Thursday, November 30, 2006

God's Schlemiels

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the name of Bernard Malamud (link). My sister Sally that she has been reading a memoir by M’s daughter (link) and what did I think of M? Turns out I owe Sally for that one. I hadn’t read M for quite a while. But I did lay my hands on a copy of the complete short stories, where I found some happy memories and some interesting (to me) surprises. The Magic Barrel, perhaps his most famous story, is perhaps not quite as wonderful as I remember it. But I still like The Jewbird –not everyone does, I gather; perhaps it takes a long memory. And The Silver Crown, which I had never read before, though a familiar plot, is memorably well accomplished.

The short story is Malamud’s natural métier, the same way the novella belongs to Henry James, or the big, sprawling novel to Dickens. In form, they are almost as stylized as Law & Order on TV. “Manischevitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities” (Angel Levine). “Kessler, formerly an egg candler, lived alone on social security” (The Mourners). “Fidelman pissing in muddy water discovers water over his head” (Picture of an Artist). The locations are often specific, particularly in downtown Manhattan: West Tenth Street, Second Avenue and Sixth Street, First Avenue near the lower East River, those last two, both “top floor”—althouge, oddly enough, Pinye Salzman lives “at the far end of the Bronx,” and Rabbi Lifschitz, “somewhere in the Bronx.” They have trades—at least two tailors, one census taker (Malamud once worked for the Census Bureau) and a baker whose bread sells well because it is salted with his tears.

Comparisons come easily, perhaps too easily. In his own time, the inevitable choices were Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, real enough but beside the point. Isaac Bashevis Singer is closer: Malamud’s New York is to a large extent the New York of Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson, although Malamud’s characters are mostly more marginal, with fewer resources. Perhaps a closer comparison would be the cartoonist Will Eisner, whose Contract with God Trilogy does for the Bronx more or less what Malamud does for Second Avenue.

But there is also just a hint of the uncanny about Malamud that carries one back to the great city-novelists of the 19th Century: think of Balzac, particularly in The Wild Ass’s Skin, or Dostoevski’s organ-grinder in St. Petersburg. And inevitably, one remembers the rich tradition of Jewish mysticism.

Many have said that Malamud writes about “the schlemiel.” It’s a curious word, a bit dated I suspect, a word that speaks for its time the way “cuckold” or “bounder” each by turns speaks for its time. defines “schlemiel” as “A habitual bungler; a dolt” (link), but this is insufficiently nuanced. “Schlemiel” derives (again, per from

Yiddish shlemíl, perhaps from Hebrew šəlūmî’ēl, my well-being is God, Shelumiel (a character in the Bible, Numbers 7:36) : šəlūmî, my well-being (šālôm, well-being + , my) + ’ēl, God.

This is helpful. In The Silver Crown, Rabbi Lifschitz explains his damaged daughter:

She’s not perfect, though God, who made her in His image, is Himself perfection. … In her way she is also perfect.

That is better. Ironically the Biblical Shelumiel is not himself a schlemiel: for sacrifice, he has wealth enough to spread over (in the KJV) four verses. Malamud’s schlemiels make do with what they can. One thinks of Victor Hugo’s Jongleur de Notre Dame, or Samuel Johnson, praying to God not to take his mind because it was all he had to worship him with. If Malamud’s creatures are schlemiels, they are God’s schlemiels, incandescent in a particular time and place, and I am grateful to Sally for bringing me back to them.

On Cynthia Ozick's Mipple

Writing will surprise you. “Sometimes you start out to write a story with a moral purpose,” said Don Marquis, “and wind up writing a story with a moral porpoise.” Cynthia Ozick would understand (link):

At age 22, Ozick set to work on a 400,000-word “philosophical novel,” Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love (“M.P.P.L.” or “Mipple” for short). Ozick intended the Jamesian saga, which set Passion against Reason, to be her magnum opus. Yet the manuscript grew increasingly unwieldy, and after seven years she finally abandoned it, though an eight-page extract survived as the short story “The Butterfly and the Traffic Light.”

Ozick can relax; apparently William Blake had already done it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Something Worth Shooting in the Air About

"At least," I told myself as I watched the latest horror from Iraq, "they've established the right to bear arms."

Maybe not. Search the Iraqi Constitution (as presented here) for "arms" and you get nothing. Null, nada, zip.

Of course, it may appear in some other form. For example, Article 36, Section A, protects "freedom of expression, through all means." I assume this secures the right to fire machine guns in the air at weddings?

But hey, looky, looky folks.--forget about arms. Article 15 of the Iraqi Constitution provides:
Every individual has the right to enjoy life, security and liberty. Deprivation or restriction of these rights is prohibited except in accordance with the law and based on a decision issued by a competent judicial authority.
Emphasis added. Um, no secret military tribunals? What a concept!

Charity in the Community? Shocked, Shocked

Arthur C. Brooks, professor of public administration at Syracuse University, says he is “surprised” to find that “religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular liberals": such is the pitch for his new book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (link).

Hard to blame him for professing surprise; books about unsurprising truth do not fly off the shelves. Others may be less surprised: there is indeed some evidence that “conservatives” in general are more plugged into voluntary networks than”liberals”—particularly (as Brooks apparently also purports to show) among the less well off, the ones least likely to profit from fleecing the government. I’m even willing to assume (I haven’t read the book) that he has controlled for the liars—although any pastor will tell you that the pledge envelopes are a lot more florid than the actual checks. But there is still room for some nuance:

“Charitable?” I assume Brooks is counting gifts to the Met—both the opera and the museum—and gifts to build a new university football stadium, as dollar for dollar equal the purchase of meals for the hungry? I might want to make some distinctions. And how does he account for, say, contributions to Hamas or Hezbollah? Brooks might say of the donors, that if it is their money, then they ought to be able to do what they want with it. Quite right, too, but that doesn’t make it charity.

“Charitable giving?” Does Brooks count gifts from people who are trying to buy their way into heaven? This doesn’t sound like charity to me; it sounds more like a simple bargain-and-exchange. Or how about simple vainglory—if I put up a sign saying THE BUCE/UNDERBELLY CENTER FOR THE HEALING OF LITTLE CHILDREN, am I engaged in simple charity, or arrant self-promotion—am I, indeed, trying to buy my way into heaven and the country club at the same time? Maimonides says somewhere that the only true charity is anonymous charity, because it is the only kind free of ulterior motive (though perhaps God knows anyway). I wonder how Brooks would track anonymous giving.

“Voluntary?” The standard mantra is that charity is voluntary, while taxes are, well, taxes. I am not so sure. Some “charity” may be “voluntary” even if not a “gift” –see supra. But if your whole life is bound up in (say) a religious community, I suspect that a good many of your answers to appeals are not voluntary at all.

From a different perspective, it might be nice to use the same matrix to track, say, felony tax evasion. For some segment of the populace, chiseling on your taxes is no more shameful than a speeding ticket ; indeed it may be a badge of honor. But I once knew a man who said that in discharging his tax obligation, he tried to err on the side of overpayment, because it was a privilege to live in a civilized society. If this is your attitude to tax-paying, then going light on the charitable endeavor might not seem like such a big deal.

To be fair, I’m not sure exactly what the data might show here—though I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the most conscientious taxpayers are among what we might call the working poor, those most likely to be victimized by the very government they support.

Afterthought: note the quotation in the first paragraph: “religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular´liberals. I take the phrase (and add the italics) from The Chronicle of Higher Education (link), as linked from Arts & Letters Daily (link), I haven’t read the book itself but I wonder about the phrasing. What about religious liberals versus secular conservatives. There are plenty of the former in the soup kitchens and halfway houses of Americas; plenty of the latter in the chattering class. Or what about, simply, conservatives versus liberals? Could it be that Brooks is onto more patterns more complex or challenging than he (or, at least, the Chronicle) have sought to convey? Or maybe there is just less here than meets the eye?


Seeing as how women live longer than men, then as a man gets older, he finds himself increasingly in the company of women.

And as women get older, they forget whatever it was they ever saw in men in the first place.

Everything clear now?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

In Which I Eat a Fairly Large Word

Product quality bulletin #000001:

It appears that the Buce blog item that has generated the most mail is the one that uses the word “fissiparous” (link). My friend Mary says they even discussed it at Thanksgiving dinner.

I assume I thought it was a comic word like “shambolic” or “transmogrify.” I guess I thought it meant something like “fizzy.” Oops. All this attention drove me back to the dictionary where I find (a) it’s a perfectly respectable word; and (b) I had it wrong:

  1. Reproducing by biological fission.
  2. Tending to break up into parts or break away from a main body; factious.

Turns out I can’t even get the pronunciation right. I had assumed “fis SIP a rous.” But it appears to be “fis si PAR ous.”

Hm. In retrospect, the Antiochians of the 50s probably were fissiparous, but that wan't quite what I had in mind. In any event, they were probably more interested in fusion, heh heh. Perhaps what I had in mind was:

Fiz ZIP a rous.

That is all, continue as you were.

Welcome, Taxmom

Welcome, Taxmom at Domestic Economy, and a particular welcome to Pilgrim B*rbie. The high heels are great for traction.

What It Is With Stoppard

Buce Jr. favors me with an interesting (albeit recycled) A. O. Scott Slate piece on Tom Stoppard (link) (either that or I am being insulted). "What we get" (growls Scott)
is mostly less than meets the eye: the erudition of the cocktail party and the emotional range of a good TV sitcom, middlebrow pleasures dressed up in the trappings of high learning—modernism without difficulty. Stoppard is often called a playwright of ideas, but he is more accurately a playwright of the idea of ideas ...
I'd say this is a pretty good illustration of how the guy who gets to frame the question also gets to dictate the answer. I'm not sure Stoppard ever claimed to be anything more than a certain kind of "middlebrow pleasure" (though I would have to concede that others have probably claimed it for him). Scott expands on his point:
[S]mart fun is Stoppard's stock in trade. Watching his plays, you feel smart. What could be more fun?
They may make Scott feel smart: not me. Indeed at just about any Stoppard play I'm at risk of having to face up to the fact that I'm not very smart--or would have to, if I weren't having such fun. If you come to a Stoppard play in a mood of high seriousness, I suppose it might be otherwise, but if you really are in a mood of high seriousness, then what are you doing there anyway?

Scott gives his own game away when he sputters that Shakespeare in Love is "a movie for people in love with the idea of Shakespeare." Quite right. It's a big wet kiss to the theatre business, in the same genre as Kiss Me, Kate, or All That Jazz or The Producers. You got a problem with that? Put Stoppard in that company and maybe we can all feel easiser about ourselves (I agree that the John Webster line is a clinker, though).

From time to time, Stoppard has put on a darker and more serious face, particularly in the pre-Gorbachev years, when he undertook to skewer the lies and pretensions of his former homeland--I'm thinking of Professional Foul (link), for example, or Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (link). I think these are both wonderful, but they are pretty much out of fashion these days, and certainly not the stuff that Stoppard's reputation lives on (to be fair, Scott does tip his hat to Professional Foul and some of its kin).

Oddly enough, "out of fashion" may be Scott's real (though inadvertent) complaint. Stoppard's plays, he argues:
are best appreciated as part of the golden age of English silliness, a moment that produced such indelible monuments of the human spirit as A Hard Day's Night and Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Let's hear it for the golden age of English silliness. Now, there is something to be nostalgic about.

[Fn.: I know almost nothing about it, but the promise of a "Tom Stoppard Trilogy" is enough to fill me with dread. He's almost certainly too old, too famous, too able to get his way whether he deserves to get his way or not. But dear god please let me be wrong.]

Who're You Callin' A Weathervane?

The paper didn’t come this morning, so I fell back on something I rarely read: the New York Times Sunday Book Review. It turns out to be rich in well-crafted put-downs. Here is Michael Lewis on Colin Powell:

…like a good soldier, [he] followed his orders. Only he wasn’t a soldier. He was a wily old political hand. I don’t doubt that Powell acted as a brake rather than an accelerator [in the runup to The War—ed.]. But he has preserved this kind of deniability in almost every aspect of his public life. He seems never to have accepted a promotion without making the promoter beg him to take it, and he seems never to have gone along with a plan without first warning that it might not work.

And here is Jacob Heilbrunn on Ann Coulter

…she is really a kind of conservative life coach, a personal shopper for her clients, one who identifies and digests the latest political trends before serving them up in even more inflammatory language. Not one of Coulter’s arguments is original to her; each is cribbed from the conservative press, which is why searching for specific passages she has plagiarized … is a superfluous exercise. Even a cursory look at her books shows that she essentially functions as a kind of right-wing weathervane.

Actually, that last is probably more of a put-down of Coulter’s biographers (i.e., for missing the point) than of Coulter herself.

Oddly enough, another piece, largely free of put-down, involves two old past masters of the art—Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Gore Vidal. Hitchens gets in a few snipes, but for the most part he shows a (surprising?) willingness to let an old man die in peace.

[Fn: Hey, what's your beef with the Book Review? Honestly, nothing, and in fact I am a big fan of Sam Tannenbaum {oops, Tannenhaus; thanks, Bob}. But there aren't enough hours in the day. And fn to fn: evidently I am not alone in my indifference to the review. Checking my correction, I came up with this.]

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ariel Rubinstein Recommends a Nice Cuppa

Back in the summer of ’90, I decided it was time to learn some classical Greek, so I could do Thucydides right: I signed up for Berkeley’s summer Greek boot camp. Talk about drinking from a fire hose—there was a quiz every day, so every morning I repaired to Café Milano on Bancroft, as near to the front as possible, by the open window, for a cram session. There we were, all shoveling knowledge into our heads, Thai on one side, Tagalog or Telegu on the other, perhaps even a dab of Tokharian. I always wondered: what’s to keep us from getting our wires crossed here—me learning them direct object in Telegu, say, while she picks up a new form of the Greek aorist?

I never got a straight answer to that one, but whenever I am in Berkeley, I do try to stop there for coffee and a spritz of nostalgia, maybe hoping to corner an odd subjunctive that eluded me the first time around.

Guilty, your honor: I’m one of the coffee shop people. Aside from Café Milano, I remember the place in Madrid where you bought a day ticket, and the one on the island of Spetses, where the old guys gazing vacantly out to the ocean were the same ones who just 40 years before would have been ripping each others’ face off in the Greek Civil War. More than that: closer to home, I have written just about all of one book in just one coffee shop (it’s in the acknowledgments) and parts of two editions of another in several others. Whatever it is about coffee shops, I get it.

So it is with great delight that I point you to this discovery, the work of a world-class economist who also knows his coffee.

[Footnote: Buce Jr. recommends Coffee: A Dark History. Haven’t read it, but it’s on the list.

[Footnote #2: Oh, and the Greek. Nobody told me that Thucydides is hard. I can do a bit of Homer, though.]

Found Poetry

Today I learned:

Scuffle, n.

A contention or trial of strength between two persons, who embrace each other's bodies; a struggle with close embrace, to decide which shall throw the other; in distinction from wrestling, which is a trial of strength and dexterity at arm's length. Among our common people, it is not unusual for two persons to commence a contest by wrestling, and at last close in, as it is called, and decide the contest by a scuffle.

This from "Webster's Daily," a site dedicated to "Found poetry from the first edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1828)," and promising "A new definition every day." Thanks again, AE, for this and for a complementary commentary on dictionaries and dictionary-making in general.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

May the Truth Be Revealed to Me

There’s something about Italian scholars and the ancient world: they seem to get it. Think the great Arnaldo Momigliano (link); think Fondazione Lorenzo Valla (link); indeed, think those walls of Greek and Latin classics you see in so many Italian bookstores. They have a history of their own; evidently they understand how others could have one, too.

In this light, I’ve spent some pleasant hours lately in the company of Sabatino Moscati, and his remarkable book, The Face of the Ancient Orient. Moscati died in 1997, at the age of 74. My copy of Face is a Doubleday Anchor paperback published in 1962; I got it for $1.95 at Palookaville’s finest used book store. Apparently Moscati finished the Italian original in 1958. As an exposition of archaeology, any book with those dates is almost as antique as the subject matter itself. No matter. You read this one not for current research, but for its almost unexampled rapport with its subject.

“Orient” here means “Near East” (or “Middle East,” depending on your discipline)—Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Persia, plus the Hittites, the Canaanites, the Aramaneans and a fairly large dose of ancient Israel. From the foreword, we learn that the book began as a set of radio lectures; in another time, perhaps he would have had a high-budget location show on PBS. He offers (as he says) “a comparative study of the essential and characteristic features of the ancient Oriental civilizations.”

Well enough, if dated. But what gives the book its enduring appeal, alaong with Moscati’s affinity for his subject, is its particular content. “Since we are describing literary works,” Moscati explains, “why not give actual quotations from them?”

And so he did. In the end, what we have here is an admirable little anthology of ancient literature, in context and in a framework that invites internal comparison. I can’t begin to do it all justice here. But who would have guessed that we would find a prayer/invocation, some 5,000 years old, of the quality of this from Babylon:

They are lying down, the great ones;
The bolts are fallen, the fastenings are placed;
The noisy crowds are quiet,
The open gates are closed.
The gods and the goddesses of the land,
Shamash, Sin, Adad and Ishtar,
Have betaken themselves to sleep in heaven.
They are not pronouncing judgment,
They are not deciding disputes.
Veiled is the night.
The palace and the fields are quiet and dark…
The great gods, the gods of the night …
Stand by …
In the divination which I am performing,
In the lamb which I am offering,
May the truth be revealed to me.

--Sabatino Moscati, The Face of the Ancient Orient 84
(Anchor ed. 1962)

Saturday, November 25, 2006

And Speaking of Free Traffic

From Underbelly's Alabama Bureau Chief:

Obscure Theological Joke

Travelling along the Jordan River, I wondered idly:
--I know what the Sodomites were up to, but what did they do in Edom?
My friend Betsy suggests:
--Probably snooped in dark corners for Moabites.

Okay, maybe you had to have been there.

"If We Knew How To Do That, We Would Not Be Poor"

More on “free traffic,” etc. Samuel Bowles recalls a conversation with a poor sharecropper in the village of Palanpur, India:

…I approached a sharecropper and his three daughters weeding a small plot. The conversation eventually turned to the fact that Palanpur farmers sow their winter crops several weeks after the date at which yields would be maximized. The farmers do not doubt that early planting would give them larger harvests, but no one, the farmer explained, is willing to be the first to plant, as the seeds on any one plot would be quickly eaten by birds. I asked if a large group of farmers, perhaps relatives, had ever agreed to sow earlier, all planting on the same day, to minimize losses: ‘If we knew how to do that,’ he said, looking up from his hoe at me, ‘we would not be poor.’

--Samuel Bowles, Microeconomics 23-24 (2004)

Terrible News: Wine May be Good For You

This just in:
An ordinary laboratory mouse will typically run one kilometer on a treadmill before collapsing from exhaustion, but mice given resveratol, a minor component of red wine and other foods, can run twice as far...

NY Times pB1, Nov. 25, 2006
Uh, how's the Chardonnay?

The 25 Percent Rule

I assume ten thousand bloggers will weigh in this morning on Joe Moroszcz, president of the College Republicans at Boston University, and his proposal for a scholarship available to students who are "at least one-quarter Caucasian" (link). I assume that a fair chunk of these bloggers will point out that almost any American black could pass that 25 percent test, unless he came here last week from, say, Gabon, and maybe then.

I wonder how many will remember how this "percent" stuff became an issue back in the racial-restrictive covenant cases that preceded Brown v. Board of Education. Recall: Homer buys a home with a deed providing that he shall not sell to members "of the Negro race." Homer sells to Byron and the neighbors challenge the sale as violating the covenant. In defense, Byron denies that he is "of the Negro race," and puts the plaintiff to his proof.

It was cute and calculated, but it was not quite as frivolous or obstructive as it might appear at first blush. Think about it: what a way to provoke a full-scale discussion of what it meant to be a "Negro"--to challenge the whole range of social and cultural assumptions that underlie the assertion. It's clear from the record that the proponents understood the cases not least as part of a process of education about race and society.

Moroszcz this morning must feel like the guy at Knott's Berry Farm with his head sticking through a hole in the wall--while a gleeful multitude pelts him with dead cats and rotten cabbages. I wouldn't worry about him: speaking of "a process of education," one of the functions of `campus politics is to bring home to the kinder that if you stir up a hornet's nest, then sometimes you get stung. A satisfying, if ironic, conclusion, might be to see the episode morph into a brand new public dialogue on an old and persistent issue.

[Fn.: I wonder if the "put to their proof" denial these days would pass the Rule 11 threshold condition of good-faith pleading? We're talking "process of education" here, but is that a legitimate function of a private lawsuit? Aside from the racial restrictive covenant cases, I once knew a guy who used the same tactic in a sex-discrimination case--denied that the plaintiff was a woman and put her to her proof. Same case? Different? Ooh, this is beginning to sound like a law school exam.

Oh, and thanks again, Ivan.]

Friday, November 24, 2006

"Free Traffic" and an Agenda for Libertarians

About 40 years ago, I went to an Ohio State football game. We parked in a big open field off the Olentangy River Road in Columbus. At the end of the game, there must have 10,000 cars trying to get out of one tiny exit. I can still remember it as one of the more unpleasant moments of an (okay, pretty tranquil) life. No shots were fired, but my heavens, the yelling, the fist-shaking—the general air of rancor and Hobbesian competition. Oy, this may explain why I’ve never been to a big-time college ball game since.

About 20 years ago, for several months I did a daily commute from the San Fernando Valley down to the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse. There’s a place where I-5 merges into the Pasadena Freeway (link). This is, or was, another horrible bottleneck—about 50 lanes merging down to two, as I remember it. Any, there’s a potential for a mess here that would make an OSU football game look like a Vassar daisy chain.

Thing is, it never seemed to happen this way. Angelinos merge. Or did merge. Car from the left, car from the right, car from the left, car from the right—every day, I was greeted with a spectacle of implicit order.

I haven’t any idea precisely what moral I should draw from this seeming inconsistency but I thought of both of these episodes yesterday when I heard Ian Lockwood, a traffic engineer, on NPR telling how you can reduce traffic damage by knocking down the traffic signs (link). As you can surmise by the foregoing, my experience tells me that it just may work—but not always. What interests me is the way it opens up a great can of worms in libertarian political discourse—the question of when, and under what circumstances, the government can do better by doing less.

Libertarians love to talk about the crimes and follies of government, and for my money, they are nearly always right. Trouble is, they almost never consider the alternative. Will life, in fact, go better, if the government just gets out of the way? If, as I suspect the answer is “yes and no,” then I would hear more about the question of when and why.

Clearly, most libertarians have little to offer on this issue. My guess is that a good many of them just don’t realize that it is an issue. It’s the mirror image of the old lefty argument that capitalism is bad, therefore socialism must be better.

There are honorable exceptions. One of the most exemplary is Robert Ellickson’s instructive little book on how they settle cattle disputes in Shasta County (link). You get some serious discussion in the literature on free banking (link). Samuel Bowles (no standard libertarian he) offers some provocative thoughts in his Microeconomics (link). You can suss some of it out of the more general literature on game theory and behavioral economics.

Still, I don’t know very many people who address directly the kind of question I’m trying to raise here. I’m still agnostic over why (or even whether) the Pasadena Freeway is unlike an Ohio State football game. But if the stir over “free traffic” offers the promise of any insight, I’d like to hear more about it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Many Thanks

Gratian says somewhere that we should always be more alert to what fate has granted us than to what it has denied.

Or maybe it was Gratian, although I can't seem to find a link. Maybe it was Yogi Berra. Anyway, to fate, many thanks.

Sober Second Thoughts on Manon

Reviewing some earlier posts, I see that I’ve been beating up on Manon Lescaut (or Manon Lescaut) lately. A few days ago I called her a loser (link). Earlier I called the book “a great soppy soap opera of a novel” (link).

Hm. Well, I won’t quite take back what I’ve said here, but I think I want to revise and extend my remarks. Set aside the operas for a moment, focus on the novel, written by the Abbé Prévost in 1731. It seems to have stayed in print continuously since its first publication, which is enough to give it a bad rap; my French paperback edition lists six other French editions currently available as of 1990. Napoleon called it a novel for door-keepers,[1] which probably didn’t help.

Yet broad popularity alone shouldn’t be an objection. Handel’s Messiah is broadly popular, and I remember reading somewhere that there were 50 productions of Shakespeare’s Tempest in the United States last summer. The fact is, Manon Lescaut is compulsively readable. Strictly speaking, it’s better classed as a novella, not a novel. At 155 pages (in the Penguin paperback) you could almost read it in a night, and if you are prepared not to be any use at work the next day, you may be tempted to do just that. For me, Manon Lescaut the kind of book that sucks you in on the first page and keeps its hold on you with a steady hypnotic gaze. Bernard Malamud's The Fixer had the same effect on me (link) --a much different novel, but the same linear intensity. Here's a bit from the first page of Manon Lescaut:

[J]ust then there appeared in the doorway a soldier, complete with bandolier and musket, and I beckoned him and asked him what all the excitement was about. ‘Oh, it’s nothing, Sir,’ he said, ‘just a dozen streetwalkers that my friends and I are taking to Havre to be shipped off to America. Some of them aren’t bad looking, either, and I suppose that’s what these yokels want to see.’ I might have left it at that and gone on my way if I had not been pulled up by the cries of an old woman who emerged from the inn wringing her hands and shouting that it was a wicked shame and enough to give anyone the horrors. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘Oh, come and see, Sir! I tell you, it’s enough to break your heart!’ My curiosity was now thoroughly aroused…

Mine, too. Match that, Bridget Jones. Ha, didn’t think you could.[2]

[1] “Pour des portieres,” he wrote, in his Memoirs from Saint Helena. The Lire et Voir editor helpfully modernizes: “[= des concierges]. " Note that “portieres” (porters?) is in the feminine here; The New Cassell’s French Dictionary gives as an alternate definition “of an age to bear (of cows),” which probably captures the right nuance.

[2] For a more thorough account of why it is worth the bother, see the instructive introduction (by Jean Sgard) to the Penguin Paperback edition (link).

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Young Folks Nowadays...

My son,

Chatter not overmuch so that thou speak out every word that come to thy mind; for men's eyes and ears are everywhere trained upon thy mouth. Beware lest it be thy undoing. More than all watchfujlness watch thy mouth and over what thou hearest harden thy heart.

For a word is a bird: once released no man can recapture it. First count the secrets of thy mouth: then bring out thy words by number. For the instruction of a mouth is stronger than the instruction of war.

Treat not lightly the word of a king: let it be healing for thy flesh.

From "the proverbs of the sage Ahiqar, a legendary counsellor at the court of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon in the early seventh century BC," as quoted by Nicholas Ostler in Empires of the World at 83-4 (2005). I still can't quite figure out that last line.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

TigerHawk Doesn't Get It

TigerHawk led with his chin in an interesting way this morning, as he chortled over the fact that the New York Times chose to beat up on Charles Rangel for endorsing conscription (link).

He just doesn’t get it, does he? He’s been suckered by his own press releases. He really does believe (or did believe) that the Times is just a house organ for the dreaded Pelosi mafia.

Indeed, there’s a basic fact here that Republicans never seem to get: the Times is nobody’s house organ but their own. I’m not accusing the Times of anything so sordid as independence or integrity. I’m just making the point that the Times is far more interested in making its own points than anybody else’s, and in the nature of the things, those points are bound to beat up on the ins. Or at least they’d better be, or their audience will die of boredom (recall how Rush slumped after George 41 gave him a night in the Lincoln bedroom).

It’s really extraordinary how constantly, completely and sincerely Republicans miss this point. Heaven only knows why, but perhaps it has something to do with team spirit—the stand-up-and-salute mentality that makes them unable to conceive of a press that is disposed not to be bound to anybody—not just on principle, but for fun and profit.

Addendum: TH stumbles into a twofer here, as he raises an issue on which conservatives are most likely to betray moral and intellectual confusion: the volunteer army. Rangel knows perfectly well that nobody is ever going to buy his argument, and I’m not at all sure he really wants them to. He’s just interested in exposing the incoherence of a posture that depends on social glue, and that then undertakes to make it work on the model of a joint stock company. To his credit, TH booted the ball way down past the line of scrimmage in his next post, reprinting in full a fascinating and provocative discussion of the issue in a rip-and-read from Stratfor (link). The comments to both posts betray the generally sophomoric level of the discussion, but it’s a start.

He's Not Even, er, Black

This is truly weird. Glenn Greeenwald has an estimable twofer about Jose ("Dirty Bomber") Padilla, the terrorist so elusive the government is still having trouble coming up with a good charge against him (link). They are both worth the reader's attention but for my money, it is the second one that is the more extraordinary. It's about the Padilla we all know--this guy: seen in uncountable scary news shows over the past several years. But Greenwald says he is also this guy: plain English, far more like some poor bloke who got caught in a police dragnet than the Central Casting picture of terrorism.

Greenwald comments:
I have no idea whether there were any deliberate alterations made back then to the photograph, but I do know that the total dehumanization of Padilla -- allowing him to be dubbed with cartoon villain names and accused of plotting the most heinous crimes, while he was not permitted to be either heard from or even seen (except in one dark and extremely menacing photograph) -- was a critical factor in enabling the Bush administration to throw him into a black hole and detain him incommunicado without provoking much protest from Americans or their media.
Greenwald is an ex-litigator. I learn most of my criminal justice from Batman comics. But can this really be the full story?

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Cut and Run

Okay, I am not surprised that a majority of Iraqis want us the H*ll out of their country. But isn’t it surprising that the opposition to our presence is actually higher among Sunnis (91%) than among Shiites (74%)? Aren’t the Shiites the lot set to succeed us as residuary beneficiaries of the late uproar? If so, isn’t it they who should be slavering for our withdrawal, and the Sunnis begging us to stay? Or do the Sunnis—with two generations’ worth of domination behind them—know something that we (I) don’t know? See here and here. See also useful comments at Drum and Carpetbagger.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Puccini's Manon Lescaut at SFO

Notes re: SFO Opera production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut: An introducer said that Manon is a femme fatale, like Carmen or Lulu. She isn’t. She’s a loser, like Monica Lewinsky or Tanya Harding. Like Monica, she doesn’t seem to realize why she is famous. Like Tanya, if she were an ice skater, her brother would kneecap her opponent with a pipe wrench. Together, Manon and her lover are candidates for one of those “World’s Dumbest Criminal” awards. (Editor’s query—did Manon ever live in Portland?)

In opera, this in itself is not enough to destroy the story. Jules Massenet, in his own Manon, just a few years before, seemed able to reckon with all the delicate ironies of the situation. The trouble is that Puccini himself doesn’t seem to get it. This is a problem I often have with Puccini: not just that he is clumsy, mawkish, juvenile, over the top—most opera is clumsy, mawkish, juvenile, over the top-- but that he seems to believe his own claptrap. Unencumbered by much knowledge, I suspect this may have to do with his role as the anointed heir to Verdi. Somebody had to be Queen of the May—the opera establishment couldn’t let the franchise just dissipate—and so when Puccini found the finger pointed at him, his response was understandable enough: who—me! Oh—swell!

Do I betray a certain reserve about Puccini in general? Guilty, your honor, I am not an enthusiast. I do like Gianni Schicchi, particularly the Glyndebourne Festival performance on in Opus Arte DVD. I can still watch the old tape version of the second act of Tosca, with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. Maybe someday I will learn to like Turandot, but it’s still above my pay grade. The rest of it--the stuff that everybody loves--I confess I pretty much don't get.

All this is an unlikely lead-in to reporting that I really enjoyed the SFO performance of Manon Lescaut at its opening yesterday. We’d been wanting to see Karita Mattila live ever since we caught her last year on TV doing the “Merry Widow Waltz” with Thomas Hampson in the Met’s Volpe Farewell (still haven’t seen the legendary nude pictures, though). She might be a bit, shall we say, mature for Manon—these days she does stuff like Elsa in Lohengrin—but in a role so incoherent it really didn’t matter. What made it all work was the chemistry with her co-star, Misha Didyk. We’ve been to too may operas where the hero just didn’t seem to notice that the heroine was on stage (yes, Juan Diego Florez, I’m talking about you). But these two did everything but arm-wrestle. Eric Halfvarson played her sugar daddy for comedy, and nicely too (hey, works for Rossini). Together with John Hancock as Manon’s pimp/enabler/agent/brother, they stitched together a strong second act (note to self, are Second Acts Puccini’s specialty?).

I suspect that part of the charm here is that Puccini has not yet learned to hit us over the head with all the hand-wringing and heart-wringing that became his trademark later in life. “I like Puccini best,” says Ms. Buce, “when he is not being Puccini.” Exactly so. As they say, he no Andrew Lloyd Weber, but then, neither is Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Kerry in the Coyote Trap

Per my friend John, CNN is reporting that John Kerry is continuing to consider a new run for the presidency and that, er, botched joke will not distract him.

My friend John remembers the coyote who got his leg caught in a trap. He chewed three legs off and was still caught.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

I Think I'll Take the Day Off

Thanks, Margaret...

The Piece of Cod...

Making Light is having a merry old time naming the current uproar (link). I prefer "The Codpiece War," particularly in the sense of "The Piece of Cod Passeth All Understanding."

[Pedantic footnote: I believe this is a riff on what John Wilkes said about the Treaty of Utrecht.]

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Good Frightenee

H.P. Lovecraft was frightened of a lot of things:

Although he was married briefly, and many years later his former wife was moved to state, peculiarly, that he was an ‘adequately excellent lover,’ it is clear from all available evidence that sexuality, procreation, and the human body itself were among the things that scared him the most.

He was also frightened of invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, whispering …

Luc Sante, New York Review of Books
October 19, 2006, page 57

Um, is gray a color?

Milton, We Hardly Knew Ye...

I got snide about Lionel Tiger for his meanness over the death of Clifford Geertz so I had better tread carefully when I try to say something about Milton Friedman. Not much real risk here, I suppose: Milton is (was) Milton and I am I and there isn’t anything that I could say that would burnish or blight his image by an atom.

Anyway it isn’t really Milton the economist that I want to talk about (a topic on which I am surpassingly unqualified to opine) but Milton the plaster Madonna in front of the Corpus Christi parade. My point is: whatever his contribution to economics, his real fame comes from his role as a dialectition in the public forum: not exactly a front man, but a rallying-point for a whole bunch of causes, some of which have nothing to do with him and some of which are (or ought to have been) beneath his dignity.

The libertarian (I will not defame him with the much-sullied label of “conservative”)—I say the libertarian “movement,” embracing the full continuum from honest and thoughtful social critics through to barking wingnuts, have well learned the lesson that to have a cause, you need a narrative, and to have a narrative, you need characters. What ever else he may have accomplished, Milton played this iconic role to perfection. His colleague Gary Becker nailed it when he spoke of Milton’s “enormous zeal to convince the heathen.” (Quoted in Alan Ebenstein, Friedrich Hayek at 267). It’s a style of debate that we haven’t really seen since the days of Peter Abelard. It adds force, not incidentally, to Dierdre McCloskey’s point that economics has as much or more to do with rhetoric than it does with cool analysis.

The right intuitied this point a generation ago when they figured out how to demonize John Maynard Keynes, transmogrifying him into a convenient hatrack for any kind of leftist absurdism. A bit of the mirror image happened to Friedman: he gets credit for all kinds of stuff that isn’t even his affair. Just yesterday I heard a commentator who should have known better somehow associating Friedman with Ronald Reagan’s winning of the Cold War.

People, let’s review the bidding here. First, Ronald Reagan did not win the Cold War. He huffed and he puffed and the house fell down—but nobody was more surprised to the Reaganites, who had never in their wildest fantasies supposed that the house was actually made out of straw. Second, only in the remotest sense did Milton have anything to do with it. He certainly thought Communism A Bad Thing. In a sense he thought Capitalism A Good Thing, but if you listened closely, you came to understand that perspective was largely hypothetical—as they used to say about Christianity, the trouble with Capitalism was that it hadn’t really been tried yet. But to conflate these insights into a single obit is not sober reporting, it’s just a kind of triumphalism, or at least a consoling bedtime story for the true believers huddled around the campfire.

It’s an old habit, really. It’s the same device that makes us anoint Adam Smith as the father of science that he never even heard of. It’s what leads us to wonder what Thomas Jefferson would think of the doughnut hole in Medicare Part D, or whether Jesus would Wear a Rolex on his Television Show (Forgotten that one? Link.). Sober minds will pore over the record to try to disentangle just how much credit for originality belongs to Friedman against, say Hayek (of whom, as it happens, Friedman spoke highly)—just as they do with Adam Smith, or Jefferson or Jesus.

So now he belongs to the ages. Sartre says somewhere that one of the downsides of being dead is that you no longer get to participate in the making of your own story. Up until yesterday, Milton continued to participate in his own story. But it may have gotten away from him some time ago, and it surely will now.

Welcome ...

To Churchill, Manitoba. Not a lot shakin' up there just now, I guess?

Afterthought: maybe there is.

The Dems Really Need This Guy

Long live Grover Norquist:
Bob [sic] Sherwood’s seat would have been overwhelmingly ours, if his mistress hadn’t whined about being throttled.
Source: apparently here. Yeh, I know I am tracking at least nine other blogs [per Google Blog Search] but this one deserves all the exposure it can get.

Unsettling afterthought: my grandfather was a Nordstrom and my grandmother was a Lindquist. Am I somehow responsible for this guy?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Appreciation: Mr. Dick Flies His Kite

Mr. Dick labors tirelessly and it seems interminably on the preparation of his great memorial. But he finds surcease:

Mr. Dick and I soon became the best of friends, and very often, when his day’s work was done, went out together to fly the great kite. . . . It was quite an affecting sight, I used to think, to see him with the kite when it was up at a great height in the air … when he was out, looking up at the kite in the sky, and feeling it pull and tug at his hand. He never looked so serene as he did then. I used to fancy, as I sat by him of an evening, on a green slope, and saw him watch the kite high in the quiet air, that it lifted his mind out of its confusion, and bore it (such was my boyish thought) into the skies. As he wound the string in, and it came lower and lower down out of the beautiful light, until it fluttered to the ground, and lay there like a dead thing, he seemed to wake gradually out of a dream, and I remember to have seen him take it up, and look about him in a lost way, as if they had both come down together, so I pitied him with all my heart.

David Copperfield, Chapter XV

Hoyer and the Elevator Test

I apply The Elevator Test to politicians: would I rather spend ten minutes in an elevator with this guy, or commit suicide? Not many politicians pass, which probably says more about me than them. Bill Clinton passes, though if it were "twenty minutes," I'd have to rethink. Hillary I respect (mostly) and I concede she's made her bones as a politician but for the elevator test, I'm not so sure.

Nancy Pelosi, the liberal from San Francisco, has always passed the elevator test with me: she can be irritating, but she never peels the skin off my back.

Steny Hoyer--hey, I really don't know him all that well, but I guess he's okay. Bummer about net neutrality but nobody is right all the time. On the elevator I'd give him a clean edge over his late opponent in the leadership fight.

My trouble with Hoyer is elsewhere, an issue nobody else seems to have picked up on. The Almanac of American Politics explains:

The biggest industry here is still government: It has the highest percentage of federal government employees of any congressional district.

Now, I don't want to be misunderstood here: I admire good government service; I think it is an honorable profession, and should be recognized and rewarded (of course I do--I have lived on the king's shilling for more than half my life myself). But let's not kid ourselves here: compared to the mass of Americans, federal employees are a cosseted lot. Their jobs are often interesting; the pay is decent, and they've got security that others only dream of. Moreover one way or another, they end up with health care and pension protections that are, for many Americans, beyond the realm of dreams altogether. Put it another way: hiding behind a Rawlesian veil, if you were given the choice between a Federal government job and any other job, then prudence and calculation would put you in Hoyer's back yard.

Is this a convincing voice for hard-working, tax-paying, middle America? Rhetorical question. It almost makes you long for somebody with an honest job. Like, say, pest control. No, strike that, your honor, compared to the last act I have to concede that Hoyer looks pretty good.

[For extra credit: consider the significance of having a caucus chairman who started adulthood at the hand of Tony Coelho in 1995.]

[Afterthought to afterthought: I suspect that much too much is being made of Pelosi's public support for Murtha. I give her credit for being one jump ahead of us here: by declaring herself, she made it clear that she is loyal, and relieves herself of the necessity of doing any real arm-twisting.]

Middle East Reading

Responding to my multitudes--well, okay, one reader--I offer a few notes on prep reading for an archaeological tour of the Eastern Med. Happy to oblige.

For general background, I tackled G.W. Bowersock, Roman Arabia (link in sidebar). It's dry, but it does the job --more helpful by way of review after I got back. In my trip backpack, I carried Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War (link in sidebar). I am advised that Josephus is unreliable on narrative events--he was mainly trying to suck up to his Roman masters and save his sorry Hasmonaean butt--but apparently he is safe on geography and it was kind of cool to walk over, say, Masada, with the original in hand.

I also carried Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East (link in sidebar), but I recommend it only with a large caution. I'm willing to believe Millar is a master (the master?), but this book is not aimed at a general audience. It is a (seemingly) thorough and (seemingly) honest discussion of the nature of the surviving evidence, with lots of reference to queer stones and potsherds. Of limited use on the site, but not a good general history.

For general background on matters of religion, my difficulty is that there is too much, and too much axe-grinding. I haven't yet found anything that strikes me as a good general history. I am working my way through Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? which Mrs. Buce used to use in teaching. It's a pleasant read, with provocative references to places I just visited (Lachish, Megiddo) but I haven't made up my mind about it just yet.

Before the trip I also tried to dope out a bit of the New Testament in Greek, with the aid of the superb little Cambridge JACT Reader. It was fun though I am not sure how helpful. I do notice that when John (the Evangelist) says "the Jews" did this and that, what he is really saying is "Hoi Ioudaioi"--which looks to me like "the Judaeans," i.e., in the shark-infested waters of imperial politics, an entirely different kettle of fish. Maybe I can get it together to say more about this later.

Fn. I just checked my Amazon Associates account and find that since the beginning of this blog, my total sales are, um, let's check here--yes, zero. People! Let's get with the program!

The Bus Plunge, and Remembering John Diederich

Jack Shafer has a wonderful piece up at Slate, bound to warm the hearts of any old newspaperperson, about the rise and fall of the "Bus Plunge story" in the New York Times--the little bit of filler at the bottom of the column reporting that 88 people died when a bus plunged over a cliff in Wakawakadooloo or wherever (link). Turns out the "fall," as it were, is a simple matter of technology:
Extremely short articles were a creature of the analog world, and as the digital broom swept through newspapers in the 1970s, it began whisking the whole genre out of the Times.
Apparently Shafer's story was a huge hit (link). Shafer says he heard from giddy travellers, but I bet if he checked, he would find that a lot of his correspondents were old-time copy-desk rim-persons like my friend Ivan, who sent the bus plunge story to me. Ivan waxes nostaligic about the old days at the defunct Washington Star:
...when there were no more real stories to write heds for, the slotman would feed us tons of fillers and, in the old way, we would type the hed on usually an old underwood, a one liner of course, paste the text of the filler to it, and flip it in the slotman's basket. it's about as easy a job as i've ever had. and, the paycheck wasnt bad.

The slotman could be a problem. usually it was a nervous little chubby guy who swallowed rollaids with about every gulp of coffee. he bought the giant size bottle and ate them like lifesavers. I used to put a facetious or funny head on some of the fillers. it did get monotonous. if his gut was in revolt he'd throw the hed and filler in the trash, screaming some banshee curse, and reach for the rollaids.

I continued to work the Saturday desk after i started [my new job], but when I told "rollaids" i had to be out of town the following saturday ...he said something like "if you dont come in next Saturday, dont come back." I never went back, and, of course, the Star closed up shop. I've always thought that if I had been kept on the copy desk i would have kept the paper going -- at least the sunday edition with my headlines in it.
I bet Ivan remembers John Diederich, late of the late Louisville Times and a grandmaster of the totally phoney filler. Two of Diederich's prizes (I quote from memory):
The Vermont Tourist Board reports that a tasty potation may be concocted out of the state's two principal exports, maple syrup and marble.
The Yugoslav Geodetic Survey reports that it is 61 miles from Split to Dubrovnic, but onlyh 59 miles from Dubrovnic to Split.
That last one passed into Buce family lore: my daughter once sent me a postcard from Dubrovnic assuring me that it was true.

Postscript: Count on my friend John to remember the other bus plunge story?
--Terrible news, a busload of lawyers just went off the cliff!

--What's so terrible about that?

--There were two empty seats!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dickens on Innocence as Calamity

The read-aloud book of the moment at Chez Buce is David Copperfield. I don’t know how I let this happen: I am no more than a tepid fan of Dickens, and I have always heard the Copperfield was soppy sentimental.

Surprise: it is wonderful, and I look forward to every reading session. In fact it is soppy sentimental. But –this is the part that nobody ever told me—nobody sees through its sentimentality than Dickens himself.

More precisely: Copperfield is full of seductive innocents: Mr. Micabwer, Mr. Dick, David’s own mother, the list goes on and on. Dickens loves them for (not in spite of) their innocence, and he can overcome the reader’s skepticism to make you love them too.

Thing is, though, this innocence can be a calamity and Dickens knows this too. Think of the car toodling down the expressway at 35 miles an hour, while a 60-car pileup clogs the traffic lanes behind him. David’s mother, for example. Her winsome, childlike nature is attractive in its own way, but it is a disaster for herself and her Murdstone child, and if David escapes her curse, it is his good luck and her good planning. So also Micawber. You need never to have read the book to remember W. C. Fields posturing and posing and hoping that something will turn up. But Micawber has a wife and four children and if he doesn’t feed them, then there is a good chance that no one will.

Dickens is also good at predation. David’s mother has Murdstone; Micawber has Uriah Heep, the list goes on. But this is an ambivalent kind of villainy: Heep and Murdstone pluck the low-hanging fruit. The world is a difficult place and grownups with responsibilities had better face that fact and Suck it Up.

He is good at innocents and predators; no less so at innocents who are predators. Mr. Wickfield is a good man, and a good friend to David. His daughter Agnes is a model of saintly devotion. Yet Wickfield is sucking the life out of Agnes with the demands he makes on her—and he knows it, yet he cannot bring himself to do anything about it, except drink himself into stupefication.

There’s another feature of Copperfield that I haven’t straightened out in my own mind yet; David’s own precocious maturity. In a way, this is a literary trope; think Little Orphan Annie, think Tin-Tin, maybe think Huckleberry Finn. It seems to work as a literary device, but in real life, we think of the children of alcohols who have adulthood thrust upon them and never really get to enjoy their childhood. I really don’t know what to do with this one: I suppose acres have trees have fallen to produce dissertations on the topic, extending the inquiry way further than I can ever hope to imagine. But it’s an angle, and it adds a somber note, perhaps unintended, to a generally wonderful book.

I think I’ll have more to say about Copperfield, but I’ll save it until I get a bit further on; I’m still a bit shy of half way.

Kurp on Johnson and O'Connor

I could run a pretty good blog by just channeling Patrick Kurp. It's a lazy man's game, of course, and I try to avoid it, but I make an exception today because he has hit upon a couple of particular favorites: Samuel Johnson and Flannery O'Connor (here and here and here).

I first encountered Johnson in Basil Pillard's 18th Century Lit class at Antioch in 1956. Pillard made us keep a journal and I can still remember myself on the greasy couch in the upstairs apartment on West Limestone Street, tapping away at my portable typewriter and experiencing the weird, unfamiliar tingle--hey, I must be, what? thinking? Ever since I've felt a special sort of affinity for Johnson the person, something that I really don't feel for any other writer--not even the ones I like as much, or perhaps better. It's certainly not that I want to be Johnson: who would willingly assume the loneliness and the curse of black depression that dogged him through so much of his life? But how can you not admire the heroism of his vision and the craggy integrity, the devotion to Getting it Right?

O'Connor is a different story. Mrs. Buce introduced me to O'Connor in 1979 when we were first dating--I suppose it was some kind of a test. Mrs. B had a good Catholic background of her own--also, sadly, some health problems tht seemed to track O'Connor's, though luckily for me, they did not prove fatal. Coincidentally, the first item on the test syllabus was "Parker's Back." We went on to read the letters in "The Habit of Being" together, and later to the rest of this jewel-like small corpus. None has ever failed me, but I suppose my favorite is still "Good Country People," the one about the wooden leg, perhaps the saddest piece of scabrous comedy I have ever encountered.

I don't know quite to make of Kurp's entanglement of O'Connor with Vladimir Nabokov. I remember enjoying Pale Fire and Pnin; I guess I was too young to appreciate the seductive horror of Lolita. I haven't read any of these in forty years. Last year I tackled Ada and thought it pretentious and overdone; also Speak, Memory, which I found admirable in its way, I suppose, but almost inhumanly heartless. Come to think of it, perhaps I should go back and tackle Pale Fire. But for something to cherish, I'd rather choose O'Connor or Johnson.

Schiller in the Sand

Shylock says that “Some men … when the bagpipe sings i'th'nose, /Cannot contain their urine.” I almost knew what Shylock had in mind last month in Amman, when I heard the Jordanian military retirees’ bagpipe band.

This works for me on so many levels. For starters, it was an old Roman theatre. But closer to the time, I felt I had to remember John Bagot Glubb, “Glubb Pasha,” imperialist and chauvinist, and virtual creator of the Arab Legion, that corps of Bedouin nomads who became the best and most professional army in the Arab world. Did Glubb design those khaki uniforms, I wonder? And are they as uncomfortable as they appear in the desert heat? I assume he is responsible for the bagpipes; perhaps also the repertoire? "Scotland the Brave," of course, and “The Campbells are Coming.” But "Amazing Grace?" And—this is where I nearly lost it—Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.”

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über'm Sternenwelt
muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.

O you millions, let me embrace you!

Let this kiss be fore the entire

Brothers—a loving Father must

Dwell above the tent of stars.

A dozen old Arab men in khaki uniforms, playing Schiller’s paean to universal brotherhood and peace. I have never seen the like of it. Did I mention that it was an old Roman theatre?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Clifford Geertz, and a Golden Age

Clifford Geertz died last week. He will be remembered, perhaps not very well, by a few academics, mostly older, many of whom have never read more than fragments of what he wrote. But they will identify him as a kind of mandarin: the first social scientist to grace the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study at and the very definition of a wise and cultivated old-school intellectual.

Lest he fade away into a decent obscurity, the Wall Street Journal celebrated his demise with a mean-spirited valedictory from Lionel Tiger, a professional colleague of Geertz’s but (as it now appears) no admirer (no link, I got my copy be email from a friend). “He was a major contributor,” growled Tiger, “to the willfully fuzzy illogic which continues to plague the social sciences.” More generally

He sternly advocated that anthropologists turn to ‘thick description’ (an unfortunately apt term) rather than the terse empirical accounts of ethnographers committed to facts rather than elegant rendition. Meanwhile, he continued to write imposing and influential works on the difficulty of bridging the gaps between the consciousness of individuals and between different societies. He emphasized words about acts rather than the acts themselves.”

“Fuzzy,” complains Tiger, “fuzzy.” I won’t attempt to tangle with Tiger directly, except to remark that as an ex-newspaperman, I have always nurtured a kind of affinity for “thick description.” Rather, I want to focus on a remarkable aside, and a curious connection. Tiger says:

[Geertz] became the anthropological enforcer for the New York Review of Books and, like Steven [sic] Jay Gould in biology, intricately upheld a conventional world view which provided intimidating intellectual cover for politically correct thoughts and deeds.

That’s the aside. Here’s the connection: Antioch College. Geertz graduated in 1950, Gould in 1963.

Coincidence? I think not. It happens I was at Antioch College for a while—apparently after Geertz and before Gould, neither of whom I ever met. I contributed just about nothing to the honor of the College: I left with my tail between my legs, and without a degree. But I think I am qualified to testify: in those days, there was no better place in America to nurture the life of the mind. Indeed, that was part of my problem: I was having so much fun talking and (sometimes) listening (not to say sleeping on the couch in the campus newspaper office) that I never got any real work done. How Geertz and Gould did it is beyond me, but I’m not surprised to find that two such distinguished sensibilities could emerge from so fissiparous a milieu.

There were others, of course. Antioch likes to showcase Warren Bennis (1951), the business guru, and Fred Greenstein (1953), Geertz’ neighbor and a distinguished political scientist. And there were countless more with names not so well known who learned at Antioch how to mix intellect, imagination, and a constructive social imagination.

Sadly, Antioch has gone downhill since those days. Through a combination of bad luck and (occasional) colossal mismanagement, it has slid deep into the swamp of the mediocre. Too bad: Yellow Springs is still a lovely college town and Antioch itself (if you ignore a patina of deferred maintenance) looks like a central-casting poster of a small liberal arts college.I don’t know if it has any future, but it certainly has a past, and Geertz (and Gould) did much to create it.

While I Was Out: Whither Econ?

While I was still among the potsherds, Greg Mankiw triggered a remarkable discussion about the place of economics in academia. The kickoff was a note from a grad student having some doubts about his commitment to the field. "I sat through a whole day of paper presentations and the one thing that struck me was how incredibly technical, narrow and to a some extent pointless, some of the research was," says the student. "I'm left wondering if nowadays to be successful in a PhD program I must enjoy doing something very narrow and technical even though it might be bordering on real world irrelevance. I hope I am wrong."

Mankiw's response: pretty much "guilty as charged, your honor." The ripe fruit has been picked. The stock of ideas is large, but the flow of good new ideas is small. And perhaps most remarkable at all--after his first econ course (as a freshman at Princeton), he has never really had so much fun again.

The comments are also interesting, not least because just about no one presumes to challenge the core proposition. Students, teachers, sympathetic observers: they pretty much all agree thast academic econ has reached some kind of dead end.

Notes from JetBlue Hell

We spent Sunday night in JetBlue Hell at Kennedy’s Terminal Six. Not JetBlue’s fault, actually—weather. Bodies packed in everywhere, snoring and snarling. There was WiFi, but I didn’t bring my laptop. Couldn’t find a Starbuck’s, and don’t even think of a Wolfgang Puck. Worst, we couldn’t even find a place to buy a New York Times.

But then, a stroke of luck. Over in a quiet corner, we saw two seats, together, obscured behind a largeish refuse pile of newspaper.

--Are these seats taken?

--I don’t think so, some guy sat here reading all these newspapers and then throwing them away, but he left.

Famished for news I thought—hey, maybe this is our Times. But not so. It wasn’t today’s paper, and it wasn’t even yesterday’s. What he had here was a miscellany of sections from the Times and the Wall Street Journal, dating back discontinuously to about September 3.

Who would read (and, ahem, discard) newspapers in this curious way (and does he know yet that the Republicans lost the election?)? In the event, I had a clue: a couple of papers bore an address tag from the library at Buchalter Nemer—that would be the law firm—in San Francisco.

Hey, I think I know this guy! But let that pass. Whoever it is, I have to wonder—

1. Okay, granted, Buchalter is not the nation’s most profitable law firm. But do fancy SFO lawyers really have to eke out their miserable pittance by pinching the library’s old newspapers? Or

2. Is it the library, trying to meet its budget by peddling the remainders in the secondary market?

In which I Suspend my Suspension from Blogging

Okay, we’re back from the antipodes—in this case, Jordan and Israel. I think I accomplished my main objective, which was to come home in the same pants size (travel is broadening).

When they hear you have been to Jerusalem, people just naturally ask “were you on pilgrimage, seeking forgiveness for your life of sin?” It’s closer to truth to say that we went for the halva. But in fact, it was mostly a matter of tromping over ancient ruins, seeking satisfaction for an impulse of idle curiosity. Ruins, including ancient, is one thing they’ve got a bit of out there—a wise man says that the Eastern Mediterranean “has more history than it can consume locally.” The real trick is sorting it out: Greek from Roman, Roman from Jewish, Jewish from Christian, then Muslim and Byzantine and Crusader, then even bits of Lawrence of Arabia, though I grant you he is not quite ancient—all this and various permutations. You get this straight and you can move onto Intermediate Bronze Age (when, apparently, nothing happened), 10th Century Iron Age (nothing again, at least per the archaeologists) and Pre-pottery Neolithic B. For a child of the Pre-Tupperware Cybernetic, this is heavy stuff indeed.

Looking over my notes, I’d say we were pretty thorough. We visited Sodom in the company of a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. Near Armageddon, we admired Israeli F-15s whizzing north towards the Lebanese border on a look-see (your tax dollars at work). Further up at Dan, we walked by a rushing stream through a bosky dell (who knew?) to a lookout point over which the Israelis and their adversaries just last summer were throwing pig iron at each other. On the edge of the Golan Heights, we scarfed down Seattle-born farm trout served up by a guy who said the tourist business is off this year, he guessed he knew why. The trout were tasty and unpretentious, on that last point not unlike the Israelis themselves who were also smart, energetic and generally good company, so much so that it took work to remember that they were also at the same time incinerating innocent babies in the Gaza Strip.

I see we had an election. And that, in the immortal words of Amy Poehler, “Iraq brought regime change to the U.S” (thanks, John).