Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Post-Postmodernist Cane Shop

Nine years ago in London, Mrs. Buce declared herself in need of a cane walking stick. I consulted my friend Richard who hied us off to James Smith & Son Umbrellas Ltd Est Since (sic?) 1830, at the shag end of New Oxford Street, just before it morphs into Theobald's Road.  It certainly was the very essence of what would want out of a Victorian London retail establishment solid and respectable enough that you could easily picture Prime Minister Gladstone showing up for his periodic umbrella fix (Neville Chamberlain to, I suppose, though perhaps they don't talk about this so much).

Last week in London, Mrs. B. declared herself in need of a replacement cane walking sticthe nine-year-old item having earned, so she felt, an honorable retirement (or at least "senior status" with limited caseload, like the Federal judiciary) and I am pleased to report that James Smith is still doing business in the old-fashioned way,  not one jot iota having been altered in the meantime (save and except some evidently scrupulous dusting and polishing).

This is all wonderful and no doubt the hope of this frisson of satisfaction is part of what drew us back to our former haunts, or haunt.  But all of this urges the question: after 180 years of sedulously exemplifying a particular tradition, can there be anything--anything--that remains of their original unselfconscious self? Mustn't it be true that at this point, just every fragment of the array must be understood as a form of marketing designed perhaps primarily for wide-eyed foreigners who loved to believe--even as they do not really believe--that There'll Always be an England, as long as there is James Smith?

I do not wish to be understood as complaining here.  I will take all this unironized irony with all the grace I can muster and salute them for not falling headlong over into the bin of self-parody.  But I remember another trip to England a few years ago when we spent Christmas Eve at Canterbury Cathedral.  The music was gorgeous (the weather outside was awful, which helped).  And the Canon--the Canon looked for all the world like he ought to be in the cast of a Victorian soaper (probably a Trollope) on Mawsterpiece Theatre.  I found myself wondering: did Mawsterpiece Theatre copy this guy, or did he get to be Canon because he looked like he ought to be on Mawsterpiece Theatre.  I think I  need a pick-me-up.  No thanks, not sherry.

The Irresistable Allure of the Illegal Alien

Well, for the moment, it looks like game, set and match Niki.   Meg Whitman says she was shocked, shocked, to learn that her longtime faithful housekeeper was an illegal, and she certainly didn't know anything about a letter from the Feds questioning her social security number--but now comes the Eveready Gloria Allred brandishing what appears to be the letter with an annotation saying "Nicky Please Check This."   Gloria says the handwriting is that of Meg's husband,  Griff Harsh,who earlier in the day stood silent as his wife told the world that this illegal stuff was all news to her.

Heaven knows where we go from here.  Maybe there are two Nikis.  Maybe Meg has another husband (Griff, please check into this).  Maybe--okay, forget it.  But while embarrassment junkies are busy clucking over the folly of a person in public life even dabbling with an illegal, it's worth considering just how tempting the allure of the illegal must be. 

No, no, I'm not talking about lousy wages or dreadful working conditions--well, maybe that too.  But the real point is that you've totally got 'em by the short hairs.  One false move, one slip, one cracked teacup or greasy wineglass and you're off the ladder of insecure residency and straight down into the chute of deportment.  Must be a heady experience to spend  few moments every day with a person over whom your dominance is so complete that they live in dread of your every move.

Still Dead After All These Years

The Maynes remembered Augustus Ottoway, killed, at the Relief of Lucknow in 1857 and found dead on a dooley by Lord Roberts who 'took his dear friend Mayne out at early dawn and dug his grave and buried him in his frock-coat and top boots, and as they laid him there leant down and fixed his eye-glass into his eye as he always wore it in the heat of the fray.'  His grave now lies in on the seventh fairway of Lucknow Golf Course, 'a cause of great frustration to golfers.'
--Charles Allen (ed.) Plaion Tles form the Raj (1975)

I trust it was the dead Ottoway ant not the living Mayne who was buried.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is Felix Blowing Smoke Here?

Felix Salmon often knows what he has talking about.  But he's got a somewhat bewildering piece up  (I can't figure out his point, and I don't think he can either) about Vanguard v. Fidelity, which ends with this zinger:
As for Fidelity, it’s surely still near the beginning of a long, slow decline. The world of fund management moves glacially yet inexorably, and although Fidelity will certainly continue to make billions of dollars in profit for many years to come, its best days are now far behind it. Vanguard’s, too, most likely.

Ten Best Hamlets

Susannah Clapp at The Observer offers a conversation piece on The Ten Best Hamlets, though I would really like to know on what authority she commends us to the performance of Henry Irving in the 1870s.  And I suspect that she is a wee bit young to have caught even the last Hamlet of John Gielgud (in 1948, when he was 44)--though there is enough Gielgud on tape to give grounds for plausible speculation that he must have been a stunner.  I guess I'd have sign on to the Russian film version by Innokenti Smoktunovsky, albeit with the qualification that insofar as it is in Russian, I think you'd really better call it an "homage" than an actual "Hamlet" (he did tease out the larger political consequences nicely, though).

Beyond that, to make an infoirmed judgment you would have had to spend the last generation in the Britain.  So of thee, I've seen only one--Simon Russell Beale--and I must say it is about the silliest Hamlet I ever saw anywhere.  Beale was old, fat, flippant--you had the sense that someone told him was playing Falstaff.  I did see another Hamlet at Stratford about 1998 who isn't on her list and doesn't deserve to be.  Oh, and another--a student performance at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1976 where Hamlet really was about 19--not perfect, but a genuine freshness that brought an uncharacteristic to a part for which the actor is more often than not too old.

I persist in my somewhat unfashionable enthusiasm for the Branagh movie version.  Granted he doesn't get everything right, but that's the point Hamlet is so multifarious that no actor is ever going to get it all right.  Why, in the end, though I am glad to have seen a number of Hamlets (and want to see more), still I suspect the best performance always will remain the one in my head.

I do wish I'd seen a female Hamlet, though--apparently there have been a number, going back to Sarah Bernhardt.  Query, has there ever been a male Cleopatra (right: the boy actor in the premier, I was forgetting).

De Gaulle Again: They Don't Make 'em That Way Any More

Aside from snarfing my head off, I spent most of my trip over the Atlantic this week finishing off the first volume of the of Mémoires de Guerre of Charles de Gaulle, revolving chiefly about his efforts to organize French overseas opposition to the Nazis in the early months/years of World War II (cf. link).  I was reading it mainly to practice my French, for which it is much to be recommended--fairly straightforward grammar and vocab, if a bit grandiose in town.  But all the time I kept saying to my self: what a near thing.  Honestly, if you ever had reason to doubt the "great man" theory of history, just take a look at how de Gaulle, personally and by main strength, stepped into the ruins of a nation and spun the remnants together into a coherent entity.

After the humiliating walkover effected by the Nazi armies in just a few spring days in 1940, there can't have been anybody who  could have expected the French to recover/   Indeed, "legitimate" France capitulated in a heartbeat, to reemerge as the client-state that persisted to the end of the war.  The emergence of de Gaulle himself as a counterforce was itself something of a happy accident.  He did have a reputation (like Churchill before him) as a Cassandra before the war, warning the French of their unpreparedness in terms that proved more true than anyone would have wanted. But the fulcrum of his campaign was the fact that at the beginning of hostilities, he was working as a kind of an ambassador to the British, with the task of trying to stiffen the Brit's own resolve.  It was in this role that the Brits, more or less by default, anointed him as the leader of what came to be known as "La France Libre"--somehow it sounds better in English as "The Free French." (de Gaulle himself later tried to shift to "La France Combattante," but it never caught on).

But the British clearly got a lot more than they bargained for.  It's pretty clear that they thought of their declaration of solidarity as something more or less cosmetic, allowing them to absorb French weaponry and technical skill--and probably also French resources and colonies--into a a more general British operation (solidarity didn't stop the Brits from slaughtering nearly 1,300 French sailors in an attack on the French navy at Mers-el-Kébir, an episode that de Gaulle refers to with surprising economy).  But it was de Gaulle who over and over again said "mais, non!" and insisted on an independent French identity.  And not just the British: the Americans, to all appearnces, were willing to let the French cause go and make whatever peace they could with the puppet government.  And individual Frenchmen themselves, at least at the beginning, were far from eager to sign onto a quixotic crusade, were far more eager to join the British, or slip away to America, or to make a separate peace.

Yet de Gaulle himself, for all his intransigence, had his limits.  Adverse as he was to the puppet state, he went to great lengths to make sure that his campaign did not degenerate into a civil war among Frenchmen--he took some heat for his reluctance to engage with the puppet forces at Brazzaville; later in Syria and Lebanon, he made it clear that former servants of the puppet would be welcomed back to the fold.  And however troubled his cooperation, he can be generous with the Brits: he seems to have genuinely liked and admired Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.  And if he concedes that Winston Churchill gave him a hard time, well, he concedes that Churchill himself was having a bit of a hard time, losisng as much and as often as he did in 1940 and 1941 and into 1942.

De Gaulle ends this volume with an account of the Battle of Bir Hakim when a French force (under a General with the anomalous surname of "Koenig") held off German attackers and inflicted more casualties than it suffered.  De Gaulle is exultant to display "La France Combattante" at last and he has every right to be.  He treats it as a great victory,.  It wasn't, exactly: it was more of a holding operation, but holding itself may have made it possible for the Brits to turn the tide against the Germans elsewhere.

Through it all we see a picture of de Gaulle as one who entertained a vision: "il veut sauver la nation," it says on the back cover, "pour affirmer les droits et la grandeur de la France..."   It says something of the politics of our own time that it is almost impossible to say that phrase in any language without a tone of bitter cynicism or at least wry caricature.  Yet there is no doubt that de Gaulle would have endorsed every word of it, and that by his own efforts he achieved everything a single person could achieve to make it true.

The Pew Poll and the Limits of Benign Skepticism

The Pew Research Center seems to be getting a lot of attention for its survey showing that non-believers tend to know more about religion than believers.  There are some fairly obvious plausible explanations for this phenom, a number of which have been amply ventilated elsewhere (see, e.g., link).  The dominant theme would be that knowledge is likely to be most extensive among those who find religion problematic, either because they doubt, or become doubters, or because they are converts, or because their chosen faith is in some sort of beleaguered minority position.  I suppose we see an overlap here with the (alleged) insight that people who watch Jon Stewart tend to be better informed about public affairs than those who follow mainstream news.

All fine so far, but I want to point out a threshold problem here.  That is: most of the commentators (this would include yours truly) probably come at this issue in a mode of what you might call "benign skepticism"--more than indifferent to matters of religion, insistent on the right to believe, without remotely committing themselves to anything like a formal system of belief.  It is the view perhaps most influentially articulated by William James in "The Will to Believe"--surely one of the most influential essays in American thought. 

James'' position has at least two virtues.  One, it differs from mere asocial indifference.  James' view allows, nay encourages, active curiosity about religion, and religions.  And two, it differs from aggressive empiricism--the notion that belief must not be allowed in the absence of "evidence," somehow defined.

But James' view harbors a telling limitation which he doesn't seem to notice.  That is: he appears never to countenance that one of these systems of belief that he is so eager to countenance might actually be true.  In the end, this is hardly surprising, because the system of benign skepticism that he seems to advocate is absolutely incompatible with the systems of belief that he encounters with tolerant reservation.--"incompatible," at least in the sense that those who embrace those other belief systems simply aren't interested in the mode of critical inquiry that James takes as central.

James' view, in other words, comes close to treating "belief" as a kind of "lifestyle choice," where it isn't so much of choice as a complex of commitments that precede choice--the same kind of commitment that is represented by James' own benign skepticism.  This is ultimately the paradox of what Stanley Fish calls "boutique multiculturalism"--because, as Fish says, "sooner or later  the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant in that same core."  As will, he might have added, your own.

This post adumbrates an argument set forth by James Seaton in his introduction to a new edition of  "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" and Character and Opinion in the United States, by George Santayana.  The Fish essay is reprinted in The Trouble with Principle (1999).

They Can't Do That, Can They?

I mean, scrub Xmarks?

I jest.   Sure they can. Still, haven't we all grown accustomed to enjoying free stuff that drops from the sky on us,  not so used to seeing it disappear because it doesn't make any money.

Ah well, but I'm betting that will still find a home in the clouds somewhere (trans.: I'm still in denial).

Afterthought:  The only comparable episode that comes to my mind right now is the abandonment of Lotus Agenda (though Agenda had a long afterlife, perhaps still survives).  I note that the man behind both of Xmarks and Agenda was Mitch Kapor).

"Seems I've Heard That Song Before..."

You have.  It's by David Lord Sutch.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hack Hack

Home from London with a nasty cough that I inflicted on an entire widebody of unwilling travellers yesterday--I really cannot imagine why they did not just pitch me out.  Meanwhile, here's the quote of the day, actually left over from Sunday, in the New York Times:
You look at Ira, you’re sure you’re going to find one of those punch cards in his wallet that’s going to get him that 11th tan for free.
Link John Eligon's superb profile of Ira Judelson, bail bondsman to the stars.  Doing a personality piece about the bail bondsman is one of the evergreen fallbacks in the news biz, but this one is unusually good..

Off for a nap.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Heaven for Climate...

...hell for society.  This is an oldie but still worth the trouble:
The pagan Radbod had already immersed one of his royal legs in the baptismal font, when a thought struck him--"where are my dead forefathers at present?"   "In  hell, with all other unbelievers," was the imprudent answer.  "Mighty well," replied Radbod, removing his leg, "then will I rather feast with my ancestors in the halls of Woden, than dwell with your little starveling band of Christians in heaven."

--WH Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic v. 1 p. 27 (Everyman ed. 1906)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Salmon on Paletta on Volcker

This one requires careful attention,but its worth it.

The Tate Boils it Down

The Tate Britain on the North Bank of the Thames in London is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon although I don't suppose anybody would put it at the top of the list of London museums.  A lot of the stuff (the Turners, the Constables, some of the grand portraits) are first-rate but there is a second cut that could easily disappear into storage.

But I think they win the prize in one category--clever, pithy, informative picture captions (or whatever you call those informational notes that hang beside the pictures).  Plenty of places settle for the artist's name, perhaps dates, and leave at that.  But here is a Tate comment, selected more or less at random.  The subject is a self-portrait by William Hogarth:
Hogarth first began this self-portrait in the mid-1730s. X-rays have revealed that at this stage, it showed the artist in a formal coat and wig.  Later, however, he changed these into the more informal cap and clothes seen here.  The oval  canvas containing Hogarth's self-portrait appears propped up on volumes of Shakespeare, Swift and Milton, authors who inspired Hogarth's own commitment to drama, satire and epic poetry.  Hovering above the surface of his palette is the "Line of Beauty and Grace". which underpinned Hogarth's own theories of art.  Hogarth's pug dog, Trump, whose features resemble his, serves as an emblem of the artist's own pugnacious character.
Now I ask you--is it possible to be any more pithy than that?  For a slightly expanded version of same, go here.

The Best Li'l Music Hall in--Anywhere

I made my first trip to Wigmore Hall in London in 1976, to see an early-music rendition of Handel's Messiah.   God only knows why, but I insisted on taking the 12-year-old.  He agreed to go quietly on condition that he could take a book.  This made perfect sense to me, so he settled into Ray Bradbury while I settled into about the best Messiah I' ve ever heard.  At the interval, he raised his head from the printed page and said, "you know, this is pretty good music."

You better believe it, kid.  The performance was fine in itself, but Wigmore Hall--I declare, Wigmore Hall is the single most listenable music venue I've ever set foot in.

Mrs. Buce would agree.  She says she used to hope that when death came to take her, he would find her peacefully asleep in her own bed.  One trip to my favorite venue was enough to convince her to revise her opinion: she now hopes that the inevitable will descend during a Wigmore Hall Sunday morning.

We've been to three performances there in the past two weeks--we were schedule for four but the fourth was cancelled when the performer got sick.   And it never fails.    To my untutored ear, the acoustics are impeccable.  It's a small house and every seat is a good seat (I've tried a lot).  And, not least, the audience: unlike the opera, there is nobody in this house for show.  These are the true music lovers.  They're modest dressers--lots of pullover cardigans and zippered jacket. Some of them come with scores.  There are always a few in wheelchairs.  I wonder how many (okay,  not the wheelchairs) arrive by bicycle.  My guess is that you probably have more semi-pro musicians, more middle school music teachers than any other audience on earth.

There's something on here virtually every night, but Sunday mornings are the best: tickets cost a crummy 12 pounds and they throw in a glass of sherry (not great sherry, but nobody said you had to drink it).  I'm sorry I'm leaving and won't be able to go again soon.  And as I think of it, Wigmore Hall just might be the reason we came to London in the first place.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Note on London Bookstores

I can remember back in the 70s when I could easily part with several hundred (1970s) dollars in London bookshops as I plunged frantically forward trying to tank up on all the stuff you couldn't get back in Palookaville.  In Charing Cross Road you had both Foyle's and Colletts; Dillon's held forth up near University College; the Economist had its splendid bookshop next to LSE;  Hatchard's ruled in Piccadilly although I didn't get down there very often,.  And there were smaller shops just everywhere; indeed there was a time when my dream job was to clerk in the  Colletts specialty Marxist shop; I figured my customers would come in for their Marxist fix and I would argue with 'em: the Socratic method without the bother of exams.

All that had pretty much vanished on my last stop here about nine years ago: Colletts was gone and Waterstone had taken over the old Dillon's location.  There was a Borders in Charing Cross and Blackwell's of Oxford had established a presence nearby. But one had a sense that the smaller shops were just playing out the clock.

This time I guess the main surprise is that not a lot has changed in the past nine years.  Borders is gone, but the other major players remain in place, and seem to be ringing up some sales.  There is at least noteworthy new entry: the London Review of Book shop on Bury Street just a step away from the British Museum, and I think there may be a message here.  My impression is that LR B is doing okay (if it is doing okay) because it has made itself a sort of a go-to venue: a lot of coffee shop space, apparently a good may readings and stuff, and the LRB brand.  The comparison is inexact, but it reminds me a bit of Politics and Prose in DC which has made itself into a kind of see-and-be-seen social club.

Meanwhile, to my even  greater surprise, some of the smaller shops appear somehow to be hanging on: there are half or dozen or so in or around the old Collett locale.  Judd Street is till there, though not on Judd Street.  Oh, and Skoob--it's in a basement of the Brunswick Shopping Center which would look to me like an awful location, but they do seem to have some custom.  I dropped by the other day and spotted a nice three-volume set of Motlery's Rise of the Dutch Republic, in the Everyman Edition.  Then I confess I committed the crime against independent bookshops everywhere: I went home and priced it on Amazon and Alibris.  The next day I went back to Skoob and plunked down my cash.  I confessed to my sin and told the clerk that he beat the internet price.  Yes, he said, we try to keep it that way.

Brave Coward

Nothing new here except perhaps to me but I want to make note of the Noel Coward revival here in London st the Old Vic.  It's Design for Living, and it' about a threesome, a threeway, a ménage à trois.  Except it isn't really: the point, clearly, was to say as much as the author could get away with about a male romance.  And strictly speaking, he couldn't away with it.  It was banned in London in 1932, though it had a succesful run in New York the next year; it didn't open on its home turf until 1939.

In many way it's classic Coward: nearly three hour of breathlessly witty dialogue, somewhat shambolic plotting,  characterization no more than necessary for the moment,. But the real centerpiece is a long encounter scene at the end of the second act where the two guys get slowly more direct with each other.  Coward gets away with it in probably the only way he could devise for  time when homosexuality was still a serious crime in Britain--he gets them slowly more drunk, as if to give them an excuse for anything important they might say.  A third act is often hilarious in itself but with reference to the larger structure, it is pretty much tacked on--my pal Hal actually thought it was over at the end of the second act and couldn't understand why there weren't any curtain calls or applause.

I suppose a possible lesson here is that if you were going to speak frankly about homosexuality in Britain in 1932, you'd better do it Coward-style: with wit and charm.  There probably isn't any deeper meaning that.  Setting aside the theme, it is good fun, perhaps a bit padded, an easy evening out.  But you've got to admire the courage of somebody who would so much as have tried it in 1932, saying nothing of the grace to make it work.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mainstream Nihilism

Here's one of the most nihilistic takes on current policy I've seen from a normally temperate mainstream blogsite.   Also correct.

Fannie Mae: a Whydunit

I'v e been distracted by other entertainments so I've paid only intermittent attention to the Krugman/Rajan debate over the question of how much blame for the meltdown should be meted out to Fannie and Freddie.  I ha ve nothing new to offer on the numbers in the case.  I do, however, want to say a word about motivation. 

Here's the thing: it's clear that one way or another the GSE's were way too deep into the market for dodgy paper.  But at least with Fannie, I think it is important to note that they were not driven by any principle of housing policy: it was solely a matter of money.  These guys had lost traction with their accoutning scandals and were fighting desperately to regain market share so they could return to living like potentates as they had before their embarrassment.  And FWIW, the hostility of other banks (with a big shout-out to the Wall Street Journal) weren't concerned about housing policy either.  They were just envious of Fannie for walking off with all the swag.   In other words, the real problem with Fannie was not some defect in government policy  but the fact that it was acting way too much like one of those greedy and corrupt private banks.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Two More

I think I'll add two more items to my list of items worth saving from London's National Gallery.

One ought to be a no-brainer.  That would be Rembrandt's Woman Bathing in as Stream, probably Hendrickje Stoffels, his companion for 24 years after his wife died, and the mother of his daughter.  Is it a stretch to say that this might be the sexiest painting in the building.  Granted that you've got nothing like the acres of pink flesh you find in the Rokeby Venus or even the Tiepolo Venus.  But for vibrancy and immediacy this one is hard to beat: it has the kind of electricity that you find in that grand speech of Mistress Quickly's that I was quoting the other day.

The other is perhaps more eccentric.   It is the Portrait of Lord Ribblesdale by John Singer Sargent.  At first blush it strikes you as the very essence of British aristocratic arrogance and presumption.    But maybe not.  Sargent was, after all, an American, however much time he spent abroad.  And it was he who asked His Lordship for a sitting, rather than the other way round.  And the costume is all wrong: apparently his Lordship himself felt queasy about hunting duds, and what is it with the cape?  What we may have, then, is the esssence of British aristocratic arrogance and presumption as seen by an American who really doesn't know what he was talking about.  Mrs.  Buce passes on an anecdote that may through light on the subject: she tells me how the Sargents apparently carted around with them, at some inconvenience and expense, a cherished Chinese porcelain vase--except that it wasn't a Chinese porcelain vase, it was a fake.  Could it be that  Sargent was just not the sort of guy to spot a fake when it was in front of his eyes.

Maybe, maybe not.  Arguing against my case, the Museum blurb reports that the London Times published a copy of the painting with his Lordship's obituary notice rather than the more conventional photo.  Finally--maybe it is my imagination, but could swear that when I was last here nine years ago, Lord Ribblesdale graced the main foyer, where he greeted visitors as they entered.  These days he occupies a more discreet, though hardly obscure post in the interior.  Could it be that the trustees too decided that it was all a misunderstanding?  Or could it be that they decided such a display of Britishness was just carrying a good joker too far?

Marmalade as Signifier

I still can't think of a better novel/companion for a visit to England than Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart, our current readaloud.  That first chapter in Regents Park, where the swans have to cope with the ice--it's a set-piece fit to match the famous Virginia Woolf  "London Morning" at the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway.  But Woolf--dare one say it? --has always disappointed me as a novelist.  She's a writer of brilliant sentences but disappointing books;  in the end her self-absorption defeats her: you get the sense that she really doesn't understand any character except herself.  Bowen, by contrast, by fate and temperament an outsider, can be a model of sympathetic and astringent detachment.  She does it in elaborate set-pieces but also in deft asides, of a sort that you miss unless you have your eyes open.  Here, for example, we are at breakfast with Mrs, Heccomb at shambling purpose-built  beachfront house on the South Coast.  The topic is marmalade:
...highly jellied, sweet, and brilliantly orange.
Let's review bidding:
  1. Highly jellied.  She can't afford the kind with lots of orange peel.
  2. Sweet.  She's got vulgar taste.
  3. Brilliantly orange.  She's being fobbed off with food coloring.
Mrs. Heccomb lives here with her family except in summer when she moves everybody out so she can take in vacationers.  Did I mention that the name of the house is "The Waikiki"?

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    How Much Does a Stein Weigh?

    Overheard in the men's room at the concert hall:
    --That was wonderful.  I don't think he played a wrong note.
    --My wife is a concert pianist and she says he didn't play a wrong note.
    --When we travel, we take our own piano.  A Steinway.
    --I mean, with other pianos, you're never sure the voicing will be right.
    --Oh yes.
    --It weighs 500 pounds.
     Can that be right?  How heavy is a grand piano?

    Update:  Says here 490kg, i.e., well north of 1,000 pounds.

    I Am Getting Tired of Jeanne

    In the bathroom of our comfy little rental unit, there's a print portrait, surely a Modigliani.   I think it must be one (of many) of "Jeanne," though I haven't been able to pull it out of the Google catalogue.  She's got the classic Modigliani look--vaguely Egyptian head set on a Botticelli body (though this one is fully clothed).  She's got a little crinkle in her nose and her underlip is turned out.  She seems to be saying "I never saw one that small  before."

    I am getting tired of this.

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    From Out of my Past: The Cloakmakers' Union

    Larry taught me this one in 1957 and I am immensely in his debt that he reintroduces it to me now:

    Two Favorites

    If I had to single out two paintings to save from destruction at London's National Gallery, I suppose I would say Tiepolo's Allegory of Venus and Time, and Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus.  I won't for a moment pretend that they are "the best" in this collection or any other; they are just the two I want to sit and stare at, or to go back to time after time.

    Superficially, they're not at all alike, although there are more similarities than you might notice at first glance.  They're both Italian, for one thing, and within a century of each other.  They both take conventional, often stylized, themes and give them a startling immediacy. 

    Tiepolo did his best and most characteristic work in fresco on ceilings--he seems to have spent most of his life thirty feet off the floor.  Venus is not a frescoed ceiling, but it is more like a Tiepolo ceiling than any non-ceiling I know.  You get the startling blue sky, almost infinite in expanse.  You get the figures that seem to float--really, genuinely float--in space (can any other painter achieve that effect, ever?).  And you get the subtly arresting female face--yes, face--that seems to harbor agency and an independent sensibility amid all the apparent grandeur.  I wonder, do people understand how good Tiepolo is with women--how often they seem to be, if not entirely modern, still an advance in individuality over almost everything that his gone before.

    The Venus is wonderfully set off by several other Tiepolos, and by items from Giovanni Battista's son Gian Domenico Tiepolo--perhaps not as grand as his father, but a daring and original painter in his own right.  Some have said that Papa Tiepolo is a looser, more relaxed advance on Veronese; if so maybe the son is a comparably looser, more relaxed advance on the father.

    The Caravaggio, however different in detail, offers the same startling immediacy at the center--Jesus looking is human and indeed ordinary as any Jesus you've ever seen (how often in life do we meet The Great Man and find that he looks pretty much like anyone else?).  He is flanked by three of those figures who seem to have come right off the Roman street-perhaps because they did come right off the human street, to help Caravaggio establish the human particularity of the moment.

    The guidebooks say that the Supper is a transitional item, on the cusp between the early Caravaggios like the androgynous Boy with the Lizard just beside the Supper--a group which, as a whole, I've always found discomfiting--and the later Caravaggio, all "religious" but religious in a manner achieved by nobody before or since.

    Those are my keepers, and I'm not at all sure which, if any, I would assign to third place (well, the Rokeby Venus certainly deserves a thought).  For a moment I was going to say I wanted to take them home with me, but no; I think they are well suited to their environment, and I'd rather leave them there to share with the rest of you.  I'm just happy to entertain the thought that I might get to come back and see them again and again.

    Empty the Jordan: a Scholarly Enquiry

    In Act II, Scene 4 of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part II, at the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap, Falstaff enters:
    [Singing] 'When Arthur first in court,'
    And then says:
    --Empty the jordan.
    Jordan?  The online dictionary gives:
    n:   1350–1400;  ME jurdan  urinal, perh. after Jordan,  the river, by coarse jesting.
     In last week's London Globe performance--the nearest  I have ever see, I  suspect, to a Shakespearean original, Shakespeare precedes his mandate and his song with a 45-second episode of epic disencumbrance.  It is all in the best of taste, done from under a flowing blouse with no dangly parts on display. But there can be little doubt that the "jordan"--here a dun-colored clay pot--is well and truly filled.  Fallstaff's  boy dutifully executes his master's command; he attempts first to dump it all back into the wine cask, but Mistress Quickly administers a hearty smack and he scampers offstage.

    But here's the thing: the command is right there in the Shakespearean script.  The stage business which precedes it is nowhere to be seen.  Which inspires the question--really, two questions:
    • Who was the first Shakespearean scholar, director or dramaturge who first grasped that a jordan, in order to be emptied, must once have been full; or
    • Can we assume that this bit of merriment goes right back to the 1590s?

    Leonard, We Hardly Knew Ye

    Larry catches what must be today's most distinctive obit:
    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Leonard Skinner, the basketball coach and gym teacher who inspired the name of the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, died on Monday in a nursing home here. He was 77.

    He had Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter, Susie Moore, said in confirming the death.

    Mr. Skinner, born Forby Leonard Skinner, was working at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville in the late 1960s when he sent a group of students to the principal’s office because their hair was too long. The students, including Ronnie Van Zant, later formed a band, using a variation of Skinner’s name for their own. Among its hits were “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps” and “Free Bird.”

    Roberts Falls for Kaputt

    oI see that yet one more grownup of whom you might expect to next better is showcasing one of the most corrupt misrepresentations of World War II misery and suffering for a "top books" list.  The culprit-recommender is Andrew Roberts, author of the highly rewarding Masters and Commanders, noted here.  The book recommended is Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt, noted in passing here.  It's a mystery to me why anybody takes Kaputt seriously; or why the NYRB bothered to publish this farrago of self-glorification and gothic fantasy.  Shelve it alongside Lovecraft or Philip Dick--at a pinch maybe Mervin Peake--and I suppose I could pass it off with a shrug.  Or better perhaps as a kind of high end Mary Sue, as imbued with wish-fulfillment as Hadrian VII.  But to pass it off as a genuine representation of World War II experience seems to me an insult to genuine representations everywhere.  I never cease to be baffled by the number and variety of  normally sensible grownups appear to be sucked in by it. 

    More temperate followup: George MacDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here is indeed an honorable entry on the list, but if Roberts wants a truly gnarly picture of the Burma campaign, he might consider Charlton Ogburn's Marauders.

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    Allow Me to be The First...

    Sarah Palin, Chrisrtine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle ...
    • walk into a bar
    • are together in a lifeboat
    • are grizzly hunting from as helicopter when they spot Barack Obama.... 
    Go ahead and fill in the punchline, but doesn't really matter.  What is perhaps more interesting is that in the natural order of things, it is probably only a matter of ( brief) time before Tea Party superstars decide that there isn't enough oxygen in the room for all of them.  Ought to be pretty good theatre....

    America on the Move Again

    I pointed out before that if you want to know where domestic job growth is coming from, check to see where the Teamsters are organizingNow this.

    Lazy Day

    Lazy Day  in London (perfect weather didn't help) spent mostly at the LRB Bookshop or among the Impressionists at the Courtauld. In the evening, to hear the American novelist Marilynne Robinson chat with a Guardian journalist.  The interviewer was awful, stilted and wooden--I think shy in front of a live audience.  Robinson either shy or self-contained.  A woman of unhesitant opinions but hey, she has spent a lifetime thinking about stuff.  Fun in its way but I'd still rather read the novels, especially this one.

    Catching up on a couple of restaurant notes:
    • Gascon Cellar next to the Smithfield Market--good wine, good small plates, although I saw the sausage come out of a can.
    • Great Queen Street in Covent Garden--actually better than its (favorable) reviews.   Queen not quite as heavy, and they've added a couple of veggie entries.
    • Oh, and perhaps the best of them--Barrica on Goodge Street.  Nice tapas, but loud; a two-hour conversation with an old friend, all shouted.
      Business didn't seem great at either place, though.

      Repent, for the End is Nigh!

      Looking for a quick bite before the theatre in London the other night, we blundered into what looked like a promising wine bar.  We ordered a promising rosé and a bit of raw fish, but before the food arrived, it sank into us: we were older by a factor of two, maybe two and a half than anybody else in the room.  And it seems we had made our way in just in time: in front of our eyes the room filled up, and a queue started to grow in the street.  The decibel level went high enough that Mrs. B discreetly dismembered a Kleenex and improvised earplugs for herself.

      None of this is a complaint.  The fish was fine and the wine, as they say, drinkable.  But it did propel me into a moment of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt as I found myself wondering/marveling as to just who these people were.  Provisional first take: this was probably about the brightest, cleverest, most prosperous, best looking crowd you were likely to find anywhere in town just now (ignoring us, which they were pretty well able to do).  And they were having a wonderful time, and life was good.   Only then did it sink in on me--this is Friday night, this is the celebratory beginning of a good weekend.  And then it struck me: there's a party (maybe a dozen parties) just like this going on now (well--adjust for time zones) in New York, in San Francisco, in Sidney, in St. Petersburg (yes?)--and downscale versions of the same in Charlotte, in Grenoble, maybe Sverdlovsk.  The wine and the money flow and times are good.

      Half an hour later we made a deft and unobserved exit and so end of story.  But I kept thinking  of this crowd all weekend--as, for example, I read about all those over-50s who are waking up to the fact that they may never find a job again. Or when I read about that guy who is so outraged because he and his wife only make $455,000 a year.  Or--but then my mind goes back to the wine bar and ask myself: what if some guy in a nightgown with a scraggly beard stumbled in here holding a sign that asid "Repent for the End is Nigh!"   Would they throw him out?  Would they eat him alive?  Nah, spirits were much to good for that.  My best guess is that someone would put an arm around him and sit him down and buy him a drink.

      Afterthought: maybe the guy with the sign is me.

      Sunday, September 19, 2010

      There Goes another Interest Group

      Am advised that the society of Witches Opposed to Masturbation  has come out against Christie O'Donnell as just too weird.

      Can' t a Man Have a Biscuit?
      How To Make Todd Henderson Happier

      The Todd Henderson contretemps (link; cf. link, link, link, etc.)  is really beginning to take on all the characteristics of a 500-car pile-up in the tule fog on Interstate Five.  I doubt I can add anything directly useful at this point (and I've quit trying to read it all) but I do have one suggestion on how Todd make himself happier: increase his charitable giving.  Aside from any intrinsic merit, a program of charitable giving would offer the instrumental satisfaction of taking money away from those roughnecks down at the Internal Revenue Service.  It would also give him a chance to show how redistributional dollars really should be spent.  And who knows, it might just possibly give him some personal satisfaction: make him feel plugged into his community, give him a generally better sense of self-worth.  Tithing: yes, I recommend tithing.   And none of this "Chicago Lyric Opera" or "historical society" stuff.  Think Salvation Army, or Little Sisters of the Poor.  A stint with a ladle at the soup kitchen might  help as well.

      Afterthought:  In Bertrand Russell's Nightmares of Eminent People, there is a story about how Stalin dreams he dies and goes to Hell where Quakers feed him cocoa and read  him tracts.  Just sayin'.

      Saturday, September 18, 2010

      What I Did This Weekend

      My project for the weekend was to handle logistics for an excursion for two people from Central London out to the Darwin House in Kent.  You wouldn't think it was that big of a deal: I've been coping with London public transport for near onto forty years come peasecod time, and I've found it always doable and often rather fun.  But this year, everything is new, and has to be rethought twice.  Example, I never had an Oyster Card before,.  And I'm only  beginning to get used to all the not-quite-as-helpful-as-you-want-them-to be option for trip planning.  Also: I forget stuff, like I forget that King's Cross is not really next door to Euston (that's St. Pancras).  And there is a little matter of the guy in  the dress, who made thought of travel through Central London pretty much of a non-option today.   Still, it did come together: walk to King's Cross, tube to London Bridge, suburban train to Orpington, bus to the destination and don't forget it is a request stop.

      In the end, it worked almost without a hitch.  I guess I read the directions ten times, confused myself on seven of the ten.  I wasn't ready for all those warnings of weekend maintenance stoppages from King's Cross.  I really couldn't make head or tail of the over-helpful schedule sign at London  Bridge, but eventually that problem solved itself. I more or less panicked when the Southeastern train flashed through half a dozen stations without stopping before coming to rest, reassuringly, at Orpington.  In the end, I'm specially pleased to be here, seeing as how it is the domicile of an old friend.  

      And so, pretty much, ends an uneventful day.  Last night I was reading about Phillippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, "General Leclerc," deGaulle's fightingest man-st-arms.  Among his many achievements, he successfully moved a column of French troops across the Sahara from Chad to Tunis.  And he didn't have a carte Oyster.

      Friday, September 17, 2010

      Why Is the London Underground so Full of Young People?

      I like subways in general and I love the London Underground but I must say that compared to New York, the London crowd seems generally younger, more fast moving, more likely to run down geezers like me.  This is fine, it keeps me hopping, but I'm wondering why?  My first guess:  London Underground travel in general is probably cheaper than New York, adjusted for exchange rates, earnings, whatever. Since when I say "younger" I probably mean "richer," it may be that the hunble folk here just can't afford the tube.  And second--I like this one better--New York still has flat fees, so humble folk who live all the way to the end of the line can still afford to travel by subway,  Any such person who lives beyond, say, Zone 1 in London, is going to find another way to travel.

      But wait, you'd think this would sort itself in the price of housing--flat NYC fares should raise the prices of real estate in the outer suburbs.  And I really haven't thought through the opportunity cost of taking the bus in either place.  So I guess I am, you know, like just as ignorant as when I started.  Are there any other good theories?

      Janet's Dating Service

      My friend Janet has a worthwhile proposal for a ladies' dating service. Make the guys send dirty tee-shirt.  Guys are visual but for women it is all about pheremones, might as well cut to the chase.  I guess there'll have to be some sort of disclaimer so the guy doesn't expect the tee-shirt to be returned laundered.

      This strikes me as a pendant to the fabric-softener theory of territory-marking. I.e., no man thinks to use fabric softener on his own, so if he smells of the stuff that means he is taken.

      Thursday, September 16, 2010

      Sir Christopher Wren ...

      Went to dine with some men
      He said, "If anyone calls,
      Say I'm designing Saint Paul's."

      Clerihew.  To the left is the marvelous Millennium bridge.

      Shakepeare Note: Falstaff at the Globe

      I know I tend to natter on too much about Shakespeare, but here's a story that needs to be told.  It involves the Globe Theatre in London--Shakespeare's Globe as it is known to publicists everywhere.   Up to now I've steered clear of the place because it seemed to  me just too sacerdotal, in the sense of a mandatory waystation on the Shakespeare tourist pilgrimage trail.  But here's the thing: space matters.  Whatever else it may be, it is the nearest replica we are ever likely to have of Shakespeare's own performance space.  And now I can testify from experience: I've just seen a production--no, two productions--that certainly come as close as anything ever seen to what original 1590s-Shakespeare ever looked like.

      The particular case is Henry IV parts and II which might just as well be called Falstaff  because these are the plays dominated by the fat knight.  And I've really never seen anything like it, or them.  We know that Falstaff is "funny" in some sense, and that Shakespeare had a knack for comedy and drama.  But these two were pure foot-stomping theatre--funny in the sense that music hall is funny, or vaudeville, or comedia dell'arte, or a Punch and Judy show: coarse and vulgar, loud and unsubtle, high energy and full of high spirits.

      And like I say, space matters: the actors had to be loud to fill the three-story roofless arena (though I assume Richard Burbage never had to cope with a passing helicopter).  And the audience: the regular folks sat on backless wooden benches, so everybody was squirmy.  And there were groundlings--honest-to-god people (mostly, but not all, young) who stood through the whole show.  A crowd like that comes with attitude; they are ready to be entertained but in specific, preferably noisy and vulgar, ways.

      The fulcrum of it all was, as it had to be, Falstaff--here, Roger Allam, well known to London audience as Inspector Javert from Les Miz.   I can't say he was a perfect Falstaff--he isn't even fat,  not really.  But he knew how to play it for laughs, and that is what he did.  As I think back on it, just about every Falstaff I ever saw before now was too solemn: stomping on his own best effects with an air of marmorial splendor.  Here was a Falstaff who didn't mind milking it for every laugh he could get

      Mrs. Buce offered a useful insight here: she said that Falstaff actually says a lot of things that are wise, but he can't say them as if they were wise.  They have to come from the gut, as this tun of man defines himself.  And this is what he was able to do.

      With a really good Falstaff not a lot can go wrong, and a number of other things did go right here. There was generally great ensemble work in the loud and noisy comedy.  Barbara Marten was a superb Mistress Quickly--tall and thin for once, not short and stout. Jade Williams played Doll Tearsheet with enough  verismo that she kept vomiting into the audience.   And for once, you could tell the difference between the two: some directors seem not to notice.

      For Prince Hal, the point is to play not merely the young roisterer but also to harbor the  heart of steel that will make you able to repudiate your best friend in the end.  Jamie Parker got it mostly, not hindered by the fact that he looks a lot like the new Prime Minister, David Cameron.  But for the other not-so-comic parts--well here is a puzzle.  The fact is there are some longuers in thee plays--long passages of narrative description in pretty good verse, but underneath it all pretty tiresome,  In a really good production, you don't notice.  Here, you noticed: when Oliver Parker rolled on as the King, you found yourself looking at your watch.  You had to wonder: how far is this the fault of the actors, how far the director, how far the peculiar constraints of the outdoor stage?  My guess is that a good part of the problem is that they had to cast for people whose voices would carry--who could be understood uttering a Shakespeare line across the acreage even if it wasn't rich in dramatic nuance.

      But I'm willing to let that be.  This was still the kind of performance I've been waiting for over a good bit of a lifetime, and that I expect to remember for the rest of it.  Maybe Globe-goers knew this kind of thing all along; I'm just glad that I figured it out eventually.  And meanwhile:
      Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife
      Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then and call me
      gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of
      vinegar; telling us she had a good dish of prawns;
      whereby thou didst desire to eat some; whereby I
      told thee they were ill for a green wound? And
      didst thou not, when she was gone down stairs,
      desire me to be no more so familiarity with such
      poor people; saying that ere long they should call
      me madam? And didst thou not kiss me and bid me
      fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy
      book-oath: deny it, if thou canst.
       That's Mistress Quickly, berating Sir John for breaking his promise of marriage, and it reduces me to butter


      You Don't Need to Know the Context

      ...On Wednesday, Mr Romney shifted his weight on to his other Achilles heel...
      Link. Thanks, Joel.

      The Tate Ex-Modern

      Popped in for a call at the Tate Modern on the South Bank here in London yesterday and was reminded again at just how quaint and old-fashioned the very idea of "modern" has become.  Not shopworn exactly: this is a pleasant space to be in and it's hugely popular; one hears talk of twice the number of visitors they expected, and there at work on a new wing.

      But the conventional centerpiece here is a nicely-laid-out set of galleries offering a (ahem) history of what happened in the art world after World War II.  Indeed the centerpiece of the centerpiece is an instructive pairing of a Claude Monet--i.e. pre-1926--with a Jackson Pollock, so as to illustrate the birth of abstract. expressionism.  For an audience for whom Picasso is about as dead as Leonardo, this is certainly helpful but at the end of the day it is the presentation of a received tradition.  Which is not a complaint; the point, rather, is--how could it be anything else?  Indeed the stuff two rooms down makes the point one better.  What we have here is a multimedia presentation from Joan Jonas--she's my age, frevvins sakes--of which the motive force is a carousel slide projector.   Faithful fans of Mad Men will recognize the carousel as a piece of technology whose very existence needs to be explained.

      [There are, of course, temporary exhibits.  The current showpiece is something on "Voyeurism" which, in a city that no doubt leads the world for CCTV cameras, strikes me as a pretty good joke.]

      Of course I don't see how it could be any other way.  Once you've designated a space and opened it to the public for presentations you've settled all the relevant questions.  But it's still, as I say a pleasant space to be in.  Indeed one of the gems of London is the cafe/bar on the seventh floor.  The baristas (sic, not bartenders?) up there could I suppose give you a bit of helpful instruction on the matter of why Damien Hirst is so passé.  But the real draw is the north-facing patio with its view of the Millennium Bridge and the dome of  St. Paul's.  For my money that dome is one of the most perfect pieces of architecture in the world and so I am happy to pay museum prices to kill off a bottle of fizzy water up there. But it is a good joke that the best thing about the Tate Modern is the view of something built before 1700.

      Wednesday, September 15, 2010

      When Rove is Scared I'm Scared

      The Wichita bureau finds a notable pairing:
      •  Del. winner bashes 'cannibalism'

      •  Rove: O'Donnell 'nutty'

      Adultery in the Pre-Pill Era

      Mr Quayne falls from marital grace:
      At the end of the party Mr Quayne all in a daze already saw her back in a taxi to Notting Hill Gate and was asked in for some Horlicks.  No one knows what happened--still less of course, why  it did.  But from that evening on, Thomas's father lost his head completely.  ... I often think of those dawns in Notting Hill Gate, with Irene up leaking tears and looking for hairpins and Mr Quayne sitting up denouncing himself.  His wife was much too nice to have pretty ways but I daresay Irene had plenty--if that is how you like them.  I've no doubt she made the most fussy capitulations; she would make him feel she had never fallen before--and I should think it's likely she never had.  She would not be everyone's money.  You may be sure that she let Mr Quayne know that her little life was from now on entirely in his hands.  By the end of those ten days he cannot have known himself whether he was a big brute or St George.

      --Elizabeth Bowen The Death of the Heart 18 (1938; Penguin 1966)

      Mmm, Horlicks.

      Tuesday, September 14, 2010

      Overheard in the Coffee Line: The Syllabus

      No, neuroanatomy.  That's biology with way more detail.


      So here we are, tucked into a rented flat in Bloomsbury, just a bit north of Russell Square--i.e. London.  We spent a semester in the same neighborhood nine years ago, when Mrs. B had a teaching gig here.  Everything seems so familiar I can't quite  believe I haven't been back in the meantime, and I'm mildly impressed at how little has changed.  There are a few points to notice; example, the forlorn/modern Brunswick Square shopping center which always looked so desolate the first time I saw it in 1976 has transmogrified itself into almost inviting--well, at least most of the shops have tenants, which is a novelty and an improvement.

      We're still pretty dopey so in default of ambitious plans we idled away a few hours by popping around to the British Museum.  We spent most of the time with the Assyrians--those gaunt, majestic stone lion-men and the massive bas-reliefs just off to the left as you go in the main door; another of those grand enterprises of imperial pillage that the Brits carried out so unapologetically in the 19th Century.  It was fun to be back because I have more context for this stuff than I used to.   Specifically I've trekked around Israel a bit, and have at least a beginners sense of the situation of the ancient Israeliates--more precisely, the Judaeans-- wriggling between the millstones of Assyria and Egypt.

      In Israel I did visit Lachish, south of Jerusalem.  These days it looks like a noplace.  I gather that in its own time, it was someplace, but its main identity is that it was between someplace and someplace else; so, a natural candidate for destruction when the Assyrian king Sennacherib in the late 8th Century got a feather up his nose and undertook to make a nuisance of himself throughout that part of the world.

      Bear with me, there's a sequitur here.  Specifically--among its Assyrian loot, the BM offers a whole room dedicated to wall reliefs giving the official Babylonian spin-doctor account of the battle of Lachish,  and it is a sight not to be missed.  Lots of battle scenes of course, and picture of miserable prisoners being hauled before the great king.  But also remarkable sketches of other unfortunates as they pack up wives, children and chattels for the journey into exile.

      Perhaps the most remarkable item is a panel showing three (it says here) prisoners with musical instruments--some kind of a lyre.  With the help of a museum wall note, we connect the dots:
      By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.  We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

      That's the beginning of Psalm 137, from the King James version.

      Monday, September 13, 2010

      But Don't You Hate it When You Have to Scrape it Off Your Shoe?

      What I get for reading the airline magazine:
      Win and you are deified--sane humans with respectable jobs will lay prostrate at your feet...
       Bonus, from the tenant's guide for our rental flat just above Brunswick Square:

      ...there is a wi-fi connection which you may try to use.

      Saturday, September 11, 2010

      Liveblogging Twelfth Night: Intermission

      Just about halfway through the text, we are suspending our slow-read of Twelfth Night.  Absolutely no complaints about the play which (though I still wouldn't count it as one of  my very favorites) is surely disclosing insights and delights that I never suspected in it before.  Thing is, we are off traveling again, and carrying our Shakespeare library seems like an indulgence (or a nuisance, depending on who is hoiking up the luggage).  We'll pick it up again at the end of the month.

      Appreciation: Diary of a Country Priest

      I've just come off a two-hour (almost) engagement with Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest.  I'd read the book a few years ago but I'm not sure I ever heard of the movie until I ran into it in someone's appreciation of Bresson.  I'd say it is well worth the effort; it's  interestingly shot, with a craftsmanlike use of voice-over (the :Diary").  He's made great use of his non-color color, washing out all the blacks and whites into a kind of spooky pallet of grey.  There's enough gloom here to remind you of Bergman, although you'd have to say that Bresson and Bergman are each gloomy in their own way.

      It's a coming of age movie: young priest on his first assignment, and probably the best thing to say about it is that there is not a whiff of Bing Crosby or Barry Fitzgerald.   It's an earnest and carefully-observed effort to understand loneliness and spiritual challenge, in the company of a physical body that harbors a will of its own.  It's respectful and compassionate and devoid of cheap tricks,  but I'm not persuaded that Claude Laydu had the chops for  part that requires so much face time with the camera.

      I suspect the problem starts with the book itself: George Bernaonos' original  is at least as bleak as the movie without the consolation of those breathtaking grey skies.  As such, it is a truthful picture of the difficulties and disappointments in the believer's life: a chastening reminder of how hard it is to do any good at all.  An additional difficulty is that for a book/movie about a priesthood, there is a strangely limited take on the job of comforting the afflicted.  Laydu has essentially one "client;"  she lost a son and is inconsolable.  But she is a countess with plenty of means for consolation apart from this poor unseasoned youth.  Flip side: for a community that seems so poor, there are scarcely any poor people.  What, exactly, does the priest do all day?

      Yet it still commands respect, perhaps not so much for what it does, but for what it refuses to do--rhe number of occasions on which the director refuses to allow either his character or his audience any manufactured consolation.   Maybe you could run it as a training film for the Peace Corps, especially if you want to make sure you drive away all the waverers before the cost the sponsors a lot of money.

      Perhaps you could pair it with another I ran across a few months ago--I gather this too is a movie though I have only read the novel. I'm thinking of Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August , another coming-of-age story about a young man cast adrift with a mandate to do good in a millieu he doesn't really understand.  Unlike Bernanos' priest, Chatterjee's young man spends most of his time smoking dope and masturbating.  I understand it was a huge hit among young urbans in India.

      Sweet Jesus...

      Prompted by the Wichita bureau, I learn that one thing you can find on YouTube is the Lawrence Welk rendition of "One Toke Over the Line:"

      O'l Lawrence calls it "a modern spiritual by Gail and Dale."

      Social Science Insight of the Day

      Alex  Tabarrok  on a dictum in the Ninth Circuit's decision dismissing a case alleging torture by the CIA; the court declared that the decision "does not preclude the government from honoring the fundamental principles of justice."
      [N]ot precluded ... Tell me, what government ever was?

      Do I Detect ...

      A we sniff of smug here?
      So then it attaches to the molecule, changing its shape and causing it to bind more readily.  Wow, that's brutal.
      Overheard on a Stanford University running trail, per the San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, Sept. 10.

      Hittites Again

      DeLong picked up (link) my Hittites squib (link), where it generated a great comment thread, of which the prize goes, I think, to this:
      Having taken on the alternatives, I'll throw out my theory: horses. Not war chariots, although that's how they were used, but stud farms. The Anatolian plateau is wet in the summer, and thus the nearest place to the Middle East (besides the Zagros) where you can run a stud farm. The Hittites had the horses.
      From one Erik Lund, unknown to me but thanks, Erik, for the provocative thought.

      Friday, September 10, 2010

      Politics as a Blood Sport

      The Economist tells you some stuff you pretty much know:
      [A] funny thing is happening on the home front. Where the Muslim world sees just another president, Mr Obama is somehow becoming more exotic to Americans. In August a Pew survey found that nearly one in five, and a third of conservative Republicans, think that he is a Muslim himself. Only about a third of all Americans say he is a Christian and 43% say they do not know what religion he practises. Moreover, both the number who think he is a Muslim and the number who do not think he is a Christian have risen sharply since March 2009.  Mr Obama is in fact a Christian ...
      And adds:

       and the reasons for the public doubt are perplexing.

      If, by "perplexing," the editors mean that they cannot divine the reason, then I must object: the reasons are not perplexing; they are fairly straightforward, but no easier to deal with therefore.

      The reason is this: for some segment of the electorate (exact quantity is open to debate), politics is not about "winning" in the conventional sense; it isn't even about "stealing" (though stealing is always fun).  It's about humiliating the enemy, making him look like an idiot, rubbing his face in the dirt, making him squeal like a pig. There's segment of the political arena--probably any arena of human conflict--that finds this activity of humiliation almost an end in itself.   It's the sensibility of the participant who would like to win dirty or clean but almost rather win dirty because it shows more contempt for the loser.  So also shenanigans like registering the homeless as green party candidates not so much because it will change any election results but precisely because it makes a mockery of the process.

      You can see it at work in many places, but in politics particularly when yo see one team catch the other team off guard for a moment, hesitant, as if they feel they have something to apologize for.     "Obama is a Muslim" and its close kin "Obama isn't a citizen" are perfect for this sort of thing because they tap into a bit of unease among Obama defenders with the exotic background of their man.  No matter that many of the attackers have only the dimmest notion of what a "Muslim" is (or where Hawaii is, for that matter). They know it makes the defending team uncomfortable and that is where the fun is.

      It's devilishly hard to know how to deal with this attack.  Treating it with the kind of austere disdain it so richly deserves is almost always  mistake: silence is read as an admission.   Meeting mockery with mockery can be helpful but the mockery had better be good.  Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert bring it off most of the time; Keith Obermann, rarely and Rachel Maddow, less and less (her fans will shout that she is smart and well informed; she is smart and well informed but that is almost entirely beside the point--in her attempts at humor, she mostly comes across as a tiresome scold).

      Meeting ruffianism with ruffianism is dangerous because you never know in advance who is going to win a war.  Still it is interesting that the right tends to go easiest on the ones who they remember with a frisson of fear: Lyndon Johnson in particular; Jack Kennedy--more, ironically, after he was dead, when we finally came to know what a cad he really was.

      At the end, the fact is that the "humiliation" impulse is hard-wired enough that we might as well think of it as part of mainstream culture.  In some circles, it even passes for "Christianity," although I must tread lightly here.  We've got millions of Christian-Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They're going to school with our kids. They're our neighbors. They're our friends. They're our co-workers. And, you know, when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?  Why, even our President may be a--nah, bad example, forget it.

      Here's a Quaint Complaint...

      ... about our President: he's not enough like Jimmy Carter.

      Third World Watch

      Oh, for pity sakes.  Somebody needs to construct a "Third-World Index," to measure just how close the United States is coming to represent, say, Rwanda or Uzbekistan.  We could put Simon Johnson in charge of banana republic finance issues.    Rick Perlstein ought to be available to track the decaying infrastructure.  And now we can deploy T. W. Farnam of the Washington Post  to track the great  Taxes-are-for-little-people E;pidemic. Jeez Louise, forget about knowing how to play the game--isn't anybody even trying to play the game any more?  In Kentucky it used to be (maybe it still is) a condition of public office that you swear that you had not fought a duel.  Dueling is, perhaps, a mere private matter, but for enjoying public benefaction, couldn't we make a rule that you at least show that you have paid your bills? 

       Read the fine print in Farnam's account and you can infer that this isn't even particularly knew but I don't see any reason not to get infuriated with it anyway.    And what is particularly egregious is anything even remotely resembling a glimmer of shame.  Democrats are likely to tell you they "forgot," probably in the press of doing the people's important business.  Republicans are bound to suggest that they are just serving the public good, liberating some of those tax dollars from the bureaucratic prison out into the free upper air of the markeplace.  Neither view washes; the combined picture is one which standards of civic responsibility no longer seem to work, but where we have an elite class that really doesn't give a rat's patootie whether they work or  not.

      More de Gaulle: "Now She is Like the Others"

      As we gasp and admire at the spectacle of the incredible shrinking presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, it is pleasant to go back and again remember le grand asperge, Charles de Gaulle, of whom I wrote yesterday.  Wherefore I pulled down my copy of Clive James' quirky but compulsively readable Cultural Amnesia and flipped open to James' appreciation of the great man,.  And here is something I had forgotten: de Gaulle had a daughter "who had a severe case of Down's" syndrome," abnd, per James "died choking in her father's arms."  De Gaulle wrote to his sister: "A spirit has been set free.   But the disappearance of our poor suffering infant [she was 20--ed.], our little daughter without hope, has done us an immense pain."   He is reported to have said at her funeral: "Now she is like the others."  James explains:

      The awful beauty of that remark lies in how it hints at what he had so often felt.  Wanting her to be like the normal children, the ones who couldn't help noticing that she was different, must have been the dearest wish of his private life.  Knowing that the wish could never come true mus have been his most intimate acquaintance with defeat.  For us, who overhear the last gasp of a long agony, there is the additional poignancy of recognizing that the Man of Destiny lived every day with a heavenly dispensation that he could not control.
       James appears to believe that it humanized  the angular and difficult man.  He writes:
      "De Gaulle behaved as if the fate of France was his  sole concern, but the secret of his incomparable capacity to act in that belief probably lay in a central humility. ... [L]ikely ... the touchstone of his humanity was his poor daughter.  Nothing is more likely to civilize a powerful man than the presence in his house of an injured loved one his power can't help.  Every night he comes home to a reminder that God is not mocked; a cure for his invincibility.
      One can only hope that that is true.  Or, one wishes that it were true. 

      James' de Gaull sketch is in Cultural Amnesia pp 157-60.  And here's another excellent insight: flipping to the next, I find that James consigns to the ranks of the overrated one Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Man, I've been waiting for someone to say that.

      Thursday, September 09, 2010

      More on the Upside Down Pyramid Guy

      Did I ever tell you about the  upside down pyramid guy? No?   I thought not.  Well, here goes--it's a bit mean spirited but he has been did for years and I doubt there is anybody within light years of this blog who will be able to identify him.

      So this is the deal: he taught medieval history in a night school.  Actually, he had a regular tenured appointment; why exactly he kept on handling night classes, I have no idea.  It may (or may not) have had something to do with the fact that he was a drunk.  Or so I was told, and it never occurred to me to doubt it it, until, perhaps this moment.

      I never saw him drunk or even the least bit giggly except once at a party when a lot of us were giggly. What I did see was that he was scandalously unprepared.  I mean in the narrow sense of going over his class notes before class.  This  I do know because he would begin each evening session the same way: where were we last time?  A tentative voice would say: uh, you left Charles Martel on the battlefield at Tours, sir.He would say: oh yes!

      But get this part: then he'd be off and running.  He'd lecture for a straight 75 minutes.  And they were some of the most entertaining and informative lectures I ever heard.  Insightful and anecdotal in balance, funny and wry with a bleak but gentle irony.  And more important, all tightly morticed at the joints.   It was like there was one of those old fashioned reel-to-reel tape jobbies (this was about 1962), and once you got it rolling, you could marvel over the fact that there wasn't a scratch on it.

      Discussion?  Hah in your dreams.  Questions?  Well, he didn't like it, but he he would field them if  necessary.  But in class only: eager beaver that I was, I once tried to pester him out of class for some followup.  After two or three sentences, he simply turned his back on me and disappeared into his office.  I guess that might have been a time when I suspected that the drunk stories had something to them.

      Aside from the not-many-questions stuff, there was one giveaway to the heart of his routine.  Every so often he would say "along about 1923, there was a terrific controversy among scholars on this point.  Two or three episodes of this and it sank  into you: he hadn't read anything new in his field in more than 40 years--which is to say, since just about the time he would have finished his coursework for his PhD.

      Was he a good teacher?  Surely not by most standards.  All passive learning, all critically slack.  I remember another history course around the same time where we had to work with original documents, make judgments, offer supporting arguments, yikes.  The thing is, you can't really say he was a bad teacher either.  Otherwise, would I be telling his story after 40 years?

      Upside-Down Pyramid Moment::The Hittites

      One of my favorite teachers used to say that one of the fun things about history is that you could always look at the same data and see something you never before.  "For example," he intoned, "I just last night realized that you can't turn a pyramid upside down."

      I think I'm having an upside-down pyramid moment.  The subject is the Hittites, who developed a great empire in and around Central Anatolia from (say) the 18th to the 12th Century BC..  At least in this part of the world, it was about the fourth empire ever, following the Akkadians, Ur-three, and Babylon.

      It is also the first of these empires to be located outside of a river basin.  At least at its height, away from the water: its focal point is the Anatolian plateau, up around 3,000 feet.

      Which brings me to my pyramid moment:  this is a terrible place to build an empire.  Paul Collier argues that if you want to avoid poverty as a nation, one of the things you don't want to be is "landlocked."  Especially not with unfriendly neighbors, of which the Hittites seemed to have plenty--and if they weren't unfriendly to begin with, the Hittites would make them so (forget Switzerland: it only looks landlocked; in fact it is the center of a thriving market).

      Which brings me back to my point?  Why?   Even better, how?  As I scan the "empires" file in the cerebral file cabinet, I can't think of many empires at any time or place who function so completely from a land base.  And you can usually come up with exception-that-proves-the-rule reasons.   Mongols, for example: they didn't create an empire so much as pillage other people's.

      I can't think of any such reason for the Hittites.  I'll bet you hadn't been worrying about this question.  Now you can.

      Wednesday, September 08, 2010

      Liveblogging Twelfth Night: Viola Almost Loses It

      We're now at the pithy center of Twelfth Night, in particular   Act II, scene 4, where Viola almost loses her decorum and her incognito--where, that is, she almost confesses her suppressed love for Orsino:  "My father had a daughter loved sa man/As it might be perhaps,were I a woman,/ I should your lordship."  This must be a hellaciously difficult scene to get right--so much going on that one (Viola) must conceal and the other (Orsino) seems barely to understand. This is perhaps the scene that makes the play so popular with some Shakespeare fans, despite its impossible plot and its unpleasant subplot.  Orsino does not take the bait--or yet perhaps he does, without knowing it.  For Viola becomes the one person (to our knowledge) who can actually command the attention of those most self-absorbed man.  He seems to be taken by Viola better than he knows.

      There follows the "boxwood" scene where Malvolio takes the bit of his own, finding the letter and determining to go before his lady cross-gartered and in yellow stalkings.  Again, there are so many ways in which it could go wrong but here, perhaps the extraordinary artistry is in the writing, not the playing.  Shakespeare does a remarkable job of keeping the practical joke all funny and engaging--the bad stuff comes later.  I'm still struck by how similar and yet how different this "letter trap" is so similar and yet so different from what is, after, all, virtually the identical device just a few years before in Much Ado About Nothing.