Friday, January 27, 2012

A slabbed-down mass of tabbage

1. Robert Walser's story "Good morning, Giantess" (NYRB classics tumblr). I esp. liked this:
Cold and white the streets lie there, like outstretched human arms; you trot along, rubbing your hands, and watch people coming out of the gates and doorways of their buildings, as though some impatient monster were spewing out warm, flaming saliva. You encounter eyes as you walk along like this: girls’ eyes and the eyes of men, mirthless and gay; legs are trotting behind and before you, and you too are legging along as best you can, gazing with your own eyes, glancing the same glances as everyone else.
Cf. Chaucer:
 Hold up thy tayl, thou Sathanas!' quod he;
`Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se
 Where is the nest of freres in this place!'
 And er that half a furlong wey of space,
 Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve,
 Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve
 Twenty thousand freres on a route,
 And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute,
 And comen agayn as faste as they may gon,
 And in his ers they crepten everychon.
2. Puritan names. Going around on the internet, but e.g. Helpless Henley, Wrestling Brewster, Faithful Teate, Magnyfye Beard, and Unfeigned Panckhurst are almost reusable.

3. John Burnside's poem "The Good Neighbor." (Previously noted: "Late Show.") Burnside won the T.S. Eliot prize this year, annoyingly the new book isn't out in the US yet, but there's a Kindle edition (!), which I suppose I'll have to buy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dazzle vs. neatness of finish

Fascinating result in this week's Science (poss. gated) suggesting that bowerbirds might be using optical illusions (viz. forced perspective) to attract mates.

The males of avenue-species bowerbirds—including great bowerbirds—construct elaborate bowers composed of two stick walls. The bowers are aligned to run from north to south, and the ends are filled with “gesso” (a collection of gray to white shells, stones, and bones), upon which colored objects are placed and thrown. [...]. Females enter bowers from their south end and watch the male at the north end carry on a display that includes vocalizations, movements, and the tossing of colored objects in front of the gesso. Many males never succeed in attracting females to their bowers, and only a select few do most of the mating after females visit and inspect their bower.[...]

In a previous report, Endler et al. (3) discovered that the arrangement of the gesso is not random: Smaller objects are arranged near the opening of the display court, and larger ones more distant from the opening. When the researchers reversed the gradient, the bowerbirds rapidly restored it to its initial distribution (but not the individual objects, just the gradient). This study showed that male bowerbirds, for whatever reason, care about the gradient. The interesting observation was that the bower creates a condition conducive to creating experiences of “forced perspective,”[...]. 

Kelley and Endler provide insight into why the males care so much about the gradient. They report that the males most adept at crafting forced-perspective illusions are most likely to achieve mating success. [...] The projected gradients, as seen from within the bower, are more predictive of mating success than the actual physical gradients. [...] Have male bowerbirds mastered the laws of perspective and learned to manipulate them to achieve lascivious ends? 

Although this possibility is intriguing, the current data are not yet sufficiently rich to sustain this remarkable hypothesis. The data provide compelling evidence that the quality of the gradient, from the vantage point of the female, predicts mating success, but the visual fact of the more uniform texture, not an illusion, may be the only factor determining her preference. Indeed, it has been previously reported that males with more symmetrical bower avenues have a higher mating success rate.
The -- immediately obvious -- argument for this view and against forced perspective qua depth-illusion is that the stones are arranged the wrong way round; they make the bower look smaller rather than bigger, and there cannot be any advantage to that as one could simply construct a smaller bower instead. (Also I don't know if bowerbirds have much depth-perception, though I'm sure this is something the authors have thought about.) But, upon reading the actual article [Science 335, 335 (2012)] it becomes clear that what the authors really want to claim is that it is the confusingness of the illusions that matters:
Any of these seven effects might hold the female’s attention longer than if absent, and still longer if the illusions interact. For example, females will not mate unless they have spent more than about 55% of their total time in the avenue watching the male display.
I'm curious to see how they test these hypotheses against each other. ("Common sense" is against the dazzle hypothesis but then it is also against the existence of bowerbirds.)

(I should remark in passing that the bowerbird has always struck me as a good symbol for most tumblrs and a certain kind of blog.)

(See also: Electric Brae.)

"Almost incurably frivolous"

Ferdinand Mount, reviewing M.R. James (LRB, gated), brings up The Other James in a way "incomparably light and deft":

Towards the end of his life, in 1929, [MR] James wrote a survey of ghost stories for the Bookman [...] The article ends in a characteristically self-deprecating but also unusually abrupt way: ‘There need not be any peroration to a series of rather disjointed reflections. I will only ask the reader to believe that, though I have not hitherto mentioned it, I have read The Turn of the Screw.’ [...] Is Henry’s exhaustive psychological analysis precisely what Monty will not permit himself, even if he were capable of it? Like Bertie Wooster, M.R. James seems not entirely at home with the psychology of the individual; for that sort of stuff, he relies on Jeeves. On his only recorded meeting with the other James, he thought that Henry looked ‘like a respectable butler’.
A few marginalia: (1) Livermere is a good place name -- at least for a ghost story -- and probably superior to Mortmere. (Liverpool might once have had similar potential.) (2) Mount on the ghost stories: "his phantoms do not, on the whole, haunt. They lie doggo in their holes and only when roused make a single surprise appearance. They are cabaret turns." (3) Also:
The spectral bedsheet in ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ attempts to thrust its ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ close into the face of Professor Parkins as he cries for help. The gender of the bedsheet is unclear, but the fear of domesticity and the fear of sex, tangled and intertwined like the bedsheet, are unmistakable.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


From yet another list of untranslatable words (cf.):
From German, this word literally means “gate-closing panic” and is used to describe the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. This word is most frequently applied to women who race the “biological clock” to wed and bear children.
This is high up on my list of frequently-felt emotions, a little behind schadenfreude and buyer's remorse, and perhaps slightly ahead of envy. Also provides an excuse to quote Auden:
Certain it became while we were still incomplete
There were certain prizes for which we would never compete:
A choice was killed by every childish illness,
The boiling tears among the hothouse plants,
The rigid promise fractured in the garden,
And the long aunts.

And every day there bolted from the field
Desires to which we could not yield;
Fewer and clearer grew the plans,
Schemes for a life and sketches for a hatred,
And early among my interesting scrawls
Appeared your portrait. 

(Another worthwhile untranslatable is "tartle" -- "a Scottish verb meaning to hesitate while introducing someone due to having forgotten his/her name.") 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"It does seem what you need to be told"

Interesting bit of Empsoniana, via pseudopodium: an exchange of letters between E. and Rosemund Tuve, occasioned by a disagreement re George Herbert's "Sacrifice" (readers of 7 types might remember an allusion to this in the preface to the 1949-ish edition). [Grouchy aside: the introduction is awful. Says E. went to Magdalen College, Oxford -- really it was Magdalene, Cambridge -- and astoundingly asserts that "neither [E. nor T.] is noted for style".] The longer letter by Tuve is interesting for its stylistic reasons; it is arch and benignant, and also unaccountably difficult to read. Empson's letters are Empsonian to the point of self-parody -- as so much of his work is -- but I enjoyed this remark (my emphases):
I was rather shocked at your saying that I neednt rewrite my bit posted to you because it is always a nuisance to rewrite. I rewrite everything I print about twelve times, mainly in the interests of intelligibility, and I think you had much better do that too. Checking references always seems to me a trivial duty compared to checking style. I think that your style has greatly improved in your last book but is still very bad, simply from failure of communication. I also think that if you tried to write more clearly you would find your own ideas are a great deal more muddled than you suppose. So I hope very much that you will write another book, but as a labour of love, intended to be agreeable in itself – the distinction between the writer and the reader becomes unreal (because the same thing pleases both) if you take your own style as seriously as you take the style of the authors you are describing. One can imagine this doctrine working out wrong, but it does seem what you need to be told.
Tuve (whom I am more sympathetic to on the merits, and to whom E. is occasionally condescending) also has some good moments in her second letter:
how am I not to snort at you if you plant your feet wide apart and say ‘I refuse to see concordance!’ Then you must not know what you would know if you saw concordance. [...] A scholar isn’t a fetcher and carry-er so that others haven’t to trouble; it wouldn’t even be safe.

I honestly think (or did, and am pretty sure I still would; it’s a long question) that the book gives proper and sufficient data for any claim that is therein made, as far as a quite tender and delicate scholarly conscience can watch such things – there are always ways in which the mind, being fallible, goes astray. But the only way you can be sure whether I have is, is to just go and read what I had.
Another note: Tuve wants to construe Empson as saying that scholarship is of no value to literary critics, which is a straw-man version of Empson's position, but not too much of one. Empson is infuriating about not checking his quotations, etc. As for the broader point about whether relevant scholarship helps one understand texts better -- I suppose some of the New Critics denied this; that this New Critical position was ever respectable now seems mysterious.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Met him pike hoses!"

Tickled to discover -- and so belatedly! -- that my birthday coincides with the anniversary of Joyce's death. I've been "reading" Finnegans Wake 140 characters at a time; it is much more digestible that way, one gets the intermittent good line ("the pillgrimace of Childe Horrid," "may foggy dews be-diamondise your hooprings! may the fireplug of filiality reinsure your bunghole!" "O murder mere, how did you hear?") without getting hopelessly bogged down.

Also, in re snouts, I learned on twitter today that "mere-swines" (aka "pork-fishes," aka porpoises) appear in the alliterative Morte Arthure: a character, prev. described as "harsh as a hound-fish," is now "fat as a mere-swine  with carcass full huge / and all faltered the flesh in his foul lips." (ll. 1091-1092).

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Word-hoards and lard-hoards

1. In the wake of this exchange, Calista and I have been trading literary sightings of lard, pigs, and/or gross food broadly construed; we've recently started a new tumblr (currently titled "A Child's Larder of Verse" though really there isn't much verse there) dedicated to these. No by-lines as these would be purely embarrassing for me. Swift (Jonathan, not Tom) is the genius of the place.

2. A fascinating Language Log post about the writer Paul West who "emerged from [a] stroke with a near-total obliteration of language" and how he made the best of his way back to language:
Oddly, it was often the most obscure words that were easiest to recover. He struggled with words like blanket or bed, or his wife's name Diane, words that you would think over time should have seeped into his genes. Nevertheless, he could recruit words like postillion or tardigrades to get an idea across. This led to some counter-productive interactions with a speech therapist. Since aphasics often produce nonsense words without realizing that they aren't real words, one of the goals of therapy is to give the patient feedback on which words are real. But West would often produce bona fide words that were unknown to the therapist.  [...]
The intimate wordplay between West and [his wife Diane] Ackerman also eventually resumed, with West fashioning novel terms of endearment as gifts to his wife. The offerings were delightful. Deprived of the usual routes to language, and along with them, the common clichés that many of us struggle to shed, West bestowed on his wife exquisite pet names such as: My Little Bucket of Hair; Commendatore de le Pavane Mistletoe; Dark-Eyed Junco, My Little Bunko; Diligent Apostle of Classic Stanzas.  And at one point, the man uttered what has to be the most searingly romantic sentence ever uttered in history, by anyone, in any language:

"You are the hapax legomenon of my life."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

"Irretrievable hippopotamus"

From Janet Malcolm's collages (NYRB) based on "the papers of an émigré psychiatrist who practiced in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s":
Test words for dysarthria

Royal Artillery
Methodist Episcopal
West Register Street
[crossed out]
Massachusetts Constitution
Righteous Retribution
Irish Constabulary
Irretrievable Hippopotamus
And then there was also this (under "ouch ouch disease"):

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Beak House

Some lovely photographs of waterbirds at the Guardian (via Barb Milne on twitter). The avocets naturally caught my fancy -- further sign of aging, it took me a perceptible amount of time to remember what they were called -- but the grumpy, unastonished, Jacobean-looking heron (which for some reason I associate w/ the cardinal in one of Webster's plays) is perhaps the more impressive picture:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Nine foot long, and seven foot broad"

From Shakespeare's England (formerly Dainty Ballerina), the uses of polar bears (in a post that begins with a tangential remark about Jonson):
Then we rip'd up her belly, and taking out her guttes, drew her home to the House where we flayed her, and took at least one hundred pounds of fat out of her belly, which wee molt'd and burned in our Lampe. This Grease did us great good service, for by that meanes we still kept a Lampe burning all night long, which before wee could not doe, for want of Grease, and eery man had meanes to burned a Lampe in his Cabbin, for such necessaries as he had to doe. The Beares skin was nine foot long, and seven foot broad.
(Calista  (who provided the Jonson quote below) and I have lately been collecting references to grease, boars, bears, do(ugh!)nuts, etc. under the unofficial rubric of A Child's Larder of Verse.) See also: "I've measured it from side to side / 'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide." The linked bear story includes the wonderfully anticlimactic end of an Arctic explorer:
In 1611, [Jonas] Poole suffered a broken skull and collar bone on Cherry Island while handling his cargo of walrus ivory and whale fat. He was brought home by a rival whaler and recovered sufficiently from his injuries to return to the arctic the following year. However, Poole's career as a whaler was cut short in September 1612 when he was murdered in Wapping in August, having returned home from what became his final voyage.

Also bear- and grease-related: from Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, a description of the character Ursula ("Urs." / "Urse"):

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Vastly replenished"

1. A fine article in the LARB on dining out with Marianne Moore; here is Moore as theater critic:
But a production of Phèdre by the Comédie-Française with Marie Bell had impressed her when she hadn’t expected to be impressed. “I was so enthused after seeing Marie Bell’s Phèdre that I bought myself a bag of hot chestnuts and came home vastly replenished!”
A few bracingly negative views of younger poets (I agree with both of these):
“Randall Jarrell makes patchwork quilts of mediocre poetic ideas. His poems are good, realistic, honest — but not outstanding,” for instance, or “Richard Wilbur’s poems don’t stay in my mind, which must be an indication of their worth — to me, at least. He’s very accomplished, though. I like his translations of Molière.” When making “pronouncements” she had a way of tilting her head back a bit and lifting her right hand in the air, fingers curved, almost as if she were preparing to play the piano. 
2. Geoffrey Hill has been knighted; this particular honor seems esp. appropriate in his case. I have quoted his poems in the past, but feel obliged to record an appearance of snouts therein (Mercian Hymns XI):
Swathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring. It is safe to presume, here, the king’s anger. He reigned forty years. Seasons touched and retouched the soil.

Heathland, new-made watermeadow. Charlock, marsh-marigold. Crepitant oak forest where the boar furrowed black mould, his snout intimate with worms and leaves.

Monday, January 2, 2012

"When I brought up Jorie Graham, he claimed to admire her too"

1. Sam Anderson (NYT sentence-of-the-day guy) does a year-in-marginalia -- a form that is distinctly more natural for me than a Year in Reading (or a Month in Swindon); I particularly liked this Bolano passage:
And only then did I realize how eagerly, how recklessly he was exposing himself to the sun. He wasn't using sunscreen. And he knew he was dying and he was lying in the sun on purpose like a person saying goodbye to someone very dear. The old tourist was bidding farewell to the sun and to his own body and to his old wife sitting beside him. It was a sight to see, something to admire. It wasn't a dead body lying there on the sand, but a man. And what courage, what gallantry. 
2. Stephen Haven (a.k.a. Heaven-Haven) describes a dinner in Beijing with the wonderfully named Chinese poet Duo Duo:
Duo Duo said, “No, that is not the difference. The difference is something else. British and American poets always have to ‘tell the story,’ and at the end of their poems they sum the story up. In France and Germany poets don’t do that.” Duo Duo said he admired Rilke, Paul Celan, Apollinaire, Rene Char, André Breton. [...]  Maybe that is why modern, Continental poetry comes through better, because it is more powerfully built on imagery, especially when the imagery is surreal. Maybe Frost’s long narratives are untranslatable, I said, because they are so subtle [...] We talked about American and British poets Duo Duo admires. He said he loved Roethke, Charles Wright, R.S. Thomas, Ashbery, Mark Strand, Whitman, James Tate, James Wright, Dickinson. When I brought up Jorie Graham, he claimed to admire her too, and Hart Crane was also an important poet for him, many years ago.
3. Mark Lilla's review of The Reactionary Mind is awful in an exemplary way. (He thinks the book is awful in an exemplary way too, and perhaps it is; I haven't read it.) The book (by all accounts) argues that conservatives throughout history have really been driven by the desire to justify oppression and oppose equality. The review asserts that this is obviously incorrect because conservatives have disagreed with one another -- a non-sequitur if there ever was one; as if it weren't possible to disagree about the correct way to justify oppression -- and then goes on to restate a bunch of conventional tropes about conservatism and liberalism. (This story is evidently preempted by the argument of the book under review, which is that the metaphysics is a smokescreen for interest-group politics; but it is not clear if Lilla sees this. -- "Sees" is, incidentally, a palindrome like "eye" and its cognates.) However, I thought this antithesis of Lilla's was thought-provoking and not obviously wrong:
The quarrel between liberals and conservatives is essentially a quarrel over the nature of human beings and their relation to society. The quarrel between revolutionaries and reactionaries, on the other hand, has little to do with nature. It is a quarrel over history.
(I think the correct way to read "history" -- given the context of the rest of the article -- is as "large events"; i.e., you can unpack the claim as saying that reactionaries and revolutionaries are people whose views on politics hinge on the moral significance attached to specific historical events, rather than on a theory of human nature. It is not entirely implausible that some such distinction is behind some intra-left or intra-right squabbling. Lilla's attempts to apply this schema to contemporary politics are pretty weak, however.)