Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"The foetus needs the application of considerable propelling force"

Centrifuging babies (Marc Abrahams in the Guardian):
Inspired by elephants, a New York City couple designed an electro-mechanical device that accelerates the process. The method is simple: the pregnant woman is strapped on to a circular table; the table is then rotated at high speed. [...] The design includes some 125 basic components, including bolts, brakes, wing nuts, a massive concrete floor slab, a vari-speed vertical gear motor, a speed reducer, more wing nuts, sheaves, stretchers, shafts, thigh members, a butt plate, aluminium ballast water boxes, more wing nuts, pillow clamps, a girdle member, and some additional wing nuts.
On the topic of vaguely absurd-sounding lists, here is another one from Cobbett (in Rural Rides):
let us see what would be the consumption of one family; let it be a family of five persons; a man, wife, and three children, one child big enough to work, one big enough to eat heartily, and one a baby; and this is a pretty fair average of the state of people in the country. Such a family would want 5lb. of bread a day; they would want a pound of mutton a day; they would want two pounds of bacon a day; they would want, on an average, winter and summer, a gallon and a half of beer a day; for I mean that they should live without the aid of the eastern or the western slave-drivers.
A rather pleasant life! (Even if you note that "bacon" -- as becomes clear from context -- is being used as a generic term for cured pig-meat.) 

The two cultures of snowclonology

It is clear that the number of riffs on C.P. Snow's Two Cultures essay -- Timothy Gowers on "the two cultures of mathematics," Peter Norvig on "the two cultures of statistical learning," Zadie Smith on the "two cultures of novel-writing" (well OK it wasn't titled that but it should have been), Language Log on the "two cultures of interruption research" and so on -- is sufficient to make "the two cultures of X" a Snowclone in both obvious senses. It is time, therefore, for snowclonology to have two cultures. What should these be? Perhaps there should be one culture that primarily collects and mocks snowclones, and another that studies the underlying grammar -- if that's the right term -- of each snowclone, such as, e.g., the observation that in a two-cultures essay it is always the second culture that the author ends up advocating for?

(PS how many words do the Eskimos have for C.P. Snow?)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Some thoughts re voting systems

I'd been meaning to write a post on this during the AV referendum debate, but never got around to it; the proximate impetus was a New Republic article by Jonathan Bernstein on letting parents vote on behalf of their kids. Too lazy to connect my thoughts, hence a bulleted list.
  • There are two kinds of pro-democracy view: (1) that majority rule is morally right, (2) that democracy is the worst system except for all the otters. 
  • On view (1) a system ought to be as democratic as possible, i.e., do as good a job as possible of representing views. On view (2) nothing of the sort follows. Thus most arguments for better voting systems are irrelevant if one holds view (2).
  • My own views are much closer to (2) than to (1). To the (very large) extent that laws are coercive it is of no intrinsic significance whether the minority or the majority gets to do the coercing.
  • Why is democracy superior to dictatorship? A negative argument: it is bad for any large ideological or interest group to be persistently in power (power corrupts) or persistently out of power (with no hope of enacting one's agenda peacefully one would be tempted to do so by force, or to secede or sabotage the system). The case for democracy is weak in cases where one expects the vote to split along persistent tribal lines, e.g., in some southern states and much of the third world; however, shifting coalitions of interests/tribes/ideologies are good.
  • A different, "positive" argument: assuming there are some undecided voters in the middle who are uninformed and vote for/against the incumbent based on their sense of "well-being," democracy encourages governments to act in ways that maximize "well-being."
  • The positive argument strongly favors a two-party unicameral system in which it is entirely clear who the incumbents are. The negative argument prima facie supports a proportional representation system in which as many interest groups as possible are represented. However, it is harmless -- in the sense of being socially stable -- to marginalize small enough groups; in fact it might be worse to give (e.g.) skinheads a legislative voice than to write them out of the political process. (Conversely: a political system in which skinheads felt they had a good chance of getting their agenda passed would probably be a bad one in consequentialist terms.)
  • Unpopular/fringe views are often valuable to have expressed. It doesn't follow that fringe parties should get to be kingmakers as they are in Hungary etc.
  • From my perspective, it is hard to come up with a general position on where this leaves us: the answer depends on the expected effects of moving to a more democratic system in any given country. It is not obvious to me that the British Lib Dems have any particular business existing as a separate party rather than as part of the more upscale faction of Labour: one possible argument is that because most votes in the Commons are strongly whipped, each faction really needs to be a separate party, but this is a very roundabout way of weakening party discipline.
This brings us to Bernstein's arguments re "interests" -- a pet theme of his is this notion that people both do and ought to vote their interests (which would justify unapologetic people-like-me votes); he wants to argue that, because we treat parents as representing their kids' interests in general, we ought to consider letting them be electoral representatives as well. One reason this seems absurd is that people care about social issues, and the youngest actual voters as a bloc disagree thoroughly with their parents as a bloc, so the extrapolation to kids defies common sense. However I'd tend to respond to it in terms of the framework outlined above: there is no imminent threat of a kids' uprising, so whether we should give them proxy votes depends on the probable consequences -- i.e., increased representation rel. to present of views that are associated with parents -- and should be judged based on those consequences. Which, as I've remarked in the past, I think are bad.

The Paterian Urinal

I am proud of fellow U. of I. grad student Karen Rae Cast (not an acquaintance) for having her thesis on the aestheticization of men's rooms featured in Improbable Research. (IR does the Ig Nobels...) The onward links from the IR article are interesting, esp. the "Modern Toilet" restaurant chain in Taiwan and the world's largest public bathroom in Chongqing, provided with "an Egyptian facade and soothing music" as well as an inordinate number of urinals.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Vintage typewriters

I'm not really "on Facebook" anymore but I like to visit occasionally, if only to be reassured and/or reminded of the existence of old friends I'm no longer in touch with. Thus, e.g., I found out today that my college friend Adwoa now (a) lives in Geneva, (b) is obsessed with vintage typewriters -- apparently there's been a Vintage Typewriter Revival of sorts lately... -- and has a blog documenting the obsession. The pictures are fascinating, at least to me: as prev. noted I like visibly articulated objects. Some of the old ones (this is from the 1920s) remind me vaguely of pipe organs:

And this one might go well with your furniture:

These intricate mechanical contraptions delight me, partly because I so completely lack the relevant kind of ingenuity (or temperament), partly because they are, in some profound sense, things one understands; any electrical appliance induces a measure of "irreducible bafflement" that even one's mental picture of electrons being dragged through viscous tubes by potential gradients goes only so far to dispel.

Finally that pic of he-who-must-be-mentioned in any post on this topic:

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Unregistered occupations, Yeats-mocking, etc.

George Yeats, writing -- not automatically for once -- to W.B. in 1930:
"No newses here but for the thrill of our dustbin being stolen yesterday evening from the pavement between the hours of eightthirty and ten. McCoy was most puzzled this morning when he went out to fetch it in and found nothing to fetch, and filled with vehement righteous indignation when I told him that I had observed on returning home last night at 10.15 that it was not there. He insisted on my telephoning to the police at Lad Lane [...] 'There's a lot of police regulations that are never enforced' says the police at the other end of the telephone 'but there's a regulation that bins shouldnt be put out as early as that.' 'Do you think the police took it' says I. 'O no' says he 'They wouldnt take it. They'd notify.' Then, 'When they take them they generally empty them out on the pavement, did they empty out yours?' 'They did not' says I. 'They must have had a handcart with them' says he. 'Do you mean the Garda would have emptied it out' says I. 'No, the people who take the dustbins' says he; so it is evidently one of the unregistered occupations like the stealing of doormats, washbaskets and umbrellas."
From Don Share's blog. In other Yeatsiana, Ray Davis recently quoted Anne Gregory (subject of this poem) rather delightfully mocking Yeats. Possibly the ne plus ultra of this particular unregistered occupation is that bit about the peacock in one of Pound's cantos:
The Kakemono grows in flat land out of mist
        sun rises lop-sided over the mountain
              so that I recalled the noise in the chimney
as it were the wind in the chimney
              but was in reality Uncle William
downstairs composing
that had made a great Peeeeacock
        in the proide ov his oiye
        had made a great peeeeeeecock in the . . .
made a great peacock
              in the proide of his oyyee

proide ov his oy-ee
as indeed he had, and perdurable

a great peacock aere perennius

By the way, Michael Wood recently quoted Auden (in a longish review of the new vol. of the Prose, of which more later) complaining as he often did that "I sometimes feel that the question “Is this statement true or false?” has never occurred to [Yeats]." (In the Dyer's Hand Auden compares Yeats unfavorably with D.H. Lawrence re sincerity.) The first vol. of Roy Foster's biography of Yeats (and maybe later ones but I haven't read those) lends a lot of support to the notion that Yeats didn't really believe, in the usual sense, in the mythological stuff; he just found the masks useful, and had to keep up the solemnity to sustain the mood (hence the general sense that he was pompous and affected). He was a bore by choice, unlike (say) Auden and Wordsworth who were bores by nature.

(On Auden as a bore see Alan Bennett. Or for that matter read as much as you can of that horrid little book on Auden's Table Talk. It is the only book I know that is almost as bad as its Richard Howard introduction. (The link is to a prev. post about Richard Howard's introductions.))

I have never read, or wanted to read, a biography of Auden or a critical/expository work by Yeats (I am interested in anecdotes about both, however), but am endlessly fascinated by the thought of the one and the life of the other.

(A few miscellaneous notes. 1. I introduced someone to Peter Porter. 2. In a comment on yesterday's post Jenny Davidson suggested that "hierarchy" probably implies priesthood; this would make sense of the "order" -- as in monastic order -- of people who believe in intrinsic value. I don't think one can make complete sense of Hill's answers, treated as answers -- he seems to be conflating the questions, "what entities should a poet enter into an imaginative relationship with?" and "whom should a poet write for?" -- but I think he is just ignoring the second question. 3. I greatly enjoyed this book review by Keith Ridgway in the Irish Times.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

"The grading and measuring of words"

One is initially inclined to read this as irritating condescension on Geoffrey Hill's part:
Hill spoke deliberately slowly so I can’t miss or mistake a word. He is also very considerate: when naming critics or texts he offers to spell them, then checks that I have caught up with him before beginning a new train of thought. At times, however, he sounds as though dictating to a machine: ‘As I said at my lecture it is only Ruskinian Tories who would sound at all like old fashioned Marxists, period. I read and re-read Ruskin- comma- particularly- and now I’m going to spell something for you: “F-o-r-s”, new word, “C-l-a-v-i-g-e-r-a” ’. He often asks me to repeat his answers back to him, insisting that I change a word or watching as I scribble out one phrase and replace it with another. Half way through our meeting he asks if I intend to write up the interview as a question and answer or to paraphrase him: when I admit I am undecided he responds that he will not consent to its publication if it is paraphrased. He agrees that the interview can be accompanied by an introduction and in exchange I promise to quote him directly.
(from an Oxford Student interview). Read on, however, and the situation becomes clearer:
You have famously defended the right of art to be ‘difficult’: would you therefore defend the right of poetry to be elitist?
We have to define what we mean by elitist: considerable confusion will arise unless we can get clear in our heads what ‘elitist’ means. If ‘elitist’ means belonging to some threatened hierarchy of the intelligence then I think that the poet has an obligation to attune her poetry in that direction. There is a largely unknown order of human beings who believe in that impossible thing: intrinsic value. One must work as if intrinsic value were a reality, even though I myself know no way of demonstrating its real existence.
What if we say that ‘elite’ means university educated?
Well I can’t assume that it does. Wordsworth was a hierarchist of the imagination and the unlettered man or woman can be as much a part of his world as Wordsworth himself. 
How is one to paraphrase this? What does it even mean? My best guess is that Hill means something like this: just as Wordsworth, a hierarchist of the imagination, classified the world into things that were imaginatively valuable, like his peasants, and things that were not (like Johnson's prose); so "the poet" ought to be a hierarchist of the intelligence, to order things by their intrinsic intellectual value, and to "attune" her work toward things that possess such value. (To ignore fashion and "relevance," to know how to "leave out" and keep valuable distinctions from collapsing,...) He cannot mean too sharp a distinction between intelligence and imagination or the second answer would be a non sequitur. He might also be using hierarchy to mean rank-in-a-hierarchy, which gives you the more conventional position that the poet should write for an audience of peers, but makes the Wordsworth remark less intelligible. In any case this is the sort of answer you would have to spell out; one feels the bafflement that led the interviewer to paraphrase the first answer as an evasive yes, though I am sure that it isn't that: elitism in the conventional sense is not a charge Hill would "evade." (Though he is surprisingly -- and hilariously -- cagey through the rest of the interview...)

Hill's critical habits are perhaps a useful guide to what one should expect here; one is not aware of any critics who operate more completely at the level of the (usually overexamined) word, for instance in this essay on Dryden in The Enemy's Country. This remark from the essay is perhaps relevant:
Quotidian language, both casual and curial, is itself highly charged, but charged with the enormous power of the contingent and circumstantial, "a confused mass of thoughts", a multitudinous meaning amid which the creative judgment must labor to choose and reject. There are meanings which are self-evidently wrong ("reserate" is not the Latin for "shut the door") but the "meaning" of a poem, its constitution, the composition of its elements, is not so readily extractable from the constituted solecisms of the age; and though the grading and measuring of words presupposes the ability to recognize ambiguities, there are some ambiguities so deeply impacted with habit, custom, procedure that the "recognition" is in effect the acknowledgment of irreducible bafflement.

(Btw I love "grading" in this context.)

Berks and Wankers; Barbarism and Triviality; Primness

M. Amis, in the Guardian, about K. Amis's usage book:
The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who minds about words.
Rather bluffly, perhaps, Kingsley draws up the battle lines as a conflict between Berks and Wankers:
Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one's own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.
Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.
Cf. Auden paraphrasing Whitehead:
Civilisation is a precarious balance between barbaric vagueness and trivial order. Barbarism is unified but undifferentiated; triviality is differentiated but lacking in any central unity; the ideal of civilisation is the integration into a complete whole and with the minimum strain, of the maximum number of distinct activities.
To paraphrase further: if berks had their way the language would be vital -- see the richness of slang -- but too indistinct for clarity, and therefore applicable for very few purposes; it would floriate like Elizabethan writing and be useless for specialized purposes like communicating unfamiliar ideas efficiently. If wankers had their way it would be lucid and dead, good for scientific writing but lacking in suggestiveness and ambiguity.

I am curious about the gender politics of these terms. (NB berk is rhyming slang for cunt via Berkeley hunt. Wanker of course is orig. specifically male.) Primness is, like worldliness, one of those concepts for which the stereotypes won't stay put -- the stereotype re "prim/barren" is f. but so is that re "primal chaos." Amis goes with men as prim, but, e.g., (as per Russell) Kant did not:
Like everybody else at that time, [Kant] wrote a treatise on the sublime and the beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful; the sea is sublime, the land is beautiful; man is sublime, woman is beautiful; and so on.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The blubber doughnut

Moby Dick, Ch. 65:
certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel--that these men actually lived for several months on the mouldy scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber. Among the Dutch whalemen these scraps are called "fritters"; which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives' dough-nuts or oly-cooks, when fresh. They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

Re "oly-cooks" or "oilcakes" (an old Dutch term for doughnut) see this previous post on the appalling doughnut taco. Melville continues:
[the sperm whale] is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good. Look at his hump, which would be as fine eating as the buffalo's (which is esteemed a rare dish), were it not such a solid pyramid of fat. But the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is; like the transparent, half-jellied, white meat of a cocoanut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter. Nevertheless, many whalemen have a method of absorbing it into some other substance, and then partaking of it. In the long try watches of the night it is a common thing for the seamen to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile. Many a good supper have I thus made.
I must have been thirteen or so the last time I read the book, and must have skimmed over everything not directly related to the plot. Which is to say, essentially everything.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The sieving action of facial hair

The Times (in 1853) on why construction workers shouldn't shave (TimesArchive via Marc Abrahams):

I'll transcribe part of it for searchability:
... the London masons are now growing their beards pretty generally, that the fashion is gaining ground, and will soon, in all probability, become universal. The simple action of the moustache in such case is that of a respirator, or, more correctly speaking, a species of sieve, for intercepting the passage of the dust. Besides the respirator having the effect of keeping the lungs clear of foreign particles, it also has the great advantage of preserving a steady and equable warmth around the orifice of the air passages.

I wonder what fraction of these would serve the purpose.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Marmite banned in Denmark

Marmite has "joined Rice Crispies, Shreddies, Horlicks and Ovaltine prohibited in Denmark under legislation forbidding the sale of food products with added vitamins as threat to public health." (Telegraph via twitter.) Reactions vary (for the record, mine = neutral amusement, though I have always wanted to try Guinness Marmite):
  • "They don't like it because it's foreign," [Lyndsay Jensen, a Yorkshire born graphic designer working in Copenhagen] said. "But if they want to take my Marmite off me they'll have to wrench it from my cold dead hands." 
  • "Something is lovely in Denmark." - Elizabeth McCracken
  • A spokesman for the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration said: "I cannot comment on the Marmite case because our expert is away until Thursday." 
Bonus Telegraph link about a serial Marmite thief who "was spotted several times on CCTV walking into the garage and taking dozens of pots of the spread."

[And the inevitable etymological note:
French marmite cooking pot (14th cent.), of uncertain origin (compare post-classical Latin marmita (1318–19 in a British source) < French): the theory that it is < Old French marmite hypocrite, on the grounds that it conceals its contents, is not convincing.
I remember wondering once if "marmalade" and "Marmite" were etymologically related; apparently not...]

Monday, May 23, 2011

"A black Irish beer that disappears in the course of the creative process"

Brodsky describes the daily routines of Auden, with whom he briefly stayed in Austria (I assume in Kirchstetten though the article doesn't specify) after being kicked out of the USSR:
W. H. Auden drinks his first martini dry at 7:30 in the morning, after which he sorts his mail and reads the paper, marking the occasion with a mix of sherry and scotch. After this he has breakfast, which can consist of anything so long as it’s accompanied by the local dry pink and white, I don’t remember in which order. At this point he sets to work. Probably because he uses a ballpoint pen, he keeps on the desk next to him, instead of an inkwell, a bottle or can of Guinness, which is a black Irish beer that disappears in the course of the creative process. At around 1 o’clock he has lunch. Depending on the menu, this lunch is decorated by this or that rooster’s tail, or cocktail. After lunch, a nap, which is, I think, the only dry point of the day.
This is from a New Yorker profile of Brodsky (who apparently wasn't gay; for some reason I had always assumed he was). There are some vaguely pleasant renderings of Brodsky's poems; I must say that, although he has technically been fortunate in his translators (Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, ...), they have tended to overdo the house-training; I've never managed to get a handle on the idiosyncrasy (in the Fowlerian sense) of Brodsky's work. 

Cf. Lydia Davis on Auden's sleeping habits.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

DMVs (Deserted Medieval Villages)

From Wikipedia's list of lost settlements in Nottinghamshire:

A goldmine for the right kind of novelist... (I, of course, am no kind of novelist.) Re place names, cf. also this old post on the extraordinary ugliness of Illinois place names.

Addendum Should really go through the rest of the list at some point. Some other names: Barford, Badsaddle, Newbottle in Harrington, Barpham, Erringham.

The see-through frog

National Geographic, via the Rumpus:

This picture appeals to my largely separate obsessions with things that are (a) translucent, (b) gelatinous, (c) obviously and visibly articulated. Those are eggs in the frog's belly, btw, and by a bizarre coincidence this picture of a see-through maternity dress, I believe by Mimi Smith, popped up on twitter around the same time (what makes the coincidence bizarre is perhaps that the image URL is yfrog.com/...):

"Alwayes foaming, or drivelling"

From Dainty Ballerina, a 17th century description of the "nature and character of a drunkard," notable for the hilariously anticlimactic way it ends:

A Gentleman of worth, rising to make water, could finde no fitter place to do it in than the chimney; where, being a few live embers, he fell downe, and not being able to rise againe, had his belly puckerd together like a sachell before the Chamberlaine could come to helpe him. Whereupon, being in great torture, he dranke twenty two double jugs of beer, and so died, roaring and crying that he was damned. Some fall down dead as a dore naile. Some againe fall into the water, and are drowned, as is commonly seene. Some fall and batter their faces, bruise their bodies, breake their armes, their legs, and many breake their necks in the very act of drunkennesse. Others are wounded, beaten, and many times murdered, as often times they stab and murder others.
The drunkard commonly hath a swollen and inflamed face beset with goodly jowles; swimming, running, glaring, goggle eyes, bleared and red; a mouth nasty with offensive fumes, alwayes foaming, or drivelling; a feverish body; a sicke and giddy braine; a mind dispersed; a boyling stomacke; rotten teeth; stinking breath; a drumming eare; a palsied hand; gouty, staggering legs, that would go, but cannot; a drawling, stammering, tongue, clamped to the roofe and gumms; (not to speake of his odious gestures, lothsome nastinesse, or beastly behaviour, his belching, hickups, vomitings, ridiculous postures, and how easily he is knocked down).
Re drowning while shitfaced: I am reminded of this horrifying story about the epidemic of drowning in Russia during last year's heatwave.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Three Lists from the LRB

Ordered by brevity:

1. Neal Ascherson on the "intelligent, leftish" types who went on delegations to China in the 1950s:
Weird as abroad often turned out to be, they were determined to find it familiar, recognisable, lovable. This must be the explanation for the funniest element in Wright’s story: everywhere was just like England, if you looked hard enough.

Stanley Spencer explained to Zhou that China was like Cookham. The Ming Tombs reminded him of the village of Wangford, where he had married his first wife. Morgan Phillips found that Beijing was much like Bedford. The physician Derrick James noted that Prague, visited on the way to Beijing, resembled Maidstone. Hugh Casson compared Moscow to Manchester a hundred years earlier; the great scientist Joseph Needham mystifyingly thought that Kunming was a bit like the vicarage at Duxford near Cambridge; the artist Paul Hogarth wrote that travelling from Beijing to Shanghai was much the same as going from Sheffield to Manchester. More perilously, the delegates tried to demystify the Chinese present by equating it with brave bits of the English past. The rural co-operatives were like the Rochdale Pioneers, the People’s Liberation Army was like Cromwell’s Roundheads.

2. Keith Thomas, reviewing a book about holy places in 17th century England:
In the 17th century the parson-poet George Herbert lamented that it was very difficult to get country folk to see God’s hand in the workings of nature. They thought that crops grew because of their own efforts, not divine providence. They knew the landscape around them in intimate detail but, for them, its associations were primarily connected with their own labours and those of their predecessors. [...] Topographical traditions were not just about saints and monks. More usually, they related to kings and queens, armies and battles, or folk heroes like Robin Hood, Guy of Warwick and, above all, King Arthur, to whom, according to the Elizabethan historian William Camden, ‘the common sort ascribe whatever is ancient or strange’. Cairns, cromlechs and barrows were believed to be memorials to ancient princes or tombs of great men slain in battle, usually against the Danes. Ruins were indiscriminatingly regarded as the work of Oliver Cromwell.

(Btw the pun on "reformation" has rarely been used so well as in the title of this book, The Reformation of the Landscape. I do not know if there is a specific term for this trick of using the direct, etymological sense of a compound word that has drifted away in meaning -- a sort of exposing of the etymological joints, as in the popular example "at-one-ment.")

3. Terry Eagleton on the Dublin theatrical scene:
In the years when the Gate and the Abbey were the two main theatres in Dublin, the former was run by a gay couple while the latter was noted for staging traditional Irish plays. The theatres were known as Sodom and Begorrah.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Criticism as pure provocation

T.T. Heine, Loie Fuller [src]

Charles Rosen, appreciating Kermode in the NYRB, paraphrases him thus:
Properly practiced, in short, interpretation protects the works of the past from becoming disposable junk by astonishing the readers, making them take a second look. It keeps the past alive.

(Isn't it faintly Micawberian to paraphrase a quoted passage with "in short"?) I can't tell if Rosen is reading Kermode correctly but I like the idea of throwing absurd interpretations at people as a way of getting them to pay attention to the text, and -- in the process, maybe, of trying to respond to the critic's trolling -- to see what they had previously skimmed over. (But cf. Kant being "woken from his dogmatic slumbers" by Hume and -- in Russell's version -- inventing a soporific in the Critique so he could sleep again.) I was thinking about the "astonishment" business recently re the question of how people get interested in poetry; but perhaps a more reliable course of action is to have readers become obsessed, perhaps for bad reasons at first, with some particular writer or other, and hope that sheer familiarity brings solicitude with it.

The first piece of literary criticism I ever read, innumerably many years ago, was Kermode's long introduction to the Arden Tempest; I don't remember what was in it, but it left me very interested in Shakespeare. (I loved the lists of textual variants.) Other than that I know Kermode mostly through his essays and the delightful war reminiscences in "My Mad Captains." I've read his book on Shakespeare's Language  -- it is very good on Richard II and King John but boring on the later work; Kermode spends too much time expressing his astonishment to be much use. I also read the Yeats book (Romantic Image) at some point, but might as well not have; I don't remember a thing except the frontispiece (see above) and a remark about Auden emphasizing the right to use poetry discursively. For some reason I'm doing the Romantics right now, and I mean to go back to it once I'm done rereading Moby Dick.

Incidentally this Kermode sentence (from a quote near the end of the piece) feels powerfully like a Pope passage transprosed:
It is so long since most writers had the necessary education, or could afford the pleasures and find the women, that if they were made available we should hardly know what to do with them.
(It is mostly the balanced "A, or (B or C)" construction, and "afford the pleasures, and the women find" that does it.)

Recreational alchemy

Today's Science has an interesting story (probably gated) about the growing popularity, among historians of science and others, of recreations of alchemy experiments described in papyrus mss. ("chymistry" is the preferred term) -- it is not surprising that the craze for medieval recreations has touched scientists, as there are many in the right demographic, and the trend is consistent with the incentives for historians to rehabilitate various periods of history; the surprise is that it didn't happen sooner.
William Newman, a historian at Indiana University ... also works on chymistry re-creations—some of them with a furnace in his own garage. Considering that even the best post-Renaissance experimenters distilled phosphorus from urine, melted silver from whatever coins they might be carrying, and used inexact heat sources, their results were difficult, if not impossible, for them to reproduce. “You have to back-engineer to understand how the theory integrates with the practice,” Newman says. “There's no better way to do that than to do the experiments themselves.”  

The "alchemists chymists were scientists" line seems a hard sell that the article doesn't really try; it won't do to demonstrate that not everything the alchemists saw was fraudulent -- one can mount a similar defense of "traditional medicine" but it wouldn't follow that witch-doctors were scientists. Not to mention that the Middle Ages were a figment of someone's imagination. Nevertheless, the sporadic wild-haired intellectual stirring a ceramic pot of his own urine would be a useful addition to one's neighborhood medieval recreation group. As, btw, would the woman eating pounds of almonds.

The other article of note in this issue is a genetic study that (purportedly) shows that the mutation responsible for the sooty variant of the British peppered moth -- that classic example of adaptation in the modern era -- happened exactly once (as opposed to happening independently on multiple occasions), possibly "emanating from a single point source in greater Manchester."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wake appreciation

1. Stephen Crowe (of the sui generis and in my view excellent Wake in Progress) argues that Finnegans Wake is better than Ulysses; this remark strikes me as particularly perceptive -- it's obviously correct but I hadn't thought of it:
Although it seems crazy now, he’d spent much of his life obsessed with Henrik Ibsen (anyone who’s read Exiles will, I hope, agree what a mistake that was), and I think he conceived Ulysses as an Ibsenian novel, in which the greatest extreme of realism is combined with an equally obsessive system of semi-mystical symbolism.

2. Dice sends along an Economist article about the sensitivity of seals' whiskers: they -- or more precisely a particular seal -- can infer the shape of an object from its wake even when
blindfolded with a rubber mask made from a latex stocking, fitted with a set of headphones that played pink noise (not a progressive rock band from the 1970s, but a type of random sound in which each octave has an equal amount of power) and made to stick his head in a water-filled box.
(Obvious Joyce analogy here.) It was correctly intuited that the accompanying picture would appeal to me:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Viscous fingering, venom delivery, and other phenomena

1. Some entertaining PRL titles from Blogger Outage Day:
Abstract of the venom article:

In the majority of venomous snakes, and in many other reptiles, venom is conveyed from the animal’s gland to the prey’s tissue through an open groove on the surface of the teeth and not through a tubular fang. Here we focus on two key aspects of the grooved delivery system: the hydrodynamics of venom as it interacts with the groove geometry, and the efficiency of the tooth-groove-venom complex as the tooth penetrates the prey’s tissue. We show that the surface tension of the venom is the driving force underlying the envenomation dynamics. In so doing, we explain not only the efficacy of the open groove, but also the prevalence of this mechanism among reptiles.
1'. Lovely high-speed video of how hummingbirds drink -- turns out it isn't capillary action after all. (Wired Science via Jeremy)

2. William Barnes was a delatinizer:
He called for the purification of English by removal of Greek, Latin and foreign influences so that it might be better understood by those without a classical education. For example, the word "photograph" (from Greek light+writing) would become "sun-print" (from Saxon). Other terms include "wortlore" (botany), "welkinfire" (meteor) and "nipperlings" (forceps).
3. R.S. Thomas's poem "In Church" is an unusually clear-cut example of the standard use of the linebreak in accentual verse (3 beats to the line here):
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
I will have more to say about this anon; I'm just posting the passage now in case I forget how it goes.

Post retrieval

The internet ate a couple of posts; here they are:

Tab-closing synergies

If you're going to buy this:

[The Mammoth Book of Special Ops Romance]

you might want to carry it about in this:

Former link via Alyssa Rosenberg guest-blogging at Yglesias; she notes that SEAL romances are much like ordinary ones except that "the sex is more likely to be 'implacable.'" (See also: Light reading, plenty more fish.) This Amazon review has helpful summaries of the stories in the Mammoth book ("Lipstick Spy School - A gorgeous assassin intends to take out the hunky instructor of a fantasy spy school for women"). Regrettably there are no seals in Animal Farm but it's possible that they just operated very secretively.

Glass-bottom bungalows

This blog being what it is, one pretty much has to link to this article on over-water bungalows in the soon-to-be-underwater Maldives and elsewhere (CNN via Wade DeG.):

CNN caption: "Many overwater bungalows, like this one in Cayo Espanto, Belize, feature glass panes in the floor."

Imaginary zoos with real badgers

(x-post from STOATUSblog)

From John Berryman's strange 1945 story "The Imaginary Jew" (Kenyon Review via seventydys):
Now and then I went to the zoo in lower Central Park and watched with interest the extraordinary behavior of a female badger. For a certain time she quickly paced the round of her cage. Then she would approach the sidewall from an angle in a determined, hardly perceptible, unhurried trot; suddenly, when an inch away, point her nose up it, follow her nose up over her back, turning a deft and easy somersault, from which she emerged on her feet moving swiftly and unconcernedly away, as if the action had been no affair of hers, indeed she had scarcely been present. There was another badger in the cage who never did this, and nothing else about her was remarkable; but this competent disinterested somersault she enacted once every five or ten minutes as long as I watched her,—quitting the wall, by the way, always at an angle in fixed relation to the angle at which she arrived at it. It is no longer possible to experience the pleasure I knew each time she lifted her nose and I understood again that she would not fail me, or feel the mystery of her absolute disclaimer,—she has been taken away or died.
(NB 1. "Imaginary gardens with real toads" -- Marianne Moore. 2. The rest of the story is interesting; it doesn't come off, in the way most early Berryman doesn't come off, but has a whiff of the atmosphere of the Dream Songs. 3. The outage appears to have eaten a couple of posts and comments; I shall try to reconstruct the posts from my rss feed but the comments appear to have been irrevocably aetherized. 4. Perhaps because I've been rereading Moby Dick I'm abnormally sensitive to embedded iambic pentameter; "turning a deft and easy somersault" stuck out as I was reading this passage.)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Tab-closing synergies

If you're going to buy this:

[The Mammoth Book of Special Ops Romance]

you might want to carry it about in this:

Former link via Alyssa Rosenberg guest-blogging at Yglesias; she notes that SEAL romances are much like ordinary ones except that "the sex is more likely to be 'implacable.'" (See also: Light reading, plenty more fish.) This Amazon review has helpful summaries of the stories in the Mammoth book ("Lipstick Spy School - A gorgeous assassin intends to take out the hunky instructor of a fantasy spy school for women"). Regrettably there are no seals in Animal Farm but it's possible that they just operated very secretively.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Glass-bottom bungalows

This blog being what it is, one pretty much has to link to this article on over-water bungalows in the soon-to-be-underwater Maldives and elsewhere (CNN via Wade DeG.):

CNN caption: "Many overwater bungalows, like this one in Cayo Espanto, Belize, feature glass panes in the floor."

Accessibility and the audience for poetry

Elisa Gabbert pointed out this interesting sociological experiment, a survey of MetaFilter users "who read widely but don't read poetry" on why they don't read poetry. Results anthologized in EG's post, though she omitted my favorite ("I want a story, or facts. I don't want little snippets of writing."); a majority of the answers are ignorant/silly rationalizations like
  • Poetry--it seems to me--will only bring greater understanding of one particular person's inner thoughts and feelings: the poet.
  • I have a strong sense that it is contrived.
Like all obvious rationalizations, these don't hold up well; they also tend to shift the blame onto "poetry"/"poets" in general, as though, if poetry were nicer to them, they'd give it a chance. The generalizations are grating -- e.g., "[random myth] is the blessing and the curse of poetry" -- but I don't want to dwell on this end of things. The real question with rationalizations is what's behind them: are the stated reasons stand-ins for actual reasons or for laziness and prejudice? (The answer is both, I imagine, but in what proportions?) Reading the responses charitably I can either understand or sympathize with 3.5 reasons:
  1. (the half-reason) The poetry culture is off-putting, "poets sometimes recite their poetry in these hushed, reverent tones," etc. This is not a v. good reason but seeing that one has lots of things to do, it is reasonable to avoid whatever seems dreary. I, too, dislike poetry readings; it's hard to hear the linebreaks, you can't rewind, etc. -- it's often like doing a crossword from 1-across to 69-down. I'm not surprised that casual attendees come away baffled and bored.
  2. Poetry is dense, slows you down, is demanding, etc. Reasonable in general but a little narrow-minded; one's reading doesn't have to be escape reading. (There is a case to be made that reading poetry impairs your ability to read certain sorts of thriller, when written very badly as they sometimes are. And maybe one gets a sense of accomplishment out of the sheer volume of what one has read...)
  3. "I want a story or facts, not snippets of writing." / "I don't 'get' poetry." The more and less self-aware versions of not looking for, or not caring about, language as an end in itself. This is a respectable view; language has lots of perfectly good non-decorative purposes.
  4. It's hard to find good poetry books, relative to (say) good literary fiction. You don't have the constant ambient buzz of critical judgments and recommendations -- word-of-mouth, NYTBR, etc. -- that you do with fiction and nonfiction. "You don't know where to start." I'd add that as poetry reviewers go there are no figures analogous to Dwight Garner or James Wood, whose approval guarantees an at least somewhat enjoyable book.
[An interesting feature of the replies: the "avid readers" screen basically worked. I approve of the screening: it is useful to separate the question of why people don't read poetry from that of why they don't read. The discourse that (e.g.) this post belongs to, though valuable, is different from why, say, Franzen readers don't read poetry.]


The Q. of where to start is an interesting one. Primary possibilities: (1) a class, (2) friends, (3) an anthology, (4) a review. I have no business talking about (1), but see Kathleen Rooney's comment. (2) and (3) are similar in that, as the reader isn't being guided through the poems, the optimal poem is one that reads itself. Which brings one to the question -- which I meant to blog about before the proem ran away with the post -- of what makes a poem an efficient enticement to poetry in general.

I do not think "accessibility" in the ordinary sense is the issue; Eliot's remarks (in the Jonson essay in The Sacred Wood) ring true to me:
Shakespeare, and smaller men also, are in the end more difficult [than Ben Jonson], but they offer something at the start to encourage the student or to satisfy those who want nothing more; they are suggestive, evocative, a phrase, a voice; they offer poetry in detail as well as in design.... But the polished veneer of Jonson reflects only the lazy reader's fatuity.
As a lazy adolescent I had my fatuity reflected at me by, say, Elizabeth Bishop and Frost and Yeats; I could "understand" the poems, but didn't see why they were supposed to be good. The first poems that really clicked -- in the sense of showing that there were possibilities that were essentially endemic to poetry -- were the poems in the first half of Prufrock, esp. "Prufrock," "Preludes," and "Rhapsody." (E.g. "The conscience of a blackened street / impatient to assume the world" -- I found it extremely neat that you could systematically get a certain kind of "effect" out of tacking the adjective onto the wrong noun.) Similarly e.e. cummings seems to draw people into poetry, and I've known early Stevens to work for some people. A lot of this is subjective: the reason (say) Dylan Thomas wasn't appealing to me as an adolescent was that I wanted to be reassured that poetry was "OK for boys," could be clever and cerebral, etc. -- I found it strangely reassuring that Bertrand Russell had had an affair with the first Mrs. Eliot. Others would have been turned off, and probably were, by precisely these things...

What emphatically would not have worked -- and I suspect won't work in general -- is unobtrusively brilliant phrasing as in middle-period Yeats; anything that can be missed will be missed if one is in the habit of reading things fast; any metaphors that can be taken "metaphorically" won't work. "Mackerel-crowded seas," for instance; it's not the expected verb but it's not unexpected enough either; there are mackerel in the seas; the evening as "a patient etherized upon a table" is a different story. I'd be very surprised if anyone used to high-volume prose reading got interested in poetry through Ashbery or Frank O'Hara. (On the other hand, it seems plausible that one might first get interested in poetry in a foreign language when one's learning the language, so that one hasn't zoned out the writing yet. This is one possible mechanism, btw, by which the demise of classical education might have assisted the general decline in the audience for poetry.)

PS: See David Orr on how Larkin was the first poet he understood. This might be a different question from the poet who first got you interested in poetry as a medium; I imagine Orr already knew how to read poetry when he got out of college. All the same, Larkin is often a fairly flashy writer ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad") -- though maybe not at his best.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Snark as Christ-figure

An endearing thing about Auden's book on Romanticism, The Enchafed Flood, is that it treats Carroll and Lear on par with the more "serious" Romantics; this leads to many odd felicities. E.g., here's Auden talking about ships as communities:
a ship can represent [...] the civitas terrena, created by self-love, inherited and repeated, into which all men since Adam are born, yet where they have never totally lost their knowledge of and longing for the Civitas Dei and the Law of Love. From this arise absurd contradictions [...]

Then he quotes Melville, from Pierre, on the contradictions:
Bacon's brains were mere watchmaker's brains; but Christ was a chronometer... And the reason why His teachings seemed folly to the Jews, was because he carried Heaven's time in Jerusalem, while the Jews carried Jerusalem time there... as the China watches are right as to China, so the Greenwich chronometers must be wrong as to China. Besides, of what use to the Chinaman would a Greenwich chronometer, keeping Greenwich time, be? Were he thereby to regulate his daily actions, he would be guilty of all manner of absurdities: -- going to bed at noon, say, when his neighbors would be sitting down to dinner.* [...] with inferior beings, the absolute effort to live in this world according to the strict letter of the chronometricals is, somehow, apt to involve those inferior beings eventually in strange, unique follies and sins, unimagined before.

This earns the following footnote:
*cf. the snark
Its habit of getting up late you'll agree
That it carries too far when I say
That it frequently breakfasts at five-o-clock tea
And dines on the following day.
The book, which I haven't finished yet, is extraordinarily helpful as a guide to Auden's Kierkegaard-and-Whitehead phase in the 1940s (esp. the long poems, esp. The Sea and the Mirror, in which Alonso's song is very lightly processed Whitehead -- I also vaguely wonder if Auden saw any parallels between Alfred North Whitehead and Moby Dick (also white and northern and of considerable stature)). I'd been meaning to post about Auden's recycling of Alonso's advice to Ferdinand in the Tempest adaptation (1945) in his intro to the Portable Greek Reader (1948) but the scale of reuse is actually more formidable, as the same set of images is expanded into an entire lecture in the Flood (1949).

I am pretty sure this has been done to death in the literature, but a benefit of being an amateur is that there's no opportunity cost to reinventing the wheel.

(PS see here for previous notes on sleeping habits.)

"And you watched them watch you?"

From a Mississippi Supreme Court decision about a paternity case (via @nybooks on twitter); even if this should strike you as TLDR, do not miss the last line:
Eula Mae testified that she did in fact see Virgie Mae and Johnson engage in sexual intercourse in the spring prior to Claud's birth in December. The resulting courtship is best expressed by Eula Mae herself in response to pretrial questioning by attorney Victor McTeer, wherein Eula Mae described an incident where she, her boyfriend, Virgie Mae, and Johnson all went for a "walk" in the spring of 1931:
Q: All right, so you walked off the road, correct?
A: Right.
Q: And you started to kiss and do whatever people do?
A: M-hm.
Q: All right. Now, when you started that, what was Virgie and --
A: Doing the same thing we were.
Q: How do you know? You were sitting there watching them while you were -
A: We was both standing up.
Q: Oh, so both of you were standing up in the woods?
A: Sure, we was standing up out there in the woods.
Q: Excuse me, I haven't finished yet. Virgie and Robert, were they kissing and standing up?
A: Right.
Q: Was there ever a time when you were not looking at them?
A: Well, yes.
Q: I see. Did you at any point in time remove your clothing?
A: Well, had to.
Q: Okay. Did you observe them remove their clothing?
A: Sure.
Q: You were sitting there watching someone else do this?
A: I done told you.
Q: Well, let me, let me share something with you, because I'm really curious about this. Maybe I have a more limited experience. But you're saying to me that you were watching them make love?
A: M-hm.
Q: While you were making love?
A: M-hm.
Q: You don't think that's at all odd?
A: Say what?
Q: Have you ever done that before or since?
A: Yes.
Q: Watch other people make love?
A: Yes, I have done it before. Yes, I've done it after I married. Yes.
Q: You watched other people make love?
A: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
Q: Other than...other than Mr. Johnson and Virgie Cain.
A: Right.
Q: Really?
A: You haven't?
Q: No. Really haven't.
A: I'm sorry for you.
Q: Well, I appreciate that. And perhaps I need the wealth of experience that you have. But share with me this. Did you actually watch them engage in the act? You actually watched that?
A: Yes.
Q: When they were engaging in the act, was your husband (her boyfriend at the time) watching, too?
A: Sure.
Q: Okay. Did they watch you?
A: Sure.
Q: And you watched them watch you?
A: Yes.
11. The above testimony is more than sufficient to establish the credibility of the witness and to prove the facts asserted. It rings true.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Laughter and forgetting; correlation and causation

Earlier today I expressed some probably unwarranted puzzlement at noted druggie S.T. Coleridge's diary entry about laughter and memory loss:

Analyze the causes that the ludicrous weakens memory, and laughter, mechanically, makes it difficult to remember a good story.
Perhaps one should blame this on the ludicrousness of the connection, but I had forgotten that Coleridge was friends with noted druggie Sir Humphry Davy, who was the first person to study the effects of nitrous oxide on humans (i.e., himself), and appears to have quite liked it:
I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever—a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.
(Coleridge also told Davy he was going to "attack chemistry like a shark.")

It is not clear whether others who have addressed this topic, like Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) were also noted druggies. Regardless, it seems likely that Coleridge at least was confusing causation with correlation. (PS could Humphry D have been the person from Porlock?)

"The rudiments of Paradise"

More stuff from Saintsbury's History of English Prose Rhythm. (Prev. remarks here.)

Robert South on Paradise (proto-Augustan style, re "sin and time" cf. Auden's "time and fevers"):
All those arts, rarities, and inventions, which vulgar minds gaze at, the ingenious pursue, and all admire, are but the relics of an intellect defaced with sin and time. We admire it now, only as antiquaries do a piece of old coin, for the stamp it once bore, and not for those vanishing lineaments and disappearing draughts that remain upon it at present. And certainly, that must needs have been very glorious, the decays of which are so admirable. He that is comely, when old and decrepit, surely was very beautiful when he was young. An ARISTOTLE was but the rubbish of an ADAM, and Athens but the rudiments of Paradise.

Abraham Cowley on solitude ("plain style" approaching chattiness):
The First Minister of State has not so much business in public as a wise man has in private; if the one have little leisure to be alone, the other has less leisure to be in company; the one has but part of the affairs of one nation, the other all the works of God and nature under his consideration. There is no saying shocks me so much as that which I hear very often, "That a man does not know how to pass his time."

Coleridge, in Anima Poetae, trying to get past the antitheses of Augustan prose (the "return of rhythm" in Saintsbury's rather questionable typology):
The thin scattered rain-clouds were scudding along the sky; above them, with a visible interspace, the crescent moon hung, and partook not of the motion; her own hazy light filled up the concave, as if it had been painted and the colors had run. 

(Everything that is good and worthwhile in Coleridge or Wordsworth is bleak; pace Larkin, deprivation was for Wordsworth what daffodils are sometimes supposed to have been.)

More from Anima Poetae. Saintsbury is overly indulgent to this entry:
Leaves of trees upturned by the stirring wind in twilight, -- an image of paleness, wan affright.

Structurally it is not entirely unrelated to Pound's metro poem. I think it is rather bad, on the whole, because I find "leaves of trees" cheap and redundant, and the rhyme annoying, but Saintsbury's real point -- that omitting the conjunction gives the passage a distinctly and pleasantly un-Augustan feel, of a kind the Romantics would continue to exploit -- is valid.

Coleridge's throwaway lines and diary entries are sometimes extraordinarily tantalizing, consider this one (not quoted in Saintsbury):
Analyze the causes that the ludicrous weakens memory, and laughter, mechanically, makes it difficult to remember a good story.


In general, as I remarked earlier, Saintsbury seems to me far too cavalier about the constraints imposed by meaning; for instance he quotes the Coleridge passages above after a string of excerpts from Gibbon and Johnson -- he anticipates the objection that most of his so-called "rhythmical revival" is simply a revival of descriptive prose, and of the diffuse at the expense of the crisp, but doesn't really answer it except to say that it's ipso facto good for prose to have complex harmonies.

(Topic for another post: scattered protestations aside this book does very little, directly, to counter one's naive belief that stylistic elaboration is possible and non-distracting only to the extent that the subject matter is already familiar to readers. Jeremy Taylor is explicitly an example of this. If granted, this has the corollary that useful prose is never particularly good. The main counterexamples appear to be Hobbes (clever arrangement of clauses) and Gibbon (musical use of foreign names) -- one could do both, I think, in scientific discourse. Ancient prose could be expository and beautiful because the ancients had so little to expound. (But what about Tacitus?))

Friday, May 6, 2011

The horizon as a spit

I'm intrigued by Lydia Davis's chapbook The Cows, though it seems daft to pay $10 for 32pp. of observations about cows. A snippet from the Amazon page:
Forms of play: head butting; mounting, either at the back or at the front; trotting away by yourself; trotting together; going off bucking and prancing by yourself; resting your head and chest on the ground until they notice and trot toward you; circling each other; taking the position for head-butting and then not doing it.

I was reminded of a snippet from a Davis interview in the FT a couple of years ago, which I thought I'd blogged at the time but apparently didn't:
a photograph of two cows – standing in the snow like black cut-outs on white paper, staring flatly at the camera. Something about the picture is irresistibly funny.

She sent the photo, she tells me, to her friend Rae Armantrout, a poet, who called her afterwards. “She asked me why I had sent her a picture of two pigs strung up on a spit,” says Davis – and then turns the picture upside down.

I can see what she means; the line of horizon does resemble a wire, and the cows do look a bit like pigs. “It was just one of those confusions,” she says, shrugging.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Autumn in the kingdom of heaven

Also from that sermon of Donne's I quoted earlier:
God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, his mercies are ever in their maturity.

From context he doesn't seem to be implying a pun on fall; I found the conceit rather striking, but if one imagines autumn as the season of "mellow fruitfulness," or as Horace's "pomifer autumnus," there is nothing implausible about its having been autumn in Eden. There's something very 17th-century, very characteristic of Donne and Webster and Browne, in the idea, though (cf. Donne's elegy "The Autumnall"); the best work of the period is both rich and somber, like autumn. I have always liked Empson's theory of the basis of this sentiment (in the Pastoral book):
Since the world has grown small, and the sun near its end, we are set free with a sort of cosiness, an irresponsible concentration, to be happy while we may. [...] The belief that the world was soon coming to an end, found in Donne, Chapman, and Sir Thomas Browne, seems important to them and is not easily explained. Samuel Butler the elder laughs at it as based on a passage in Copernicus about two determinations of the distance of the sun, of which the second made the sun nearer, so that we seemed to be falling into it ; this would provide the last fire. I suspect that there was some astronomical pamphlet which they had all read, but Hakewill's refutation of the belief does not put one on to it. At any rate the belief was respectable but not certain and had proofs from astronomy rather than religion.

Mystified moontrotters, etc.

Jonathon Green reads the 19th cent. Australian papers:
As ever violence is OK but sex problematic. The women are almost invariably prostitutes. Heaven forfend that such a term should sully the readers’  breakfast tables. Instead we find angel, blowen, chicken, Cyprian, frail sister, moontrotter, nymph of the pave, Pitt-street promenaderquean,  and vestal. We get the point. Drink is euphemized: both sexes  are variously baked, cut, elevated, foggy, glorious, mystified and pot-valiant; they have malt above the meal and rum above the water; they are malty.

(Via Sue Walder on twitter.) Some tangentially related observations: (1) I recently learned that using "Kiwis" to mean "New Zealanders" is "deeply naff." (2) Do read Dialect Blog on Aus/NZ/South African accents and on the vowel shift in NZ English. And (inevitably!) Johnson on the "all hands on dick" phenomenon. (It is perhaps worth noting that "dick" is, at least among non-sailors, a much more commonly used word than "deck.")

Monday, May 2, 2011

"To fill all penuries"

img from Wikipedia

George Saintsbury, in his History of English Prose Rhythm, cites this sentence from one of Donne's sermons -- the ending of which is very famous -- as one of the greatest examples of English rhythmical prose:
If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
It is a magnificent bit of writing, I think, but shows how hard it is to assess prose primarily for its rhythm; if it weren't for the opulence of the language, this would not be an especially notable passage; and yet the opulence is in fact part of the rhythm -- the quantity of a word is not separable from the degree of its unexpectedness; "illustrate," for instance, is dwelt on here as it would not be in other uses.

As usual Saintsbury has a lot of good observations to make -- on Milton's tendency to spoil his sentences by tacking on afterthoughts, on the effects one can get out of alternating short and long sentences (the "undulating" quality of good 16th century prose), on the value of slightly avoided isocolon (see Donne above), on the absolute necessity of avoiding strings of anapests and the relative permissibility of strings of choriambs -- and one enjoys his occasional sarcasms, but the book comes off, on the whole, as the work of a crank. His principles for foot-division are entirely unsystematic as far as I can make out; the quoted passages are usually foot-divided, even when he has nothing to say about the foot-divisions; so you have to read through "to fill | all penuries; | all occasions | invite | his mercies" etc., which is painful and distracting. (It must be admitted, however, that Saintsbury's book has enormous historical value as a guide to stress patterns in RP circa 1900.) The quoted passages are often a little mystifying, being drawn from longer works, like Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, that are about something and that one is unlikely to have read. And the decision to annotate the entire last chapter of Urn-Burial with foot-divisions and (in many places) accent markers was evidently not that of a sane person.