Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Balm of Fierabras

The estimable Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti is always worth a side trip, but in this one I think he outdoes himself. Do buy of this oil; get it fast while it lasts.

Thinking Man's Noam Chomsky

Chalmers Johnson is the thinking man's Noam Chomsky. At first blush, you'd take him for your fusty old uncle from the Rotary Club in Sioux Falls. Big mistake. He is a scholar with an indisputable record of achievement researching China and Japan. More important, he has travelled a lot and seen a lot and so has a clear-eyed vision of the world we have come to dominate, and the mess we have made on it. He's not particularly interested in conspiracies. Maybe he sees them, maybe not. But he's got a full plate just recording the ugly surface.

So he is Chomsky without the BS and the paranoia. Fascinating guy. He is guest-blogging this week at the TPMCoffee House (link). Catch of the day, don't miss him.

Joe Biden Don't Get No Respect

It appears to have been Michael Kinsley who first said that a gaffe in politics is when you tell the truth. Senator Joe Biden seems to have committed a major gaffe yesterday with his remorseless assessment of the Democratic Presidential candidates, in an inverview the The New York Sun link. Greg Sargent at TPM gets the money shots:

Here's Biden on Edwards: "I don’t think John Edwards knows what the heck he is talking about." And here's Biden on Hillary's Iraq plan: "nothing but disaster."

[On Obama:] “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

But—and the “but” was clearly inevitable—he doubts whether American voters are going to elect “a one-term, a guy who has served for four years in the Senate,” and added: “I don’t recall hearing a word from Barack about a plan or a tactic.”

There is already a kerfuffle over the meaning of the first sentence about Obama (link), but that’s my topic here. What fascinates me is what you might call the “Senator/President” theme. Did we mention that Biden is running for President himself? You hadn’t noticed? No wonder, because for all his flailing and arm-waving, Biden’s campaign seems to be going exactly nowhere.

Which brings me to my point: seems like every year we have (at least) one (or more) senator(s) who think: I’m smarter, more competent, better equipped in every way, to be President, than the rest of these dingbats--why not me? Think Bob Graham in 2004 (link). Think Orrin Hatch in 2000 (link). Think Bob Dole over and over and over again.

You can hardly blame these guys. It’s hard work being a good senator: long days poring over detail, long nights with a full briefcase—the slow boring of hard boards (link [$]), three yards and a cloud of dust (link). It takes patience and stamina and a bladder the size of Toledo. Graham and Dole were good at it. It hurts me to say so, but apparently Orrin Hatch is good at it too (but still a creep, okay?). FWIW, apparently Hillary is pretty good at it too, and perhaps getting better.

Thing is, these skills don’t translate. Partly it is a matter of audience appeal: most voters don’t know and don’t care why it is that Graham and Dole get so much respect for what they do. But it’s more than that: the senate and the presidency are two different jobs. The job of a senator is to claw your way through a heap of semi-colons; the job of a president is to lead. Think of the most successful modern presidents: Reagan and Roosevelt. They were both lousy detail men, but they had that knack for crystallizing and clarifying (or, if you prefer, caricaturing) that makes leadership what it is. Jack Kennedy only proves my point: he was a lousy senator but dandy at crystallizing. Lyndon Johnson doesn’t contradict it: he got to the presidency without election.

Biden is the ultimate I-don't-get-no-respect guy. Something about him—the smile, or the adenoids, or the hairplugs—just make it hard for voters to take him seriously. But follow him carefully and you have to recognize that he is serious, and hard working, and mostly on the side of the angels. Also a shrewd judge of political talent. More’s the pity.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why Cheney Never Goes on the Jury

It’s way old news but I still want to showcase that wonderful bit on Letterman last week—the blink test, with Nancy Pelosi and Dick Cheney, side by side facing the camera behind President Bush while he delivered his State of the Union message.

So, who blinked most? You say Pelosi—aww, you peeked. But how many blinks? Did you guess 32 times in—I think it was a minute and 13 seconds. And how many times did Cheney blink?

Did you guess “zero?” Aww, you peeked again, perhaps at the 47 hits over at Google Blogs. Anyway, more than enough evidence that Cheney is a wax dummy, and that the real Cheney remains tucked away somewhere at an undisclosed location.

So, why now? Thing is, I remember Michael Caine discussing this stuff with Terry Gross—no, not Pelosi and Cheney, but blinking. Caine made the point that it is a great way to freak people out: they don’t know what you are doing, but they know you are really, really weird (chances are you can find it here). Might not work to get you out of a speeding ticket, but ought to be pretty good as an avoidance tactic at an Army inspection, or to get off jury duty.

Somebody check. I bet Cheney hasn’t been on a jury in years.

Friedrich? You? Here?

Do my eyes deceive me, or is that guy in the picture on the wall--the one behind Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez on CNN (about 430p pst)--is that guy--Friedrich Nietzsche?

"Fixing Broken Windows" and the Ic Factor

I vented on "The Democrat Party" a few days ago. It was an idle whim; nothing has ever come of this sort of thing before, and I didn't expect anything now. In particular, I recalled how Democrats rarely responded to this petty slur because they couldn't figure out a good way to get a handle on it.

But welcome to the blogosphere. In a refreshing new tendency that might be called "no slur left behind," some of the better non-crazy left bloggers are jumping on board and doing their best to keep the issue alive: link; link; link; link.

Well, God bless. Perhaps what we see here is a new flowering of the "Fixing Broken Windows" crime policy--police even small crimes, to show you mean business, and to keep criminals so snarled up in the system that they don't have time for anything bigger.

An added benefit is that my attention has been called to this Hendrik Hertzberg piece, which demolishes the "ic" strategy about 10 times better than I did myself.

Fn: And just for the record, the decline of crime in New York City had less to do with Rudolph Giuliani--and more to do with his predecessor, David Dinkins--than the Giuliani campaign is likel to tell to. For a refresher, look here.

Final Verdict

That squib on Sir Lancelot set me thinking of other famous life-assessments. Here are a couple of perhaps the best known. First, this:

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

That is Hamlet, responding to Horatio, remembering his--Hamlet's-- father. It is perhaps relevant that nothing else in the play suggests that old Hamlet deserves any such encomium.

Perhaps better supported is Plato’s final assessment of Socrates—or Plato’s through the voice of the narrator of the Phaedo. Much or most of Plato’s work was dedicated to the task of memorializing his great master, so he surely feels he had justified this verdict:

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, and justest, and best of all the men whom I have ever known.

--(Jowett Translation)

(This Jowett translation has always seemed a bit flat to me, but it is the easiest to find on the Internet, perhaps not least because it is out of copyright.)

Not all assessments are so positive. Here is Hamlet again, in his mother’s bedchamber, having run his sword through Polonius behind the arras:

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better:

But perhaps my particular favorite is the memorial of a man who seems to have been beyond all praise or blame. This is a log entry from the HMS Victory near the end of the battle of Trafalgar:

Partial firing continued until 4.30 p.m., when, a victory having been reported to the Right Hon. Lord Nelson, K.B., and Commander-in-Chief, he died of his wounds.

Monday, January 29, 2007

But Can He Pitch?

Thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight's hand. And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou were the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.

Sir Thomas Malory,
Morte d'Arthur (1485)
--Book XXI, ch. 13

Fn.: Roger Ascham said that "the whole pleasure of [Morte d'Arthur] standeth in two special points, in open manslaughter, and bold bawdry." That may be true, yet oddly, neither seems well represented here.


"Some readers will find this book very readable."
--The first sentence of the Preface in
Robert B. Dicke, Financial Statement Analysis
and Business Valuation
for the Practical Lawyer
(ABA 2006)
Fn: Actually, he may be right. It's a very good and helpful book. Not as good as this one, though, heh heh, and a lot more expensive.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Scoop on Boris

Back from Boris Godunov at the San Diego Opera and well worth the trip, I say. We’d never seen Boris live before, although we had watched the Rimsky-Korsakov version on disk. SD’s original Moussorgsky version is, indeed, a rather different animal, more of the Russian bearish variety. One almost gets the feeling that RK was trying to clean it up for the mass market, like pairing Pete Seeger and the Weavers with the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra. Think Turgenev, Russia’s greatest European novelist, versus Tolstoy/Dostoevsky, Russia’s greatest Russian novelists.

I’d heard it said that M’s Boris is remote, but I wouldn’t put much stock in that. Maybe it was remote in the 1860s, there is nothing alien about it today. M does seem to use what I take to be Russian folk themes—but so many others have done so since (On the way home, I think I heard bits of Stravinsky resonating somewhere in the background—also Bartok, and yes, I know he isn’t Russian). Indeed the only real bar to enjoying M would seem to be that we’ve all had our minds poisoned by repeated ministrations of Pictures at an Exhibition in music-appreciation class when we were young, so it is a perhaps a mercy that we can stump up any enthusiasm for M at all (Dah Duh Dah da-da Dah, da-da Dah, Duh Dah Duh Dah…).

What San Diego offered was a disciplined, tightly constructed, coherent performance, nicely directed (Lofti Mansouri, retired former general director at San Francisco) and conducted (Valey Ryvkin from Santa Barbara). The singing was adequate but not of the gobsmack variety.

The Italian Ferruccio Furlanetto, billed as “the first Italian ever to sing Boris is a curious piece of business. It’s a bass role, and he is billed as a bass, but a web check makes it clear that he moonlights as a bariton (link). Furlanetto doesn’t have that soupçon of weirdness you expect from a first-class basso, and Boris needs it—after all, he is the tsar. In the first act, Furlanetto almost got lost in the crowd. In the boffo introspective numbers of the second act, he did better, with a lot of drama and psychological range.

The San Diego opera house puts me in mind of the New York City Opera and the Kennedy Center—an attempt at grandeur that ends up reminding you a bit too much of cubicle furniture. Comfy seats in dress circle (we came early for the lecture), more brutal in the balcony.

One surprise: I really wouldn’t have guessed that there was so much fur and so many tuxedos this close to the Tahiti. But it was opening night, and I guess opening night at the opera is part of the annual calendar of elite display, just anywhere. Most places, those dress circle seats empty out after the first act and get recycled to the SROs. Can’t say that it happened here, we didn’t check.

Fn: Accepted spelling seems to be GOdunov, but English speakers seem determined to say GUduhnov, not so?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Frolic of Our Own

Mr. and Mrs. Buce are off to San Diego to see Boris Godunov: Moussorgsky’s original 1869 version, not often perfomed, and worth a side trip. Little or no posting until late Sunday, or maybe Monday.

Fn: I said "not often performed." In fact, OperaBase lists 10 different productions between now and the end of July, although it doesn't say whether they are the original or the Rimsky-Korsakov remake. Anyway, silly me.

Illinois Bets on a Sure Thing

Does anybody have any idea what Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois means to accomplish by privatizing the state lottery (link)? I almost said “anybody but the governor himself, but of course, there is no necessity that he know either, even though he is the proponent, and even though he thinks he does. Nor does apparently, does the New York Times, linked above, which surveys the inevitable range of possible opinions on the topic without introducing anything that you couldn’t have guessed on your own.

Lots of people oppose privatization on principle. Not me. I think the chances are there are plenty of resources that might well be managed as well or better in private hands. And if there are buyers queueing up to pay for them, why then I say take 'em for all they're worth.

The trouble with most privatizations is not the principle of the thing; it is the fact that they are too often just ripoffs. The no-privatizers just take it for granted that the government will sell out too cheap, and they are right just often enough to make the point plausible. On this theme, the Times does fall into one tantalizing byway of confusion that may help to clarify matters. The Times says:

The sale … would not be the first privatization of public property (duh!—Buce) — both Chicago and Indiana have recently earned billions of dollars by signing long-term leases with private companies to run toll roads (emphasis added).

The Times missed it, but there’s a critical distinction here. A lease may be a privatization of sorts, but a lease is not a sale. Howard Hughes’ father did not get rich by selling drill bits; he leased them. Same with IBM and mainframes, same with Ma Bell and telephones. Same, pretty much, with Tony Soprano and the towel concession at the restaurant: if the lottery is so great, give yourself a chance to share in someone else’s success. Carpers will say this sounds suspiciously like some kind of a sales tax; the answer is sure, but so what?

The proponents of the sale say the point is that revenues will never be as healthy again, and that they are getting out at the top. Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?—I mean, because that is the only condition on which the deal makes any sense. But they’ve also made it clear that an argument for getting out is that they don’t understand the business. Uh, and the prospective buyers are likely to know less about it, and are likely to queue up for the chance to be taken to the cleaners? Lands sakes, they might even read the New York Times. Illinois’ governor needs a little lapel pin saying “Hi, I’m Rod, Take All the Money You Want.”

Lanier on Hopkins

I’m still taken with the idea, new to me earlier this week, that there is a resonance between Sidney Lanier and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Maybe it is old stuff to Those Who Know, but I am not of their number and it is new to me.

But it’s worth thinking on. Hopkins is no doubt the better poet: for my money (and a lot of others’, of course), the most original, unaccountable, inimitable voice in all English poetry. Lanier isn’t nearly as rich and diverse, and as his best, there’s something a little jingly about him. But he does seem to have found a verse form that can make verse sound like the best common speech: fluent, flexible and direct.

“Direct” may not be the first word that comes to mind with Hopkins. There’s a certain otherness about his style—quaint diction, unexpected rhythm—that can be (is meant to be?) unsettling at first blush.

But it isn’t long before you realize that he’s closer to home—or closer to the bone—than you at first noticed. He’s got that uncanny knack of recapitulating all of the history of language in microcosm. I think of Benjamin Britten in, e.g., A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he makes music that sounds both old and new.

And it is bracing to realize that those quirky, cranky rhythmic markings may bring the style closer to speech rather than (as it may at first appear) further away.

As a delicate counterpoise to Lanier, here is HopkinsPied Beauty:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Fn: I don't seem to know how to recreate Hopkins' line-arrangement, which is a part of the point. Sorry, I'm working on that.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

President BS

I see by the Wall Street Journal that the President departed from his prepared State of the Union text at least once--to refer to "the Democratic majority" as "the Democrat majority." My God, they just can't help themselves, can they? He's tickling 28 percent, he's got majorities against him on both sides, he's really desperate for anything, anything to add a patina of gravitas to the debacle that is his Presidency--and he indulges himself by throwing it away on a towel-snapping locker room cheap shot.

I don't know--but it would be interesting to know--who came up with the idea that it would be funny ha-ha to take this bit of schoolyard dissery and turn it into a canon of Republican conformity. Best way I remember it was some time around the time of the Gingrich revolution, and I have to concede it was a pretty good idea at the time. It added just a frisson of macho swagger to set the troop's blood running, without risking anything so vulgar or dangerous as actually stuffing castor oil down somebody's throat. And Dems never did figure out how to handle it: they feared that any attempt at response would smack of prissiness or thin skin. But as James Carvell so well understands, not to respond is taken a sign of weakness which just angries up the blood. So you're stuck either way.

But you know what? It's old. Old not in the sense of "venerable," or even "traditional" but old in the sense of "lame." It's become an index of the bankruptcy of the old guard. They're a busted flush at this point, an empty suit, and it shows. They've lost the war--no, they've lost two or three or wars, in the sense that every time they redefine the war, they go ahead and lose that one too. They've been exposed over and over as incoherent frauds on domestic policy, and they've given every evidence that they don't understand the simple arithmetic of budget management at all. They've got nothing left in their hand but a piece of shopworn faux bullying.

Well you know what, kiddies? Despite appearances, politics is not tetherball. It isn't even water polo or soccer. It's a desperately serious business, and our very lives depend on it. You've made a right royal mess of things, and it is time to pay. Which means we need some grownups at the table: some people who have at least a beginning sense of the pickle we are in, together with the sense of responsibility (saying nothing of the energy and, dare one hope for it, the wisdom) to work with other people of good will to try to pull some of these grenade-sized chestnuts out of the fire. Do that--even hint at doing that, I don't ask for much--hint at doing that, and I'll give the President back the last two letters of his name.

Monday, January 22, 2007

TigerHawk Ought to Know Better

I like TigerHawk, honest I do. Granted, he’s a lot more comfortable with violence than I am, and he seems to have more confidence in the power of government (at least in its incendiary capacity) to do good. But he knows a bunch of stuff I don’t know, and he is capable of being independent-minded, at least when he wants to.

I think the trouble is that he spends too much time with people who agree with him—particularly people who aren’t as quick as he is. That’s what permits him to think he can get away with this from last week on public attitudes to the war. It’s called “Hoping to lose,” on the premise that 34 percent of Democrats [and 11 percent of Republicans, and 19 percent of Independents] are “hoping” President Bush’s new Iraq plan (or “plan”) will “lose.”

This is perverse on so many levels. For starters, it isn’t even a correct statement of the question (which he reprints): “Do you personally want [the plan] to succeed?” “I cannot for the life of me,” harrumphs, “I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would want it to fail.”

Let me help you, TigerHawk, rephrasing some stuff I dropped in your comments a couple of days ago. You answered about "failure;" the question asked about "success." In order to know whether I want the plan to “succeed,” I would have to know what it means to “succeed.” Do you know what would count as “success” for the President here? Do you think the President knows? Failing that, do you know what you mean by “success” here? Can you explain, or articulate, for him or for yourself?

The term "success" is not self-defining. Consider the possibilities. We can leave behind “finding WMD”—nobody except possibly Dick Cheney is still counting on that. It can’t mean “catching and killing Saddam,” because that’s over and done with. And I am pretty sure that nobody in the White House (possibly excepting the President?) means “securing as stable, democratic, multi-factional Iraq"--a vain lost hope.

Beyond that, there is an almost infinite range of possibilities here. For example: if success means "an alliance with al Sadr to suppress the Sunnis," I might want it to fail. If it means "a lockdown of oil facilities for the petrolios in the Bush funding base,” I might want it to fail. If it means "scorched earth and resettlement by aliens from the Gamma Quadrant," I'd be disinclined do regard it as a good idea.

FWIW, “failure” is not self-defining, either. I suppose—I certainly hope not—that we could be blindsided and routed, without an adequate means of retreat (didn’t I read that that copter shot down over the weekend was taken by a shoulder-held missile launcher?.). I suppose we could simply pack our bags and go home, like the Mongols packed their bags and went home in 1241. No doubt there are voters who favor that view; maybe Dennis Kucinich favors that view. Can you any name anyone else in office who favors that view?

If the Bush plan "fails," I suppose one thing we could do is to the borders of Iraq (or the region) and doing what we can to keep this war from metastasizing any further. This is, as I understand it, essentially what Congressman Murtha wants to do. Do you count this as “success” or “failure?” Certainly it would be a messy, frustrating, even open-ended result. But isn’t that the tragedy of this war—that we’ve got ourselves into a mess that we may be years, perhaps decades, getting out of? Cut and run, Oh I Wish. Hoping that Bush will succeed—well what, exactly, does he, do you, does any of us, have in mind?

Almost Missed This

January 22: 33d anniversary of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

Appreciation: Sidney Lanier

Does anyone remember Sidney Lanier any more? Apparently so; he has a Wiki page. Still, almost everything about him conspires to make him forgettable. He was a Southerner; a Confederate soldier; he worked variously as a hotel desk clerk and s small-town lawyer and a university faculty member. He wrote poetry for money, and he died of tuberculosis.

His “Hymns to the Marshes”—uncompleted—describe the vast, open salt marshes on the coast of Georgia. The largest bridge in Georgia is nearby; it is called the Sidney Lanier Bridge (that's not it in the picture).

He wrote in something called “logaoedic dactyls,” attempting to imitate the rhythm of common speech. Wiki suggests a comparison with Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I don’t think my English teacher knew about it. Here is a verse from “The Marshes of Glynn:”

As the marsh-hen secretly builds in the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God;
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space ‘twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold of the greatness of God.
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.

Sidney Lanier, The Marshes of Glynn

Sunday, January 21, 2007

So, So True

My weekly BBC News Quiz fix:
The Communist Party museum is located in Wenceslas Square, upstairs from the McDonalds, and next door to the casino.

The Universal Language

This must be the easiest-to-remember limerick:

I once knew a lady of Spain
Who cried, "let us do it again!

And again! And again!
And again, and again!

And again and again and again!"

It turns out that romance is the same in any language. Here’s the Greek version:

I once saw a lass from Marsala*
Tucked snug in the grass with her fella,

She told her ephebos**,
“You must never leave us! Oh

Poioumen alla kai alla!”***

*Western Sicily, lots of Greek influence out there.
**Modern Greek beta=v, so I win.
***Hey, I tried for Greek script, couldn't figure out how to make it work.

My Enemy's Enemy

It's a meme of sorts: the Beast started things with its list of the Fifty Most Loathsome people in America. Carpetbagger invites readers to expand, edit or refine--surprisingly, there don't seem to be a lot of interesting additions, so far except perhaps for comment #18, this guy. I am tempted to add "Julie Andrews," but only for this; over a lifetime, she has earned at made at least partial expiation.

But reading Carpetbagger's account, it did occur to me: they say the enemy of my enemy friend, but a corollary is that my friend is no more than my enemy's enemy. What if some of these slimebags teamed up together? What of Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin staffing adjacent chairs at the Supercuts? Michael Savage and Mark Foley restocking the Safeway? George Allen and--well, anybody--doing--well, anything? The mind boggles.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Eve of St. Agnes

St. Agnes' Eve, January 20. Bitter chill:

ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

--John Keats

[Find the rest at Bartelby.]

Of Druggets and Shalloons

Traveling around England a few years back, with the First Mrs. Buce and two middle-sized children, I toted a copy of Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-6). Domestic attachments aside, I can’t think of a better traveling companion. As we moved from town to town, I regaled my captive audience with Defoe’s accounts of all that he saw and compared it, often with surprises, to what we saw.

Earlier I wrote about Sir John Mandeville, Kt. If Sir John was the first travel writer, maybe Defoe is the first empiricist. Sir John writes of “folk of foule Stature and of cursed kynde, than have no Hedes; and here Eyen ben in here Scholdres.” Defoe writes of the cloth trade—sheep and wool, broadcloth, “druggets and shalloons:”

At the east, and south parts of Wiltshire are, as I have already observed, all hilly, spreading themselves far and wide, in plains, and grassy downs for breeding, and feeding, vast flocks of sheep, a number of them. … In this extent of country, we have … market towns, which are principally employed in the clothing trade, that is to say, in that part of it, which I am now speaking of; namely, fine medley, or mixed cloths, such as are usually worn in England by the better sort of people; and also,exported in great quantities to Holland, Hamburgh, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Italy, &c.

And not only the trade itself; Defoe is careful to show how the country grows fat upon it:

The increasing and flourishing circumstances of this trade, are happily visible by the great concourse of people to, and increase of buildings and inhabitants in these principal clothing towns where this trade is carried on, and wealth of the clothiers. … They told me at Bradford that it was no extraordinary thing to have clothiers in that country worth, from ten thousand, to forty thousand pounds a man, and may of the great families, who now pass for gentry in those counties, have been originally raised from, and built up by this truly noble manufacture.”

And so on and not just the southeast and the cloth trade: Defoe reports that he trekked into every corner of Britain (Sic—not just England, but Scotland and Wales). It is possible that he fudged a bit: copied others and at times, just made stuff up, but most of this has the ring of clear-eyed exactitude.

Aside from literary merits, the Travels did give me one brief, transitory note of personal satisfaction. We had touched down at Shaftesbury, the antique hill town on the edge of Salisbury plain. We’d settled the kids and ourselves; now we faced the task of dinner. Not a problem, said I to Mrs. B. Defoe reports that there is a restaurant just around the corner, run by ye people of ye Chinese extraction.

Oh, that’s good, said Mrs. B Oh Cut That Out!

Well, I got her that time. It was perhaps the only time: the First Mrs. B did not fall from heaven on her head, and I probably owe my fleeting triumph to nothing more glamorous than fatigue. At any rate, I wasn’t all wrong: there was a Chinese restaurant around the corner, and if it had been there in Defoe’s time, he might well have mentioned it. He didn’t overlook that sort of thing, or much of anything, so far as I can tell.

OBTW, here is Defoe describing the route we followed to Shaftesbury across Salisbury plain:

[The Plain] has neither house or town in view all the way, but there is a certain never failing assistance upon all these downs for telling a stranger his way, and that is the number of shepherds keeping their vast flocks of sheep, which are every where in the way, and who, with a very little pains, a traveller may always speak with. Nothing can be like it, the Ardcadians' plains of which we read so much pastrol trumpery in all the poets, could be nothing to them.

Biblio note:I own two copies of the Travels, and I don’t want to part with either. One is the shopworn Penguin that accompanied me across Salisbury Plain and elsewhere, apparently still in print. The other is a more ambitious table model from Yale UP, with lots of yummy illustrations.

Anybody Recognize This Crowd?

Here’s a picture that has been circulating among my relatives. Second from the right is my aunt, Louise Nordstrom Smith, born I believe in 1896. Fourth from the right is another aunt, Louise’s sister, Selma Nordstrom, born in 1904. Despite the uniform outfits, these two stand out because they are wearing some sort of photo-medallion—the medallions appear to be identical, the picture of a woman.

The picture must have been taken in Manchester, New Hampshire—the girls grew to womanhood there, and never strayed very far. There were eight in all—three boys and five girls, but one of the boys died in infancy, and two of the girls/women in young adulthood. Selma in the picture bears an eerie resemblance to a grandchild of mine, aged nine, a boy.

Beyond that, we know zip. The family was Swedish by background, and Manchester had a well-articulated Swedish community (if small). My first thought was—St. Lucia’s Day (look at the decorative headbands)—but St. Lucia’s Day is December 13, and those costumes do not look seasonal: New Hampshire is no Garden of Eden in December.

Another thought: one of the sisters—Evelyn Nordstrom—died on February 26, 1926. The medallions might be memorial pictures of her. But this would make Louise 30 and Selma 22—and they don’t look that old, do they?

And if this is a family picture, where is my mother, Esther Nordstrom, born in 1902?

All suggestions welcome.

Friday, January 19, 2007

On Journalism and Bureaucratic Imperatives

Carpetbagger and TPM (and perhaps others) are in high dudgeon this morning about a Washington Post story by John Solomon, "revealing" that John Edwards sold his house to, um, some guy and his wife. As the CB and TPM asserrt, there doesn't seem to be anything remotely improper here . Neither CB nor TPM has spent a lot of time searching for motives for this bit of journalistic malpractice, but I can suggest one: my guess is that it's mostly bureaucratic. By which I mean that somebody at the Post paid a bunch of bucks to hire Solomon and now has to support Solomon's copy to validate his own prodigality.

TPM also surfaces a Post reporter--that would be Jonathan Weisman--willing to go public with his own skepticism about his paper's story. Says Weisman, as quoted by TPM:

Frankly, I bought a house from some people named Buckmaster DeWolf and Rosemary Ratcliffe. I love their names but I met them for about 15 minutes as we signed our papers. So what?

Well now hold on there, Jonny baby. A quick Google of Buckmaster DeWolf (there can't be that many of them) suggests that he is a lawyer--apparently one who sometimes defends against the clients against the government. Ooh, Jon, maybe we need to take a second look here...


Afterthought: Or maybe he is just a deer hunter. Oh--well why didn't you just tell us that in the first place?]

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Art Buchwald, RIP

They say that dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Ever an original, Art Buchwald made comedy look easy, and dying look hard. It was a year ago that he decided to forego dialysis (nine hours a day, three days a week—you call that living?). By last summer, he was telling an NPR reporter he felt great—he’d expected to go to heaven and instead, he was going to Martha’s Vineyard. When he died today, he had outlived himself by at least that year.

I met Buchwald twice, both times glancingly and in passing, but enough to convince me that what they say about him is true. That is: Buchwald liked being the center of attention, and who could blame him? He was the center of attention almost everywhere he went, for more than 40 years. The odd part is that for all this, he wasn’t really full of himself: he seemed to take himself with the same twinkling detachment that he visited on the rest of the world.

Buchwald is certainly getting plenty of acclaim tonight, for the charm of his living and the grace of his dying. Yet for all of this, I think he is the kind of comedian who is easy to underrate. In this respect he is like Johnny Carson. For both, the point is the sheer dailiness of it all. Buchwald was funny not just once in a while by three times a week. Most of us find hard even to be civil three times a week, saying nothing about funny.

Another thing about Buchwald is—well, there are two kinds of comics: those you laugh at and feel soiled by, both at the same time, and those who make you feel more cheerful and generous. Most comedians fall in the first category: it doesn’t mean we don’t read, or watch, or listen, but it’s a guilty pleasure at best--mean and snarky are more fun than we like think. Bill Cosby is perhaps the most noteworthy example of the second category, the “generous,” crowd, but he had to surmount the poisonous issue of race, which makes his achievement especially remarkable. Buchwald’s Washington world is not quite so naturally toxic as Cosby’s racial divide, but Washington is full of mantraps nonetheless. For his 40-plus years, Buchwald did it, being funny without being sappy, yet at the same time without being mean. It’s not only hard, it is a lot harder than it looks.

I will permit myself one Buchwald story—not quite typical, perhaps, but’s one that still makes me laugh, all these years after I first read it. The subject is Charles deGaulle, brilliant, riveting, difficult, and in the end, the saviour of modern France. So, why was he so hard to get along with?

The reason, said Buchwald, was that deGaulle was tall. And he had an Adam’s apple. And he wore a tunic around his neck. As you conversed with him, you found yourself addressing the Adam’s apple, which bobbed up and down as he talked: your head bobbed up and down with it, and deGaulle thought you were agreeing with him.

I did not ever see, but I cannot help believe that I did see, Buchwald and deGaulle, face to face—no, make that face to Adam’s apple—deGaulle with his nose in the air like he’d just scented a slightly off cheese, and Buchwald, short, fat, and more than a little goofy, nodding in apparent agreement. It’s a memory I might as well cherish because of Buchwald, there won’t be any new ones.

An NYT video interview can be found here.

How to Get Through Basic Training

My friend Jerry found his mantra in Marine basic training. It was “a slave can be a Christian.” Jerry wasn’t a Christian and he didn’t intend to be anybody’s slave. But he felt he understood the point of it all: no matter what happens, I am still I, and they can’t take that away from me.[1]

About the same time (though in a different place) I had my own basic training mantra. It comes from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I carried the book with me for several years: a little green hardcover, probably an Everyman. I particularly remember:

The time of a man's life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to corruption. His soul is restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; to be brief, as a stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a smoke, so are all that belong unto the soul. Our life is a warfare, and a mere pilgrimage. Fame after life is no better than oblivion. What is it then that will adhere and follow? Only one thing, philosophy. And philosophy doth consist in this, for a man to preserve that spirit which is within him, from all manner of contumelies and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures. (II, 15)

And this:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will, and selfishness-all of them due to the offenders' ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother; therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading (II,1)

I don’t think I’d embrace this view wholeheartedly today. I’m too assertive or impulsive for stoic detachment, not at all above pains or pleasures. But it certainly served me well at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in 1957.

A side note: my translation was and is the work of one George Long; and I must say I find it vastly superior to any other translation of Marcus I’ve ever laid eyes on. It has a mix of detachment and spooky elegance that suits Marcus to a T. For years I have vaguely assumed that we could date Long to the great age of English translation ion the 16th-17th Century—Golding, Florio, Chapman, the kind of stuff Shakespeare fed off. Wrong by some 200 years: evidently he was born in 1800. He was the very model of a Victorian intellectual at times a professor of Greek (At University College, but also, for a short time, at the University of Virginia), and for a while a reader in law. He was active in the Society for the Propogation of Useful Knowledge; he edited editions of Xenophon and Herodotus; Gladstone gave him a 100-pound pension from the civil list. Hard earned and well deserved is what I say, and congratulations to Gladstone for his discernment.

[1] Turns out the line is from Martin Luther, his Letter to the Swabian Peasants, where he counsels against rebellion. Jerry might not have liked it so well if he knew the whole context.

Remembering Edward Schlesinger
(And How I made an Old Man's Life More Desolate)

The post quoting Gotthold Lessing yesterday prompts my memory of a time when I aggravated the desolation of an old man.

We’re in maybe the Spring of 1964; having flamed out of “real college,” I was a second-chance night student at the University of Louisville, taking some kind of course in European culture, from an old guy named Edward (sic?) Schlesinger. Schlesinger had a cartoonish German accent, but he was a lovely person in so many ways: courteous, cultivated, with just a touch of Cervantian melancholy humor. I didn’t know the details, but he must have had a hard life: he had practiced law in Vienna (before World War II?) and here he was in a squalid night-school classroom, with a too-tall ceiling, dust bunnies on the light fixtures, and faint yellow patina on the walls that cried aloud “deferred maintence.”

We students were pretty unwashed ourselves, but Schlesinger treated us with unfailing patience and respect as he led us from peak to treacherous peak. One night he gave us a handout including the passage from Lessing. The handout seemed to have been produced from a mimeograph (sic!) machine that matched the unwashed walls—lots of blurry letters. Anyway, Schlesinger asked me to do the honors.

Even then I was a pretty fluent at read-aloud, but as I suggest, the text was smudgy, and I proceeded haltingly. Still I know I was stunned by the heroic dignity of the passage, as I remain stunned today. “Endeavor,” I read, “…to arrive at truth…easy, indolent, proud…if God held all truth shut…and should say to me…

Say to me what? I couldn’t make out the typescript, but I made my best guess.

There was an electrified silence. And then Schlesinger responded:

“Dot voss very gut.

“But vhy did you say cheese?

"God asks us to choose.”

I suppose I could have felt mortified at my stupidity, and perhaps I did. But my main impulse at that moment was one of compassion: here is this old guy, exiled from his home and his profession, stuck in an upstairs room in the middle of the night, with a yokel who doesn’t know—well, who doesn’t know choose from cheese. Boy, what a life.

Edward—Professor Schlesinger—Attorney Schlesinger—If you’re still out there (probably not, this was more than 40 years ago)—if you are still out there, please believe I still want to apologize, and to thank you for not reaching down my throat and ripping my heart out.

Afterthought: It just now occurs to me that I was merely anticipating one of the funniest scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian—the one where the guy in the back can’t hear the Sermon on the Mount. Cheesemakers (I quote from memory)? Why is he blessing cheesemakers? Oh, I think he means makers of dairy products of all sorts.

Remembering Salvatore

Yesterday I linked (via Michael Froomkin) to this wonderful story about the long-forgotten time when France thought it a cool idea to merge with the United Kingdom. It prrompted my memory of another such episode, almost equally bizarre. Does anyone remember Salvatore Giuliano, the the bandit king of Sicily (as I suspect some newspaper called him) who spread a bit of hope and a fair amount of misery around Sicily just after World War II? He’s a case study of what Eric Hobsbarm anatomized in his superb contextualized study, Bandits (although Giuliano does not appear in the index).

Giuliano seems to fit the classic bandit model pretty well—decentralized peasant population, exploitative and inefficient government, superstition, bitterness, apocalyptic dreams. I first learned about him from Eleanor Clark’s Rome and a Villa, one of the more successful entries in the crowded field of Italian travel books. There is also apparently a movie (here is an enthusiastic review), although I never saw it.

Anyway, among Giuliano’s many wild ideas was the notion that Sicily should merge with the United States. He wrote a friendly letter to Harry Truman (sovereign to sovereign?) exploring the possibility. I don't remember that he got an answer ("President Truman has read your letter with great interest...") It takes a bit of imagination to remember back to the time when people in other countries wanted to join up wholesale with the Anglo-American world—instead, I guess, of just doing it retail, as has become the pattern.

Soon enough, Giuliano came to be a nuisance to what passed for a government in rural Sicily—the Mafia—and they squashed him like a bug. And no, he is not the grandfather of the Mayor of New York—“o” (singular) instead of “i” plural.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Afterthoughts: Little Miss Sunshine

Mr. and Mrs. Buce watched Little Miss Sunshine the other night and okay, it pretty much lived up to its hype. But, some afterthoughts:
  • What’s the vulgar, knockabout, five-o’clock-shadow father doing with that failed-up WASP of a son? Oh, it’s a comedy? Well, all right, then.
  • We’ve got a genre now, haven’t we, of what you might call “Lisa Simpson” movies, aka “Meadow Soprano” movies, where a horrendously dysfunctional family throws a daughter with the culture, maturity and balance of a Radcliffe dean. Life with Father for the new millennium, I suppose.
  • It was funny. I laughed. I paused the play while I went to the bathroom. But I gotta tell ya, it hit kind of close to home. No, no, I never lived in a family quite so Olympic-style and clapped-out as this one. But I did spend some of The Best Years of My Life living from paycheck to paycheck, one steel-reinforced boot tip away from the street, driving crap cars and gnawed by the constant awareness that all kinds of people were depending on me and I hadn’t a clue how, or even whether, I could pull it off. My, those were the days—and it’s a bit of a stretch to think of it as “ entertainment.” Yech. What time is Reno 911!?

I Still Can't Believe

This is not The Onion.

One More Bracing Declaration:
This Time, It's Provisional

I betrayed here my more-than-sneaking admiration for the take-no-prisoners affirmation of Mr. Valiant-is-Truth in John Bunyan's Pilgrims' Progress (here). Here's another in the same vein, or maybe not:
The Man who seeks what is right
Of choice and free will, shall not be unblest;
The seed of just men shall never perish.
Not so the froward and foolish heart that bears
A motley cargo of iniquity.
His outspread sail shall soon be hauled down;
Caught in the growing storm his stout
Mast shall be rent and shattered.

To ears that hear not he cries,
To angry seas which he cannot master;
His guardian spirit doth laugh to see him,
Who rashly boasted his ship would come into port,
So weak and faint he cannot breach the wave
And sinks unseen with all his riches,
Dashed on the reef of Justice, un-
Looked-on and unlamented.
--Aeschylus, Eumenides (translation??[1])

Well, I guess that settles that. So much for you, froward and foolish heart (Google search does not like "froward"). And remember, "the seed of just men shall never perish."

Okay then, but I do not a critical difference here, from Mr. Valiant-is-Truth. We have here not the man who knows what is right, but the man who seeks what is right--a critical distinction, I should say, and very Greek, in the respect that it reminds us of Socrates, whose principle claim to wisdom is that at least he knows what he does not know. Perhaps an even better analogy is this from Gotthold Lessing:

Not the truth of which any one is, or supposes himself to be, possessed, but the upright endeavor he has made to arrive at truth, makes the worth of the man. For not by the possession, but by the investigation, of truth are his powers expanded, wherein alone his ever-growing perfection consists. Possession makes us easy, indolent, proud.

“If God held all truth shut in his right hand, and in his left nothing but the ever-restless instinct for truth, though with the condition of for ever and ever erring, and should say to me, Choose! I should bow humbly to his left hand, and say, Father, give! pure truth is for Thee alone!

--Gotthold Lessing
(Web sources and my notes, but where, exactly?)

[1] I posed the inquiry to Michael Gillelund of Laudator Temporis Acti. In what must be a first for him, he couldn't identify it either. A gold-plated cigar (or suitable equivalent) to the first person who nails it.

A Boy Named Sioux

Underbelly's crack Wichita correspondent reports that Kansas has a state court judge named William Sioux Woolley. Aww...

Actually, I Get Mine
From Watching The Sopranos

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.

--George Bush, to Jim Lehrer
(via Carpetbagger)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Remembering Edwin Muir

I don’t think anyone can quite account for Edwin Muir. When he was 14, the family lost the farm in the Orkneys. His father, his two brothers, and his mother died in quick succession. He found himself working in (literally) a Glasgow boneyard, and reading Nietzsche while hanging onto a strip on the commuter coach.

Lots of strap-hangers read Nietzsche, but it was Muir’s peculiar fate to move to London; to become a successful poet and (with his wife, Willa Anderson), the principal English translator of Franz Kafka. He published three novels; he became Warden of Newbattle Abbey (a “workingmen’s college” in Scotland) and at last, Norton Professor of English at Harvard.

Muir’s poetry is spare and unadorned, as accessible as Robert Frost. He may have been more or less forgotten today, but he did, perhaps surprisingly, escape the Frostian fate of being underrated for his simplicity. Perhaps it helped that a volume of his selected poems was published in 1965 with the imprimatur of T.S. Eliot.

Muir’s Autobiography (1954) is a delightful read, but it throws almost no light on the question of how he made such a spectacular transition—apparently he did not know himself. There is a shrewd critical assessment here, but this too leaves unimportant questions unanswered and perhaps unanswerable.

Here is a sample of Muir at his most characteristic:

We are a people, race and speech support us,
Ancestral rite and custom, roof and tree,
Our songs that tell of our triumphs and disasters
(Fleeting alike,) continuance of fold and hearth,
Our names and callings, work and rest and sleep,
And something that, defeated, still endures—
These things sustain us. Yet there are times
When name, identity, and our very hands
Senselessly labouring, grow hateful to us,
And we would gladly rid us of these burdens,
Enter our darkness through the doors of wheat
And the light veil of grass (leaving behind
Name, body, country, speech, vocation, faith)
And gather into the secrecy of the earth
Furrowed by broken ploughs lost deep in time.

--From Edwin Muir, A Difficult Land

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sandy Again

I should promise myself not to quote Sandy Toksvig more than once a week. But she does say that it must be easy to plan a dinner for the Tory party leadership. All you do is set out 40 placecards labeled "git."

--From the BBC News Quiz

A Reminder?

Just got an email "reminder" from the San Diego Opera that we have tickets for Boris Godunov down there later this month.

Thanks, very kind, but a reminder? Do people forget their opera tickets often enough that management feels they have to do something about it?

Okay, in our case we have to get on an airplane (Boris is not that-all often produced, and anyway, we've never seen the SDO opera house). And I admit we probably do enough culture to get jaded.

But a reminder? Oh dear, what's the world coming to? Or maybe it's just a marketing gimmick.

Afterthought: We've got a friend who runs a package-tour company. She charges a pretty hefty non-refundable deposit. When the final payment is due and she doesn't hear from the customer, she'll call to ask what's up. Every so often they say--oh, we've decided not to go. No, never mind the deposit, we know we lose it.

So, some people are more jaded than I.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Centrist

The always-must-read Carpetbagger has a nice post up about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the right’s new-found meme that “he’s really one of us.” The piece speaks for itself, and eloquently, but let me add a thought: actually, they are right, the right—he is “one of us,” albeit perhaps not in quite the way intend, but he is one anyway.

Point is that at the end of the way, King was a centrist, a moderate, a work-within-the-system kind of guy. Doubt it and just look around at the loonies that he shunted off the stage—or, in some cases, who succeeded him. In this respect, he is another Franklin Roosevelt—another whose role was to save the system. About Roosevelt, the right has had, oh, 70-odd years to learn the lesson and they don’t get it yet. No risk that they’ll get it soon about King.

The Double-down Trope in Rhetoric

  Here’s another from the bin. My memory tells me it is called “Mr. Valiant-is-Truth Enters Heaven:”  

When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not regret me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness before me that I have fought His battle who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ And as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave, where is thy victory?’ So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

Perhaps the word is “bracing.” Bracing, but also chilling: you’ve got to admire the focus and purpose and commitment, but I’m not sure I’d want this guy as my neighbor, and certainly not as District Attorney: it smacks a bit much of the 72 virgins.

But there is just a hint of ironic detachment there—so slight that I’m not sure whether Bunyan got it, or whether it is pure accident. “My courage and skill to him that can get it.” This has a frigid directiness that rises to the level of a rhetorical strategy. It makes me think of the in-your-face punchlines of so many old British (well, maybe Scotch-Irish) folk songs—the kind so cheerfully pillaged by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and others. I’m thinking of:

It’s true my waist be slender,
My hands be white and small,
But it would not change my countenance
To see ten thousand fall.
What care I of house and land?
What care I of money?
I’d rather sleep on the cold, cold ground
In the arms of my Gypsy Davy.

[It’s hardly an accident that the speakers in these two verses are women]. Anyway, my point is that this in-your-face “you talkin’ to me?” approach—call it the “double down” trope in rhetoric—suggests, and is calculated to suggest, just how volatile and unstable the reality is. I wonder if Bunyan saw it that way.

More on Caselaw
(aka So Much for Professor Kingsfield)

Re my rhapsody on caselaw--my friend Noel weighs in on Casner & Leach :
A. James Casner was my Property I professor my first year of law school. It was one of the highlights of my law school experience. His erudition and precision were always impressive, sometimes breathtaking, and I have long thought of myself as reasonably precise and attentive to detail. Bart Leach had a very different reputation – relatively rough and tumble although none the less concerned with the life lessons to be learned from property law. A very impressive duo among a very impressive faculty.
I went to law school in the provinces & so far as I know, never laid eyes on either Casner or Leach. They both had street reps that conform to Noel's memory. Leach in particular was famous as something of an original--he wrote doggerel verse which he would perform while accompanying himself on the concertina (accordian?).

In Kentucky where I went to school, we had a case called Bedinger v. Greybill's Administrator. Decendent left money "to H for life, remainder to his children." Apparently H had no children, but he did have a W--so he adopted the W. Unencumbered by current research, my memory is that the Kentucky court sided with W. I think it is the first time I ever heard the phrase "laughing heir"--apparently the other claimants were distant cousins who had essentially nothing to do with the decedent.

Anyway, I heard that Leach had written a song about it, so I wrote him a letter asking for a copy. The next mail brings a full set of lyrics, to the tune of "On Top of Old Smoky:"

Oh father, dear father, let go of my blouse,
Since I am your daughter, I can't be your spouse.

...and so forth, for eight or ten verses (they are probably in a Tupperware bin around here somewhere). Apparently it didn't trouble him at all to share this stuff with a total stranger, and with a Kentucky postmark at that.

Fn.: My friend John tells me that "aggravated incest" is a crime in Kansas. What is that about. No, don't tell me...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Well, At Least They Didn't Run
The Condi/Barbara Cage Match

Let's see, that's Miss Monday, Miss Tuesday, Miss Wednesday...

That's 7/10 of the front page (above the fold) of this am's NYT Week in Review (albeit you cannot savour the full wonder of it all on line). And in other news...

Fn.: The credit line says: "Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Associated Press." Sounds like a lot of work went into this one.

He Listened to Us!

It’s probably too late for more Gerald Ford references, but my copy of Fred I. Greenstein’s The Presidential Difference is still on the bedside table, diverting enough to inspire an afterthought. Here’s Greenstein on Ford’s management style:

His practices in the critical area of economic policy are of particular interest in that they exemplify the much praised but rarely practiced procedure of multiple advocacy in which policy disagreements are rigorously debated in the president’s presence, with all important points of view accorded careful consideration. These exchanges occurred in a body Ford established …: the Economic Policy Board. … Ford met at least once a week with thee EPB, welcoming debate and constructive disagreements. (119)

And here, discussing Ford’s “cognitive style”:

Alan Greenspan, who chaired Ford’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), has provided an insightful account … His first impression, Greenspan remarked, was that Ford lacked the capacity to engage in abstract reasoning. The consistency of Ford’s concrete economic decisions persuaded him otherwise.

It was Greenspan’s further observation that Ford found it enjoyable to discuss economics with him, even when there was no pending decision that made doing so necessary. Similarly, Greenspan’s CEA colleague Burton Malkiel commented that although it took Ford some time to grasp difficult economic concepts, ‘He always ended up with a very firm grasp of the issues and a complete maste4ry of the complexities that might be involved. He loved to hear things argued out in front of him and would often ask the most insightful questions of the participants in the debate.” (124)

--Fred I. Grenstein, The Presidential Difference 119-124

(Second ed. 2004)

There’s an overwhelming impulse to make the invidious current comparisons here, but I want to make a different point, if no less sardonic. That is: excepting possibly the physicist, there is no one more vain about his “brains” than the economist—“brains” here meaning quick response time, a certain kind of analytical power and perhaps (though this is perhaps less important) a capacity for sopping up and retaining information. The best and easiest way to flatter them is to listen and admire.

I think Greenstein probably paints a fair picture here, and that Ford probably deserves the credit that Greenstein seems to give him. But you’d have to say also that he seems to have run a pretty good number on the economists. “He listened to us,” says Greenspan, “and he learned from us,” adds Malkiel. Flattery will get you everywhere. It’s almost poignant.

He Beat Me To It

Faithful readers will know I spent a month last fall trekking over archaeological sites in Israel and Jordan. Apparently I was not the first. Here is the estimable Sir John Mandeville, Kt., the granddaddy of all travel writers. “And I, John Mandeville, Knight, left my country and crossed the sea in the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1332,” he reports (in the Penguin translation of C.W.R.D. Moseley). It seems I was following in his footsteps:

In the marches of Galilee, among the mountains, was the Ark of God taken. On the other side is the hill of Endor in Hermon. … Five miles from Naym is the city of Iesrael [Jezreel], also called Zaraym. Iesabel [Jezebel] the wicked queen was of that city; she had Naboth slain unrighteously for his vineyard. A little way from this city is the field of Mageddo [the plain of Megiddo], where the King of Samaria slew Josias the King of Judah, who was afterwards carried to Mount Sion and buried there. A mile from Jezreel are the hills of Gilboa, where King Saul, his son Jonathan and a great number of the Children of Israel were killed. For this reason King David cursed those hills. A mile to the east is a city called Citople [Scythopolis], or Bethsaym [Bethshan]. The Philistines hung the head of King Saul on the walls of that city.

--The Travels of Sir John Mandeville 94

Penguin Paperback ed. (C.W.R.D. Moseley, trans. 1983)

Unlike some parts of the Travels, which are pretty clearly pure fantasy, the incidental detail here suggests that “Sir John” may actually have seen the sites he describes here.

Happy Birthday, John

I learn from Garrison Keillor that today is John Dos Passos’ birthday—he would be 111 (link). I’d been hyping Dos Passos’ USA just yesterday, so I’m in a mood to give him another salute. Okay, maybe it’s not the greatest novel. I suspect Mrs. Buce might vote for Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! My learned literary adviser Taxmom might say Portrait of a Lady. I get the point in each case. I’ve read a lot of Faulkner with great enjoyment, but Absalom always struck me as a bit overwrought (if I had to name one Faulkner piece that comes near perfection, it might be Spotted Horses, surely the funniest piece of fiction in American history, and perhaps undervalued for that very reason--but see infra). With James, I guess I would say I admire Portrait of a Lady (for my money it is, at least, the best James novel, but see infra)—the scene where Isabel recognizes that she has made a bad decision and is stuck with it, is surely one of the great bravura set-pieces—but on the whole, I’ve never quite made up my mind about Henry James: suffice to say, I suspect that he isn’t quite as wonderful as he thinks he is, but that is true of all of us.

[With both James and Faulkner, maybe the problem is packaging: I suspect James’ natural habitat is the novella—I can’t think of anything I like better than The Jolly Corner. With Faulkner, the problem is almost the opposite: he didn’t write “novels,” but rather “one big novel” of which the individual components are just mosaic chips. That would be why the best introduction to Faulkner is still Malcolm Cowley’s Viking Portable Faulkner, which gives you a feel for the whole oeuvre, start to finish.—But I digress.]

What I will say is I can’t think of any American novel that ever delighted me more. I read it at white hot speed and it stayed in my mind for months, perhaps years—in a sense, I suppose, always. I haven’t reread it for a generation now. Partly, I suppose I fear it won’t seem as good. Partly, it is so fixed in my mind that I don’t need to.

Wiki says that USA is "deeply pessimistic." I guess I can see what they're driving at, but I confess, it never occurred to me. This may be in part Walker Percy's "alienated novel" paradox--you can write a novel about alienation, but you can't write a successful "alienated novel," because the very fact of literary connection denies alienation. So also, Dos Passos may have been in some sense "pessimistic," but I took heart from its energy and craft.

Dos Passos veered to the right later in his political life and it is perhaps fashionable to say that he is underrated because the lefties never forgave him. Maybe, but that seems to me an easy out. I read some of the later Dos Passos with enjoyment, but the bald truth is, he really didn’t have it for a second act. No matter: a hundred writers, a thousand, thousands, would be proud to do what he did. I see that the Library of America now has USA in a convenient single volume; maybe it’s time to give it another shot.

Fn.: I learn from Wiki that Sartre was a big Dos Passos fan, which is no surprise. I learn also that USA is an "influence" on Sartre's Age of Reason trilogy. Uh, huh, I guess I see. I read and enjoyed Age of Reason (a few years after I read USA). It never once occurred to me that the former was an influence on the latter. Maybe I was just being slack, but I think the real point is that, however enjoyable Age of Reason is, still USA is just a whole lot better.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I'll Put My Money on Self-Pity

I’m late to the party over Bush’s tear after a meeting with the mother of a Marine casualty—Google Blogs records 35 hits for “Bush tears” within the last 12 hours, and the picture seems to be everywhere. But I’m not crazy about the analysis so far.

Seems to me there are three possibilities here:

  • Compassion
  • Crocodile
  • Self-pity

Crocodile sounds like a winner for the cartoonists, but it seems to require a fairly sophisticated capacity for dissimulation—in Touchstone’s analysis, the “lie circumstantial,” rather than the “lie direct.”
Compassion is a hard sell for a guy who presided over 152 executions, finding a few giggles along the way. It is, of course, possible that is reaction was some combination of two, or three.

Still, I’ll put my money on self-pity.

But You Knew That

This just in: all men are pigs (link).

The Law School Casebook as Work of Art
(aka Remembering Casner & Leach)

A lot of law students profess to hate law school. Maybe they mean it; maybe they just think it is the thing to say. At any rate, I was not one. I thought law school was one of the most entertaining things I ever did in my life.

Partly, this was just personal: I was 28, in a career that seemed to be going nowhere, and this was my ticket out. But it was not just that. As my friend Ellen said: every day is a little story.

Exactly. One thing Ellen and I had in common was that we had worked for daily newspapers. So perhaps we were attuned to the possibilities of story. Anyway, I found the reading of law school cases to be high entertainment.

I remembered law school, and Ellen, and little stories, the other day as I was throwing out some old papers and I found this, which I had laboriously tapped out on my old (even then!) Underwood in the fall of ’63. It comes from the first edition of Casner and Leach Property, one of the old war-horses of the law school classroom. The piece is called “Homily on Minimum Pain and Maximum Profit in Reading Cases.” C&L (it reads like Leach) are discussing the case of one Cobb who had sued a railroad. They make my point better than I could make it myself:

The flavor of the case—the dogged persistence of the litigious Cobb, the railroad trying to wear him down, the red-faced Supreme Court having to eat its first opinion, reversing itself on the grounds of ‘excessive damages,’ and having another jury (of Cobb’s neighbors) slap the case right back at them at substantially the same figure. … The winning party and his lawyer will regale their friends with details of the triumph for years; the losers will say as little about it as possible. If you sense the humanity and drama of the conflict, while still focusing principal attention on the matters of legal significance, you will enjoy it more and, for that reason, get more out of it. … Each case should be to you an item of vicarious experience. If you could only live long enough, you would find the apprentice system the best method of learning law. … Next best is vicarious experience—and this is what the reading of cases offers you.

A. James Casner and W. Barton Leach, Property (1951)

I admit, I had embarked on the law school path with a good deal of trepidation: if this doesn’t work, what will? I can still feel the sense of recognition and relief that overtook me when I read—and grasped the point of—this passage.

To cleanse my mind while hacking through the jungle of case law, in those days I was always reading John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy about America in the decade after World War I. For all kinds of reasons, I think USA may truly be the great American novel (just a few days ago, guest-blogging for CreditSlips, I excerpted a Dos Passos bit about Henry Ford). But—as I guess I dimly recognized even back then—there is a more than trivial overlap between Dos Passos (on the one hand) and Casner & Leach. Dos Passos more or less invented the “kaleidoscope” or “jump-cut” novel—half a dozen interweaving stories, interspersed with “newsreels,” and vignettes of more-or-less-accurate history, to paint a full-bodied three-dimensional picture of the world. Note to self, write an essay on the casebook as work of art. Or maybe this is it.

Fn.: Apparently C&L is still in print, but Cobb and the railroad have gone on to the great casebook in the sky. For the next edition, the editors might want to rethink that decision.