Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rome Note: Seated Boxer

"[T]he Seated Boxer; an extraordinary bronze found near the Baths of Constantine on the Quirinal hill. His body slumps forward; his forearms ret on his thighs; his hands hang limp, pulled down by the weight of studded leather wrappings. His upturned face, cut and swollen, looks for a victory he does not expect.

"The Romans were fascinated by suffering, its representation in art and its recreation in the theater and amphitheater. They admired professional fighters like this boxer and the gladiators in the Colosseum. The writer Tertullian, who as a Christian was no stranger to the mystery of suffering, found the Roman fascination with such men paradoxical. "Men give them their souls, women their bodies...On one and the same account they glorify them and despise them, openly condemning them to ignominy and the loss of civil rights. The perversity of it! Yet they love those they punish and belittle those they admire." (De spectaculis 22). Such strong feelings suggest a sense of identification with the gladiator or the boxer, a feeling that apparently grew stronger as the Empire aged. As the empire monopolized power, individuals may have felt deprived of the same civil rights that gladiators were forced to abjure. And in the Seated Boxer's ability to endure pain, to survive or to die with equanimity and dignity, they mayh have found a terrible model of their own fate."

Text lifted wholesale from the best tour guide to Rome I've ever seen: James H.S. McGregor, Rome From the Ground Up 103-104 (2005, 2006). McGregor says that the Boxer is in the Aula Ottagona; he has been moved to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, and h/t to Steve for insisting that I seek out this superb museum, hitherto unnoticed by me.

fn: I see that McGregor also has books on Venice, Washington, and Paris

One More Reason 529s are a Dumb Idea

I confess to being a happy user of Section 529 Education Savings Accounts, although I confess also to thinking that, as a public policy matter, they are a pretty dumb idea. So with the IRA idea in general: a scheme where the taxpayer, at discretion, can tuck away money now and decide when he feels like paying a tax on it. Jeeze, Louise, how can a government do any responsible planning in a world like that? Some of the dumbness is extracted if we have limitations on how and when you draw it out: mandatory draw on IRAs for example. But 529s seem to me to be more flexible than most: flexible in terms of how or when you draw and indeed, in terms of how you use the money. Now, Joe Hurley points out one further aspect of the silliness--gift taxation. Hurley starts from the principle that you can give away up to $13,000 per person per year free of gift tax. He says:
[W]hy doesn't every well-off individual fully utilize his or her annual [gift] exclusions? No doubt it's because most people don't like the idea of giving away their hard-earned dollars. To be eligible for the gift-tax annual exclusion, the gift must be irrevocable, and it must be made without any strings attached (except for what your attorney may be able to craft through a trust or family partnership). What's yours now no longer belongs to you, and that can be a tough pill to swallow.

Unless, of course, we're talking about a 529 plan.

With a 529, you have the right to change the beneficiary to another family member, direct the use of distributions, and even ask for the money back at any time (subject to tax and 10 percent penalty on the earnings). Yet your contributions to the 529 plan are treated as gifts from you to the account beneficiary, and those gifts qualify for the $13,000 annual exclusion. It's quite extraordinary.

"Quite extraordinary" indeed. The history of the gift tax is the history of devices designed to let you give something away (for tax purposes) without, you know, really giving it away. The 529 rule seems to come as close as you can get to abolishing that distinction. Yep, you have that 10 percent penalty, but it is on earnings only, not principle. Not much of a constraint against later second thoughts.

Update: Earlier I said "Roth IRA." Actually, Roth-type IRAs are far less disruptive than ordinary old fashioned IRAs. But they're still a lousy way to do public business.

Back from Italy, Etc.

We're back from our Mediterranean stay, to a country where guys where socks with their sandals. More tourist nattering later, but meanwhile, here's some good stuff that has piled up in my Google reader:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

St. Peter's, Sunday Evening

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Tech update: see infra.

Campo de' Fiori, Sunday Afternoon

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Tech Update: well, that didn't work. I tried to send a sound file from my phone to my blog. Apparently all that came through was an empty message.

Monday, September 21, 2009


We're due back today in Rome, where I spent two of the pleasantest summers of my life, and believe me, it is not all that hard to ignore the weather. We've got dibs for a week in an apartment -just west of the Campo de'Fiori, home of some of the best melons I ever tasted, and not that-all far from the Piazza Navona which has to be the most lovely public space on the planet.

We Won't Be Among Them

A great many people go to Scotland in the autumn. When you have your autumn holiday in hand to dispose of it, there is nothing more aristocratic that you can do than go to Scotland. Dukes are more plentiful there than in Pall Mall, and you will meet an earl or at least a lord on every mountain. Of course, if you merely travel about from inn to inn, and neither have a moor of your own or stay with any great friend, you don't quite enjoy the cream of it; but to go to Scotland in August and stay there, perhaps, till the end of September, is aabout the most certain step you can take towards autumnal fashion. Switzerland and the Tyrol and even Italy, are all redolent of Mr. Cook, and in those beautiful lands you become subject at least to suspicion.
--Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds, 292 (Oxford UP Ed. 1973)

Even Italy? Suspicion?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion:
The Emperor Loses His Touch

Retreating, evading battle, and burning their own resources, the Russians have confronted Napoleon with a style of warfare he cannot comprehend and with which he does not know how to deal. His companions may or may not have understood, but a generation later, the greatest Russian novelist understood:
Napoleon enters Moscow after the brilliant victory de la Moskowa; there can be no doubt of the victory, since the battlefield remains with the French. the Russians retreat and surrender the capital. Moscow, filled with provisions, arms, ammunition, and incalculable riches, is in the hands of Napoleon. The Russian army, twice weaker than the French, does not make a single attempt to attack in the course of a month. Napoleon's position is most brilliant. To fall upon the remainder of the Russian army with double its forces and exterminate it, to negotiate an advantageous peace or, in case of refusal, to make a threatening move on Petersburg, even to return to Smolensk or Vilno in case of failure, or to remain in Mosocow--in other words, to hold on to the brilliant position the French army was in at the time, would seem to require no special genius. For that one needed to do the simplest and easiest thing: to keep the army from looting, to provide a supply of winter clothing, of which there would be enough in Moscow for the whole army, of which (on the evidence of French historians) there were enough to Moscow for more than six months. Napoleon, that genius of geniuses and having the power of control over the army, as the historians affirm, did none of that.
--Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace Volume IV, Part Two, VIII 1001
(R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky trans. 2007)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fira, Thera, Thira, Phira

...or better Santorini. We're due here this morning. There are some amazing Cycladic and prehistoric ruins on this volcanic shell; also a party that seems to run 24/7/365 with a bunch of party animals who might want to watch it before they turn into ruins themselves.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion: Count Rostopchin Burns His Own House

By many (but not all) accounts, it was Count Rostopchin, mayor of Moscow and head of a distinguished old family, who ordered the burning of Moscow. Napoleon's chronicler believes that he really meant it:
The deviousa route that Kutuzov took, whether because of indecision or as a ruse, succeeded so well that Murat lost all trace of him for three days. The Russian took advantage of this respite to study the terrain and entrench himself. The head of his army was approaching Vorovno, one of Rostopchin's finest estates, when the governor of Moscow rode ahead of them. The soldiers believed that he wished to be alone to see his home for the last time; but suddenly the building disappeared in a cloud of smoke. They rushed to put the fire out; but it was Rostopchin himself who opposed them. They saw him in the midst of the fire he had set, smiling as the superb mansion crumbled around him, then in a firm hand tracing these words on the door of the chapel that was still standing--words which the French were to read with a shudder: "For eight years I have been improving this property, and have lived here happily with my family. The seventeen hundred tenants of my domain left their homes as you drew near, and I have set fire to my own house to save it from being defiled by your presence. Frenchmen, I abandoned to you my two homes in Moscow, with furnishings worth half a million rubles. Here you will find nothing but ashes!
--Philippe Paul, comte de Ségur, Defeat: Napoleon's s Russian Campaign 118
(NYRB Classics 2008)

Samuel Johnson, 300

Happy 300, big guy:
Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield in Staffordshsire, on the 18th of September, N.S. 1709, and his initiation into the Christian church was not delayed; for his baptism is recorded in the register of St. Mary's parish in that city, to have been performed the day of his birth:... His father was Michael Johnson, a native of Derbyshire, of obscure extraction, who settled in Lichfield as a bookseller and stationer. His mother was Sarah Ford, descended of an ancient race of substantial yeomanry in Warwickshire. They were well advanced in years when they married ... I asked his old school-fellow, Mr. Hector, surgeon, of Birmingham, if [Johnson's mother] was not vain of her son. He said "she had too much good sense to be vain, but she knew her son's value."
--James Boswell, Life of Johnson, L.L.D. 15 (Modern Library ed. [ffollowing Malone's sixth edition])

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Agios Nikolaos

Wiki lists 12 places in Greece and Cyprus that bear the name "Agios Nicolaos," St. Nicholas, but we are hoping to touch down today at the one on the east end of Crete. I've never been out here before but this would seem to be the "quiet zone"--far (for example) from the main action in the Battle of Crete between the Germans and the Allies during World War II. This end of Crete was occupied first by the Italians which surely must have been a lighter yoke than the Grerman mandate that arrived later.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion: Moscow

Ready to receive the surrender of Moscow, Napoleon faces an entirely unexpected shock:
At ten o'clock in the morning of the fourteenth the Emperor was on the heights overlooking Moscow, called the Sparrow Hills, when he received a note from the King of Naples informing him that the enemy had evacuated the city ... Shortly afterwards he ordered General Durosnel, whom he had appointed governor, to enter the city with as many picked gendarmes as he could muster, establish order there, and take possession of the public buildings. He urged him particularly to maintain order, to guard the Kremlin, and to keep him supplied with information. The general was especially enjoined to hasten the deputation of city authorities which the King of Naples was to collect. This, the Emperor said, would give the inhabitants of the town the best possible guarantee for their tranquility.

Not imagining for a moment that this deputation would fail to appear, or that he would receive no news--a natural omission, considering the distance to be covered--the Emperor reaxched the barrier of the moat at noon and dismounted there. He grew impatient. He sent out fresh officers every minute, and kept callilng for a deputation or some citizens of note. At last, one after the other, reports came from the King and General Durosnel. Far from having found any of the civic authorities, they had not discovered so much as a single prominent inhabitant. All had fled. Moscow was a deserted city, where one came across none but a few wretches of the lowest class.

--Armand de Caulaincourt, With Napoleon in Russia 110-111
(William Morrow, New York, 1935)
The "King of Naples" is Gioacchino Napoleone Murat, Napoleon's brother-in-law.

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion: The Russians Play Their Hole Card

There are many conflicting accounts about the "taking"--and the burning--of Moscow. Here is one:
[I]t was only from a distance that we ... contemplated that ancient capital which we had just conquered. Even so, we could admire its vast extent, its many colored domes, and the unbelievable variety of its many buildings. This day was a very happy one for us since it was to be the end of our labors, and since the victory on the Moskva and the taking of Moscow were to bring ab out peace. But at the very time an event unparalleled in the history of the world destroyed our fond hopes and showed how little we could count on a settlement with the Russians. Moscow, which they had been unable to defend, was put to the torch by their own hands. ... On the morning of the 14th, the governor assembled three or four thousand men from the dregs of the population, among them liberated criminals; they were given matches and flares, and the police were ordered to conduct them throughout the city. The fire pumps were broken, and the departure of the civil authorities, who followed the army, was to be the signal for the fire. ... [S]carcely had the Emperor established himself in the Kremlin when the Bazaar, an immense building housing some 10,000 shops, burst into flames. The next day and for several days thereafter, fires were set in all the quarters. A violent wind drove the flames, and it was impossible to stop them, since the pumps had been destroyed. Those who were caught setting fires were shot on the spot. They said they were carrying out the governor's orders, and met their deaths with resignation.

--M. de Fezensac, The Russian Campaign 1812, 40-41 (U Georgia 1970)

That Day Again

Remember? If you were an 18-year-old in the United States in 1969, you remember. It was draft lottery birthday #1.

The lottery was supposed to be "random," but it appeared in retrospect that those with birthdays later in the year had a greater proportion of low numbers and thereby a greater chance of getting drafted. On further review, it emerged that the lottery had not been entirely random; apparently the balls had not been mixed enough. See link.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


We're booked today for Heraklion in Crete which I remember from the 80s as kind of a hole, but convenient to a lot of ancient stuff, not least the extrodinary Victorian mishmosh that is Minoan Knossos. Also the home of the painter who wenet to Spain where he became known as "El Greco," the Greek. Had he stayed home, he would have been simple Doménikos Theotokópoulos.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Today it's Paphos, birthplace of Aphrodite whose name rhymes too easily with "nighty," which is better than Venus whose name rhymes too easily with--well, and also home to a child of Pygmalion. And they say Saul of Tarsus touched down here long enough to contend with a magus with the arresting name of "Bar Jesus," said to be "far removed from the straight paths."

Thursday, September 10, 2009


We're due today in Limassol and I have to admit I am not entirely certain I ever heard of it before, though Wiki says it is "the biggest port in the Mediterranean transit trade." And I think I heard somebody say something about decent wine.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion: Mozhaysk

Kutusov has escaped total ruin at Borodino; Napoleon pushes on:
The ninth of September found Mozhkaysk still standing and open, with the Russian rear guard occupying the hills on the farther side where the whole army had been the evening before. Our troops entered the city, some to cross it in pursuit of the enemy, others bent on pillage or seeking lodgings. The latter found neither inhabitants nor , only the dead whom they had to throw out of the windows so they could take their places, and the dying, whom they brought together in one building. The wounded were everywhere, and in such numbers that the Russians had not dared to set fire to the dwellings. However, their humanity, which had not always been so scrupulous, gave way before the necessity of firing on the French troops they saw marching in. Using explosive shells, they set fire to the city,entirely built of wood, and roasted may of their own wounded.

--Philippe Paul, comte de Ségur, Defeat: Napoleon's s Russian Campaign 83
(NYRB Classics 2008)

Well, it's Better than 666

It's 09/09/09.

Monday, September 07, 2009


We're due today in Nicosia, Leukosia, Λευκωσία, Lefkoşa, and it occurs to me that this was one foreign place-name I knew well in my youth because it has been the locus of so much conflict, in this case between Greeks and Turks. At this writing I haven't seen it yet, but I anticipate one of those places like Jerusalem where two cultures live side by side not so much in amity as in a kind of brittle self-restraint.

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion: Borodino Ends in a Draw

The Battle of Borodino ended as a sort of a stalemate, with each side damaged and exhausted. For Napoleon, it was like nothing he had seen in his long career:
The dreadful sight of the battlefield covered with corpses and wounded, combined with a heaviness of the head, and with the awareness of the impotence of his once-strong arm, made an unexpected impression on Napoleon, who ordinarily liked to survey the dead and wounded, thereby testing his inner strength (as he thought). On that day the terrible sight of the battlefield overcame that inner strength, in which he placed his merit and greatness. He hastily left the battlefield and returned to the Shevardino barrow. Yellow, bloated, heavy, with dull eyes, a red nose, and a hoarse voice, he sat on a camp chair, involuntarily listening to the sounds of gunfire and not raising his eyes. With sick anguish he awaited the end of this action, of which he considered himself the cause, but which he was unable to stop. ...
--Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace 814 (Pevear and Volokhonsky trans. 2008)

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion: Borodino is Going Badly

Something unfamiliar is happening to the French Army at Borodino:
Napoleon's generals--Davout, Ney, and Murat, who were in proximity to the zone of fire and even occasionally rode into it--several ties led huge and orderly masses of troops into the zone of fire. But contrary to what had invariably happened in all previous battles, instead of the expected news of the enemy's flight, the orderly masses of troops came back from there as disorderly, frightened crowds. They restored them to order, but the men were becoming fewer. Halfway through the day, Murat sent his adjutant to Napoleon to ask for reinforcements.

Napoleon was sitting at the foot of the barrow and drinking punch when Murat's adjutant galloped up to him with assurances that the Russians would be crushed if his majesty gave them one more division.

Reinforcements?" said Napoleon, with stern astonishment, as if failing to understand his words and gazing at the handsome boy-adjutant with his long, curled black hair (the same way Murat did his hair), "Reinforcements!" thought Napoleon. "What sort of reinforcements can they ask for, when they've got half an army in their hands direcfted against a weak, unfortified Russian wing!

"Dites au roi de Naples,"
Napoleon said sternly, "qu'il n'est pas midi et que je ne vois pas encore clair sur mon échiquier. Allez ..."

--Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace 753 (Pevear and Volokhonsky trans. 2008)
[i.e., "Tell the king of Naples that it's not yet midday, and that I still don't see my chessboard clearly. Go ..." Tolstoy published a good deal of the dialogue of this Russian novel in French. Pevear and Volokhonsky leave it in French.

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion: Borodino

On the twenty-fourth* there was a battle at the Shevardino redoubt, on the twenty-fifth not a single shot was fired on either side, on the twenty-sixth came the battle of Borodino.

Why and how was the battle offered and accepted at Shevardino and Borodino? Why was the battle of Borodino fought? Neither for the French nor for the Russians did it make the slightest sense. The most immediate result of it was and had to be--for the Russians, that we came nearer to the destruction of Moscow (which we feared more than anything in the world); and for the French, that they came nearer to the destruction of their whole army (which they also feared more than anything in the world). The result was perfectly obvious then, and yet Napoleon offered and Kutuzov accepted this battle.

If the commanders had been guided by reasonable causes, it would seem it should hace been quite clear to Napoleon that, having gone thirteen hundred miles and accepting battle with the likely chance of losing a quarter of his army, he was marching to certain destructcion; and it should have been as clear to Kutuzov that, in accepting battle and also risking the loss of a quarter of his army, he would certainly lose Moscow.
--Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace 753 (Pevear and Volokhonsky trans. 2008)
*Read: September 5, 6 and 7. Tolstoy is using Russian oldstayle.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion: The Eve of Borodino

Pierre, Tolstoy's fictional protagonist, foresees tomorrow's great battle:
The orders for tomorrow's battle had been given and received. He had nothing more to do. But the most simple, clear, and therefore dreadful thoughts would not leave him in peace. He knew tht tomorrow's tittle was to be the most dreadful of all he had taken part in, and the possibility of death presented itself to him, for the first time in his life, with no relation to the everyday, with no considerations of how it would affect others, but only in relation to himself, to his soul, vividly, almost with certainty, simply and terribly. And from the height of that picture, all that used to torment and preoccupy him was suddenly lit up by a cold, white light, without shadows, without perspective, without clear-cut outlines. The whole of life presented itself to him as a magic lantern, into which he had long been looking through a glass and in an artificial light. Now he suddenly saw these badly daubed pictures without a glass. ...
--Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace 753 (Pevear and Volokhonsky trans. 2008)

Saturday, September 05, 2009


The schedule says we should be in Larnaca (Cyprus) today, home of 9,500 hotel rooms; also ruins that go back to the 13th Century B.C. I also read some stuff about earthquakes but I'll pretend I never heard about that.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Off Again

Boy, we take a lot of vacations. But give us this: at our age, there is no putting off to tomorrow--at our age this is tomorrow.

Anyway, we're off to the Mediterranean again, this time to Cyprus (where we've never visited), thence to Crete and Santorini, venue of our last footloose backpack trip--many years ago. And finally, to what may be my mostest favoritist city in the whole world, Rome. We'll be back at the end of the month. Till then, a few snippets, but mostly dark.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Memories of a Victorian Girlhood:
"Frances took me to a very private place ... and told me there, in confidence..."

Oh, bite your tongue. It's not what you think.
Pretty soon after that, when we were both between nine and ten years old, Frances took me to a very private place under the wooden bridge on the Little Island, and told me there, in confidence, that it was not at all the thing nowadays to believe in Christianity any more. It simply wasn't done. I felt at once that this was what I had always thought, though I had not been quite able to express it. I admired Frances tremendously; she seemed to live in an up-to-date, sophisticated world, where Art and literature were taken seriously. Her mother had short hair, and even smoked cigarettes; so that anything Frances said was sure to be right. Her information was a great relief to me; a real comfort. From that very night I gave up saying my prayers. I remember, that evening, catching a glimpse, through the doorway, of Charles kneeling by his bed and thinking: 'Poor boy, he's only seven; I won't disturb his mind just yet.' But, knowing my own incapacity for holding my tongue, I am certain that I told him all about it next day; and I don't suppose his mind was at all disturbed. he had probably known it all along.

--Gwen Raverat, Period Piece 219 (1952; Ann Arbor Paperback 1991)

Raverat was born in 1885, so she is writing about an event in/around 1895, a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Among other achievements, she was a distinguished wood engraver. A blue plaque commemorates the site of her childhood home, now the site of Darwin College at Cambridge. She died in 1957

The Tea-Baggers are Right

Yes, okay, that's a tease. The tea-baggers are load and oafish and dangerous and disruptive and badly misinformed. But they are right where it counts: they fear that whatever happens (a) their own health care will be worse; and (b) it will cost more.

The point is that these are not irrational fears. Not irrational for two reasons. One, because insuring all the (indigent) uninsured is going to cost somebody money, and the administration has already made noises (with vast improvidence) about how they might tap other programs to get it. And two. there isn't enough contrary information out there to put it to rest.

Translated: the real point is that nobody knows what ObamaCare is--including, I suspect,Obama. Apparently this the fruit of a conscious choice on the part of the administration. There is no end of Monday-morning about that decision just now (of which I, I suppose, am ap part). But remember the first rule of paranoia: no information is also scarier than any information.* If you have no information, you can imagine anything. And that is exactly what the tea-baggers are doing now.

Without laboring the record, I think the best you can surmise is that what we have here on Obama's part is a horrendous rookie mistake--perhaps not surprising from a rookie, a bit moreso considering how hard he has worked to surround himself with experienced talent (Emanuel, Daschle, etc.). The people who said he was an empty suitare looking pretty good.

The good news is that there is some evidence that he is a good rebounder who knows how to learn his mistakes. And blowing the first year of your presidency is not necessarily a disaster. With any kind luck, he may have found his footing by the end of August. Oh wait...
*Scholarly window dressing: Ed Lemert, Paranoia and the Dynamics of Exclusion.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Barton on Shakespeare

I really cannot remember when I've had so much fun in front of the TV set with my clothes on. I'm talking about "Playing Shakespeare," the set of master classes by British direcctor John Barton, recently (re?)released (after 27 years!) on video by the BBC. I heard about them on the radio in the car and by the time I got home Mrs.B, bless her heart, had ordered them. We've been making our leisured way through all week. We're not done yet, but I really can't contain my enthusiasm for anything so engaging, so instructive and so much fun.

I am, let the record show, a pretty big Shakespeare fan, but I know next to nothing about the mechanics of acting--my last outing on the stage when I played the king of something or other in Mrs. Wallingford's eighth grade.* So I am an eager and perhaps gullible pupil. In this light I got double pleasure: one, watching actors work and rework individual scenes to seek different levels of understanding; and two, to watch Barton's own suave cajolery as he undertakes to transmit his (obviously deeply held) views. He's a remarkable figure in his own right. If I count correctly he is now in his 80s; he was a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960, and you can still find him showcased at the RSC website, directing a legendary performance of Twelfth Night with Judi Dench as Viola (in 1969). His own enthusiasm for Shakespeare is contagious, and his knack for extracting non-obvious (but plausible) nuances out of sometimes-familiar material is nothing short of formidable.

A spectacularly successful example is his work with Alan Howard on a speech by Richard II. Howard had played Richard with great success at the RSC; he and Barton seemed to agree that Richard's tragedy is that he is so much of a poseur that he never comes to recognize his own self. The sample under inquiry was the passage that begins "For God's sake let us sit upon the ground/And tell said stories of the death of kings..." Through successive readings, Barton helped Howard to find subtlety and complexity in the speech: Howard's Howard starts off bluff, almost cheerful, but as he warms to his subject, he becomes the poet of his own life, observing--even enjoying--his great downfall.

Another great felicity of the series is that it gives us a chance to see so many actors we all know from other phases in their career: here's Barton's own Viola, Judi Dench; here also Howard, but also Patrick Stewart of Start Trek fame, and Ben Kingsley, who must have just then been enjoying the first fruits of his success as Gandhi (and for a Gandhi, it is amazing how much barely-contained anger Kingsley appears to carry around with him. We also have David Suchet, well known to PBS audiences as Hercule Poirot; here also my own favorite Cleopatra, Jane LaPotaire. And there are a number of others.

Barton offer any number of insights that will enlighten even a seasoned viewer. For example, in exploring Merchant of Venice, Barton shows how the audience's view of Shylock is determined by what Tubal--aside from Shylock's daughter, the only other Jewish play--thinks of Shylock. We can see that if Tubal accepts Shylock's scheming without question, why then so do we, and if Tubal raises his eyebrows, why then we raise hours.

I don't know, for an old hand at the stage this might be old stuff. But there is so much about the mechanics of stagecraft that I don't know, that I find myself sucking up every moment. I know I'll watch it again and I only wish it were twice as long.

Afterthought: Based on what I've seen so far, Barton seems to own only one necktie--a poor, sorry, ill-fitting knitted thing. Although this was shot some 27 years ago, something tells me that he still owns only one tie, and that this is still the one. If I knew where to reach him, I'd mail him another.

*I did sign up for a community college acting class back about 32 years ago in my most recent bachelorhood. I was mostly looking for babes; I found mostly drama queens.


Pearson fingers the "Demi-Ashton" ratio:

I say: divide by four and then divide by four again and you have the hemi semi demi Ashton ratio.

Auden on the War: A Dissent

It's the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland today, an event that I do not actually remember although strictly speaking, I guess I could: I do remember the hurricane of '38.

It's also the occasion for bloggers to recall the celebrated poem by W. H. Auden on the a "low dishonest decade." The general tenor seems to be that Auden's poem is a suitable monument to the event itself -- "great," "haunted me for years," "great," "arguably one of his best works."

Well, you can't argue with this kind of success (or not very effectively). And apparently it is hard for us to imagine the day remembering his poen. But this is as good a time as any to register a note of reserve about--well, not about Auden the man, who seems to have been quite a wonderful (if sometimes impossible, but aren't we all?) person. Rather, about Auden the poet: I suspect that in the end we (or our children) will come to see that he simply isn't as wonderful as he thought he was--will come to wonder what we saw in him in the first place. I suspect he may end up as the 20th Century Longfellow--so much the voice of his time that another time will have trouble figuring him out.

This is not quite as much of a put-down as it may seem---hey, it can be fun to read Longfellow. But it is meant to be a caution about reading Auden uncritically as part of the history he lived through.

Indeed rather than his poetry, I suspect what may prove really durable is his criticism. He was a person of broad culture, and a great appreciator. I've written earlier about his lectures on Shakespeare. I still hang on to my copy of the Viking Portable Greek Reader, with its Auden introduction. Oh, and here is the Viking Portable Restoration and Augustan Poets, with an introduction co-authored by Auden.

Aside from these more obviously literary pieces there is a whole range of stuff that suggests the breadth and catholicity of Auden's interests. NYRB Classsics did us a service by reprinting his Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard. Here's a Viking Book of Aphorisms, co-edited by Auden, one of the most intelligent such collections I've ever seen. Oh, and the Penguin edition of Goethe's Italian Journey, with an Auden intro, one of the best possible introductions to Italy even today. Oh, and here's I never saw before: translations from the Norse. And it is not, stricly speaking, just literature: here is an Elizabethan Songbook, edited by Auden and his companion, Chester Kalman (and is that an uncredited Gorey drawing on the cover?): I used to have that stuff on a big ol' 33rpm LP record with Auden himself, I think, doing the voice-over. Finally, I am ever in his debt for introducing me to the cabaret songs of Jill Gomez, one of the most beguiling voices of her generation.

I suppose there is a lot more; I can't claim to be a careful student, and I have collected merely what washed up on my shore. It certainly seems to add up to quite a lot, and worth appreciating even if the verse itself might be the least of it.

Update: For a subtle critical essay on Auden the poet, go here.

Update II: Apparently I wrote this piece before. No matter; if I keep trying, I may at last get it right.