Thursday, July 31, 2008

Excuses for Sentimentality

I'm ambivalent about Philip Larkin. Not for the usual reasons; I don't mind the grouchiness and the stick-in-the-mud persona, in fact I'm very fond of the two "Toads" poems. What gets to me, whenever I read the Collected, is how predictable and similar the poems are, except for ~8-10. With a lot of writers this wouldn't matter, but Larkin's poems usually end in epiphanies or transfigurations, which can't afford to seem mechanical because they're where the poetry is supposed to be. "Money" and "High Windows" are good examples of what I dislike about Larkin. The exceptions are the larger, more panoramic poems (e.g. "The Whitsun Weddings") and the frankly comic poems like "Toads Revisited" or "A Study of Reading Habits."

"An Arundel Tomb" is an interesting borderline case. The poem is about the somewhat worn statues of a medieval couple holding hands, and this is the final stanza:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

The last line makes this poem one of Larkin's most popular, and one is tempted to accuse him of being cheap -- esp. if that's what one already thinks of his poetry -- except that, of course, he isn't saying that "what will survive of us is love." (The narrator of the poem looks at a statue and comes away with an irrelevant uplifting message; the reader skims the poem and comes away with the same, equally irrelevant, message. Talk about mimesis.) On the whole this is legitimate, and the device is a case of Empson's seventh type of ambiguity, in which you bring e.g. bishops into a poem about sheep by explaining that a sheep is not a bishop. Look at the setup, though:

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Look, in particular, at the boldfaced passage. It's the only part of the poem that isn't plot development. It's magnificently written; I love how the sequence throng-litter-strew sets up the notion of a picnic with absolutely no support from the nouns. The point is that it's people that are "washing at their identity," that have begun to "look, not read," and that essentialize the past when its local features cease to be interesting -- but the verb is washing, which implies rain, just as throng and litter imply people.

Time has transfigured them into

Weathering is progressive, but the decision to misread art is not. Each reader freshly and consciously transfigures the statues into untruth. Which raises the question of why Larkin's poem is better, or the tomb more moving, for the deliberate misreader than a Hallmark card or an equivalent modern statue would be -- if this is true, and I must say I'm not quite sure. Speaking for myself, and I imagine for a lot of Larkin fans, it's at least partly the guarantee that the poem and the statue have an interpretation that wouldn't make a sensible person gag.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"McCain ad compares Obama to Britney Spears, Paris Hilton"

(Source: random MSNBC headline.) The resemblances are striking, I must say.

The faces of Barack Obama and Britney Spears combined together -

Oh, while we're at it: Fifty cent + Britney:

The faces of Fifty Cent and Britney Spears combined together -

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Flowers in their Minds

via Samantha Power in the NYRB:
In 2003, for instance, when the reporter Jeffrey Goldberg told Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense, that US troops in Iraq had not been greeted with flowers, Feith said that the Iraqis had been too spooked by the presence of Saddam supporters to show their true emotions. "But," he said, "they had flowers in their minds."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Anderson on Chaos and Evolution

Phil Anderson is an interesting, combative figure and also one of the greatest living physicists. (His faculty page, which looks like rank self-promotion, is actually pretty accurate.) I'll write more on his running duel with Steven Weinberg about reductionism -- for now, I'd just like to flag this passage from his paper on evolution and quenched chaos (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 80, 3386 (1983)) as a description of what nonreductionist arguments are supposed to do:
I hope that this model is capable of mimicking the behavior of the origin of molecular evolution, in the sense that a modern-day statistical physicist would define as "being in the same universality class with the origin of life." That is, we cannot hope by the finiteness of our lives to work in the original time scale, nor can we guess precisely the chemical nature of the actual molecules or the boundary conditions and constraints which were present. What we can do is attempt to show that in a well-defined mathematical model, which in principle contains no inherent fudge factors that prejudice the outcome, a transition such as that between inanimate molecules and life does occur. [...] In particular, "chance and necessity" alone will not do it, even aided by the idea of self-organization via dissipative structures. I argue that, in addition, chaos is a precondition...
Statistical mechanics is a little like modal logic; you prove (usually without much rigor) that a feature X, e.g. life or superconductivity, is common to all worlds that meet a criterion Y. Criterion Y is usually something like "matter consists of particulate bits," which is (eventually) a fact from particle physics. The Anderson-Weinberg dispute comes down to whether it makes sense to say therefore that particle physics "proves" X -- or, in Weinberg's phrase, whether the "arrows of explanation" for Y lead to particle physics. The real world at the Planck scale leads uniquely to one of the gazillion possible worlds at the atomic scale that would lead to the observed world at the everyday scale. If you knew the Final Theory, you could (in principle) plug it into an infinitely powerful computer, solve for infinitely many elementary particles with the appropriate initial conditions, and discover superconductivity or life. In practice, however, science proceeds backwards, and you generally don't need to go far back to find something that would count as an explanation.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Reign of Ryan

I'm very pleased that Kay Ryan has been appointed poet laureate. Now maybe they'll finally start stocking her books at the local bookstore, reprinting the old ones, and putting out a collected.


The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small —
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Percolation Watch: Flann O'Brien

From At Swim-Two-Birds, an underappreciated classic:

Then the MacSweenies of Ferns and Borris-in-Ossory?

With those words came the rending scream of a shattered stirk and an angry troubling of the branches as the poor madman percolated through the sieve of a sharp yew, a wailing black meteor hurtling through green clouds, a human prickles. [...] There were feathers on his body here and there, impaired and shabby with vicissitude.

By God he's down! shouted Slug.

I don't mean them either, said the Pooka above the noise.

Then the O'Sweenies of Harold's Cross?

Jem Casey was kneeling at the pock-haunched form of the king pouring questions into the cup of his dead ear and picking small thorns from his gashed chest with absent thoughtless fingers, poet on poet, a bard unthorning a fellow-bard.

Give him air, said Slug.

Will you walk over there, said the Good Fairy to the Pooka, the way I can see this man that has been bird-nesting?

Surging Towards Bethlehem

Yglesias writes:

This leads me to once again wonder whether we haven't been seeing a surge of "surges" ever since Bush announce the surge back in early 2007.

Maybe. Surge is an extremely useful word if you're a journalist, because it's mild and all-purpose and probably mixes well with any other dormant metaphor in your sentence. (Unlike e.g. spike or soar or balloon, which are fraught with risk.) My sense, from the OED examples, is that it's one of those ebbing-and-flowing vogue words, those billowing cliches that flood the journalistic mind whenever its levees are in disrepair.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Talking B'rack

Ryan Lizza has an interesting profile of Obama's Chicago years. This is how it ends:

Obama has always had a healthy understanding of the reaction he elicits in others, and he learned to use it to his advantage a very long time ago. Marty Nesbitt remembers Obama’s utter calm the day he gave his celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in Boston, which made him an international celebrity and a potential 2008 Presidential candidate. “We were walking down the street late in the afternoon,” Nesbitt told me. “And this crowd was building behind us, like it was Tiger Woods at the Masters.”

“Barack, man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said.

“Yeah, if you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow,” Obama replied.

“What do you mean?”

“My speech,” Obama said, “is pretty good.”

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Conservative T-shirts

These are pretty amusing, conservatives are such strawmen...

Michael Lewis on Gramm

This old article about the 1996 New Hampshire primary is vintage Lewis, and Lewis is a terrific journalist.

One other odd trait of Gramm's: he's a foot masturbator. The moment he climbs aboard a plane or into a car he removes his shoes and massages his feet. His feet don't smell, but it is still a revolting habit, like chewing tobacco. [...]

[Pat Buchanan] is extremely articulate and, I imagine, persuasive. If you had to distill his message into a sentence it would be this: vote for me and the world will return to the way it was before honest American workers lost control of their country. He's a nostalgia salesman. Like all nostalgia salesmen he appeals to everyone who knows nothing about the past and is unhappy for whatever reason with the present.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Enduring Relevance of Percolation

Percolation problems are common in condensed matter physics, and the percolation paradigm -- the idea that a fluctuation or a cluster or a subgraph is big if it threads the entire system -- is an immensely useful way of thinking about problems. (See here for an explanation of how the vulcanization of rubber is a percolation process.) Apparently even Republicans appreciate this paradigm -- see this story about four young Republicans on a roadtrip across the US that never leaves a Republican district. Much as I approve of the attempt, 1. it's fairly obvious that you can do this; just keep away from cities. 2. it's a recipe for excruciating boredom even if you're a young Republican.

(Neither Obama nor McCain has a very good shot at percolating through the US in November. Obama's just totally fucked from this perspective, but McCain just might win Oregon in which case he'd percolate with ease.)

Update. USA Today has some county-wise maps from 2000 and 2004. It's trivial for McCain to percolate countywise, and impossible for Obama.

Further update. Josh Patashnik at The Plank discovers that the college Reps are not in fact percolating. Apparently they couldn't take the tedium. Understandable, but very weak.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Edward Thomas: "As the team's head-brass"

I like this poem by Edward Thomas, which (I think) Heaney imitates in his new book.

As the Team's Head-Brass

As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole,
The ploughman said. 'When will they take it away?'
'When the war's over.' So the talk began --
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
'Have you been out?' 'No.' 'And don't want to, perhaps?'
'If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn't want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more...Have many gone
From here?' 'Yes.' 'Many lost?' 'Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

Nearest neighbors

A puzzling bit of nearest-neighbor analysis that determines how "similar" states are on an aggregate of politically relevant metrics. I don't really know what's screwing up the results, but my guess is that the sheer number of variables (19) might have something to do with it. Obviously the usefulness of these things depends on their purpose, but for electoral purposes e.g. NC and SC (the most similar states as per the survey) are known to be very different. For one thing SC is 28% black vs. 20% for NC; for another, NC is 22% upscale (per capita income above avg) vs. SC 13%. Seems like a more useful treatment would have more criteria like "% of people in socioeconomic bloc X" and fewer like "average x" and fewer still like "latitude and longitude"(!).

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Out of the Drinking Trough

It's interesting how much of my aesthetic these lines imply:

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.
(Frost, "After Apple-picking")

One doesn't value the pane because it's a means of escape from realism. If that were the point, then scifi and fantasy would be worthwhile, which (to my mind) they aren't. It's essential to have something utterly recognizable on the other side of the pane of glass. Another example --

Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

(Seamus Heaney, "Postscript")

I wouldn't care much for this except that the last line makes me think of a plastic bag in the wind.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Conor Clarke Strikes Again

Michael Kinsley and Conor Clarke (yes, that Conor Clarke) are working on a book about "creative capitalism," which is (as far as I can tell) an inchoate feeling that capitalism and philanthropy ought to have something to do with one another. The writing of said book has been outsourced to Posner and various Posneroid figures, who are currently wrangling on this blog.

My preliminary sentiment is that the book is going to need drastic editing because as it stands the blog is a numbingly repetitive mess. (You could prune the book by 10% if you cut out everybody's preamble about how capitalism is just wonderful but...) There are some good ideas, though, and it's worth a skim. The useful articles are by people who actually think about third-world stuff (e.g. Michael Kremer and Matthew Bishop). The rest, esp. the Posner-Glaeser exchange, is hand-waving.

I'm pleased that the role of foreign corporations in nation-building (is it rational? can the government incentivize it? should it?) is an active topic of discussion. The necessity of good, or at least strong, government for capitalism to work is underappreciated. I wonder when they'll dig up the East India Company as a role model.

"The best Irish writers are from Boston"

James thinks the best New York style pizza he's had is at Antonio's in Amherst. I'm in less than complete agreement, but this post is about his Judtified belief that

just as the best New York pizza is not from New York, the best English writers weren't English, yes? The philosophers were all Scottish and the good writers were mostly Irish. Discuss.

The parallel is a bad one because the Irish writers are Irish writers, not English writers; it's a very selfconsciously different tradition. If you were to take the NYC pizza recipe, move to Amherst, replace the cheese with vanilla ice cream and the topping with blueberries, and beer-batter fry the crust, the results might be excellent, but you couldn't really call it the best New York style pizza. (This doesn't apply to the philosophers, but in their case it was a misnomer to call the tradition English since two of its founders were an Irishman and a Scot.)

A better parallel -- though by no means a good one -- is that the greatest exponent of French symbolist poetry was T.S. Eliot, who wasn't French. Another, perhaps, is that all the major Irish poets now live in the US, where they have teaching gigs.

As for whether the Irish really are exceptional at writing, I'm agnostic. Yeats and Joyce are very great but the rest of the gallery -- Heaney, Derek Mahon, Beckett, Kavanagh, Flann O'Brien -- wouldn't make my top 10, much as I enjoy them. Irish novelists are unusually good at writing lyrical prose, and Irish poets are unusually readable; this means that both groups are perhaps better thought of than they deserve.

Hitchens, Waterboarded

Christopher Hitchens describes being waterboarded:

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

See also: George Packer's take on Hitchens, which I agree with.

PS "flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water" is wretched writing. I guess what happened was that Hitchens wanted to put this graphically without mixing images, which forces either elegant variation or zeugma; he chose the latter and tried to muffle it with a pair of adjectives; however, the obvious adjectives rhymed, with disastrous consequences. (Removing either "sheer" or "mere" -- but not both -- cures the sentence.) Either that, or he found the rhyme irresistible.

PPS I'm reminded, for no good reason, of this verse from Auden:

Face down in the flooded brook
With nothing more to say
Lies one the soldiers took
And spoiled and threw away.