found this to be a nice little find. A previously unknown Bach aria was found among documents taken from the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany. Apparently, it was hidden among some birthday cards. It is a two-page work, dated October 1713, unquestionably written in the composer’s hand. You can read about it here.

This is an extremely fortunate occurrence on several levels. The Bach aria was hidden among documents removed from the library only weeks before a recent fire devastated this famous cultural landmark (they were taken out, ironically enough, for the purpose of restoration). It is quite miraculous, then, that not only was this aria discovered after nearly 300 years of being buried in the library, but that it survived to be discovered at all.

The discovery may alleviate somewhat the terrible sense of cultural loss brought on by the library fire. Anna Amalia, dutchess of Saxony-Weimar, lived from 1739-1807 and was a noted patron of the arts. She collected German classics of the late 18th century, including most famously the world’s largest collection of Goethe’s Faust. Her collection, maintained and expanded by her son Duke Carl August (the first translator of Shakespeare into German) also included a wide range of manuscripts and other documents from the 16th century onward as well.

For two centuries, Anna Amalia’s library was preserved as an indispensable cultural marker of old Weimar. In April 2004, however, a fire, started apparently by antiquated, communist-era electrical equipment in the attic, ravaged the library. Nearly 30,000 books were destroyed, including first editions of Schiller’s dramas and original editions of Shakespeare’s work.

The damage, thankfully, could have been worse. A human chain, formed by firemen, library staff, and Weimar citizens, managed to remove 50,000 or so books, along with numerous sculptures and paintings, as flames mercilessly swept the site. This remarkable act of human intervention, which creates such a striking image in the mind, managed to save some of Humboldt’s travel notes as well as a 1534 Bible owned by Martin Luther.

So, all was not lost. And, in addition, we now have this little Bach aria that was rescued beforehand. Already, the English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardner has made plans for its recording. Moreover, an excerpt from the piece was performed at a National Public Radio studio just last week. You can hear it at this NPR site.

posted by Ed at 12:05 PM 


Not In 777th Heaven

Film noir is not a label easily defined. Much like one Supreme Court justice’s oft-quoted definition of obscenity as “I know it when I see it,” noir frequently escapes easy verbal classification, and rests rather on a “feel” that one derives from the film while viewing it. Thus, while I may list a host of elements of which film noir is usually composed (moral ambiguity, the urban setting, dark and angular camera shots, the femme fatale etc.), representations of the genre are extremely varied in their use of such elements. Rather, it is usually an intricately woven texture of camera technique and theme that makes the viewer recognize a noir film even before he can define it as such.

I bring this up because I watched the 1948 film Call Northside 777 last night with Erik, and we both raised the question of its noir qualities. This might seem surprising, given that the film is almost reflexively identified with the noir genre in all of the reviews that I have seen of the movie. But, from my perspective, such a classification definitely merits some re-examination.

Based on a true story, the film begins with a documentary-style narrative of the 1933 murder of a Chicago police officer. Two masked men walk into a speakeasy and shoot a police officer in the act of enjoying a libation. Based on flimsy circumstantial evidence and the identification of the speakeasy owner Wanda Skutnik, two men Frank Wiecek and Tomick Szaleska are convicted of the murder and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison.

Next, we flash forward eleven years to a scene in which Chicago Times editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) circles a newspaper ad posted by a Mrs. Tillie Wiecek (Frank’s mother) offering a $5,000 reward for information on the 1933 killing. This is a great moment in the movie, about the only one that offers the slightest hint of dramatic tension. Who is really at the other end of Northside 777 (the address to be contacted in the ad)? And if it is really Frank’s mother, how did she obtain the $5,000 for the reward and why has she waited eleven years to offer it? The whole bit sounds more than a little ominous.

Kelly sends his report P.J. McNeal (Jimmy Stewart) to investigate the matter and come up with a story. He finds Tillie at Northside 777 – down on her knees, scrubbing floors. A model of angelic motherhood, she tells McNeal that she has spent the last eleven years pinching every penny to save enough money for the reward so that she may one day prove the innocence of her poor wrongly-convicted son.

This plaintive tale leads McNeal to Frank Wiecek, housed in the state penitentiary. A model of simple virtue and stoic resignation, Frank Wiecek avers his innocence in the business of the policeman-shooting.

This avowal leads an intrigued, but still doubtful McNeal to Wiecek’s ex-wife. A model of virtue and wifely duty, she . . . well you get the point. She too maintains that Frank had nothing to do with the shooting eleven years past. Thus, with such a cast of saintly stereotypes about him, it is a remarkably easy step for McNeal to cast his skepticism aside and burn up the presses with headlines proclaiming a miscarriage of justice.

I must say this movie is not one of my favorites. The film, as a whole, feels both very wooden (there is something almost minimalist in the interactions Stewart has with his editor and his wife) and tediously paced. Thus, we have a scene of Frank Wiecek taking a lie-detector test that seems to last half-an-hour. The denouement, while interesting for its device of the wire-photo machine, also sacrifices suspenseful pacing for intricate (and unnecessary) detail.

Such protracted pacing naturally is not accidental, emerging as it does from a neo-realist aesthetic that came to prominence in the years directly after the war. Nor is this aesthetic without its merits: there is something very authentic in the camera panning Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods (heretofore invisible in Hollywood movies) as well as taking in the interior of the Illinois State Penitentiary, breathtaking both in its size and uniformity. But a few such moments cannot justify, in my view, the rest of this rather tepid movie.

Be that as it may, how does the film measure up as a noir? Well, the film does hint at various themes that we might define as noir in quality. Foremost is the idea of police corruption, which the film teases at from time to time, especially in the continual resistance of the Chicago Police Force to McNeal’s investigation. But this idea is never fully developed, and the ending actually absolves the police from any hint of malfeasance and pins the blame squarely on Wanda Skutnik’s false testimony. Thus, the ending lacks any real punch, allowing us to dismiss the recalcitrance of the police as rooted in arrogant outrage that it mistakenly fingered the wrong man.

The theme of newspaper sensationalism is also toyed with, but never fleshed out. Does Brian Kelly wish to pursue the Wiecek story on the basis of his possible innocence or because the story will sell copy? Certainly, McNeal’s first interview with Wiecek strongly suggests profit motive, rather than an earnest pursuit of the truth. But we never really come to an understanding of Kelly’s motivation (a waste of an excellent actor, if you ask me), while McNeal’s initial manipulation of the story is easily forgiven through his transformation into a fervent believer in Wiecek’s innocence. This sudden fanaticism too raises a host of issues, as McNeal seemingly blurs ethical lines in his effort to clear Frank Wiecek of guilt, notably in the inflamnatory rhetoric employed against Wanda Skutnik in his reporting. But, again, Wanda proves to be just as debased as P.J. claimed, and the movie steers clear of moral complexity on this front as well.

The only really noir moment that I can identity in the movie is when P.J. embarks on his search through the Polish neighborhood bars for Wanda Skutnik. Suddenly, we are in a world of squalor and shadows, far removed from the happy land of virtuous, hardworking immigrants. McNeal must pay for his information from a drunken sot, by feeding her money for her liquor (a disquieting sidetrack in his righteous path to saving the innocent). Once he finds Wanda, he finds another pathetic soul, who defies cooperating with the efforts of the suddenly-impotent McNeal, sending him reeling back to square one.

But, I would be hard-pressed to say that the movie as a whole stands up as a true film noir. It is instead a tolerable police drama, highly influential in its depiction of a man wrongfully convicted of murder. I would recommend this film to students of the post-war neo-realist school, but I can’t say the movie possesses much interest to anyone beyond that. Watch Anatomy of a Murder instead.

posted by Ed at 4:49 PM 



Because It Matters

Rankings of Film Noir that I have seen recently:

The Third Man............4 stars out of 4.....Not Reviewed

Night and the City........3 1/2 stars............Reviewed

The Asphalt Jungle......3 1/2 stars............Not Reviewed

The Big Sleep.............3 stars...............Not Reviewed

Call Northside 777........2 stars..................Reviewed

D.O.A.......................1 star................Not Reviewed

posted by Ed at 9:01 PM 


Time to Update, Though The Hour Is Late

A fantasy poem, really. The reality is that tonight is too hideously hot for sleeping...(for the living or the dead).


by Philip Larkin

At one the wind rose,

And with it the noise

Of the black poplars.

Long since had the living

By a thin twine

Been led into their dreams

Where lanterns shine

Under a still veil

Of falling streams;

Long since had the dead

Become untroubled

In the light soil.

There were no mouths

To drink of the wind,

Nor any eyes

To sharpen on the stars'

Wide heaven-holding,

Only the sound

Long sibilant-muscled trees

Were lifting up, the black poplars.

And in their blazing solitude

The stars sang in their sockets through

the night:

`Blow bright, blow bright

The coal of this unquickened world.'

posted by Ed at 2:44 AM 



Nothing Has Really Changed, I Promise

I'm fooling around with my template a bit, and I'm not sure this is the finished product. I really like the white background; I can't say I'm crazy about the crimson blog titles. A little jarring, I think.

Anyway, we'll see.

posted by Ed at 10:57 PM 



Happy Canada Day

I just downloaded Mozilla, and my computer is suddenly humming along at a breakneck pace. Good-bye Internet Explorer and good riddance!

Meanwhile, I just read two articles that I thought were quite noteworthy: one quite recent and the other from last year. The is from the Christian Science Monitor and concerns the fate of the Gaelic language. As one might expect, the forecast is not particularly sunny, though the European Union’s recognition of Gaelic as an official language this past June may stave off its extinction.

The second article comes from the New Yorker (May 2004) and it is about knuckleball pitchers, specifically the career of Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

One of the great aspects of baseball, I think, is that there are no rigid standards that a player must follow to be successful. He may employ a variety of different methods to rise to the top of his profession. He can play 2,000 games and get 8,000 at bats by continuously hitting the ball out of the ballpark with a graceful Griffey-like swing, or he may get his 8,000 at bats by just hitting singles out of an awkward corkscrew stance that looks painful to watch. He can certainly pitch 3,000 innings by blowing hitters away with a 95-mph fastball, but he is just as capable of pitching that amount with a 65-mph knuckleball, an equally slow screwball, or any combination of off-speed pitches.

The game of basketball is the extreme opposite of this. To be successful, you must possess a set number of attributes and play a certain way – with little or no variation. That’s why, I think, the television broadcast of the NBA draft is so ripe for ridicule. Every point guard, shooting guard, and small forward is described in the exact same way, because there is a mold that the announcers expect every single player to fit, i.e. “Boy, this guy’s quick, rangy, explosive off the dribble ...terrific wingspan...tremendous athlete...umm, did I also mention he’s rangy?” The same uniformity goes for power forwards and centers. No one is ever drafted who can be described as “short, not especially fast, with a bizarre, yet effective shooting style,” because no successful player displays such characteristics. To prove my point, can anyone flesh out discernible differences between the playing styles of any two starting shooting guards in the NBA? Now try to compare the playing styles of all-star right-fielders Adam Dunn and Ichiro Suzuki...

Football and hockey are quite similar to basketball in this respect. It is a reason why I think sports fans become almost solely attached to the teams in football, basketball, and hockey, and yet in baseball they display a nearly equal loyalty to both the teams and the players. There is such an eccentric mix of body-types and playing styles – from the dozens of batting stances, to the vast array of pitches and pitching motions, to the disparate ways of sliding into a base – that fans start looking at ballplayers much more as individuals and characters than they do at their counterparts in the NBA. Hence players such as Tim Wakefield and Julio Franco, who are unlikely to make the all-star team any time soon, manage to generate avid followings through their unique attributes (one throws a slow-as-molasses knuckler, while the other waves a murderously heavy bat about at the ripe, old age of 46), while mid-level players in the other sports largely remain anonymous.

posted by Ed at 2:28 PM 



A List Not Compiled by VH1

Here’s something interesting. To celebrate its 125th anniversary, Science Magazine has published a list of the 125 greatest mysteries confronting science. Some examples are:

What is the universe made of?

What is the biological basis of consciousness?

How much can the human life span be extended?

How are memories stored and retrieved?

Will Malthus continue to be wrong?

You can read the list here, accompanied by articles on the top 25 questions. The introductory essay “What Don’t We Know?” is also worth perusing.

posted by Ed at 11:50 AM 


What Was Rescued From The Fire

In a dream I asked the dancer Eduardova if she might dance the csardas just once more. She had a broad stripe of shadow or light in the middle of her face, between the lower edge of her forehead and the center of her chin. Just then someone came in, with the repulsive motions of an unconscious schemer, to tell her that the train was leaving right away. From the way she listened to the news, it was horribly clear to me that she would no longer dance. "I’m a bad, awful woman, aren’t I?" she said. "Oh no," I said, "not that," and turned in no particular direction to go.

Franz Kafka, diary, 1910


Today is Franz Kafka’s birthday.

posted by Ed at 4:19 PM 



Science Vs. Romance

Are science and religion compatible? Are science and art compatible? For many people over the centuries, the answer, on both counts, was decidedly “no.” The Romantic artist, along with his descendents, railed against the cold, lifeless Cartesian world that science had laid out for him. He saw a world eviscerated of its mystery and beauty by the sterile tools of scientific reason. His complaint frequently looked like this:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

--Walt Whitman

The religious man, on the other hand, accepted reluctantly a Copernican universe, but became increasingly shaken by the events that followed. The Victorian Age proved rather the last straw. It was famously an era of spiritual crisis, as intelligent men and women wrestled with geological findings, advances in astronomy, and, of course, Darwin - to find their faith on increasingly turbulent ground. But this was only the continuation of an oft-played tune that could be traced back four centuries. Simply put, it went something like this: as science encroached upon the world, God withdrew accordingly.

But, living in 2005, things are different. At least, they should be – for two things are now abundantly clear. First, the more men of science come to understand our universe, the more they realize they haven’t the foggiest notion of what is really going on. The age in which the scientist could confidently declare that, very soon, he would be able to understand the innermost workings of the universe is long since past. Now, he may hope that a tiny particle of its mystery may be revealed to him, and that is a hope that occasionally seems to border on the fantastic. The universe is, almost literally, infinitely complex.

But the second and the most important bit is this: the day that Hubble discovered that the universe is gradually expanding, the day that Einstein emerged on the scene and posited his theory of relativity, the universe ceased to be trapped within the cold, sterile clutches of traditional logic and became a place of almost mystical wonder. How does the mind attempt to grasp a universe that expands? How do you reason your way to that understanding without continually asking – “but there must be some entity, substance, etc. into which the universe is expanding, mustn’t there?” And that, of course, is only the beginning. The mind positively falters when it confronts even the most rudimentary facets of the subatomic world. Now, try contemplating the nine or more dimensions of the universe that string theory now postulates. Naturally, you can’t.

So, the point is that the old paradigm of science and religion in direct opposition needs to go. It is easier to belief in god, a higher intelligence, or whatever you wish as the creator of the universe in 2005 than it was in, say, 1905. As for the old problem of art versus science: no poet need be alarmed. As any scientist will tell you, there is so much more to the universe than what any chart or diagram can document.

posted by Ed at 4:23 PM 


But Where Were The Firecrackers (And The Has-Been Pop Stars Singing Patriotic Songs)?

So far this summer life in Binghamton has been a sticky, sweaty nightmare. It is remarkable how stultifying the summer heat is in a city, even a city as insignificant as this one. Summer reading lists are tossed aside; cooking becomes a chore; and one wishes to do little else than imitate the cat and find some dark, lonely corner in which to stretch out.

But yesterday, I went to Bowman Lake State Park for the first time with my girlfriend and another friend. It is a moderately-sized preserve about 7 miles west of Oxford and 25 miles north of Binghamton. We wanted to find a place slightly out of the way, where we could swim untroubled by hordes of holiday-travelers with their children. A scenic ride and a sandy beach would simply have been a bonus.

Yet, the place was as lovely as we could have imagined. We drove along highway 12 for a fair bit and then took a series of wooded back roads to get to the park. All the while half-afraid we were lost, and all the while on the right path.

Now, Bowman Lake basically provides two things: a lake to swim (or canoe), and over one hundred campsites. Yet one could hardly wish for anything else, with a lake almost completely enclosed by woods, and a natural stillness preserved by the sparse number of people who frequent it. We, indeed, had found our out-of-the-way place - with a beach to boot.

On the return home, we got lost. I’m not sure how this happened; there were many unmarked roads and we missed the turn on one of them. Yet, for once, we did not mind it. Instead, we took an evening stroll about hills and forests (Ludlow State Forest, to be exact) along an unpaved road, while observing a rich and tranquil countryside.

In retrospect, there was something here perhaps not to be reclaimed. The sun low in the sky, as evening shadows lengthened upon the fields; the outline of a cloud barely distinct from its background of light blue sky. The air slightly heavy, but not oppressive. The greenness of the fields blending into the richer green of the hills.

Everything seemingly as it should be. The three of us seeing it for the first time.

Washington Irving was born in New York City in 1783 and built a house near Tarrytown half a century later. As a small boy in the 1790s, James Fenimore Cooper was moved from his birthplace in Burlington, New Jersey to the shores of Otsego Lake – to a town called Cooperstown. Both men roamed a country in its infancy: they wandered through dense forests that allowed the barest sun, while smelling the freshness of firs and the thick pungency of pine sap. They emerged into open tracts of farmland and gazed upon distant hills, seeing them in perfect clearness. Nothing about to blot out the eye or deaden the senses.

What better way to spend one’s July fourth than to experience just a tiny bit of that?

posted by Ed at 3:03 PM 



In Stark Contrast To My Previous Post

Precisionism meets Imagism: Charles Demuth and William Carlos Williams

The Great Figure

Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure 5

in gold

on a red

fire truck




to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city

posted by Ed at 6:26 PM 


Roman Times

This article from the Telegraph caught my eye today. It is a review of two books written about the collapse of the Roman Empire: one titled The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather and the other The Fall of Rome and The End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins.

What’s most arresting is reviewer Peter Jones’ opening sentence:

In 1984 a German scholar worked out that 210 reasons had been advocated for the fall of the Roman empire in the West in the fifth century AD - from bureaucracy to deforestation, from moral decline to over-hot public baths, from female emancipation to gout.

210 reasons? Gout? I’ll remember this the next time I become wistful over not pursuing Classics for my graduate studies.

posted by Ed at 5:53 PM 


News of the Day (Obviously)

A reminder of what we can’t afford to forget.

Death Toll Is Raised to at Least 50 in London Blasts.

The Same Old, Same Old . . .An anatomy of the London bombing.

posted by Ed at 11:01 AM 



It's Like a George Michael Song

Recently I was visiting Arts and Letters Daily on the internet. A&L Daily, which is an offshoot of The Chronicle of Higher Education, is a useful site. It compiles articles from a variety of sources on topics ranging from music, to books, to politics and economics. I would say it is one of the better web sites out there.

A few days ago, I happened to click on an article (I can’t remember which) at A&L Daily and was greeted by a movie trailer as one of the advertisements. Now I find this quite annoying in itself – there is nothing more distracting than to see the flash and whirl of a movie clip in the middle of an article that one is trying to read. In fact, I find this to be one of the more obnoxious aspects of the internet. At least on television, the commercials come at intervals. If you happen to be watching a rare worthwhile program, you can have your 15 minutes or so of uninhibited viewing before pressing the mute button when the ads come on. Here, you are barraged on the same page and at the same time as you are checking the weather forecast, or reading an article about the G8 meetings, or getting an update on Hurricane Dennis.

Anyway, once distracted, I found myself quite absorbed in the movie clip on the middle of my page: it was a trailer for the upcoming DVD release of the 2004 motion picture Kinsey.

Now, I have not seen Kinsey. I remember when the movie came out last year and felt some slight curiosity to buy a ticket, if only to see how a Hollywood film would treat such a controversial figure in the field of sexual research. My curiosity, however, was abated by various reviews I perused, which all framed the film as a tale of a relentless sexual pioneer ridding the post-war world of antiquated and unnecessary taboos. It seemed fairly obvious from the little I read that the unsavory aspects of the man were going to be swept conveniently under the rug.

I would love to be wrong about this and say, at some point down the road, that I have jumped to a hasty and ill-informed conclusion, but the trailer does serve to reinforce my suspicions. Kinsey (played by Liam Neeson) comes to us as one of those inquisitive-scientist-determined-to-expose-the-truth characters, though he is not without humor in his pursuit. As a breezy jazz piano piece plays in the background, we see Kinsey toy with his uptight and sexually innocent students. At one point, for instance, Kinsey asks a brunette lass listening to his lecture, “what part of the body can enlarge 100 times?”

With indignation audible in her voice, she replies that he has no business asking her such a question in a mixed class of boys and girls. Not missing a beat, he responds blandly, “I was referring to the pupil of your eye.”

The class erupts into laughter – laugher that is, of course, also our laughter. In a series of rapid shots, we see a host of wide-eyed Middle Americans asking the most preposterous questions to Kinsey’s team of researchers: “can too much sex cause cancer?” “Can wearing high heels make me sterile?” “Can you get syphilis from a whistle?” As sophisticated children of the 21st century, we cannot help tittering at their naiveté. Syphilis from a whistle…?....now really, how innocent can one be? How distressingly repressed these poor people from the 1940s must have been!

Now a more honest film might induce a more complicated reaction than laughter. Nowhere in this teaser did I see any mention of Kinsey’s eccentric, and perhaps self-serving, views of children as fully sexual beings. Nowhere did I see any reference to evidence that Kinsey may have enabled child molestation during his studies of child sexual behavior. My hunch, too, is that what was left out of the trailer was likewise left out of the movie as a whole. That, after all, might require atmospheric music a little moodier than light jazz piano. It might alter the tone of a film that is marketed as “sexy fun” and “wickedly funny.”

Now there is something to be learned from this, I think, because such a sanitized film can serve as a metaphor for the way we as a culture have come to view sexual issues. Sex has become broadly equated with freedom – the greater one’s openness to the sexual act, and the more uninhibited one is to various forms of sexual experimentation, the more freedom one certainly possesses. How do we know that the damsels of Sex and the City are liberated gals? Naturally, by the ease with which they sleep with as many men in as many different ways as possible. Before the moderating influence of 60s feminism, such a standard equally applied to men. The 50s Playboy philosophy, as articulated by that luminary of glossy, air-brushed pornography – Hugh Hefner – romanticized the urbane upper-middle class male who floated about with his unrestrained libido, untethered to any bourgeois notion of “commitment.” He was granted the freedom to do as he pleased.

As a corollary to the above, sexual freedom has likewise become equated with power. A few years, Ms. Magazine celebrated the end of the 20th century with a list of the 100 most important women of that period. Not surprisingly, Madonna made the list, alongside such political figures as Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt. Her importance, according to her numerous admirers (ranging from Ms. to VH1), stems from her frankness concerning issues of female sexuality. Following her lead, as the argument goes, women need no longer feel trapped by the patriarchic binary of saint or slut; rather they could become “empowered” by assuming responsibility over their sexuality. This all looks very promising except that it only seems to lead to the banal, pop-culture propagated conclusion that female empowerment means being as promiscuous as one’s male counterparts.

How ironic, of course, that uninhibited sexuality has become a symbol of power. The Classical virtues, passed on to Christianity, posited this sort of sexual freedom as a sign of powerlessness – that one had lost the middle way and become prey to lustful appetites. But more to the point, such a simplistic ideas concerning sex refuse to acknowledge the Pandora’s Box of human sexuality. There is a reason, after all, why cultures have controlled sex so rigorously over the millennia, ritualizing some forms of its expression, and putting assorted taboos on others. Human sexuality, with its potential for jealousy, violence, disease, etc., has the capacity to unravel civil society.

Now there is an easy retort to the above, which is that we currently refuse to acknowledge the Pandora’s Box, because we have the power to do so. In some sense, this is true. In the age of birth control, one can engage in sexual activities without a substantial fear of procreation. This is one way in which we have freed sexuality from its potentially destructive consequences. But, there are so many others that still exist. We do, after all, live in the age of HIV. Moreover, upon holding human sexuality up to the light, we should find certain things that make us quite uncomfortable about human nature: the sometimes-disturbing connection between sex and violence, for example, or pathologies like pedophilia.

Now how do we react to this knowledge? Usually by shying away from its disturbing implications. If we see more occurrences of rape in our culture, we don’t blame our culture’s increasingly permissive attitudes toward sexuality that can place people (women) in positions of greater vulnerability. Rather, we usually pin the problem on our culture’s ideology of “hyper-masculinity” or whatever fad term is in currency. In other words, it’s just a male problem. The presence of sexual pathology is also evaded, ruptured from the general discussion about human sexuality, as evidenced by the hand-wringing over people who make normative claims about sexuality or the absurd naiveté of those who advance the slogan that “we should be able to love whoever we want.” In the case of pedophilia, could any message be more pernicious, more untrue?

Or sometimes we just ignore these things altogether, i.e. pretend that they don’t exist, don’t happen, or whatever – as what seems to be the case with the film Kinsey. Let’s not probe too deeply into whatever excesses Kinsey’s sexual research may have produced. That might taint the picture of him as the spirited sexual revolutionary. After all he rescued us from the absurd notion that too much sex can cause cancer. Now that’s progress.

posted by Ed at 5:21 PM 


Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out In the Mid-day Sun


Played at noon on a sunny day in Binghamton with the temperature a not-so-temperate 88 degrees.

Let’s just say this was a horrendous idea.

On a cheerier note, the murderer of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh has confessed (proudly) to his crime. You can read about it here.

Van Gogh, you may recall, was shot eight times last November, upon the release of his film Submission. Submission, scripted by a Somali-born Dutch MP Ayaan Hirs Ali, depicted violence against women in Islamic societies by showing four abused Muslim women wearing see-through dresses that exposed whip marks and Koran verses unfavorable to women.

Many Muslim commentators deemed the film blasphemous, and both Ali and van Gogh received death threats from extremist groups. Van Gogh, however, refused protection.

posted by Ed at 2:31 PM 



The Case of Max Bruch

(A product of spending the afternoon listening to Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G Minor and wondering about the man behind the work.)

To attain fame for one great achievement and to be frustrated by the knowledge that the rest of one’s work will forever remain in its shadow. There is something irresistible to that story. The German composer Max Bruch wrote over 200 pieces of music, beginning with a septet for winds and strings written at the age of eleven. He produced 9 violin pieces, 3 operas, 3 symphonies, and 3 violin concertos. His quality of craftsmanship was considered so beyond reproach that the composer and critic Sir Donald Francis Tovey once wrote, “it is impossible to find in Max Bruch any lapses from the standard of beauty which he thus sets himself.”

But in 1866 at the age of 28, Max Bruch composed his Violin Concerto in G Minor, and it became the signature work of his long and prolific career. Bruch may be best defined, employing a term that would have been paradoxical a few decades before, as a conservative Romantic. Throughout his career, he drew little sustenance from contemporary musical trends and innovations. Instead, his music reflects the high Romantic achievements of Brahms and Mendelssohn. In the Violin Concerto in G Minor, he reaches the musical heights of the men who influenced him, creating a piece of rare romantic intensity and virtuosity. Two years after Bruch’s composition, the violinist Joseph Joachim bestowed supreme praise upon the piece, calling it the “richest and most seductive” of the romantic violin concertos.

It is hard to disagree with this assessment. Concert audiences have certainly never wavered in their appreciation of the work, a reaction that both pleased and pained the composer. Throughout the rest of his career, he expressed frustration over what he felt was the unjust neglect of his other compositions, even to the point of begging concert performers to play other works than his “world-renowned concerto.” Now perhaps Bruch exaggerated the extent of this neglect, given that he achieved a sterling reputation for his numerous choral works. Nonetheless, one cannot deny his prescience, for today his violin concerto remains a popular standard in concert repertoires, while the majority of his other works have either steadily descended into obscurity or simply lingered there.

A question to be asked naturally is whether such a fate has been, at least in some part, deserved. Bruch was a conservative man, and though his appreciation of beauty cannot be questioned, there is some doubt as to what extent he was willing to nurture it, preferring it seems the simple, beautiful melody over the emotional turbulence and burgeoning dissonance prominent in late romantic music. As his contemporary critic Hermann Kretzschmar put it simply and damningly, “Over time, his imagination retreated increasingly into the contrasts of extreme simplicity and overwhelming pomp; his works and his undeniably powerful talent did not deepen.”

Yet, there is an oddly affecting quality to a career such as this. Most artists never even have the good fortune of seeing one of their works gain public renown. Undoubtedly for artists thirsting for fame, if offered the chance, they would make the devil’s bargain and be remembered for one thing alone than be remembered not at all.

But there must have been something uniquely galling about a career spanning many decades and encompassing a great many works for the artist to feel shackled to a single composition written closer to the dawn of that career than the dusk. Our culture holds dear the metaphor of the artist moving upward – his constantly striving to new artistic heights that signify the mastery of his craft. How frustrating it must be to know that this cannot happen, that one will continually toil in the shadow of one’s youth. One can imagine perhaps the composer’s sense of futility, product of the knowledge that no matter the quality of his newest string composition, his audience will still demand The Violin Concerto.

posted by Ed at 5:40 PM 



Occasional Poem

Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot

These are the self-portraits that sell -

my face only, surrounded by my pets,

not the broken and open body.

See how I am staring straight at you,

I who painted this with brushes of flame

and who cannot tell you exactly

where I have been this morning.

My lips are sealed. But I can't

silence Bonito. He perches just below

my left ear, repeating sounds he learnt

from the sun, when he flew into its core.

Fulang-Chang went with him, swinging

through the canopies of fire forests,

searching for the leaves of the tree

that burns at the centre of my life.

These leaves are the few he brought back -

dry as straw, they still hum many years

after my body has cooled. And you -

how long will you listen to these colours

before you hear the language of light?

- Pascale Petit, The Wounded Deer

posted by Ed at 1:17 PM 



Abuses of Language

One of the prime targets of those who decry the dismal condition of intellectual life in America and the West at large is the deterioration of the language into immaturity and dullness. This is hardly a new complaint. Orwell railed against the decline of the language, and the disturbing consequences of that decay, sixty years ago. He was not alone obviously, accompanied in theme primarily by writers dismayed at the increasingly shabby condition in which the tools of their trade are kept.

Yet the problem persists in varying shapes and forms. Take, for instance, a comment from celebrated writer Norman Mailer in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.

And one of the things I believe is necessary about democracy is that the health of democracy -- the vibrancy of a democracy -- depends on the use of language…And then there is Bush with his dead-ass American language. I think it’s unforgiveable.

Now, there seems little question that our lead-tongued president is firmly entrenched as the most inarticulate of western world leaders. Yet, notice how Mailer indicts himself with the yawn-inducing jibe “dead-ass American language”. Was that the best he could do? There was a time when intellectuals made nimble sport of their politicians (I can’t help thinking here of Malcolm Muggeridge’s acid description of British PM Anthony Eden: “he was a Disraeli hero who had moved into a service flat…he was not only a bore, he bored for England.”). Mailer just sounds like he writes for the college newspaper.

Or, there is this instance from a few years ago, when I watched on television a group of middle-aged pundits, clothed in suit-and-tie, discussing with perfect seriousness how Al Gore had just “dissed” President Bush in recent comments. The exact nature of this “dis” was never specified. Perhaps he had slammed it, or woven it into one of his many hip-hop compositions.

These are simply cases of people who should know better, employing the language like nine-year olds, but there is the corresponding trend of language used vaguely, obscurely, and often euphemistically. This was the problem identified by Orwell, who saw the bloated and unclear deployment of the language as a tool for governments to pull the wool over their people. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot famously said; Orwell feared that politicians would ensure their language stood in the way of that reality by using words detached from it. In other words, we should watch closely the government that names things (military operations, economic policy etc.) so obscurely as to block people from “calling up mental pictures” of these things.

Politicians have shown themselves to be the worst offenders, undoubtedly, but corporate executives and academics (though for slightly different reasons) have shown a comparable zeal in using a lax and wandering language untethered to reality. I remember my first day working for a Medicare contractor, walking into the section where was I be employed (a section that looked identical to every other section) and seeing the following sentence framed on one of the walls.

Our goal is to have zero nonconformances.

Nonconformances? What did that mean? This wasn’t a word itself, but I could recognize elements of the language I speak within it. I could see the prefix “non,” for instance, followed by the word “conformance.” Now, I knew that conformance meant joining others in submitting to a standard or authority, so the desire to have zero nonconformances seemed rather foreboding. Would I be in trouble if I brought the wrong-colored lunch box or parted my hair the wrong way?

Looking about at my disheveled colleagues, this seemed unlikely, and thus it dawned on me that the neologism "noncomformance" was simply a euphemism for “mistake.” You know – "error," "blunder," something done in the "wrong" way. For example, not properly covering the costs of prescription drugs that a low-income person needs to take in order to survive – that sort of thing. This was the reality so delicately concealed by that penumbrous creation: noncomformance.

Which is why I suppose one appreciates when others notices absurdities in our use of the language. I was wandering through an internet site devoted to all things James Thurber (here), when I came upon this delightful passage:

Thurber loved the English language, and was constantly at war with those who sought to reduce it to nonsensical babble, jingos, and slanguish. In his day, "automation" (neologism) and "Spectacular" (as a noun) were some of the signs of the End of the World.

Followed by this:

Here are some recent "improvements" to English which Thurber, thankfully, never lived to see:

• Verbization of a Noun:

"How does that impact our work?"

The author then concludes archly, "I thought only teeth could be impacted!"

Well, very good! The use of impact as a verb ranks as one of my top two pet peeves when it comes to contemporary English usage. The other is to be found in the following sentence:

We are currently of the mindset that health care premiums should be lowered.

Mindset – how did this awful neologism come into existence? Though the word originated in 1934, it is only in the last twenty or so years that it has gained such ubiquity in everyday speaking and writing.

This I think is an unfortunate occurrence. Mindset holds the trait of brevity over such synonyms as “frame of mind,” “bent of mind,” et al, but it is a singularly ugly word. Frame of mind may take an extra syllable to say, but it possesses a certain rhythm to it that the bald and lifeless "mindset" does not.

This, however, is not my primary objection to mindset. The real problem, I believe, is that mindset in its common usage provides an unsatisfactory synonym for the words or phrases it has come to replace. Frame of mind, for instance, connotes openness and receptivity. It does not have a ring of inflexibility. I may be currently of a certain frame of mind, but provided with satisfactory arguments of a contrary nature, I am willing to amend my viewpoint. The same applies to bent of mind. I may have a certain opinion or disposition, but by no means am I closed to other ideas.

Mindset, on the other hand, suggests intractability. It sounds like one has had one’s mind fossilized in granite while a team of geologists arduously work to extract it, or that one has given one’s brain to a rugby scrum. The person who has a mindset will hold doggedly to whatever idea has shaped it.

It’s most appropriate synonym really should be conviction, then. But why not say conviction? To save that one precious syllable? No, it’s silly really. Enough with this dreary word!

posted by Ed at 4:38 PM 



Make a Poem the Way Nature Makes a Tree

New Song

Inside the horizon

Someone was singing

The voice

Is unfamiliar

Where is it coming from

No one can be seen

Among the branches

Even the moon was an ear

And not a sound

Is heard


a loose star

Fell in the pond

The horizon

Is closed

And there is no exit

- Vincente Huidobro

posted by Ed at 5:25 PM 



A Baseball Post

Sobriquet Magazine today posts on baseball and cites Tim Kurkjian’s article on Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. It is an article worth reading for anyone interested in a remarkable event that occurred 64 years ago, when a baseball player managed to churn out at least one hit in 56 consecutive games.

The 56-game hitting streak is the greatest record in baseball, and probably all of sports. It is a record that will never be broken, I think. Perhaps some skilled slap hitter will come along who manages to stave off the dreaded, but inevitable game in which he hits the ball right on the nose and has nothing to show for it, or the game where he can't see the ball very well, or the game in which he meets a pitcher who has his number or whose stuff is overpowering...and so on...and manages to string together 56 games with a hit. Perhaps that hitter is currently playing. In both cases, I doubt it. That mixture of skill and luck only happens once.

Now, baseball has many unbreakable records of which it can boast. No one will ever approach Cy Young’s 511 career victories or Jack Chesbro’s 41 wins in a single season. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone in the near future will make it even one-eighth of the way to Cy Young’s record of 749 complete games.

But those are marks etched in stone because the nature of the game has changed. The record for consecutive games with a hit, on the other hand, is a pure record. It exists independent of the ebb and flow of rule changes, managerial strategy, and scoring protocol, and unless some future generation of foolish-minded baseball owners decides to shorten the game to 7 innings or alter the way in which hits are scored, it will remain so. To the contrary, the reason DiMaggio’s record has stood long unchallenged by subsequent players is not because some rule or convention forbids it, but because the original achievement is so utterly unattainable.

posted by Ed at 9:16 PM 



Bondaged Against Bush

So, I' m reading a rather glistening Hitch piece on the Karl Rove scandal at Slate Magazine, when, upon scrolling down to the bottom of the page, I run into the requisite Google ads. One, of course, can count on Google ads to be inane and delightfully irrelevant to the content of the page, despite all attempts to the contrary. I can remember running them on my blog, and finding myself advertising for a host of strange and undesirable causes.

Anyway, as I'm glancing at them, one ad in particular comes to my attention. Obviously post-punctuation, it breathlessly reads as follows, "I did not vote 4 Bush" Black Protest Wristbands Join the Movement.

Now my first reaction to this was extreme glee. An "I did not vote 4 Bush" wristband? This is something I must have, provided that there exists a companion piece for a friend, family member, or life partner, "I 2 did not vote 4 Bush," or "I did not vote 4 Bush 2," or even better "I 2 did not vote 4 Bush 2," thus clarifying one's lack of support for our second Bush president, rather than the first.

But the priceless bit comes when you click on the ad and actually get to see the wristband. I can't really describe it, except that it emanates some dull pewter quality, complete with the appearance that the words have been engraved into it. One can almost hear it being smitten by the village blacksmith at the forge. It looks like a manacle that prisoners would wear as they were being shipped to Australia. It's what every full-blooded, conscientious American boy and girl needs on their wrist.

And it only costs $3.00. Grab them while they last.

posted by Ed at 10:54 PM 



Abuses of Language Part II (Notoriety Follows You...)

In discussing my two most annoying language miscues in a previous post (verbalization of "impact," the reliance on "mindset"), I omitted a third that has prompted the grinding of the teeth as well. It is one that frequently passes the lips of sports broadcasters (as well as certain political pundits), so perhaps it is fitting that the first mention I have seen of this gaffe comes from a baseball columnist at cnnsi.com.

Tom Verducci writes

I love it. Take your pet peeves out for a walk every once in a while. It's great for your mental health. Mine? I hate "grand slam home run." It's redundant. I hate it when announcers use "notoriety" for fame. Alex Rodriguez is famous. Jeffrey Dahmer was notorious. I hate lunkheads in the background of a TV shot of the batter who wave and talk on the cell phone. And I miss pregame infield practice. Whew. That felt good.

Yes, how many times have we heard an utterance such as, “Sammy Sosa got a lot of notoriety for his 66 homeruns in 1998”? No, dear broadcaster, Sammy Sosa did not gain notoriety in 1998; he found notoriety in 2003 with the corked-bat incident. There is a slight difference.

This difference, as Verducci illustrates, is that “fame” means either to be widely known or even to be distinguished for achievement. It contains both a neutral and a positive connotation. "Notoriety," on the other hand, means to be “notorious,” which, in turn, means to be widely and unfavorably known.

These two words then are certainly not synonymous. What is puzzling is how this error came into existence. I have never heard anyone have trouble with the adjective "notorious." Your verbally-slack broadcaster does not say “Pedro Martinez is notorious for winning 20 games a season,” whereas he may well assert that “Pedro Martinez is notorious for pitching inside and angering the batter.”

So, why the problem with notoriety, if the definition of notorious seems so clearly understood? Who knows? Undoubtedly, some lax announcer once carelessly applied "notoriety" to a situation in which "fame" would have been better suited, and because notoriety sounds a little more erudite than fame, it eventually caught on. Sadly, that’s how these things usually happen.

posted by Ed at 12:26 PM 



He Returns Wanting More

So after a night of watching the Elmira Pioneers play baseball – a night that included me making a fool of myself in front of 800-900 people in a barbaric event called the “spinning bat race” – I have shrugged off all embarrassment and decided that minor league baseball is the way to go.

There is, after all, nothing quite so promising as plopping down a reasonable amount of change at the gate, and being able to watch, in comfortable proximity, a team fielded in 1881 in a stadium built in 1939. Living as I do in the era of the Arizona Diamondbacks, that is a rare pleasure.

With that in mind, I have started a minor league links section for a select few minor league clubs. I also highly recommend small-parks.com as an excellent resource for pictures and history of 49 minor league baseball parks.

There is a tendency to romanticize minor league baseball as retaining a purity lost by its major league counterpart. But the response that a night at Dunn Field in Elmira engenders is much more complicated. In gazing through the last rays of the evening sun at the advertisements for local businesses posted on the outfield walls and, in noticing the great number of elderly people among one’s fellow spectators, one realizes that one is participating in a community event – an event that has endured for quite some time.

But even in that sense of rooted-ness, there is a corresponding sense of fragility and transience. The players that an independent-team such as Elmira produces are a long way from major league ball: very few have their contracts bought by major league clubs and the rest find their careers on the cusp of extinction. Elmira, itself, has been on the brink of losing its team because of financial hardship, as recently as 2002. The Pioneers now seem to be in good hands, rescued by the ownership of Silex – a corporation composed of current and former major league players Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Mac Suzuki. But, it is impossible to say how long this partnership will last. On a summer’s night in Dunn Field, one can’t help feeling, then, that one watches actors briefly playing their part on a stage that, very soon, may vanish permanently.

posted by Ed at 10:12 PM 



Before Time Passes Me By. . .

Time to start this thing again.

posted by Ed at 3:00 PM 



The Wheels On The Bus

I feel strange re-starting my blog with a post about the NFL. For most of my life, the NFL was the incarnate of so much that was wrong in the world. It featured the slick (Al Michaels), the boorish (John Madden, Dan something-dorf, touchdown celebrations) the trashy (the Cowgirls and the Super Bowl halftime show), the over-hyped and over-analyzed (daylong Super Bowl pre-game shows in which former pigskin legends sit around in contrived seriousness and gravely dissect the 46-defense as if it were string theory, while tossing in lame truisms about “desire” and winning teams “wanting it more”). It was relentlessly appalling.

These days, I must admit that the divide between the NFL and college football (realm of my beloved Notre Dame) is not as great as it once. It’s hard to point out the faults of the former, when the latter features events in which high school kids declare their school of choice by picking up, or even mockingly pretending to wear, the hats of those schools that have unsuccessfully recruited them. An exercise, we are assured, to heighten the suspense of this richly-compelling drama. (We should all be so lucky to have such a balanced approach towards institutions that have offered us the opportunity of gaining a college degree without having to pay a red cent for it). Besides, college football has Brent Musberger calling its games, and will continue to do so it would appear, until someone puts us all out of our misery and puts him in the home where he belongs.

Furthermore, I must say, my attitude towards the NFL has softened. Call it the effect of having a roommate who lives and dies by one of sports’ most woeful franchises. A roommate, who I might add, has shown no reluctance in attempting to convert me to his rooting ways. I have been given the coffee mug with the logo. I have been subjected to hearing the theme song. In short, I have been hooked – somewhat – by the Cincinnati Bungels. I will not say more. It is sufficient to write that I hope that a USC graduate makes a full and speedy recovery from a career-threatening injury in the next few months.

So, perhaps, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that I would write about the NFL, particularly when the subject matter is not that far removed from what is near and dear to my heart after all. Jerome Bettis, star of one the loveliest victories in ND’s gridiron history (’92 Sugar Bowl) and member of arguably the greatest backfield in college football history (’92 Brooks & Bettis, and yes, Blanchard & Davis, I wrote that), is on the verge of finally winning a Super Bowl. He has survived 13 NFL seasons, and its concomitant aches, pains, and bruises, as well as a recent brush with ignominious shame, to get to this point. With his career winding to an end, he simply needs the superior play and coaching of his team to come through for one game, and he will have completed one of the most satisfying stories in sports this year.

Now, I have never really thought too much on the subject, but I always assumed that the greatness of Bettis was never in doubt. Here is a player, after all, who punished defenses with his running style, and yet, in his prime, was fast enough to outrun defenses as well. Such a combination of muscle and agility in a running back is rare indeed. Moreover, despite the bruising nature of his running, he managed to put together a productive 13-year career – a remarkable feat, given that the legs of less physical runners usually give out by age 30.

Yet, in the hands of inept sports journalists, nothing is out-of-the-realm, really. So, I should not have been taken aback when somebody named David Schoenfield writes an article entitled “The Bus isn’t one of the best” for ESPN. These sound like fighting words, though the main argument is slightly more tepid. The point of the article, it seems, is not to contest the notion that Jerome Bettis should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame (which, incidentally, I thought was the criterion for being “one of the best”), but rather to show that he does not belong on a list of the top 25 running backs of all time.

As such, I can live with that idea, given that I admit I could never put together a list of who would actually belong on that list. To be fair, some of Schoenfield’s initial points in the article possess some validity – as far as they go. There is too much hype concerning the Bettis bowl (though what would one expect from the insufferable weeks leading up to the Super Bowl?). Moreover, he correctly points out, that for all of Bettis’ reputation as a goal-line nightmare, he has not scored that many touchdowns in his career. Now, one could quibble that he has never really been in the kind of productive offense that would grant him numerous touchdown opportunities, but there lingers the question of why Kordell Stewart in 1997 had as many rushing touchdowns (11) as Bettis had in any single season before 2004.

But then we come to the moment that sent me scurrying to the keyboard with a sense of purpose.

Steelers fans are probably crying that Bettis' yards-per-carry average is low because he hasn't had the luxury of playing with any great quarterbacks before Ben Roethlisberger. Since joining the Steelers in 1996, Bettis has carried 2,683 times for 10,571 yards, averaging 3.93 yards per carry; all other Steelers running backs -- guys like Erric Pegram, Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Willie Parker -- have rushed 1,780 times for 7,793 yards, or 4.38 yards per carry.

So Bettis, supposedly one of the greatest running backs of all time, has actually averaged nearly half a yard less per carry than a motley collection of backups and fullbacks.

Good lord, where to begin? He hasn’t had the luxury of playing with any “great” quarterbacks before Roethlisberger? Talk about mastery of understatement. Check out the stats of the people who have been quarterback on Bettis’s teams. No need to mince words: the men who have handed the ball off to Jerome Bettis since he came into the league with the Rams should all have been fighting for space on the bench. They were scrubs, bench-warmers, the men of mop-up time. It isn’t a question of greatness; none of them should even have been starters. Hence, why the Steelers, in some ways the second most dominant team of the nineties, came close to winning a Super Bowl just once, and then only to be cruelly undermined by quarterback ineptitude once they got there. Everybody knows this.

But that statement pales in comparison mind you with the blighted statistical analysis that follows, written astoundingly by someone who maintains that Bettis deserves Hall of Fame selection. First of all, I wonder how Willie Parker feels being called a backup or fullback (perhaps he’s a backup fullback?). Second comparing the rushing average of a backup running back to a starter is like comparing the batting average of a utility player to a regular in baseball, i.e. “wow Tony Graffinino had a higher batting average than Vladimir Guerrero last year! He must be a better player!” It isn’t simply that the sample size is too small for the utility player in order to make a comparison (though, of course, it is), it’s also that utility players are used in such a way as to optimize their statistics. In other words, a utility-shortstop who hits left-handed pitcher well, but can’t hit righties at all, will most probably only make appearances against left-handed pitchers. The everyday player gets no such luxury. If he is a .310 hitter against right-handers and only a .280 hitter against lefties, he is going to have to bite the bullet and expect a decrease in average when he faces the Tom Glavines of the world. Finally, and very importantly, the everyday player finds himself in a daily battle against the grind of playing daily, i.e. the fatigue, the aches and pains, the injuries that never heal, etc. All these things serve to affect his stats negatively. Naturally, the utility player doesn’t have to deal with this at all.

Taking this analogy back to football, let’s examine one of the players that Schoenfield cites in his “motley collection of backups and fullbacks:” the obscure Richard Huntley. In 1999, Huntley carried 93 times for 567 yards for an astonishing 6.1 yards per carry. I say astonishing, because since Jim Brown in 1963, only one player, I believe, has had a season in which he has run for over 6 yards per game as a starter (Barry Sanders, 1997). Now how did Huntley perform this remarkable feat, and is he one of the two greatest running backs in the NFL since Jim Brown?

The answer to the latter question is no, and the reasons are obvious. First, there aren’t simply enough rushing attempts to gauge his greatness (one long run could overly embellish his stats); second because he’s a spot-back, he was probably only used in situations and in games that best utilized his effectiveness (i.e. no short-yardage situations; several games with 3 or fewer carries). Third, Huntley didn’t run enough to experience the wear and tear that reduces the leg strength and speed of an every-down back over the course of a season. He was, in all likelihood, always at “full strength.”

Now this might start to sound pedantic, but, keep in mind, Huntley is one of the group of running backs cited by Schoenfield as performing at a superior level to Bettis behind the Pittsburgh offensive line from 1996 to the present. However, it seems that Bettis should not feel too dismayed, because if he has not performed up to Huntley’s exemplary standard, neither has Emmitt Smith, Earl Campbell, or Eric Dickerson. Obviously, none of these fellows belong on the list of top 25 NFL running backs, either.

Now Schoenfield shows that he is aware (somewhat) of the absurdity of comparing Bettis’ rushing average to his backups, by conceding that Bettis has carried the ball in a lot of short-yardage situations. But his decision to just take away 200 carries is laughably arbitrary and much too low. If Bettis has had 600 carries in his Pittsburgh career in which he has plunged into the arms of an expectant defensive line for a yard or two in order to get a first down (an average of about 4 per game: probably a small number given Cowher’s conservative offensive nature and the fact Bettis almost exclusively performs this trick these days), taking away 200 carries does not right the balance in the least. To illustrate, if on those 600 carries, he picked up 1200 yards (2.0), then by taking away 200 carries, one is conjecturing that he would “ordinarily” have averaged 3.0 yards per carry if those carries had been in regular down and distance situations. That’s a full yard below his career average and simply will not do.

There are further problems to briefly touch on. Schoenfield notes that the durability of Bettis is one of his strengths, but fails to recognize that this very durability would be the cause for the depression of his yards per carry, i.e. there is no way a running back in his early thirties is going to be able to run as effectively as a running back in his early twenties. Both the speed and ability to fight through injuries are no longer there. Furthermore, Bettis has been able to endure only by becoming an exclusively short-yardage runner – a role that must only diminish his yards per carry. In other words, it’s hard to maintain a healthy 4.0 when you are handed the ball at 3rd and goal on the one-yard line.

In short, Schoenfield’s piece is typical ESPN mush: flashy in an attempt to be provocative, but ultimately worthless. At the end of his column, he compares Jerome Bettis to Harold Baines, an unspectacular baseball player who, like so many others, laboured unsuccessfully into his 40s in an attempt to join the once-exclusive 3,000 hit club. He will not make the Hall of Fame.

Jerome Bettis is the NFL's fifth all-time leading rusher, and he will be remembered for quite some time for his unique ability to play his position well into his mid-30s.

The Bus deserved better.

And I just wrote 2,000 words on the NFL. Oh my.

posted by Ed at 10:19 PM 



Thank You, Norway

The band is called Black Debbath. The song is "Den femte statsmakt" (translated "The Fifth Estate"). You can watch it here.

It is arguably the greatest music video ever made. Thank you Black Debbath, thank you.

posted by Ed at 11:32 PM 



Being There: In The End

I watched the movie Being There with my friend Erik and his parents last night. I won’t discuss too much of the plot. It is a dark comedy about a gardener who is set adrift in the world when his employer dies, forcing him to evacuate the house. This would be an unfortunate occurrence under any circumstance, but it proves doubly so, given that the gardener (played by Peter Sellers) has never set foot in the outside world before. He knows what he knows only from the multiple televisions in his former abode. Luckily, a billionaire’s wife runs into him (quite literally), and Sellers finds himself very soon the star of the political and financial world, but only because he is mistaken for a savant, when he is, in fact, just an idiot. It’s a pretty entertaining film, guided mostly by the strong performances of Melvyn Douglas and Peter Sellers (of course).

Anyway, in the final shot of the movie, Peter Sellers drifts away from the funeral of his benefactor and proceeds to walk on water. It is…well…rather astounding, and rather puzzling to interpret in the context of what has come before it. What to make of this ending? I think there are two possible interpretations.

1. The act of walking on water presents a metaphor for Gardiner’s relationship with his own existence. When a person walks into a body of water (say a river), he affects the life of that river. No matter how delicate his movements, he cannot help altering either the course of the water itself or the balance of life that exists beneath, either by kicking up rocks and dirt on the floor on the river floor, or stepping on a plant bed and sending a fish scurrying for other cover. In short, things necessarily change.

Walking on water, on the other hand, suggests skimming the surface in a way that does not make for any significant alterations. Gardiner’s life has that quality. He has been completely sheltered most of his life in his employer’s house, without any contact with the outside world, except via television. Once he does finally live in the world, his complete simplicity and his disinterest in anything unrelated to television prevents him from even remotely connecting with the people with whom he comes in contact.

Moreover, just as Gardiner is detached from his life, so people are detached from him. The theme of individual solipsism is quite prevalent in the film, extending beyond Gardiner himself to encompass nearly everybody around him. They get his name wrong, attach greater significance to his words and deeds than is actually there, and ultimately gain no understanding of the real Chauncey Gardiner’s life.

Hence, Chauncey grazes life’s surface without any true knowledge obtained. He looks down and sees only a grey, murky void. What peers up at him can only see a filmy, flickering outline.

2. Second, there is the obvious reference here to Jesus of Nazareth and the story of his walking on water, recounted in all four gospels. That we should find religious overtones in this highly satiric movie is not terribly surprising. For those of a skeptical bent, one of the most convenient psychological explanations for the presence of various religions is that they have been concocted to fulfill people’s deepest desires and needs.

Gardiner has been constructed in just such a way. Nearly everyone transforms his simple utterances concerning horticulture from their mundane literal meaning into wise, metaphoric proverbs about the state of the world. Hence, his proclamations that “in a garden, growth has its season” and “as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden” become the source of economic good news both for the President of the United States and for an eager nation-wide audience. His gardening tips, again interpreted metaphorically, provide solace for his benefactor Benjamin Rand as he faces his death, and his presence assuages any of the dying billionaire’s fears that his wife will not be protected when he dies. Most outrageously, he becomes the vehicle for Mrs. Rand’s sexual awakening. In short, he serves as a medium for what people most ardently want to see and believe.

There you have it. Of course, perhaps I am putting metaphoric significance into something meant to be taken literally. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

posted by Ed at 4:50 PM 



We're Making Plans For Nigel

(To be posted in a coming edition of Sobriquet Magazine)

Dressed to Kill (1946)

Directed by: Roy William Neil

Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Patricia Morison

Joe Cisto: That's the same tune all right, but you're making different mistakes than you did the first time.

Sherlock Holmes: No not mistakes, Joe; call them variations.


Between the years 1939 and 1946, Twentieth Century Fox produced fourteen films featuring the famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. The string of films proved very successful for the studio. Lacking the star power of its rival MGM, Fox found a winning formula with the Holmes movies (much like it did earlier with countless Charlie Chan productions), capitalizing on the tremendous enthusiasm that the Conan Doyle-penned short stories and novels had generated over the years.

In retrospect, this might seem a little puzzling. Beyond the fact that Fox rarely displayed fidelity to the plots of the original Doyle mysteries (instead incorporating elements of them loosely), the series deviates from the original stories in two striking and seemingly unforgivable ways. First, the series brings Holmes into the modern day, thus depriving the tales of one of their great strengths: the vivid, brooding atmosphere of late Victorian England. Second, Doyle’s thoughtful and patient Dr. Watson becomes, in the movies, a blustery, blundering simpleton. Whereas the Watson of literature provides a modest, levelheaded counterweight to his occasionally egotistical, manic, and even self-destructive companion, the movie Watson (played by Nigel Bruce) merely serves as a dimwitted foil for the brilliant detective. To put it bluntly, subtlety gives way to slapstick.

Yet, there is one attraction to these movies that can be readily understood today, namely the performance of Basil Rathbone in the role of Mr. Holmes. With his lean face, sunken eyes, and hawk nose, the well-respected South African character actor provided an almost uncanny physical resemblance to the Sherlock Holmes immortalized both in Doyle’s words and Sidney Paget’s accompanying illustrations. Audiences were mesmerized.

His acting was another thing. In light of Jeremy Brett’s recent performance as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series that ran from the mid-1980s to the early 90s, we are apt to look down at Rathbone’s interpretation – and not without some justice. Brett’s Sherlock Holmes positively crackles with nervous energy: we see in him not merely the brilliant, meticulous sleuth capable of reading a man’s life from his walking stick, but also the unsatisfied, isolated genius who confesses to long periods of boredom and turns to cocaine addiction. Rathbone gives us little of this. His Holmes is measured and aloof – the keen disciple of rationality in all aspects of life. That such a reading of Holmes exists in the original stories is beyond dispute, but it only gives us a glimpse of one of the character’s multiple layers, and, I would add, contradictions.


There is actually another attraction to these movies that I should mention: the stories are cleverer than they might first appear. I feel a little chagrined to be reviewing Dressed to Kill, as it is the fourteenth and final installment of the Fox Sherlock Holmes series. It should be superfluous to add that such a movie does not represent Rathbone and Bruce at their finest hour. Movie franchises that reach their fourteenth installment usually do not age in the manner of a fine wine. We do not watch them eagerly anticipating number fifteen. By this point, rather, the series has become almost certainly a purely money-making indulgence, suffering from rehashed story lines and dialogue, as well as actors tired of replaying their accustomed roles and expressing that fatigue in their performances.

Dressed to Kill shows several of these characteristics. On the surface, its plot appears contrived, rotating between the obvious and the improbable. At a London auction, three music boxes, made by an inmate at Dartmouth prison, are sold cheaply to various customers. They are ordinary, wooden music boxes of no seeming importance, but it soon becomes apparent that somebody values them dearly, for in short order two music boxes are stolen with foul play involved. It is left up to our intrepid Mr. Holmes to figure out the “who” and the “why.”

It should come as no surprise that the answer to the riddle lies in the tune played by the music box, which contains a code concocted by the inmate for the purpose of transmitting information to members of his gang on the outside. Moreover, the movie ensures that movie-watchers will have no difficulty discerning this obvious answer. Yet there is more here. The key to the mystery is that the three music boxes play different variations of an unplayed, original song, and it is by understanding the different points at which the tunes diverge from the original work that Holmes unlocks the code. In a certain sense, the same thing occurs in the movie as a whole, as it teases us with variations of the Doyle stories upon which it is based.

The opening credits reveal to us that Dressed to Kill is adapted from a story by Arthur Conan Doyle. The story in question is “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” (confusingly, an earlier movie in the series was based on the same tale), but the real shadow text in the movie is the famous “A Scandal in Bohemia.” At the very beginning of the movie, Holmes and Watson sit in their study and make passing conversation about the good doctor’s recently written account of the case. The rest of the movie proceeds to follow a course of action very similar in theme to that account, but with a few stray notes that change the tune just slightly.

Much like the battle of wits between Holmes and “the woman” Irene Adler in “A Scandal,” the movie is essentially a game of cat-and-mouse between Sherlock Holmes and Mrs. Hilda Courtney (played by Patricia Morison), the leader of the gang attempting to recover the music boxes. Similar to the short story, part of that game is the art of masquerade. But here begins a key difference. In the short story it is Holmes who gains the upper hand with his adversary, through his cunning portrayals of a drunken groom and an amiable clergyman. Here, roles are reversed, and Holmes is duped by Mrs. Courtney, ingeniously disguised as a charwoman in her design to lift the second music box from its owner.

This role reversal is taken to an extreme later on the movie. One of the most appreciated scenes in all of Doyle’s stories is Holmes’ well-conceived ploy to force Miss Adler to reveal the location of a photograph she is using to blackmail the King of Bohemia. By gaining entrance into Miss Adler’s house in the disguise of a clergyman needing medical attention, and by arranging for a type of smoke-bomb to be thrown through her window, he is able to observe her react to the threat of fire by instinctively reaching for her most valued possession. From this illuminating first move, he easily deduces the location of the photograph.

A quite similar scene plays itself out in the movie, except that it is Mrs. Courtney’s cunning that dupes a goodhearted, but bumbling Dr. Watson. He reveals the location of the precious third music box in a “fire” orchestrated by his adversary, and by so doing, loses the box and nearly the case for Mr. Holmes.

Now, it can be argued certainly that these alterations are not to the movie’s credit: the hackwork of scriptwriters attempting to crudely mold elements of the original stories into a fast-moving, action-packed movie plot. But, I think a more intelligent explanation is required here. For those viewers familiar with the Conan Doyle stories, the act of watching Dressed to Kill becomes engaging detective-work through identifying the interplay between book and movie. Moreover, the minor variations between the two – the slightly off-key notes that separate one from the other – are not insignificant.

Take for instance, the hoodwinking of Dr. Watson in the movie. Once one recognizes the origin of this scene in Conan Doyle’s story, it is hard not to conclude that an outrageous joke is being played here. Holmes, after all, bases his gambit to make Irene Adler betray herself squarely on his judgment of female psychology: when a woman believes that her house is ablaze, she will instinctively rush to save that which is of most value. Dr. Watson’s equivalent reaction not only can be seen as undercutting this judgment, it brings into play certain amusing aspects of his movie depiction. For all of his pronounced gallantry towards the opposite sex, there is something unmistakably old-womanish about Nigel Bruce’s Watson, as if the best remedy for his apprehensive and ineffectual relationship with Holmes’s world of murder and criminal masterminds would be to stick close to the hearth and home, knitting socks for the grandchildren in fron of the fire while warmed by a comforter.

Moreover, there is significance I think in the fact that it is the female who plays the stratagem, and who gains the upper-hand with her disguises in the movie, rather than the other way around. It is important to note that in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes ultimately loses to Irene Adler. For all of his cunning ruses, Adler very quickly realizes that she has betrayed herself and led him straight to the prize, and it is only because she is not at heart a criminal and because she has no more need of the photograph, that she relinquishes it to the King of Bohemia. It is for these reasons that she earns Holmes’ undying admiration as “the woman.”

Now, a 1946 movie of this caliber that ends with Holmes’ defeat will inevitably prove to be no movie at all. Concessions must be made to the conventions of a theatre-going public. Yet, the movie laces its plot with reminders of Holmes’ fallibility (not only in the episode of the charwoman, but also in a little incident involving a cigarette), even as the great detective ultimately triumphs. Hilda Courtney may not be “the woman,” but she does have the brains to match Sherlock Holmes move for move. Besides, Sherlock Holmes has been beaten, the movie gently reminds us, once before.


I should mention one other commendable aspect of Dressed to Kill. One of the fortunate outgrowths of the studio system of the 1930s and 40s was the continuous circulation of a host of wonderful character actors in its studio productions. Dressed to Kill features three such esteemed thespians: the gloomy-eyed Olaf Hytten (appearances in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, To Be or Not to Be and many, many other films) and Wilson Benge, type-cast in innumerable films as a butler, both make brief appearances as an auction bookkeeper and museum tour-guide respectively, while Edmund Breon gives one of the film’s better performances as “Stinky” Emery – the unfortunate owner of music box number one.

Patricia Morison also gives a satisfying performance as the sophisticated, yet villainous Hilda Courtney. Her career never quite took off, despite an attractive appearance and successful stage resume. Her breakthrough-that-wasn’t proved to be the Richard Widmark and Victor Mature thriller Kiss of Death in which she played Mature’s wife. Because the role included her rape and suicide, censors cut out her part entirely, though she was still mentioned in the credits.

It might be useful here to list the other films in the Sherlock Holmes series. They are, in chronological order:

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

The Spider Woman (1944)

The Scarlet Claw (1944)

The Pearl of Death (1944)

Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945)

The Woman in Green (1945)

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

Terror by Night (1946)

And of course, Dressed to Kill (1946): an enjoyable, if predictable yarn that holds a particular charm for those with a familiarity with the original Conan Doyle stories. It is certainly worth watching once.

posted by Ed at 5:14 PM 



The Celts

In classical antiquity, they were the blond barbarians, a people renowned for their terrifying fierceness in battle. According to the Greek historian Diodorus, they went into armed conflict naked, deranged with a blood-lust that the Romans called the “furor.” As a prelude to battle, the strongest Celtic warriors would challenge select brave-looking opponents to a duel. If the challenge was accepted, the Celts would begin singing passionately the praises of their ancestors, while at the same time belittling their enemy – in an effort, Diodorus writes, “to rob him of his boldness of spirit beforehand.”

Sapping this boldness of spirit proved a skill at which the Celts excelled, not only with wild singing, but with several other choice tactics of psychological warfare. They confused their enemy both with the chaotic playing of horns during battle and the rhythmic beating of their swords upon their shields. They practiced the art of “head-hunting,” in which they cut off their enemies’ heads for the purpose of nailing them to the doorway of their huts.

The Romans feared them more than other foreign people, for they had come closest to giving a lie to the commonplace, “Roma aeterna,” having sacked the city in 390 BC. Not until the fifth century AD would Rome find itself at the mercy of an enemy people again. By then, the Celts had ceased to be a Roman concern. Caesar had taken care of them in France during the Gallic Wars, and, in the first century AD, Agricola had vanquished them in southern Briton. Only to the north and the west did the Celts survive – in the lands of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

It is the Celts of Ireland that we remember, of course. They provide the backdrop for the enduring Irish spirit of the popular imagination – fierce, rebellious, and even self-destructive – that has survived centuries of incessant attempts to colonize and subdue it. The construction of this spirit, part myth and part reality, has created certain iconic images that are difficult to shake: the mystical Druid is one; the Celt as noble savage is another: one that we see abiding in representations of the hard-drinking but good-natured Irishman seen here.

What has disappeared in the process is the memory of the “blond barbarian,” and as Gerhard Herm reminds us in his 1975 study of The Celts, the significance of the Celtic achievement in building and maintaining a prosperous civilization. Long before Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the Celts dominated most of central and western Europe. Their culture, currently termed the La Tene Culture from the excavation site in Switzerland that once hid its secrets, achieved its height in the fourth and third centuries BC. It featured brilliant metalwork, well-ordered trade networks with the Greeks, and the development of towns and cities. What it did not possess, Herm speculates, is the level of political organization that characterized the Romans. When the two cultures met head on, this superior “base” of the Roman Republic would prove to be a decisive factor in its eventual victory.

How the Celts became the Celts and how they formed an advanced culture is the primary subject of Gerhard Herm’s work. While not always following the most clear-cut path, Herm takes the reader from the emergence of Indo-European people in central Europe during the late Neolithic period, to the first formations of a Celtic people during the iron age Hallstatt culture, to its greatest flowering during the La Tene period. He traces the influence that the constant influx of migrating tribes from the Asian steppe had upon the emerging Celts, particularly the Scythians with their practice of headhunting and their ornamentation that bore a striking resemblance to later Celtic designs. Most provocatively, he details the complex formations of Celtic society, touching on a level of economic structure that included divisions of labor and a middle class.

What we have at the pinnacle of Celtic development, Herm tells us, is a people, unified by a common language and culture, capable of great invention, craftsmanship, and economic organization. They invented the barrel and produced the most innovative two and four-wheeled chariots of their day; they made intricately-molded jewelry, bracelets, shields, and even worked with multicolored glass. They built cities, Manching in particular, so vast as to dwarf many of their medieval counterparts in central Europe. Within the confines of this city (or oppidum as it was termed: Latin for “hill-town”), they constructed a network of goldsmiths, bronze foundries, glass works, and other signs of prosperous industry.

Of course, hand-in-hand with this level of social order and artistic achievement was a culture of head-hunting and ritual sacrifice. The Gundestrup Cauldron, perhaps the most noted archeological find of the La Tene period, is thought to have served sacrificial purposes for the Druidic religion. Moreover, the Celts' frenzied military approach, while terrifying to many of its foes, proved to be its undoing when confronted with such a brilliant tactician as Julius Caesar. Consequently, La Tene did not last forever, but came to an end around 50 BC. The Celts would survive, instead, in the outer reaches of the Roman Empire – that stretch of the British Isles that the Romans did care to occupy because it was not worth their time or energy – and it is there that they would remain a vibrant force for centuries to come.


Herm’s The Celts proves a fascinating read, though not always an easy one. It exists in that middle ground between scholarly works and works written for a greater reading public. There are neither footnotes, for instance, nor a bibliography. Yet, the book assumes an almost-scholarly knowledge of certain events that it relates. This can be a problem. We may be thankful that the author does not talk down to us or make unwarranted historical claims for the purpose of creating an exciting story (see Thomas Cahill’s pop-history pleaser How the Irish Saved Civilization); on the other hand, the book demands of us more than a little outside research to fill in some of the blank spots that it leaves between points.

It is also worth noting that Herm’s book reveals itself to be dated in certain areas, a characteristic not unsurprising given the shifting sands of archeological scholarship. He advances uncritically Marija Gimbutas’ battle-axe theory for the spread of Indo-European culture into Central Europe, when, in the last thirty years, contending theories have entered the ring concerning the nature and motivation for the advance of peoples from the Russian steppe into the heart of Europe during late Neolithic age.

What people may find most maddening about the work, however, are the questions that Herm does not answer, because he cannot. Who, for instance, were the Picts? Why did the Celts so readily convert to Christianity? Ah . . . perhaps time will tell, but these questions should not distract from what is a highly attractive and illuminating book.

posted by Ed at 10:32 PM 




There is a recurring motif in movies, particularly those classified as science fiction and fantasy, of the stranger in a strange land. The main character gets off the train, ship, spacecraft etc. and observes an alien world before him for the first time. Meanwhile, as he stands dazed by its strangeness, the camera pans the entirety of his surroundings as if we are seeing it through his eyes. Unaware of his presence, the people he watches proceed about the rhythms of daily life unperturbed (this is not a strange world to them!), and the shot derives its power from the juxtaposition of these two perspectives.

Something akin to this has been occurring for the last week. I walk outside and I find myself greeted by Spring-like weather. In early February. In New York. What on earth is going on? Meanwhile, everybody else seems to be taking it in stride, calmly performing their daily rituals of walking the dog and taking out the trash - only without hat and coat. I know it would be more jarring if people were staggering about in terror, bemoaning the coming apocalypse. But still, this weather is surreal, and nobody seems to mind.

And, as I write this, it is starting to rain.

posted by Ed at 5:01 PM 



And They Told Me It Would Be So Easy

Well, occasionally life deals you a funny card, and mine seems to be that, at some point in the last few hours, my template vanished. Sort of. I mean, all my posts and links and such remained, but instead of my color scheme of blue and white, everything had gone gray.

I wish I could take responsibility for this, but I didn’t do anything to the damn thing, so I really can’t. I’ve taken a few steps to make it a bit more viewable for the time being, and I’ll look to see what else can be done.

It’s too bad, because I liked the look of the old template. Oh well.

Anyway, not exactly a catastrophe, but as Holden Caufield might say, I’m not exactly gay as hell about it either.

posted by Ed at 3:25 AM 



Sherlock Holmes Revisited

In perfect timing with a previous post about the movie Dressed to Kill, I was breezing through the television channels during the early hours of the morning and stumbled across Jeremy Brett in dazzling form as Sherlock Holmes in an episode from the Granada television series of two decades past.

Occasionally, a television series strikes such a perfect note that, regardless of how modest its subject matter, it can be called a miniature masterpiece. The Granada productions of Sherlock Holmes from the mid to late-1980s may be defined just so. From the opening music, with its driving, haunting melody reminiscent of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to the well-paced script and superb acting of all involved, the series vividly brought to life Mr. Holmes and his restless, transitional world of late-Victorian and early Edwardian England.

This perfection was not so evenly reached during the course of the series: it built to a crescendo and then tapered off again. The original Dr. Watson (David Burke) was unable to capture Conan Doyle’s narrator as vividly as his successor Edward Hardwicke, who embodied fully the good doctor’s varied traits of good humor, intelligence, tolerance for his companion’s eccentricities, and occasional exasperation directed towards his friend’s unfathomable genius and insalubrious drug addiction. Thankfully, the change was made early on, and by The Hound of the Baskervilles – the piece de resistance of both Conan Doyle’s stories and the BBC series – the proper Dr. Watson could be seen walking the unearthly moors, eyes vigilant for any sign of either an escaped madman or legendary, ghostly hound.

Moreover, the series began to deteriorate in its final few seasons. In its prime, the productions remained resolutely faithful to the Conan Doyle stories, even when such fidelity meant rigid translations to the screen of Conan Doyle’s occasionally forced plots. By the end, they were taking a creative license that made for fantastic and incoherent story lines. This growing incoherence could also be traced to what I would term, unflatteringly, as the Americanization of the series. The well-paced, almost theatre-like sequences of the episodes gave way to a method of filmmaking that relied on a more rapid-fire series of scenes, enabled by abrupt cuts and transitions. Action had become the obvious priority, with atmosphere, character, and suspense the main casualties of this shift.

This proved an unfortunate development, because at its height, the Granada series had a great deal to recommend it. Foremost was the performance of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. Other productions may be made of various Holmes novels and short stories in the future, but Brett’s performance in the role will always be regarded as the standard, I believe.

The reason lies in its pure dynamism. In order to understand why a practicing doctor would take time away from his work and family to become this man’s Boswell, both assisting him in his myriad investigations and chronicling them as stories, Holmes must hold you in his grasp as firmly as he holds Watson. Brett’s performance does just that. With his refined yet commanding voice, keen eyes, flickering half-smiles, and nervous bursts of energy that signal that game is indeed afoot, the Sherlock Holmes of Brett’s interpretation fascinates the audience, even when certain traits of his character repels us.


Perhaps the most attractive element of the Granada series, however, is that it has Conan Doyle’s sterling stories as its foundation. An obvious trait of our continuing cultural erosion is the decline in what passes for public entertainment. We surely have no James Joyces at the moment, but that may not be so much a problem as the dearth of the Dickens, Conan Doyles, and the Wodehouses: writers who acquired massive and devout readerships during their respective time-periods.

Dickens adored his public as much it adored him. Conan Doyle wore his popularity like an albatross around his neck: hence his decision to send Sherlock Holmes hurtling off a cliff in “The Final Problem” while engaged in a struggle to the death with Dr. Moriarty. The author seized his opportunity to get out from under the shadow of his famous creation and bring attention to his less-prominent, but more substantial works. But a figure like Sherlock Holmes cannot easily be shaken, and Conan Doyle brought him back, first in The Hound of the Baskervilles (a tale written as if it had taken place before Holmes’ death) and then the series of stories that comprise The Return of the Sherlock Holmes.

Credit for this resurrection must be given primarily to the demands of an outraged public, but the singular hold that this vital creation held upon its author’s imagination should also be noted. There would be other characters created by Conan Doyle, even ones whose temperaments were opposed, by design, to that of the great detective, but the character of Sherlock Holmes had no choice but to go on.

We may count this as a blessing. Conan Doyle’s prose is always lively; at certain points, it is positively aglow. Everybody knows this famous bit of dialogue between Sherlock Holmes and a police inspector in the story “Silver Blaze.”

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

But, there is also this repartee between Holmes and Watson in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”

"You say he was affable?"

"A purring cat who thinks he sees prospective mice. Some people's affability is more deadly than the violence of coarser souls."

And a bit of Holmes’ powers of deduction from “A Scandal in Bohemia”

"The man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence -- 'This account of you we have from all quarters received.' A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs."

A few words about Hegel or Heidegger could be tossed in here, if one so desired. And so on.

Even better, however, is Conan Doyle’s depiction of his great detective. The portrayal of someone possessed of seeming supernatural powers of detection requires a bit of delicacy, lest the author bore his audience with routine displays of the man’s skills. Conan Doyle keeps Holmes alive though, with deft character touches that draw out complexities and contradictions.

There are a few things worth noting. Watson’s astonishment at Holmes’ genius cannot be classified as that wonder often expressed by a mere mortal in the presence of the extraordinarily gifted, for Holmes’ genius is of a particular and not necessarily desirable kind. The detective emphasizes that the quality which distinguishes him from other men rests in his uncanny observation of “trifles.” The type of tobacco ash at a murder scene, the state of a client’s cuticles, the species of moss found on a corpse’s body – all fall under the keen scrutiny of the detective’s eye.

The emphasis placed upon trifles is accompanied by a negligent attitude towards what might be called “common knowledge.” Holmes likens his brain to an attic with finite space, rather than elastic walls. In order to keep this attic well-ordered, certain furniture must be discarded as useless and space-consuming. Hence, Watson is astonished to learn that not only is Holmes ignorant of the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, but that he is indifferent to this knowledge as inconsequential to his investigations. This peculiar division of knowledge reveals Holmes as an individual living in self-imposed estrangement from the rest of society: a man who can write detailed monographs about the varieties of typewriters, but could not engage in the most rudimentary conversation about literature or philosophy.

Moreover, in story after story, Watson stresses Holmes’ singular devotion to reason at the expense of all else. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson calls him, “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen” adding that “grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of hid own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.” Holmes himself discusses man as a statistical certainty, a mathematical equation to be observed and predicted with ruthless exactness. He repeatedly expresses contempt for all emotions that impede this precision. Hence his disdain for love, and his often-amusing objections to Watson’s stories as romanticized, rather than scientific accounts of what really happened.

Yet this finely-balanced machine also possesses “long, nervous hands,” as Watson observes, and fluctuates violently between mania and depression, between agitation and long bouts of fatigue. He also falls prey to that most human of all emotions ennui, for which he turns to cocaine as a panacea. In a Sign of Four, Holmes explains his addiction with the plea:

Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth.

In one sense, Holmes’ utterance can be dismissed as mere impatience with a world unable to provide requisite intellectual stimulation. After all, only Dr. Moriarty, the “Napoleon of Crime,” could give Sherlock a run for his money. But the detective’s turn away from the prosaic world into the arms of a drug that both distorts reality and destroys the logical faculty reveals a great deal more. Here, we discern an individual situated at the polar extreme of calculating rationalism. Such an incongruity reflects Conan Doyle’s own contradictions, for the author was a man of science who also dabbled with perfect ingenuousness in séances, the occult, and other suspect spiritualisms.

It also reflects the mood of the time: Holmes’ cry echoes a certain strain in romantic thought, the deep-rooted belief that the quotidian world can never satisfy the individual’s deepest longings. Indeed Holmes articulates just such an idea in “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane:”

Exactly, Watson. Pathetic and futile. But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow -- misery.

In the fin de siecle atmosphere of the 1890s, this striving for a transcending exultation, combined with the awareness of the futility of such a quest, led many to increasingly violent and self-destructive behaviors. Des Esseintes had his opium, Fersen his perversions, and Holmes his needle.

Sherlock Holmes, then, can be understood as almost a grotesque caricature of many of the underlying themes of his society. The neurasthenic qualities of Holmes’ habits have been duly noted for their accord with the fin de siecle ‘90s. In addition, his method of keen observation leading to air-tight deduction perfectly reflects both the proliferation of the new sciences (paleontology, botany, psychology, geology etc.) and its corollary, the faith in the scientific method as producing infallible results.

His undeniable genius also possesses Darwinian implications, for at times, he is treated as a biological next step, or, at the very least, a superior type of man. The Hound’s Dr. Mortimer is mesmerized by the contours of his skull, openly admitting that he covets it. Holmes displays prodigious talent at all things he attempts: music, acting, muscular activities etc, even though his interests lie exclusively on the side of detection. The world lost a consummate thespian, Watson reminds us from time to time, when Sherlock Holmes turned his mind to detection; happily, he adds, it also lost a potentially invincible criminal.


As an addendum, Masterpiece Theatre recently remade The Hound of the Baskervilles with a certain Australian actor Richard Roxburgh (Oscar and Lucinda) as Sherlock Holmes. I haven’t seen it, so I cannot comment. I once watched Masterpiece Theatre frequently, but now have very little interest in it. I think I can safely say that the Jeremy Brett version is the definitive one; it far outranks either the Rathbone or Peter Cushing version.

posted by Ed at 6:33 PM 


Smelling a Rat

I do not want to turn this into a lengthy discussion of a complicated issue. I simply wish to write about the manner in which a complicated issue is glibly portrayed as a simple one. Such an occurrence may be found in a recent column in the Chicago Tribune.

Chris Jones, an art critic for the Chicago Tribune, wrote an article this past weekend entitled “Golden rule: Artistic expression is a sacred right” that addresses the recent decisions made by University of Notre Dame president Father Jenkins concerning the respective roles of The Vagina Monologues and the Queer Film Festival on the university campus. (To those not familiar with the decisions, Father Jenkins withdrew university sponsorship of both events, restricting the former to a classroom setting and altering the name of the latter to "Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships.")

Jones criticizes strongly Jenkins’ statement of his position. He contrasts Jenkins’ description of academic freedom as “sacred” with his ensuing contention that there are times that “given the distinctive character and aspirations of Notre Dame, it may be necessary to establish certain boundaries, while defending the appropriate exercise of academic freedom."

These two positions, states Jones, are irreconcilably opposed to each other. Either one believes that academic freedom is sacred, or one believes that freedom, at times, must bow to the Catholic mission of Notre Dame. One cannot believe both. In Jones’s words,

If you believe freedom to be ‘sacred,’ you must defend it at all costs. And there can be no exceptions for the times when it becomes uncomfortable or challenging to a powerful hierarchy or constituency.

Notre Dame, he adds, could learn a thing or two from Northwestern, which defended the right of one of its professors to deny the Holocaust, even as it displayed indignation at the views expressed.

Up to this point, Jones’s article seems flawless: the sort of rousing defense of free speech that perfectly accords with the liberal ideals of the university. But then, in the process of comparing Jenkins’ decision with the decision of certain newspapers not to run the recent notorious Dutch cartoons on the grounds of their being gratuitously inflammatory and not up to editorial standards, Jones makes the following argument.

Jenkins cannot stand behind that defense [editorial unsoundness] because the controversial events at Notre Dame have proved academic worth.

"The Vagina Monologues" is ideologically controversial, for sure, but its academic soundness as a significant contemporary play is incontrovertible. It's a staple on campuses all over the nation, and has been for several years. Similarly, the appropriated word "queer" may be offensive to some, but it's also a well-established academic term when it comes to gay and lesbian film, literature and culture.

Now one could quibble with the notion that simply because a play has become a staple of campuses, therefore it has proven academic worth. That seems akin to arguing that because my neighbors have used sandpaper for the past decade to brush their teeth, this practice has proven dental hygienic value. There is something oddly Panglossian about such a conclusion.

But the larger question is why does Jones even introduce the idea of “proven academic worth” in the first place? If academic freedom has no trump card, what relevance should this criterion even hold?

In other words, if we lived in a world utterly devoid of queer film festivals, and one day a student entered Father Jenkins’ office and proposed that such an event be inaugurated on the Notre Dame campus, and Jenkins responded by rolling on the floor laughing and then shutting the door in the student’s face, would Jones find this acceptable? Would he concede Father Jenkins had been faithful to the golden rule of academic freedom, because, up to this point, the queer film festival had no proven academic worth?

I think not.

So, why does Jones make such a seemingly extraneous point?

Because, without it, his house of cards comes crashing down around him.

Without the foundation of trendy academic support that purportedly signifies “academic worth,” Jones’s golden rule of academic freedom suddenly falls prey to a number of counter-analogies that render it much more problematic than he is willing to admit.

What if a student at a bastion of academic freedom such as Duke petitioned for university funding to support a play that depicted homosexuals as psychologically crippled people in need sympathy, psychiatric help, etc? What if, to turn the argument right back on Jones, the requested funding was for a play that portrayed the prophet Mohammed in a satirical fashion?

Would this student get his funding? Hardly. He would be lucky not to be thrown out the university doors into the waiting arms of David Horowitz or Ann Coulter.

The point is this. The carte blanche granted to academic/artistic freedom in universities around the country – a card which Notre Dame has supposedly relinquished in the defense of its Catholic mission – really does not exist. And even if you believe that it should exist equally for both The Vagina Monologues at Notre Dame and the satirical portrait of Mohammed at Duke, I can come up with numerous hypothetical examples in which artistic freedom seems untenable. What if, for instance, there was a play that made light comedy out of sexual violence towards women? Could that be defended as a university-sponsored event – at all?

Academic and artistic freedom always has a trump card. Every university has boundaries as to the extent that freedom can go.

Now, one might argue that Jones provides an unshakeable rejoinder to this with the example of the Northwestern professor who denies the Holocaust. But on closer inspection, this analogy is decidedly unsound. There is a vast divide between refusing to sponsor a queer film festival and purging professors in the chemistry department who do not share the belief that homosexuality is a sin. This is a divide that Father Jenkins has shown no indication of broaching, and one that if he did, would justly earn him universal condemnation.

In short, Father Jenkins leaves himself open to the charge of wanting his cake and eating it too with his use of the word “sacred” to describe academic freedom, but Jones fares little better. It is all very well to adopt the posture of Voltaire and rhapsodize about the sacred turf of artistic freedom when the values that conflict with it are not values that you share (I may be mistaken, but my hunch is that Mr. Jones has no moral qualm with the idea of a queer film festival in any context.). It becomes a little more complicated when you are staring in the face an academic or artistic endeavor that directly opposes the values which you hold dearly.

In that instance, the golden rule of artistic freedom seems a little less assured.

posted by Ed at 1:58 PM 



Valentine's Day

Young Man's Song

I whispered, "I am too young,"

And then, "I am old enough;"

Wherefore I threw a penny

To find out if I might love.

"Go and love, go and love, young man,

If the lady be young and fair,"

Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,

I am looped in the loops of her hair.

Oh, love is the crooked thing,

There is nobody wise enough

To find out all that is in it,

For he would be thinking of love

Till the stars had run away,

And the shadows eaten the moon.

Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,

One cannot begin it too soon.

- W.B. Yeats

posted by Ed at 2:53 PM 



Follow Up

Well, happiness abounds in my neck of the woods. My girlfriend gave me The Charles Dickens Collection, a set of six dramatized Dickens’ novels produced by the BBC and shown on Masterpiece Theatre at various points from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. Well done, my dear.

This gift in combination with my recent posts about Sherlock Holmes has made me a little wistful for the television of my youth. There came an age in my life, twelve or so, when British television, through the medium of PBS, predominately informed my reading habits. The usual suspects – the Hardy Boys and countless sports stories – were swept aside for Conan Doyle, Sayers, Wodehouse, and Waugh (was a bit young for him, alas), and I made my entrance into the world of intelligent literature.

The Dickens set is a purchase I would never think of making for myself. I suppose that if ever I were to write an essay on, say, the utility of gift-giving, I would argue this very point. Beyond the emotional value attached to things given and received, quite often others have a better hunch of what we might enjoy than we do ourselves.

In the store, the thing never really caught my eye, but unwrapped and on my shelf, it looks like a number of hours about to be well spent.

32, to be precise.

posted by Ed at 2:41 PM 


Just For The Record

Okay, this may not be as awkward as, say, confusing libertarianism with libertinism or prostrate with prostate, but the embarrassment was all mine this morning.

Beth asked me what a Jacobite was and I dottered on a bit about Robespierre and fraternity.


Jacobite – a supporter of James II and his attempts to re-establish Roman Catholicism as the official religion of England; a supporter of the claims of the Stuart line to the English throne after the Stuart James II was supplanted by William and Mary during the Glorious Revolution

Etymology – it comes from the Latin Jacobus meaning James

Jacobin – a member of a radical political party during and after the French Revolution, committed to “the principles of extreme democracy and absolute equality;” the party was largely responsible for the institution of the Reign of Terror in the aftermath of the revolution; the term has since gained currency as a label for any radical seeking political reform, particularly ones who propose violence as a means to this end

Etymology – the original Jacobins were Dominican friars who built their first convent near the Church of Saint-Jacques in Paris; the political Jacobins used this site for their meetings, perhaps as a symbol of their similar commitment to a society without private property


No more need be said.

posted by Ed at 10:10 AM 


M.C. Marathon

B.'s assessment of the BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit?

"I've never seen a larger collection of sleazy people in all my life."


That about sums it up.

posted by Ed at 9:33 PM 



Dance To The Music

These classical projections, and something from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

- Anthony Powell, A Question of Upbringing

posted by Ed at 12:52 AM 



Quote Of The Day

Newton was a decidedly odd figure - brilliant beyond measure, but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted (upon swinging his feet out of bed in the morning he would reportedly sometimes sit for hours, immobilized by the sudden rush of thoughts to his head), and capable of the most riveting strangeness. He built his own laboratory, the first at Cambridge, but then engaged in the most bizarre experiments. Once he inserted a bodkin - a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather - into his eye socket and rubbed it around "betwixt my eye and the bone as near to [the] backside of my eye as I could" just to see what would happen. What happened, miraculously, was nothing - at least nothing lasting. On another occasion, he stared at the Sun as long as he could bear, to determine what effect it would have upon his vision. Again, he escaped lasting damage, though he had to spend some days in a darkened room before his eyes forgave him.

- from Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything

posted by Ed at 3:53 PM 



Symphony Fantastique Be Damned!

I found this a few days ago and thought I would pass it along. I thought it amusing.

The Musical Times is an old and venerated journal of musical reviews and criticism. On its webpage, it features an archive of In Memoriam pages, which catalogue its observances of the deaths of various composers in the years since its inception in 1845.

Most of these observances are respectful in tone and thorough in research, touching on the most salient aspects of their subject matter. They can still be read today with interest.

A couple, however, fail to pass the test of time. Hector Berlioz, a seminal figure both in the genres of Romantic music and the programme symphony, received this briefest (and most cutting) of notes upon his death in 1869:

The death of Hector Berlioz, which took place in Paris during the past month, will have but little effect upon art or artists; for, although in music he thought as deeply, and worked as earnestly, as any who have left an immortal name, his compositions never took a permanent hold upon the public mind. His best works are two Symphonies, Harold in Italy, and Romeo and Juliet, which although filled with undoubted proofs of fragmentary talent, are now but little known. He had a thorough command of orchestral resources, and an instinctive perception of all that was beautiful in art; but there can be little doubt that he will be more remembered by his able and acute contributions to musical criticism than by any of the compositions with which he hoped to revolutionize the world.

Berlioz's death will have but "little effect" upon art? And no mention of the symphony with the opium-induced reveries of a lover's death and a witches' sabbath? Not a particularly prescient moment, to say the least. . .

posted by Ed at 4:56 PM 



good lord

I can't believe I've had that Berlioz thing as my most recent post for nearly four months. Time to move on.

posted by Ed at 10:28 PM 



Gray Period


posted by Ed at 9:09 PM 




You describe one road winding cobbled gray

to three rocks overlooking strand, harbour,

hotel. A boy is falling from a tree, lighthouse

is hidden in sunlight. A white man. A red kite.

Driver on an oval track. Figure on a bench.

It was Endgame at the Peacock and Krapp’s

Last Tape on the radio, as I was driving to

Youghal, that converted me. The hot disc

atop the warehouse this evening cuts through

day’s heaviness. I pray for plain style. Clarity.

Base of granite, gray spotted marble late May

Sunday chirping birds at noon: Montparnasse

Cemetery under a clear sky. Walked with a

man from Dakar to Twelfth Division Number

66, grave of Suzanne and Samuel Beckett.

-Eamonn Wall

posted by Ed at 1:32 AM 




To have spent any time listening to Norman Mailer speak is to have had an experience of incredulous wonder at both the stream of silly ideas and air of self-intoxicated importance emanating from this squat and wrinkled gnome of a man. Yet for all that he was listenable and not as listless as most of our intellectuals under the age of 50.

I remember watching a panel on C-Span a decade ago, I guess. The theme was war and literature and the panelists were Heller, Vonnegut, Styron, and Mailer. They are all gone now. Norman Mailer is dead at 84.

posted by Ed at 9:56 AM 



There is a purpose

OK. I've been in and out of blogging for four years, lately mostly out. Reasons that have to do with time, energy and self-discipline have all played a part in my absence from this little corner of the internet.

But I'm going to turn over a new leaf. My survival may depend on it. Now that I've been moved to full-time features reporter at my beloved newspaper, I'm going to be fully consumed writing 500-word stories about girl scout events at the zoo and Black History Month programs. The prose naturally will be flat, listless and purely descriptive.

I'll try, then, to make this an outlet for more interesting writing, at least more interesting to me. We'll see.

posted by Ed at 10:13 AM 



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