Friday, September 30, 2011


Jonathon Green's answers on Quora are a delight; the latest entry is on "goofball":
Goof is a British dialect term, meaning a fool, a clown or an oaf]

In succession the word has meant 1 [1930s–50s] marijuana. 2 [1940s+] (drugs) a barbiturate, a tranquillizer; thus goofballed, under the influence of barbiturates. 3 [1950s] any sleeping pill. 4 [1950s+] a knockout drop. 5 [1950s+] a mix of cocaine and heroin.

Still based on goof, a fool, goofball has also meant [1940s+] (US) a silly, amusing, eccentric or insane person; in this sense it can also be used adjectivally.
("Goofballed" is reminiscent of "nutmegged," which regrettably has nothing to do with nutmeg-qua-drug.) The entry before that is about the history of "johnson" (and more generally proper names; but see here) as genital euphemism. I was amused by the similarity of the first use Green gives:
1863 W. Cheadle Journal 2 Feb.: Bitterly cold; neck frozen. Face ditto; thighs ditto; Johnson ditto, & sphincture vesicae partially paralysed.
 to the opening stanza of the "Eve of St. Agnes."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Crash blossom via linebreak

Jeremy sent along this NYT headline, which appeared on his screen as:
One Out Away, Red Sox Lose to Seal
September Meltdown

There's an additional layer to this for Arrested Development fans, "lose" near "seal" being reminiscent of the bit where Buster has his arm bitten off by a loose seal. And perhaps yet another layer for Kit, who is/was fascinated by the musician-and-Heidi-Klum-husband Seal. And we haven't even brought in SEALs, but there would have been nothing surprising about the Sox losing in that case.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I. Via Teju Cole on twitter, a Harpers article by Frank Bures about "magical penis theft" in Nigeria:

No one is entirely sure when magical penis loss first came to Africa. One early incident was recounted by Dr. Sunday Ilechukwu, a psychiatrist, in a letter some years ago to the Transcultural Psychiatric Review. In 1975, while posted in Kaduna, in the north of Nigeria, Dr. Ilechukwu was sitting in his office when a policeman escorted in two men and asked for a medical assessment. One of the men had accused the other of making his penis disappear. This had caused a major disturbance in the street. As Ilechukwu tells it, the victim stared straight ahead during the examination, after which the doctor pronounced him normal. “Exclaiming,” Ilechukwu wrote, “the patient looked down at his groin for the first time, suggesting that the genitals had just reappeared."
According to Ilechukwu, an epidemic of penis theft swept Nigeria between 1975 and 1977. Then there seemed to be a lull until 1990, when the stealing resurged. “Men could be seen in the streets of Lagos holding on to their genitalia either openly or discreetly with their hand in their pockets,” Ilechukwu wrote. “Women were also seen holding on to their breasts directly or discreetly, by crossing the hands across the chest. . . . Vigilance and anticipatory aggression were thought to be good prophylaxes. This led to further breakdown of law and order.” In a typical incident, someone would suddenly yell: Thief! My genitals are gone! Then a culprit would be identified, apprehended, and, often, killed.
During the past decade and a half, the thievery seems not to have abated. In April 2001, mobs in Nigeria lynched at least twelve suspected penis thieves. In November of that same year, there were at least five similar deaths in neighboring Benin.

(TC has, as you ought to know, been tweeting "small fates" culled from the Lagos news; lately many of these have been, well, shrinking and/or disappearing fates.) Another juicy bit from the Harpers piece:
in 1984 and 1985, some five thousand Chinese villagers in Guangdong province tried desperately to keep their penises outside their bodies using whatever they had handy: string, chopsticks, relatives’ assistance, jewelers’ clamps, and safety pins.
II. A good interview with Devin Johnston -- whose work I've always admired -- about, among other things, warblers:
Lately I've been watching warblers. It's the more esoteric end of birding. They're high up and so small. My friend says it's like the trees are carbonated.
(I am not surprised that Johnston is a fan of Basil Bunting.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Glimpses through lighted windows

Housekeeping is really an astonishingly good book, one that I can't believe I only just got around to reading. The language is, in Graham Hough's excellent phrase, "like Emily Dickinson in collaboration with Henry James." Just one of the passages that stuck out:

What did Sylvie see when she thought of my mother? A girl with braided hair, a girl with freckled arms, who liked to lie on the rug in the lamplight, flat on her belly with her heels in the air and her chin on her two fists, reading Kipling. Did she tell lies? Could she keep secrets? Did she tickle, or slap, or pinch, or punch, or grimace? If someone had asked me about Lucille I would remember her with her mass of soft, fine, tangly hair concealing ears that cupped a bit and grew painfully cold if she did not cover them. I would remember that her front teeth, the permanent ones, came in, first one and much later the other, immense and raggedly serrated, and that she was fastidious about washing her hands. I would remember that when irked she bit her lip, when shy she scratched her knee, that she smelled dully clean, like chalk, or like a sun-warmed cat.

I do not think Sylvie was merely reticent.  It is, as she said, difficult to describe someone, since memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows.  Sometimes we used to watch trains passing in the dark afternoon, creeping through the blue snow with their windows all alight, and full of people eating and arguing and reading newspapers.  They could not see us watching, of course, because by five-thirty on a winter day the landscape had disappeared, and they would have seen their own depthless images on the black glass, if they had looked, and not the black trees and the black houses, or the slender black bridge and the dim blue expanse of the lake.  Some of them probably did not know what it was the train approached so cautiously.  Once, Lucille and I walked beside the train to the shore.  There had been a freezing rain that glazed the snow with a crust of ice, and we found that, when the sun went down, the crust was thick enough for us to walk on.  So we followed the train at a distance of twenty feet or so, falling now and then, because the glazed snow swelled and sank in dunes, and the tops of bushes and fence posts rose out of it in places where we did not expect them to be.  But by crawling up, and sliding down, and steadying ourselves against the roof of sheds and rabbit hutches, we managed to stay just abreast of the window of a young woman with a small head and a small hat and a brightly painted face.  She wore pearl-gray gloves that reached almost to her elbows, and hooped bracelets that fell down her arms when she reached up to push a loose wisp of hair underneath her hat.  The woman looked at the window very often, clearly absorbed by what she saw, which was not but merely seemed to be Lucille and me scrambling to stay beside her, too breathless to shout.  When we came to the shore, where the land fell down and the bridge began to rise, we stopped and watched her window sail slowly away, along the abstract arc of the bridge.  "We could walk across the lake," I said.  The thought was terrible.  "It's too cold," Lucille replied.  So she was done.  Yet I remember her neither less nor differently than I remember others I have known better, and indeed I dream of her, and the dream is very like the event itself, except that in the dream the bridge pilings do not tremble so perilously under the weight of the train.
It is almost perfect, if erring very slightly on the side of overabundance; but "dully clean, like chalk" is a perfect and unforgettable bit of description, and the train passage (which I was fortunately able to paste in from Elegant Variation) has virtues that are too obvious to be worth stating.

Friday, September 23, 2011


(Carroll's drawing of the Giant Puppy in Alice)

Marina Warner writes about Lewis Carroll's drawings in Tate Etc.:
Carroll’s juvenilia also include lots of drawings and graphic marginalia. The frontispiece of The Rectory Umbrella, for example, shows a bearded old man beaming as fairies fly under the shelter of his umbrella. They’re bearing cradle blessings labelled “Good Humour”, “Knowledge”, “Mirth” and “Cheerfulness”, among other boons. Above them, comical grimacing goblins are hurling rocks – these are “Woe”, “Spite”, “Gloom”, “Crossness”, “Ennui” and “Alloverishness” (presumably from the woeful cry, “It’s all over”.) Most tellingly of all, the umbrella that is shielding the good sprites has written between its spokes, “Jokes”, “Riddles”, “Poetry”, “Tales” and, in the centre, “Fun”. The young Charles Dodgson was interposing a determined brand of fun between himself and unhappiness.
Warner asserts that Dodgson didn't have a split personality, which is of course true; the mystery is why anyone would think otherwise. Another fact of interest primarily to myself is that "Dodgson" is cognate with "Rogers." (Andrew Gelman recently posted a list of blog obsessions; an analogous list here would include snouts and the word Hodge/Hogge and its equivalents, as well as other obvious things like Coleridge's drug intake and the physics of coffee stains.)

Thematically similar, and also of note, is this writer/illustrator collaboration by Krasznahorkai and the German artist Max Neumann.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"The huge ruts of the ebb tide"

[pic: Abe Vigoda, Paris Review]

Rimbaud, translated by Ashbery, quoted by Huddleston in the Boston Review (French v. included as charming if one isn't Francophone):

Les courants de la lande,
Et les ornières immenses du reflux
Filent circulariement vers l’est
 What is fluid and ambiguous in the original (“les ornières” could be troughs, ruts, or billows) is made clear and distinct. In Ashbery’s rendition:
The currents of the heath,
And the huge ruts of the ebb tide
Swirl toward the east

I like these rigid seascapes; cf. the opening of Marianne Moore's "Steeple-Jack":

Dürer would have seen a reason for living
   in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
 to look at; with the sweet sea air coming into your house
 on a fine day, from water etched
   with waves as formal as the scales
 on a fish.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"I didn't kiss him, I only stroked his face"

In the prev. post I'd commented on A.E. Housman's frequent & random appearances in stories about philosophers and mathematicians. Here is an anecdote or two from Littlewood's Miscellany to go with that (if you're unfamiliar with Littlewood see here):
  • The Ellises gave [Housman] a dinner (rook pie). Later I heard Polly protesting to her husband, "I didn't kiss him, I only stroked his face."
  • I once said to him in Hall: "Suppose there was a poet, Shakespeare combined with Milton, and 6 inches high; wouldn't you patronize him?" He said the temptation would be too much for him.

Some other anecdotes from the book:
  • A.W. Verrall. It was the custom (ca. 1905) to read the roll at lectures (in alphabetical order). Verrall came to Mr. Shufflebottom, Mr. Sitwell, burst into his crow of laughter, and never read the roll again. At a Scholarship examination, Dykes pointed out to me that the list had the consecutives Alchin and Alcock.
  • There are a couple of grim stories about [German mathematician Edmund Landau's] treatment of Privatdozents. One was that when the man was recuperating in a hospital, Landau climbed a ladder and pushed a chunk of work through the window.

Some stories about Bertrand Russell:
  • Moore and Russell were having a philosophical discussion in Hall. Russell suddenly said: "You don't like me, Moore, do you?" Moore replied, "No." This point disposed of, the discussion proceeded as before.
  • [Russell] said that what Kant did, trying to answer Hume..., was to invent more and more sophisticated stuff, till he could no longer see through it and could believe it to be an answer.
  • That every argument of Hegel came down to a pun (often involving the word "is"). 
  • He told me (c. 1911) that he had conceived a theory that "knowledge" was "belief" in something which was "true." But he met a man who believed that the Prime Minister's name began with a B. So it did, but it was Bannerman and not Balfour as the man had supposed. [cf. the essay "On denoting."]
Apart from their intrinsic interest, I like Littlewood's stories (and, e.g., Marilynne Robinson's remarks about Lincoln and Darwin) for their way of making intellectual history seem approachable and cozy.

Unrelated PS. Having connected "forever stamps" with the Orwell line about communism being a boot stamping on a human face forever, I find that I cannot unmake the connection.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"A major / Prophet taken short"

Wittgenstein and Housman:

(Housman, qua Cambridge institution, comes up a lot in stories about people like Wittgenstein, Russell, G.H. Hardy and John Littlewood. I remember there being a delightful anecdote in Littlewood's Miscellany involving Housman but I've forgotten what it was.) This story is in a letter from Guy Davenport to Marjorie Perloff; the letter is worth reading in full, it cleverly juxtaposes Wittgenstein with Gertrude Stein, who might have liked the implied comparison. Davenport also has amusing things to say about Wittgenstein elsewhere; see a prev. post.

While on the topic of celebrity letters, I should link to Eliot's letter to Woolf that was posted on the Paris Review's blog today. And, while I'm free-associating on this topic, to Eliot's magnificent letter to Middleton Murry on his second (third?) marriage.

PS re title see here.

A gaggle of dissonances

These posts are all talking about the same thing:

1. Ian Leslie, today, on Obama's speech:
even though the policies he laid out are, on their own terms, popular, the signal they send about his position is that he's a traditional tax and spend Democrat. During the British 2005 general election the Tories took a hardline on immigration because polls told them it was a popular position. But the signal it sent was 'same old Tories'.

2. Erica Greider (at the Economist's American politics blog) on the popularity of "compromise":
What I find striking is the staggeringly high number of people who say they want politicians to compromise: fully 85% of respondents (even though the alternative to compromise, as the poll frames it, is "not getting as much done" rather than "falling into gridlock, dissolution, and despair"). [...] In practice, politicians do tend to defer to the voters on such questions [...] but you rarely hear them put it that way. Is that because they're worried that they'll look weak?

3. Yglesias on the weird behavior of German voters:
The mainstream center-left political parties in Germany, the Greens and the Social Democrats, are substantially more Europhilic than the governing Christian Democrat/Free Democrat coalition. [...] Given that these measure are deeply unpopular with the German electorate, you might expect the Greens and the SPD do be suffering at the polls. In fact, the reverse is happening [...] I was inclined to do an “everybody’s wrong and actually Germans love fiscal union” post based on these election results, but I looked up the poll data and it’s just not there. Germans prefer Merkel’s (wrong) view to the opposition’s (correct) one.

Her problem is roughly the problem President Obama is facing. The vast majority of people just vote for the same party every year. “The voters” don’t care about the economy, they’re mostly committed Republicans or committed Democrats. But elections are swung by the relatively small minority of people who don’t have firm partisan allegiances and they vote—whether in Germany or in the United States—largely on the basis of whether or not the incumbent is producing good results. 

4. John Holbo on Rick Perry (qua Republican) not meaning what he says:

The deeper question, I think, is why it appeals so much to so many Americans that conservatives constantly say things that they don’t really mean. Let’s go back to that oft-quoted line from Free and Cantril (The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion). Americans are “philosophical conservatives but operational liberals”. [...] what Free and Cantril found is that when Americans say Big Things about American politics, whose consequences they aren’t really prepared to affirm, in practice, they say conservative things. Whereas when you find out what they really want, in practice, they are liberals. [...]

This creates a problem for liberals: they get branded as utopian even when they are not utopian in the least. (Which they never are, in practice.) They can’t use any utopian rhetoric or systematically exaggerate what they intend to do or any of that stuff. If they do, they suffer for it. Intellectually, this is mostly a good thing. But it makes you think small, policy-wise. Because any bold thing you propose, even if it isn’t utopian, will be denounced as utopian. And electorally it’s a source of endless frustration. But the real source of this frustration is not conservative politicians but, per the title of Free and Cantril’s book: the political beliefs of Americans. Or rather, their political beliefs plus their political non-beliefs.
5. Grobstein, passing along an article about Michele Bachmann and vaccinations, remarks:
Perhaps this kind of epistemic warfare shows up on the right wing especially because it is a money-cheap response to areas where the left wing has a money-expensive strategy. It's a natural division of territory in the space of politics. Or do you think it's just an anti-sex signal?
As in any such discussion one should also link to Chris Hayes's old piece of reporting on swing voters, which suggests (consistently with other data, as far as I know) that true swing voters skew low-information and unreflective-about-politics, so have a somewhat exaggerated version of these common dissonances -- in what follows I shall use "people" to mean something like "swing voters." Perhaps what is interesting about all this, though, is the conundrum it poses for people who see democracy as a means for some sort of aggregative preference utilitarianism. (I'm unsympathetic to this view but I don't want to propagandize here.) The general problem is that people like politicians for appearing to be above [some subset of] common desires, but also happen to have these desires and to want them gratified. So clearly these sets of preferences have to be weighed against each other. I can think of two limiting readings:
  1. People elect politicians who want what the people want to want, so we should let them have said politicians even if they don't want what the people want, for the same reasons as we are happy selling people salad greens. I.e., the system works, and representative democracy leads to better outcomes than direct democracy. (This is not far from Leslie's reading.)
  2. Most political discourse consists of shibboleths in the Biblical sense; people do not want, or want to want, or want politicians to want, what politicians are universally expected to vaunt to want. Political discourse is a complicated charade (or perhaps a collection of shibboleths in the Biblical sense). People want what they want; they don't trust politicians to want what they vaunt; therefore they use shibboleths to confirm that the politicians aren't just pandering. The system is inefficient as drowns finer distinctions, erects artificial barriers to entry, and also provides cover to extremist politicians who hold the symbolic positions literally; one should cut the Gordian knot and restore power to the people (e.g., via ballot initiatives). 
The point is, you can resolve this contradiction either way -- aspiration + weakness is operationally similar to hypocrisy -- but they give you different prescriptions re what to fight for.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

L'esprit du cul-de-sac

(Sorry if the title is illiterate, I don't speak French.) This predicament described by Kingsley Amis (in The Old Devils) is nearly the exact opposite of the usual staircase wit phenomenon:
I got badly caught in Kilburn once telling a Bulgarian short-story writer, actually he was trying to cadge a lift, anyway telling him to fuck off for two or three minutes while the chap driving the open car I was sitting in turned around in the cul-de-sac I hadn't noticed we were at the end of. Amazing how quickly the bloom fades on fuck off, you know. Say it a couple of times running and you've got out of it nearly all of what you're going to get.

This sort of sociological/linguistic interest -- stray whiffs of the King's English and On Drink, of "the artist minding his proper business" while revealing personality through irrelevant detail -- is abundant even in Kingsley's more potboilerish novels (which OD isn't); it's why I tend to prefer even second-rate Kingsley to virtually all of Martin, who is less self-forgetful and also, on the evidence of his writing, less intelligent.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Horses and civil unrest

1. from "Glaucus" by Paul Muldoon (in Horse Latitudes):
It went without saying that after he lost control
of his chariot team at Pelias, and made a hames
of setting them all square,

Glaucus was still on such a roll
it was lost on him that the high point of the games
was his being eaten now by his own mares. 

II. Sylvia Nasar on Keynes, Schumpeter, and the aftermath of Versailles:
In April, thousands of gaunt and ragged men -- unemployed factory workers, paid agitators, demobbed soldiers, many with missing limbs -- descended on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, setting the Parliament building ablaze and attacking the police. The militia finally restored order, but not before a horse was shot out from under a policeman. As the animal lay dead in the street, a hungry mob tore it to pieces and carried off hunks of bloody meat. For ordinary Viennese, who adored the emperor’s white show horses the way Americans loved boxing champions, the incident was a sign that civilization was reverting inexorably to barbarism. 

III. Jon Day on the London riots:
Thick black smoke blotted out the sun. A man carrying a charred rocking horse ran up and clowned around for the phalanx of photographers and cameramen that stood between the riot police and a large group of teenagers. Everyone looked young, most looked under 18.
No riot scene is complete without some kind of horse. This, btw, is the wrong way to do it:

IV. from W.B. Yeats, "Nineteen hundred and nineteen":

Violence upon the roads:  violence of horses;
Some few have handsome riders, are garlanded
On delicate sensitive ear or tossing mane,
But wearied running round and round in their courses
All break and vanish, and evil gathers head:
Herodias' daughters have returned again,
A sudden blast of dusty wind and after
Thunder of feet, tumult of images,
Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind;
And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter
All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries,
According to the wind, for all are blind. 

Elizabeth Bishop on rioting

I googled the first line this morning and was surprised to find no search results; surely I can't be the first person to think of this particular parody? I apologize for the badness of it, I am not as patient nor as competent as I was five years ago so it is very half-assed/hurried. Nevertheless, I thought it was interesting how closely one could follow the original...

Another Art

The art of looting isn’t hard to master.
Shop-windows all seem built with the intent
to be smashed, so their breaking’s no disaster.

Loot something every day. Accept the fluster
of fleeing cops, of nights unsafely spent.
The art of looting isn’t hard to master.

Then practice looting farther, looting faster:
cafes, and homes, and where it was you meant
to drink next. None of these will bring disaster.

I snagged some marble busts (or were they plaster?),
destroyed some churches and a monument:
the art of looting isn’t hard to master.

I knifed some bitches, stole their shit; I glassed a
photographer or two. In the event
they tased me, but it wasn’t a disaster.

--Even stuck in jail (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of looting isn’t hard to master,
though it may end (spray-paint it!) in disaster.

(with apologies to Elizabeth Bishop and a vague nod to Dice)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Futures in bear-pits

1. Wikipedia on Ned Alleyn, found (circuitously) via "Alleyn on the right":

He went into business with Philip Henslowe, his father-in-law, and eventually became wealthy. He became part owner in Henslowe's ventures, and in the end sole proprietor of several profitable playhouses, bear-pits and brothels. Among these were the Rose Theatre at Bankside, the Paris Garden and the Fortune Theatre on Finsbury Fields. The Fortune was built for Alleyn and Henslowe in 1600, the year after the rival Globe Theatre was completed south of the river, by the same contractor Peter Street, but was square rather than round;[9] it was occupied by the Admiral's Men, of which Alleyn was the head.

He filled, too, in conjunction with Henslowe, the post of "master of the king's games of bears, bulls and dogs." On some occasions he directed the sport in person, and John Stow in his Chronicles gives an account of how Alleyn baited a lion before James I at the Tower of London.

2. Via the indispensable seventydys, an old James Wood review of V.S. Pritchett:

He died earlier this year, but he had disappeared while still alive into a vague posterity. He had become cloudily venerable. [...] In 19th-century Russian fiction, especially in Gogol and Chekhov, he found characters who float on the cushions of their own fantasies--people whose most intense relations are not with others but with themselves.

[...] He Russianized English character, finding a kind of Russian madness or instability in what appeared to be mere English eccentricity. (Eccentricity, he once wrote, is "practical madness.") In mild disguise himself, he was alert to the broken disguises of others. "The Fall" (1936) is typical. In a drab provincial hotel, a group of accountants is meeting for its annual dinner. One of them, Charles Peacock, would be a nonentity were it not for his famous brother, who is a movie star. Peacock has a trick, which is that he can mimic perfectly his brother's celebrated stage fall. Early in the evening, Peacock performs this trick a few times to the strained amusement of his colleagues. But he gets drunk, and persists, accosting complete strangers. Each time he falls, he stays a little longer on the ground. By the end of the evening, he is alone in the hotel's ballroom, falling again and again. The pathos of the story flows from Pritchett's determination to see things simultaneously from outside and inside Peacock's head. We see how boring and foolish Peacock has become, but the story makes us stay with him when all the guests have left. We are always on Peacock's side, and at the end we join him on the carpet with his toppled yearnings.
Re floating on cushions, cf. Pritchett describing Mr Beluncle: "his face was bland, heavy in jowl, formless and kind, resting on a second chin like a bottom on an air cushion." Wood remarks elsewhere in the review re poet-critics broadly understood that "All of them have a certain competitive proximity to the writers they discuss, a competition registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage." (I suppose 1998 was before Wood wrote his novel?)

3. Michael Atiyah on doing mathematics (quoted in Gowers, "Two cultures of mathematics"):
MINIO: How do you select a problem to study?
ATIYAH: I think that presupposes an answer. I don't think that's the way I work at all. Some people may sit back and say, \I want to solve this problem" and they sit down and say, \How do I solve this problem?" I don't. I just move around in the mathematical waters, thinking about things, being curious, interested, talking to people, stirring up ideas; things emerge and I follow them up. Or I see something which connects up with something else I know about, and I try to put them together and things develop. I have practically never started o with any idea of what I'm going to be doing or where it's going to go. I'm interested in mathematics; I talk, I learn, I discuss and then interesting questions simply emerge. I have never started off with a particular goal, except the goal of understanding mathematics.
(Relevant b'se of future-work-related pondering re why I should care about what I do.)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

O Murse! The causes and the crimes relate

This WSJ article on the words for men's fashions is very good.

Men can also wear "mandals" (male sandals), "murses" (purses), "mantyhose" (pantyhose) and "mankinis" (swimsuit variants)—though not necessarily all at the same time.
A few expressions deal with the less glamorous side of fashion. Some male models are said to suffer from "manorexia." Several words describe grooming more than fashion, such as "guyliner" (eyeliner for guys) and "manscaping" (the removal of hair from men's limbs and loins).

To the consternation of the fashion industry, the new terms are redefining fashion faux pas. The British beach town of Newquay has witnessed a rise in mankini violations, according to chief of Newquay Police Ian Drummond-Smith. This summer, for example, a man was reprimanded on an English beach for wearing a thong-like suit with a halter strap similar to the one made famous by Borat, the fictional Kazak journalist.
Mr. Drummond-Smith said the slinky one-piece breached Britain's Section 5 of Public Order Act 1986, "which prohibits the display of items likely to cause harassment, alarm & distress."
"Alarm" really is the mot juste here. See also: mancakes. (Bit of a misnomer, these have nothing to do with pancakes.) The "bro" version of this punning trend is also quite fertile -- see bromance, broetry, Broseph Stalin, brwned, etc.

Re mankinis: there is a distracting association with the name Mancini. Similarly, the word "burkini" always makes me think of Edmund Burke.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lightness of porpoise

Science Says dolphins don't actually whistle:

Signature they may be, but it appears that dolphins' whistles aren't actually whistles. A true whistle relies on pushing air through a chamber, but a similar sound can be produced by a vibrating membrane.
To find out which way dolphins do it, Peter Madsen of Aarhus University in Denmark and colleagues recorded a bottlenose dolphin whistling after breathing helium. The sounds were largely the same whether the dolphin was breathing helium or air. If the dolphin was really whistling, the helium would have changed the frequency of the sound (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0701).

I am irresistibly reminded of this and this. (I could almost swear that I've seen a 19th-cent cartoon of a bloated, possibly airborne, Coleridge leaking out of his sides/rear, but I cannot find it anywhere.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Parfit, carpet knight

Dice sent along this engrossing NY'er profile of Derek Parfit [gated link] -- it is really a case where understanding the life helps one appreciate the work. It is immensely revealing, e.g., that Parfit did not like mathematics:
He hypothesized that there was some relationship between his inability to read music and his deficiencies at mathematics: he was not good at processing symbols.

By far the most irritating thing about Reasons and Persons is Parfit's aversion to algebraic symbols; many of the arguments would be infinitely clearer and shorter if he introduced x's and y's, or used heuristic numbers. (See Tyler Cowen on this re Parfit's new book.) I had put this down to convention, but idiosyncrasy is a more believable explanation. His obsessive circling around the same thoughts, his sheer repetitiveness, also turns out to be a character trait. ["Every time he'd say, 'Larry, isn't that boring, don't you want some of my curry?' I'd say, 'No, Derek, I don't like curry.'"] MacFarquhar cleverly splices in bits of dialogue between Parfit and his wife Janet Radcliffe Richards; I find that I agree with JRR's positions on most cases. (Though unlike her I would cheerily agree to align myself with "those gloomy Scandinavians" who believe life, even at its best, is only just worth living.)

Two other factoids that really illuminate R&P:
  1. "Theodora and Derek were brilliant students, like their mother. ... Joanna, like her father, was bad at everything. Her teeth stuck out. She was also much too tall... [Derek's father] had a narrow life. He took refuge in two hobbies -- tennis, which he didn't play well, and stamp collecting... Parfit emerged from his childhood with the understanding that he and his mother and Theo were lucky and would live full lives, while Norman and Joanna were unlucky and would never be happy." This fleshes out the endless nattering on about full lives and crimped lives in part 4 of R&P.
  2. [At All Souls] "he had become, he realized, what psychiatrists call institutionalized -- a person for whom living in an institution feels much more normal than living in a family." This, it seems to me, makes his views on selflessness etc. fairly easy to understand, and also his inability to engage persuasively with the Bernard Williams/JRR point of view.
His views on poetry ("he developed an obsession with the idea that not only should the lines of a poem rhyme but the words within each line should have internal assonances... when he read his favorite poets ... their poems seemed to him badly flawed, because they had too few internal assonances") and photography ("he disliked overhead lights, in which category he included the midday sun") are vaguely charming in the usual nutty way but perhaps not of much interest.

Finally, there is one of these decompositions-of-personality:
he pictures his thinking self as a government minister sitting behind a large desk, who writes a question on a piece of paper and puts it in his out-tray. The minister then sits idly at his desk, twiddling his thumbs, while in some back room civil servants labor furiously, come up with the answer, and place it in his in-tray.

Cf. the street that is John Davidson's heart, the household that is T.S. Eliot.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

ECCOlocation; "'junk' hits"; the bishoprick of Condom

Via Jenny Davidson, a marvelous article on OCR and eighteenth-century condoms in the latest Eighteenth-Century Studies [gated link]. It is also very pun-filled; some of the puns are a bit of a stretch (e.g., "these numbers are a little rubbery, and subject to change") but there is much that is worthwhile; a few clippings:
Gabriel Fallopius invented linen sheaths in 1564, and condoms survive from ca. 1647, but the first recorded use of the word "condom" in English is not until 1705.41 In 1708 a poem was published with the subtitle "A Word or Two in Praise of Condons"42; by the 1730s numerous poems had been written in praise of condoms; and by the 1750s they had also appeared in a number of artworks. Thereafter, they feature in lengthy prose satires, in the private journals of William Byrd and James Boswell, and in the public spats between rival condom manufacturers. Condoms also feature in medical literature, first appearing in 1713 in The Symptoms, Nature, Cause, and Cure of a Gonorrhoea, by the appropriately named William Cockburn.43

[...] In 1716, 1729, 1741, and 1744 condoms, however spelled, are referred to as "The New Machine" or "machines"; in 1723 White Kennett's "Condom, A Poem" was retitled "Armour: A Poem"; in 1726 the word "preservative" is used; and in the 1760s Boswell refers to "sheaths" or "armour." In 1740 Stretzer refers to condoms circuitously as the "Cloathing worn in Merryland"; other writers describe them as "Lamb's bladders" (1748), a "scabbard" (1763), or "commodities" (1773).

[...] Looking at these results, we soon discover that there are literally hundreds of false or "junk" hits. The reason for this is that "Condom" is a city in southwestern France in the department of Gers, and since the city was a bishopric from 1317 to 1792, it is also the name of twenty-eight bishops, many of whom either wrote or were written about.51 It is not easy to remove these false-hits from the search for "condom."

("Merryland" is described further in some of the excerpts in the appendix; its proximity to Virginia is relatively beside the point.) Related previous posts: Hanseatische Gummiwerke, A Side-Splitting Tale

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Davis and Moore, Jonson and Johnson

A Very Short Story from the Lydia Davis volume Samuel Johnson is Indignant which for some reason has fetched up on my bedside table (and which, consequently, I have been rereading):

Almost Over: Separate Bedrooms

They have moved into separate bedrooms now.
That night she dreams she is holding him in her arms. He dreams he is having dinner with Ben Jonson.

(But I always thought it was supper!) Looking for a pastable text I came upon this excellent review by Richard Locke, which ends with an apt and unexpected comparison between Davis and Marianne Moore. Locke quotes Randall Jarrell on Moore:
the intricate and artificial elaboration not only does not conflict with the emotion but is its vehicle.

Which brings to mind that wonderful remark of Moore's:
rectitude has a ring that is implicative, I would say.
(Cf. Davis's abnormally strict views on literalness in translations.) Googling which -- this process being rife with serendipity -- I came upon Denis Donoghue's essay about Moore, which makes the point slightly better than Jarrell:
for Marianne Moore the supreme poetic virtue is beyond morality, though decently attentive to it. The merit of a poem, a novel, a book about landscape gardening, The Magic Flute, or a sculpture by Malvina Hoffman consists in the personality it discloses when disclosure is not intended and the artist is minding his proper business.

(Why this appeals to me will be obvious to regular readers.) The part that follows applies much more to Moore than to Davis:
Moore's common word for the flare of personality, the unity of being in which one's action is a true epitome of one's self, was rhythm. [...] Moore liked to quote Coleridge's remark that "our admiration of a great poet is for a continuous undercurrent of feeling everywhere present, but seldom anywhere a separate excitement." But she loved to find a separate excitement, like a whirlpool, verifying the undercurrent and at last returning to it. Often she found it in English writers of the seventeenth century, Bacon, Donne, Moore, the King James translators of the Bible; later in Defoe, and in Johnson, in whose work she noticed "a nicety and point, a pride and pith of utterance"

(Re "pride and pith" -- this slightly off-kilter way of ordering nouns is characteristic of Moore. (It is a similar trick to the unemphatic rhymes.) It is said that Ezra Pound changed the last line of her poem "A Grave" from "neither with volition nor consciousness" to "neither with consciousness nor volition" and she immediately changed it back.)

What Donoghue is paraphrasing re "flare of personality" is that Hopkins poem:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I think one of the drawbacks of the poetics of subtraction -- the Beckett/Davis line -- vs. the poetics of clutter is that it is in a sense too transparently theatrical; a bare stage draws attention to itself in a way that an overcrowded stage does not -- the artist is not "minding his proper business," he's designing to be looked at. Davis's way around this is to have her "proper business" be sentence-articulation but this is not always a satisfactory substitute for irrelevant detail.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Hedgehogs do it:
Hedgehogs are fairly vocal and communicate through a combination of grunts, snuffles and/or squeals, depending on species. Hedgehogs occasionally perform a ritual called anointing. When the animal encounters a new scent, it will lick and bite the source, then form a scented froth in its mouth and paste it on its spines with its tongue. The specific purpose of this ritual is unknown, but some experts believe anointing camouflages the hedgehog with the new scent of the area and provides a possible poison or source of infection to predators poked by their spines.

Looked up because hedgehogs are a Thing on tumblr (see also: here, here). Some other notes:
  • In the Middle Ages a hedgehog was also a furze-pig, a hurcheon, an urchin, or (by metanalysis) a nurchin. Wikipedia says the -hog names have to do with snoutedness; wonder if a pig connection is behind the biblical belief that "An vrchon, that chewith kude,‥is vnclene."
  • Naturally the hedgehog appears, as "hurcheon," in the extravagant linguistic treasure-house that is Dunbar's Twa mariit women & wedo, "With his hard hurcheone scyn sa heklis he my chekis."
  • Hedgehog-roasting appears to have preceded knife-crime as the national British sport (Guardian):
Research suggests nettle pudding may be the oldest known recipe, dating from 6000BC, closely followed by smokey stew, meat pudding, barley bread and roast hedgehog. [...]  Ruth Fairchild, who led the research, said that however off-putting the Neolithic dishes might sound, many were forerunners of the food we enjoy today.

"The way our ancestors cooked hedgehog - wrapped in a casing of grass or leaves to stop the meat burning - is an early version of many modern recipes which involve meat being wrapped or coated, such as chicken kiev, beef wellington or cornish pasties," she said.

[some dishes] have disappeared from the British dining table, including garum and liquamen, sauces made from fish guts and heads; smokey stew, a combination of bacon and smoked fish; meat pudding, a mix of offal, fat and herbs; barley bread, an early form of unleavened bread; and in mitulis, a Roman equivalent of moules marinière.
Roasted meats (Hedgehog)

"Hedgehog should have its throat cut, be singed and gutted, then trussed like a pullet, then pressed in a towel until very dry; and then roast it and eat with cameline sauce, or in pastry with wild duck sauce. Note that if the hedgehog refuses to unroll, put it in hot water, and then it will straighten itself."


Also tantalizingly recipe-ish is this excerpt from Reliquae Antiquae: " Tak the grees of an urcheon, and the fatte of a bare." Wherefore? To anoint a hedgehog?

    Poets as vending machines

    I like this conceit from Michael Hofmann's piece about Bishop in the new LRB:
    Other poets are predictably and more or less unvaryingly themselves, like cellophane packs of cigarettes from a vending machine; with Bishop you get the surprise gift in a plastic ball – sometimes purposeless and perplexing, more often flat-out exhilarating, the toy of your dreams, like ‘An acre of cold white spray … Dancing happily by itself’. Bad Lowell is just bad Lowell; it has something parodic and clanking about it, as the epigrams sail bafflingly past their targets. Lesser Bishop may be disappointing, but it isn’t demoralising, somehow doesn’t affect the whole. You stand in front of the machine, the dispenser of miniature planets, and throw in more quarters; surely you will be luckier next time; you have the obscure but possibly correct feeling that it is your fault for not understanding the toy you have been given.
    [Also cf. "little worlds made cunningly."] The review is otherwise very good (I always want to describe these reviews as "awful but cheerful" -- sadly the tag never fits). As Hofmann says, for instance, "Things in Bishop are anarchically themselves. Her shoes clack in different keys." And "One Art" is indeed "a poem so stifled in its compressed clamour I’ve never cared for it." Marina's favorite line about "a mind thinking" makes its inevitable appearance. And this is really fodder for a later, more thought-out post, but I was intrigued by Hofmann's remark about the pronoun thing:

    Bishop is [...] a poet of ‘eye’ and not ‘I’, or even of ‘eye-and-tears’ and not ‘I’, and also of ‘we’ and not ‘I’. Both the ‘eye’ and the ‘we’ are ways of not saying ‘I’, of getting around it or playing it down. (It’s not that Bishop never says ‘I’, but she seems almost to ration it, in a militant modesty, to no more than its statistically probable occurrence among the other pronouns.) She makes that very change, movingly, in a fragment called ‘A Short, Slow Life’:
    We lived in a pocket of Time.
    It was close, it was warm.
    Along the dark seam of the river
    the houses, the barns, the two churches,
    hid like white crumbs
    in a fluff of gray willows & elms,
    till Time made one of his gestures;
    his nails scratched the shingled roof.
    Roughly his hand reached in,
    and tumbled us out.
    Originally, that read ‘I lived in a pocket of Time’ (and ‘tumbled me out’) – a little nightmare of scale and vulnerability and the end of cosiness, alongside the pocket plays on ‘close’ and ‘seam’ and ‘fluff’. But no, that wouldn’t do, too much pathos, too much drama of self, too much contemplation of the ungainly blunt fingers (what is their rude gesture?), and so the ‘I’ is scratched out and becomes a ‘we’, and the poem loses its identity and its urgency (perhaps neither of them especially Bishop-like qualities anyway), and the Robert Louis Stevenson or Hans Christian Andersen idea, now gone mousy and a little folksy, fails to survive.

    Not clear on the extent of Bishop's interest in/acceptance of Puritanism, but this reminds me among other things of Frank Kermode on Cowper's "Castaway" (in The Uses of Error):
    Calvinism suited this poet's dementia almost exactly; but it was not only mad but theologically incorrect for him to suppose himself singled out from the rest of humanity for both election and reprobation.
    PS Hart Crane as claw crane