Saturday, May 31, 2008

Provence Travel Note: Roman Ruins

Another France travel note: before Paris, we spent some time tromping the Roman ruins in Provence. Executive summary: on the off chance that you're looking for a place to get started on Roman ruins,I'd say this might be the place. Granted, it's not Rome and it doesn't have a Coliseum, but it's got an elegant sample of just about every type of building you might want. I give the prize to the aqueduct at Pont du Gard. You've always heard that the Romans were great builders, but you don't really believe it until you stand under these arches and recognize how they built these things to transport the water over miles and miles, all gravity powered, and enough to support great cities. I've never been anywhere near so close before, and it is a wonder to behold. Mrs. B might vote for the theater at Orange and I can't quarrel: surely the most completely preserved I've ever seen.

And that is just the head of the hit parade. You've got baths and an amphitheater at Arles; also the hint of a forum, some bits of a city wall, and more than a hint of circus. You've got another amphitheater at Nîmes. You've got a pretty well laid out community at Glanim, and a couple of upscale villas at Vaison. Several good archaeological museums, including a wonderful marine museum at Marseilles.

And the surroundings are easy to handle (at least in May; I bet it miserable in the August heat, or the winter winds). Communities are pleasant and prosperous (though I read somewhere lately that the Czech Republic now his a higher per capita income than all of France excluding Paris). Worth a visit, as Michelin would say; hey, worth a side trip.

Restaurant: Reveillon at Marseilles. Down-homey, good on codfish and duck.

It Would Help In Pennsylvania and Ohio...

Coming back to American politics after a few weeks away, it occurs to me-couldn't McCain simplify things if he would just put Hillary on the ticket? It would give him cover on those social issues of which he professes to know so little (and care even less). They could share fantasies about what they saw in the combat zone. And it ought to confuse the hell out of Geraldine Ferraro.

Three Things I Learned on a Nine-Hour Flight

Nothing like a long plane ride to help you catch up with The Economist. If you can believe it:
  • Cancun has an average of 190 flights a day.
  • Admitting Romania more than doubled the European Union's population of bears.
  • Half the world's population enjoys fuel subsidies.

Unbloodied, but Bowed

We're back in safely in Palookaville, with no special thanks to United Airlines, who cost us an unscheduled extra night in Chicago, each way, coming and going. Okay I concede these guys can't control the weather, and I admit we got some pretty good counter help most (but not all) of the time.

Still, you can't go through two rounds of this without developing the sour conviction that United's current business plan is to make air travel so unpleasant that nobody will want to fly any more.

On second thought, strike “nobody” and substitute “the poor chumps who guilelessly attempt to use their Frequent Flyer miles.” You really do get the impression that United is doing everything it can to encourage you to despair of ever using your miles for actual plane rides, reducing you, I suppose, to frittering them away on unwanted management subscriptions. And here's a thought; when governments degrade the currency by, e.g., turning on the printing presses, we brand them as financial criminals. Seems to me that the habitual degraders of the Frequent Flyer contract are doing the same thing. I wonder, shouldn't we at least count this war on good order as part of the Consumer Price Index?

Vagrant afterthought: my friend Ian says he has flown through Chicago a hundred times without event. Next time, I think I'll take Ian.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Et in Akkadia Ego

It's too late to do anybody any good, but I can't resist offering a word about the Louvre's “Babylon” show, which closes June 2.

In one sense, it is a marvel, something that perhaps only the Louvre (or perhaps the Shiekhdom of Dubai) could bring off. The core is any array of objects from the Ancient Mesopotamian, spanning the millennia from 2000 to the time of Alexander the Great. They're intelligently displayed with a lot of helpful commentary (although too much of it has to be in the vein of “we have no idea.”) The space is pretty tight for the crowds it handles, but that is perhaps inevitable any more with any blockbuster show.

But all this undoubted achievement is shadowed over by two kinds of marketing hype.

One is the very idea of “Babylon”--as if the near 2000-year span represents one civilization, even if in one place. The designers themselves seem to have a bit of a guilty conscience—they gloss over the 900-pound gorilla of Assyria which inserts itself in between the two separate and discontinuous Babylonian hegemonies.

The other is a bit more devilish. The Babylonian collection itself,though stunning, is fairly small—one long room. Evidently the marketers told them they couldn't mount blockbuster show on so small a res. So the planners fleshed it out with another corridor, devoted to cultural responses to Babylon. The fulcrum here is the Biblical book of Revelations, represented by an impressive array of illustrated manuscripts; then other stuff down throw the ages, including a Brueghel Babel, a Blake drawing of Nebuchadnezzar as he becomes a beast, and even a bit of D.W. Griffiths film.

This is all good fun and some of it is first-rate stuff, although hardly as stunning as the first part. The trouble is that the relation between the two is only notional. The author of Revelations himself can hardly have known anything about the “real” Babylon, except as filtered through a highly stylized Biblical tradition, already several hundred years old. Everything else is even farther removed.

It seemed to me that the crowd thinned out pretty fast after the first cramped but brilliant corridor. Can hardly blame them. There is only so much culture you can take in a day, and after the ancient finds, the second batch seemed like something of an afterthought.

No Wonder the Grass is so Green

Overheard in Paris:

--SHE: Oh look, there's a sign for the Tuileries.
--HE: That's "toilettes."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Ox-like, Limp and Leaden-eyed"

I wonder who I had in mind when (at about age 24) I copied out this:

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly;
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap;
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve;
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

—Vachel Lindsay, “The Leaden-Eyed”

Coup de Souffle

The headline says:

Cape-vert, archipel à couper le souffle

Right, couper le souffle. Let's pull out the old pocket dictionary here:

à couper sûr, certainly

coup de chance, lucky hit

coup de fion (slang) finishing touch

coup de pied, kick

coup de poing, punch

coup sur coup, one right after another

...and 20-odd more, but no couper le souffle. No, wait a minute, folks, here's Google translator with “couper de souffle” = “breath.” Well, so much for my old pocket dictionary.

But it still doesn't make a lot of sense.

Sex and the City Again

Wonder how long before Sarah Jessica Parker starts hawking Depends.

What I Learned Last Week in Provence: It's the Salt

There's a reason caramel taste so good in the south of France: sea salt. Once they tell you, you know. Subtlety, complexity, a distinctive tang. As they say on the Simpsons--it's a party in my mouth, and everyone's invited.

Compassionate Tourist Advice of the Moment

There is a clean, free, restroom in the basement of Louvre Antiques, across the street from the Louvre (link)--Louvre Antiques, which may also be the most overpriced junk shop on the planet. Look for the maps, and locate the yellow (lower) level.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Snooty French Service

A word about snooty French service: it's gone, or almost. With one exception (infra), every server I've met here has been cheerful, helpful and polite. My only complaint is that they all seem to speak English, so I don't get a chance to practice my dreadful French. Or if the server doesn't, the guy behind you in line does, and will chime in to help.

Only exception: the five-star Pigonnet Hotel in Aix-en-Provence, where they were mostly sullen and passive aggressive in the old-fashioned way. I was loudly American in the old-fashioned way, which didn't help.

Otherwise--hey, the guy who serves me my espresso in the morning flashed me a smile of recognition when I came back on the second day, and said "au revoir" when I left. What kind of country is that?

The Neil Diamond Effect Hits the Columbian Guerilla Movement

Paris newspapers are giving a lot of ink to the death of a leader of FARC, the Columbian guerilla group. More about just why in a moment, but first I want to pay attention to the new FARC leader, as described in this morning's edition of Metro: "Un 'Intello' prend la tête de Farc"--an "intello" (sic?) takes the helm at FARC.

His name is Alfonso Canon. Metro says he "is an intellectual communist, considered the ideologue and the strategist of the movement." He's 59; he studied anthropology and law after entering the university in 1968.

Excuse me, but isn't this an instance of the Neil Diamond effect coming to the land of revolution--another tired old guy famous for showing up, still fresh in the memories of other tired old guys who grew up with him? Maybe they could book him with the Kingston Trio, on PBS.

And by the way, why do the French care? The answer is Ingrid Betancourt. You've forgotten Ingrid? The French have not. She is a sometimes Columbian politician and anti-corruption activist, kidnapped and held captive by FARC since 2002. Turns out she is a French citizen (via marriage); the French government has been working to effect her release. Her picture is on poster in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

Champs-Élysées Watch

Ladurée, the high-end French candy store, and McDonald's, the American purveyor of salt and fat,are catty-corner across from each other on the Champs-Élysées. But if you go into McDonald's, tourists do not press their cameras against the window to take your picture.

Senegali Hawkers

You know the Senegali street hawkers who have populated the tourist sites of Europe for the past generation? And you know they are apparently from some sort of Muslim sect whose doctrine seems to center on the sale of tchatchkis to visting Americans? I first saw them outside the Louvre in the 70s. They'd work in a team; one would stand lookout while the other spread out his picnic cloth. He'd peddle until the watch yelled a warning; then he'd grab it all up in a bundle and run away while the police chased--not very enthusiastically, I must say, for I never saw them catch one.

If it is a sect, today I think I discovered the mother church. Its on Rue de Montmorency at the corner of Rue de Temple in the Marais. There are a bunch of "bijouterie fantasie"--costume jewelry?--shops. There's always a gaggle of the Senegalis--okay, maybe they are Ghanans going to and fro, in an out. They've got duffels an wheely carts. They show every signs of being street men back for restocking.

Only two thing puzzle me. One, a lot of these shops seem to be run by Asians--Japanese? Are they part of the action, or am I looking at the wrong shops?

And two--aside from the wholesale district, where are the hawkers? We haven't been back to the Louvre this week but we've been all over the city streets--past Notre Dama half a dozen times--and we have yet to see one of those guys actually out there hawking his wares.

The French and their Kids

I wonder if perhaps the French are at their best with their kids. The Brits bully their kids and the Italians aee bullied by theirs, but the French seem to strike the right note. Last week, we shared an antique archaeological site with flock on a school outing. They were energetic and giggly but why not? They were kids. They were scrambling around to identify particular objects for their worksheet. They were focused and purposeful, but also polite: they would wait their turn, and say "merci" when you stepped out of the way (and not only can the little nippers speak this amazing language, they can read it as well, which never ceases to amaze). Altogether, a design feature, not a bug.

But I do remember some years ago being at a chichi private luncheon party over in the seventh arondissement; midway through the meal, a door flew open and a shadow hurtled past. Quick as a flash, our hostess abandoned her guests to follow. On explanation later, we learned it was the daughter, maybe 20 or 25, just home from the morning of a critical exam; evidently things had not gone well, and the first thing the child wanted to do was to run home to maman.

More on French Food (With a Swipe at California)

I said the other day that Californians don't need to go to France for great food (link). I think I'll revise that: you don't need to go to France for great cooking. But we've been shopping in the street markets for the past few days here in Paris, and I am reminded again of a guilty not-so-secret: California ingredients are not as good as they should be. Granted we are the vegetable basket of the nation, but way too much of our stuff is watery and bland. And it's not just Safeway: in the Palookaville farmer's market, there is really only one guy who consistently delivers the kind of stuff you find every day here in Paris, or, come to think of it, in Florence or Rome (can't say about other places).

It must be doable. There is one great wine bar in Palookaville. I eavesdropped one night while the boss undertook to explain to the new server what a great job she had. "Anybody can whip up a fancy recipe with stuff from the supermarket," he said. "We are the only restaurant in town that takes care about our ingredients." Right enough, and if you take care with the ingredients, you don't need the fancy cooking.

Fn.: just had a super espresso at the brasserie at Rambuteau and Beaubourg, southwest corner.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Great Moments in the Paris Métro

I'm remembering my first trip to Paris back in the 70s. I was in a Métro station out on the Rue de la Convention, looking more or less like a clochard. A cop stopped and asked for my papers I dutifully presented my passport and my carte orange. He asked me how long I had been here. Mustering up my best French, I responded:

Je suis arrivé demain

He snapped a salute and cracked just a glimmer of a smile as he responded: "Bonjour!"---and sent me on my way. It was ten minutes or so before i realized I had told him "I arrived tomorrow."

Something Else I Learned Today: Polished Corners

Per the BBC's Quote, Unquote, I learn that there is a British girl's school that urges its charges to "be as polished corners of the Temple." Cf. Psalms 144.

What Happened to "Let Them Eat Cake"?

Basic French bread—the simple baguette and bâtard—sells for 85 cents euro. In a town where takeaway hot dogs go for five euros and votive candles go for two, that's cheap. The basic product has much to recommend it: crusty and chewy. But it tastes like air, perhaps leavened with just a soupçon of sawdust. And it's not that the French have lost the knack for bread: a lot of the pricier stuff is just wonderful. All of which makes me wonder: do we have some subsidy action going here—some sort of basic lifeline that goes back to a time when bread was, oh, say, 85 percent of their income on food?

[Uh, 85 percent? Actually, I have no idea. I'm sure it was a lot higher than today, but exactly how high is above my pay grade—and in any event, I suspect subject to controversy.]

Other Men's Staircases

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.

You will find out how salt is the taste of another man's bread, and how hard it is to climb up and down another man's staircase.

That's Dante, in the Divine Comedy (Paradisio XVII). Climbing down another man's staircase this morning, it occurred to me that I have spent a lot of my life climbing up and down other men's staircases. I'm one up on Dante; I've mostly enjoyed it. But have had an advantage on Dante: Dante was an exile, while I have mostly had a home base. But going back over a 50-year career, I've had, I don't know, maybe 20 temporary residences.

I suppose the best was the apartment they gave me at NYU in 2006 in exchange for teaching the bankruptcy course--tenth floor,Third and MacDougal, straight shot north to the Empire State Building. A close second would be the sabbatical apartment on the second floor of a digniified row house in London, next to the Regents Park Canal in 1976--my daughter and I used to canoe up through the zoo. Third would be another Londoner: the flat on Southampton Row that Mrs. B. wangled as part of her teaching assignment in 2001. And then another New Yorker: David Carlson and Jean Schroeder's apartment on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, which I occupied while subbing for David at Cardozo Law School in 1996. And then, a pension near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome (1985). And a great sprawling flat near the Campo di Fiori (Rome again) in 1987, made not much less attractive by the neighbor who used to throw her garbage off the balcony into the courtyard. Oh, and the flat we occupied twice in Florence, in a medieval alley just behind Gucci.

Not all have been winners. Back in 1975, I took a tiny apartment with a fold-a-bed, just south of Los Feliz Boulevard in LA I passed it on to a student who told me that the place was full of drug dealers. I was at the office almost all the time, so I never noticed. And I can't say much for the steelcase monstrosity out by the Braddock Road tube station in Alexandria VA (who would name a tube stop after a losing general)? Yes, and Stanford in 1986 gave me an apartment next to the hospital: I used to shortcut through the intern's locker room, and caught the worst case of bronchitis ever.

As I say, this all works because I mostly do it on a long tether from home. Indeed, my longest tenure in residence is my current digs in Palookaville: Mrs.Buce and I bought it together back in 1984, long before we were married. On the other hand, I live 90 miles from my job. So the second longest tenure is the motel near the job site, where I have spent two or three nights a week for nearly 20 years. Now, that one is depressing.

What I Learned Today: Nepal

Nepal has 59 recognized ethnic groups (link).

Any Day Above Ground is a Good Day

Birthday dinner last night with Mrs. B's buddy and husband---if by "dinner" you mean salad and cheese and paté and Champagne. We were all in a merry mood and why not? It's Paris in the spring.

But more than that--for some reason or other, we had the good luck to be aware of our good luck. We're all in our 60s or 70s surprised, nay flabbergasted, to be prosperous and in good health and, yes, still alive.

I believe Epicurus says that the right attitude towards the end of life is gratitude. And if you aren't grateful, he adds, why would you want life to go on anyway? And he says that one of the marks of a good life is sharing a meal with good friends.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Reviving Joseph Needham

I see that Cambridge University Press will bring out a new edition of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China—the one-volume version, I take it, rather than the massive multi-volume affair, which seems to appear incrementally and perhaps without end (link).

Well, bully for them: well deserved and if anything, long overdue. I can’t think of anyone who has fallen so completely out of the canon as Needham, once thought perhaps the greatest historian of the 20th Century. I assume part of the problem is the sheer daunting massiveness of his output (I won’t pretend to have read it all, not by a long shot). And it’s science, not a favorite among readers of history; and history, not a favorite among readers of science. And there’s a dicey premise—Needham”s “grand question”—why did “the West,” after such a slow and pitiful beginning, overtake China in scientific knowledge? Needham isn’t the least afraid to wade in with suggestions, hypotheses, conjectures, in a world where even to raise the issue might be regarded as of questionable taste.

Shorter Joseph Needham: it’s the matter of “lawfulness.” “The West” operates on the idea that there are underlying “laws” that can be discerned and made intelligible. Early China had a bad experience with “lawfulness;” ever since has shied away from too much reliance on general principles of this sort: if you pay too much attention to “laws,” you’re not paying enough attention to particulars—and besides, if you are paying too much attention to laws, you are not paying enough attention to good men, whose words and judgment are more important than law.

Both Chinese and western thought unite ethical and cosmic order—track human experiences as natural events, either in the world or in the body. But:

But it seems that the Western conception was deeply different from the Chinese. The former saw justice and law at all levels, closely associated with personalized beings, enacting laws or administering them. The latter saw only that righteousness embodied in good custom represented the harmony necessary for the existence and function of the social organism. It recognized also a harmony in the function of the heavens, and, if pressed, would have admitted one in the functions of the individual body also, but these harmonies were spontaneous, not free. Discord in one was echoed by disharmony in the others.

—Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China 528 (1956)

Spring Sunday in Paris

A lovely Sunday morning in Paris, temp in the 20s, a bit muggy, lightly overcast for protection against the sun. Ibegan my day with a café in a café: the garçonette seemed annoyed that I didn't order more. "Fromage? Jambon?" Non, et non. Two Asian guys at the next table, conversing with intensity and gestuculating with cigarettes (the pack says: FUMER TUE: smoking kills--makes me think of the signs that Freud admired on the power lines of italy: touch and you die).

I'm not hip enough to judge business here, but it didn't look great. From the line outside the Pompideau, you'd infer that the dollar is trading at a nickel to the Euro and that everyone is on vacation--but on second look these are all locals, queueing up for some sort of film festival. Further on, you see that the double decker buses are full topside only. In the touristy cafes along the river, the omelettes and salades appear to be flying out of the kitchen, but you can probably get a table if you wait a minute or step next door. As you listen, you realize that an awful lot of them are not speaking English, or at least not flat, hard mid-western American. In the Shakespeare & Co bookshop, American paperbacks sell at a premium of about 50 percent on the home price. The thinking man's equivalent of the Big Mac Index? Anyway, not much of anybody seems to be buying.

We did pick up a bottle of Champagne so Mrs.B can help a buddy celebrate a birthday; later, we'll flatten the cashflow with a free concert at Saint Eustache.

BoingBoing on the Bankruptcy Beat

...says it makes him think of Pompeii (link).

[Link tweaked--I think it works now.]

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Meditation on French Food

Don't ask why but several times in the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege (ahem) of attending multi-course French banquets—fish plus meat plus dessert with undocumented starter and closer plus (once) a separate cheese course.

It was all astonishing and done with great craft and care but—well for one thing, the food, although good enough, never quite lived up to the preparation. If you come from California (or New York), the truth is you just don't have to go to France for great food.

Marcella Hazan has a theory about French culture and French cuisine. She says that the French are a public people who are into display; the fanciest restaurants tend to be the best. Italy, by contrast, is a homebound culture, and the best cooking is simple and direct: find good ingredients and make sure not to get in their way.

This afternoon in Paris, we shopped the street market on the Rue Mouffetard. We picked up lettuce and tomatoes and cheese and a nice light Rhone red. With a bit of that Arabic olive oil (see previous post) and the leftover breakfast baguette, we had about the best meal I've had in two weeks. OH, and anchovies, did I forget to mention anchovies.

They do Oil?

Our chichi Marais digs come equipped with salt, vinegar, cocoa, tea, strawberry jam--anything you could want except (a) olive oil and (b) a corkscrew. I assume the last tenant (a) drank the olive oil and (b) nicked the corkscrew. Anyway, I betook myself to our marché habituel and (with a bit of pantomime) acquired a tire-bouchon and the most reasonably-priced bottle of huile d'olive I could identify. The olive oil bore a label in Arabic script which, for all I know, says "death to the infidel!" The brand name, in Latin script, is Al Jazera. Wonder what happens if I take three ounces of that through airport security?

What I Learned Today: Brownstone

The brownstone in New York brownstones comes from a quarry in Middleton CN. Thanks, Rhea.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Checking in: Paris

Well, we've left the Roman ruins behind us, at least for now. This afternoon we flew up from Marseilles to Paris & tucked ourselves into a friend-of-a-friend's cavernous pied-à-terre behind the Pompidou Center. Seamless except for an absurd and costly directional error in the cab from Orly, as much my fault as the driver's but he insisted on eating the whole thing. Still on the subject of eating the whole thing, we ended the day at a comforting Sephardic deli in the Marais: if you fancy eggplant dip, this is for you More anon.

Naipaul on Palookaville

Here’s VS Naipaul again, this time reflecting on what it is like to be born on the edge of nowhere:

I have read that it was a saying of an ancient Greek that the first requisite for happiness was to be born in a famous city. It is one of those sayings which, because they deal with the particular and the concrete, like the instructions on a bottle of patent medicine, can appear flippant, except to those who have experienced the truth. To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder. From an early age, almost from my first lesson at school about the weight of the king’s crown, I had sensed this. Now I was to discover that disorder has its own logic and permanence: the Greek was wise.

—VS Naipaul, The Mimic Men 118 (Penguin ed. 1969)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bobby Jindal?

Well he's got one thing up on McCain: at least he was born in the United States.

Checking in: Vaison

Checking in from Vaison in the Haut Vaucluse, a town that would make at least the quarter finals in the quaint sweepstakes. Earlier today, the remarkable Roman theatre at Orange, which may have something to do with the duc d'Orange, little or nothing to do with duck a l'orange (or is that just a canard oh tee hee), Anyway, Vaison: they've got winding old streets and a medieval fortress quarter; tomorrow we will scope out the Roman ruins.

The local paper says:

MENACE: floods, forest fires, avalanches, earthquakes ... natural risks are numerous in our region.

Do tell? Well, we are on the top floor so I guess we won't get buried. The paper adds that the central government has ordered the prefecture to identify the "eight most important risks" and to "elaborate plans for prevention."

Uh--prevent an earthquake?

Tomorrow, to fresh fields and pilasters new. Customary mindless yapping will resume in about a week.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Arnold Hauser on Getting Your Timing Right

In The Social History of Art, Arnold Hauser achieves what many have attempted: he makes a kind of “Marxist art criticism” at once interesting and (somewhat) plausible. Necessarily, it works better with some people/works than others. Probably no single author suits Hauser’s purposes better than Stendhal:

The social problem consists … ion the face of these ambitious young people rising from the lower classes and uprooted by their education, who find themselves without money and without connections at the end of the revolutionary period, and who, deluded, on the one hand, by the opportunities of the Revolution, on the other, by Napoleon’s good fortune, want to play a role in society in accordance with their talents and ambitions. But now they discover that all power, all influence, all important posts are held by the old nobility and the new financial aaristocracy and that superior gifts and greater intelligence are being displaced everywhere by mediocrity. … [Julien Sorel, the hero of The Red and the Black] was born too late or too early, and stands between the times, just as he stands between the classes. Where does he belong, whose side is he really on? It is the old familiar question, the problem of romanticism … “

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art IV at 29 (RKP ed. 1962)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Holmes on Law School

This one got me through the first year of law school, i.e., until I figured out that law school was actually fun:

One found oneself plunged into a thick fog of details—in a black and frozen night, in which were no flowers, no spring, no easy joys. Voices of authority warned that in the crush of that ice any craft might sink. One heard Burke saying that law sharpens the mind by narrowing it. One heard in Thackeray of a lawyer bending all the powers of a great mind to a mean profession. One saw that artists and poets shrank from it as from an alien world. One doubted oneself how it could be worthy of the interest of an intelligent mind. And yet one said to oneself, law is human—it is a part of man, and of one world with the rest.

—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Address, 1897

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Berlin on the Necessity and Impossibility of History

Isaiah Berlin meditates on the necessity and impossibility of history:

It is difficult enough to develop an adequate consciousness of what we are and what we are at, and how we have arrived where we have done, without also being called upon to make clear to ourselves what such consciousness and self-consciousness must have been like for persons in situations different from our own; yet so no less is expected of the true histories. . . . [I]maginative projection of ourselves into the past, the attempt to capture concepts and categories not altogether like ours by means of concepts and categories that cannot but be our own, is a task that we can never be sure that we are even beginning to achieve, yet are not permitted to abjure. We seek to apply scientific tests to our conclusions, but this will take us but a little way. Without a capacity for sympathy and imagination beyond any required by a physicist, there is no vision of either past or present, neither of others nor of ourselves; but without this, normal—as well as historical—thinking cannot function at all.

—Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,”
I History and Theory 1 at 26-7 (1961).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Greetings from Arles

When I was a tad with my first adult apartment, I had a print on my wall of Van Gogh's "Field at Arles." I had not the slightest notion where Arles was; might as well have been the back side of the moon. Now I'm here; it is not the back side of the moon. Interesting Van Gogh stuff; wonderful Roman ruins. More later, gotta run.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Naipaul's Authorial Voice

The fulcrum of V. S. Naipaul’s writing career has to be A House for Mr. Biswas (1962)---the end of his “quaint islanders” phase and point of embarkation into the darker and more febrile inquiries that have absorbed the latter portion of his career (also his coming-to-terms with his father; David Copperfield told from the viewpoint of Mr. Micawber).

Mr. Biswas is a challenging and absorbing novel, but I still think his best may be a different sort of midpoint. That would be A Bend in the River, the most comprehensive and fully realized of the “later Naipaul.” It has perhaps the broadest range of characters and places, and thus the broadest opportunities for inquiry. It is also one that gives prominence to a device that would become more and more prominent in Naipaul’s later career: the “authorial voice” who is at once omniscient narrator and a character in his own right.

My family were not fools. My father and his brothers were traders, businessmen; in their own way they had to keep up with the times. They could assess a situation; they took risks and sometimes they could be very bold. But they were buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider the nature of their lives. They did what they had to do. When things wings went wrong they had the consolations of religion. This wasn’t just a readiness to accept Fate; this was a quiet and profound conviction about the vanity of all human endeavor.

‘I could never rise so high. My own pessimism, my insecurity, was a more terrestrial affair. I was without the religious sense of my family. The insecurity I felt was due to my lack of true religion, and was like the small change of the exalted pessimism of our faith, the pessimism that can drive men on to do wonders. It was the price of my more materialist attitude, my seeking to occupy the middle ground, between absorption in life and soaring above the cares of the earth.

—V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River 16 (Vintage ed. 1979)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Exam-Time Exhortation

Some exam-time cheer:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;

To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;

To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;

Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;

This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, Beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victor!

—Percy B. Shelley,Prometheus Unbound IV 57

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Update: The Horrors of Socialized Medicine

Be afraid, be very afraid.

In the event of an attempted suicide, the Trust will employ all reasonably practicable measures to insure a successful outcome

Nottingham University Hospital’s NHS Trusts Policy Guidelines

HT: BBC News Quiz

Monday, May 12, 2008

Simone Weil on Destiny

It’s never been quite clear what poem Simone Weil is reading—it doesn’t seem to be The Iliad, or not one that other people read. Still, it must be a wonderful poem, and she has wonderful things to say about it:

The relations between the human soul and destiny; to what extent each soul may mould its own fate; what part in any and every soul is transformed by a pitiless necessity, by the caprice of variable fortune; what part of the soul, by means of virtue and grace, may remain whole—all these are a subject in which deception is easy and tempting. Pride, humiliation, hate, disdain, indifference, the wish to forget or to ignore—all these contribute toward that temptation. Particularly rare is a true expression of misfortune; in painting it one almost always affects to believe, first, that degradation is the innate vocation of the unfortunate; second, that a soul may suffer affliction without being marked by it, without changing all consciousness in a particular manner which belongs to itself alone. For the most part the Greeks had such strength of soul as preserved them from self-deception For this they were recompensed by knowing in all things how to attain the highest degree of lucidity, of purity and of simplicity.

—Simone Weil, “The Iliad, Poem of Might,”
The Simone Weil Reader 153 at 181 (G. Panachis ed., 1977).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Welcome to Provence

Per Robert Kehew (in Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours), "Bernart de Ventadorn occupies a special niche in the troubadour pantheon as the maker of songs who appears to have been most sincere about love":

When tender grass and leaves appear
While buds along the branches throng,
The nightingale so high and clear
Uplifts his voice to spill his song;

Joy to the bird and full joy in the flower,
Joy in myself and my Lady much more,
Joy quite surrounds me; I live joy-possessed
Yet here’s one joy that outjoys all the rest.

Can l’erba fresch’e•lh folha par
A la flors boton’ el verjan,
E•l rossinhols autet e clar
Leva sa votz e mou so chan,

Joi ai de lui, e joli ai de la flor
E joi de me e de midons major;
Daus totas partz sui de joi clau e sens
Mass el es jois que totz autres jois vens.

--Bernart de Ventadorn, "Can l'erba fresch"("When Tender Grass and Leaves Appear")
(W.D. Snodgrass trans.) in Robert Kehew ed., Lark in the Morning:
The Verses of the Troubadours
(U Chi Press 2005)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Off Again

They say one important key to promoting blog traffic is to be dependable: post regularly in a way that will let your readers know roughly what to expect. Okay, that's one (maybe two) more reason(s) why Underbelly remains just a tiny clan of the stubborn and faithful, huddled around the campfire to find off the dark: I don't take care of business, I keep going away.

I'm off this morning for three weeks in France. We'll be mostly down south in Provence, and I give you my absolute word that I (a) will not buy a ramshackled old country house; and (b) will not restore it into a twee bed-and-breakfast for all my upscale American friends. No; rather we will mostly be looking at stuff like Roman aqueducts, continuing to indulge our curiosity about ancient ruins (but I wouldn't be suprised if we knock back a bottle or two of the health-giving ordinaire along the way). We'll end with a few days in Paris, which sounds like about as profitable as taking a freight car full of $20 bills and setting fire to them, but perhaps a bit more fun.

Once again, I will be taking my baby laptop, but perhaps not using it. OTOH using Google's new "delay" command, I (think I) have set up a few items here for posting over the next couple of weeks, so as to give the appearance of continued life. Nothing earth-shattering--mostly old notes that I culled while I was cleaning up my office yesterday. Anyway, enjoy, and (Lord willin and the creek don't rise), I'll be back the first of June.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Gottwald, Clementis, TigerHawk and the Hat

TigerHawk has a fine post up about famous doctored photographs(link), but he might have added this, from the first page of Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice in a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clemntis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photography from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, fo course, from all photographs. Eve r since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.

Wiki has links to the original photo and the revised (link).

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Hayek on Intellectuals

This is a straight steal, but too good not to be stolen:

The typical intellectual . . . need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor need he even be particularly intelligent, to perform his role as intermediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself.

...from Friedrich August von Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” published in 1949, via this guy.

U. S. Constitution Pin

Tom McMahon is pushing a "U.S. Consstitution Pin" (link) for, as he says, those too liberal to wear a flag pin. But there is no reason to stop here, right? I bet there already is a "Second Amendment" pin, and I'd certainly entertain a "no cruel and unusual punishment" pin, or just a simple "habeas corpus" pin (make the flag pin types really pussy when you start getting too specific about what the Constitution really means). Me, I'll settle for "letters of marque and reprisal," or just "no quartering of soldiers."

Do They Know What They're Singing?

James Wimberley offers up a fine history of "Jihadism through song in the Christian tradition," (link) with particular reference to the Battle Hymn of the Republic--we all remember those immortal words:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on."

Wimberley wonders about all those Southern Republicans belting out the lyrics every four years at their national convention--do they really know what those words mean? Answer: sure, why not? It's history, the stuff of legend. Reminds me of the guy in Birmingham who said the way to put their past behind them would be to take the site of the church bombing and build a museum about it. As our great national heroine said, fiddle de dee! Tomorrow is another day!

Beer: Proof that God Loves Us

I'm too busy dumping the detritus of a lifetime into Dumpsters today, so I don't have time to impart a lot of wisdom on the great Pabst Blue Ribbon non-issue. Cf. link, and especially link. But I do have a brief comment, or maybe a question. That is: Blatz? They're still talking about Blatz beer? And it has a fansite? Who'd a guessed?

Afterthought: I seem to have one Dumpster bin left over. But I'm leaving for Europe on Saturday. Maybe I could just fill it with $20 bills.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

I Do Love Maps!

I’ve got a chance to go out to Central Asia in September and I’m really looking forward to it: never been out there before, eager for a chance to piece together the middle of the Silk Road, and to have a look at the only city Genghis Khan is known ever to have entered (link), with maybe the odd peep at one of those oil pipelines that have us all so exercised at the moment.

At least I think that’s what it is about, but I’m pretty shaky at the moment. I know that Kazakhstan is that vast void of undifferentiated steppe-land, and I’ve heard of Türkmenbaşy, the (late) strongman of Turkmenistan, who renamed the month of January after himself. I think I can find Uzbekistan on a map. But other than that, I’m pretty shaky. Remind me again, which one is Kyrgystan, which one Tajikistan? And which one speaks a version of Persian? (that’s Tajikistan—ed.) (Thanks—Buce).\

But wait, there’s help—here’s Rafis Abazov, with the Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Central Asia (2008)! Maps! Forty-five of them! You’ve got your Sogdians, your Timurids, your Tokharistan (no kidding, really Tokharians?). And transport routes! And ethnic enclaves! And mineral deposits! Mmmm, bauxite! I do love maps!

Those Crabby Norwegians

Here's some World Bank data that may throw light on the assertion that those Scandinavian countries that seem so wealthy are really so expensive (link). The magic phrase is "purchasing power parity." Remember the McDonald's hamburger index and note that you get one set of numbers if you measure by exchange rates and another, if by purchasing power. There are lots of tidbits: Singapore, for example is richer (PPP) than Switzerland, and just about even with the US.

But Norway--oh my, Norway. In exchange rate terms, GDP per capita in Norway is $65,300, half again better than the US (=$41,700). Control for PPP and Norway falls to $47,600--still comfortably ahead of the US, but far enough off from the nominal number to make the average consumer choke on his lutefisk.

H/T: Milken Institute Review.

Fn.: Checking the spelling of "lutefisk," I ran across a reference in the "Food Lover's Companion." Yeh, right.

While I was Away ...

Stuff I would have blogged about, had I been blogging last week:

Charles Tilly: the distinguished sociologist who died at 78 said he never held office in a professional association, never chaired a department, never got chosen for a jury (link). Hey, that’s me to the life! Okay granted, I never wrote 51 books, either…

The awfulness in Upper Austria: the last thing I want to do is to seem to be flippant about the irredeemably dreadful story of the guy who kept his daughter in the basement as his sex slave—and of how this is kind of the second time this sort of thing has happened lately, in the same neighborhood. But just a brief two cents’ worth: could it be the architecture? I mean—how many houses do you know of where they even have a basement where you could hide somebody that long and that well? Where they even have a basement?

The Rev. Wright (aka, Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy): I really haven’t caught much of his act, but from what little I hear/see, I’d say he is smart and entertaining in a Rush Limbaugh sort of way. My concern is not that Obama hangs out with him—as a listless nonbeliever, I have to forgive worse nonsense than Rev. Wright, almost every day. My concern is that Obama should not have been blindsided by this: it’s one more proof (there have been too many) that this truly attractive human being may just lack the killer instinct.

Historical footnote to the above: I used to know a guy who trained urban organizers for the Saul Alinsky community development movement. One thing about these black preachers (he said), they never let you see their mailing list. They may cooperate with you, and they may do you a lot of good. But they have their own agenda and they know they are going to be there when you’re gone. Obama should have known that, too.

Best blog entry of the week: James Fallows, on why Bill Gates never learned the truth about Clippy (link).

Well, I Told You Not to Take Advice from Me...

Here's me, folks:
I know what's going to happen to Yahoo (Microsoft will win).
Underbelly, April 23 (link).

On the other hand, you might say they won by losing:

Yahoo! is not worth $44 billion. Period. You could buy General Motors lock, stock, and barrel for $14 billion, name all the cars "Google Sucks," and get more bang for the buck.

John Dvorak (link).

HT, the author of what must be the weirdest insight of the day (link) and no, it's not the one about the razor.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What a Long, Strange Road it's Been

Shorter Harold Ford:

Obama needs to put Clinton on the ticket to help him with the blue-collar white male vote.

Yglesias has already weighed in with a take on why this idea is idiotic (link).

Maybe so, but isn't Harold Ford somebody who counts as an "establishment voice" in Dem circles? If he says it, doesn't this mean that this is an idea goin' 'round?

More Meta: Eee PC

I haven't been posting much lately, for three reasons, all travel-related. One, I've had other stuff on my mind, and haven't been able to give it as much thought as I do at home. Two, Mrs. B might strangle me if I spent all my down time on the road at the laptop--and she would be quite right to do so.

And three--I've been traveling with my new toy, the 8G Eee PC on which I took delivery just last week. I'm still getting acquainted with it. On the whole, it's a keeper but I have to admit that there are some frustrations. Perhaps the main one is the keyboard: it is tiny (and my hands, though not tiny, are hardly huge). Moreover, it feels a bit like a kiddie toy piano. And still moreover, a couple of keys seem to be in unexpected places.

This is not really a complaint: I tend to be a pretty fast learner at this sort of thing, and I expect I will get my mind around it. But I'm used to typing faster than I can talk (which is not slow) and right now, I am at the point of making 2-3-4 corrections in every sentence (I think I made about 10 in this one).

I've spent most of the past hour answering student emails on this baby, so I suppose things will move slowly along. But I guess for the moment, I am at least protected against idle chatter.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Let Me Rephrase That, Your Honor

From this morning's crop of hot sex appliance ads:
Your girlfriend will be burning for another night.
[And litigating for another lifetime?]

Sunday, May 04, 2008

This Day in Ficto History

My friend Ignoto points out that on this day in 1891, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty disappeared in a death grip over the Reichenbach Falls. Evidently there's a memorial plaque. For lots of "scholarly" detail, go here.

I Suspected As Much

Why it's not hard to get a table at a good restaurant any more:

Although Wall Street accounts for just 5 percent of the jobs in New York, it provides nearly a quarter of all wages in the city.


Nice Girls Carry Protection

Julien has invited himself into his lady's boudoir by the expedient of posting a 25-foot ladder to her window. Now he has to figure out what to do with the ladder:

"You mustn't break the windows," Mathilde answered, trying in vain to adopt the tone of ordinary conversation. "You could possibly lower the ladder, I think, by tying a rope to the top rung. I've always plenty of ropes in my room."

--Stendhal, Scarlet and Black 349 (Margaret Shaw trans. 1953)

Markets in Not Quite Everything

Sometimes, leaving a $100 bill on the night table is not a friendly gesture:

The difference between marriage and concubinage is money, says Babaji Rao. That is why it is considered more seemly that the bridegroom should go empty-handed to the house of the bride on his wedding-day, any gift from him to the bride's father might be misconstrued. The feeling about this is so strong that until recently it was most unwise for the bride's father to enter the bridegroom's village, and even now one does not stay in the house of one's married daughter or sister, for this would be to accept something from her husband. ... Younger brothers may stay with their married sisters without fear of comment, for they never had the right to dispose of them.

--J. R. Ackerley, Hindoo Holiday 253-4 (1932; NYRB 2000)