Thursday, December 08, 2016

Poem of the Day Year: Good Bones

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Maggie Smith
There's an interview with the author on this poem here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Two Contradictory Thoughts on the Record-Breaking Corruption of the Future Trump Administration

I'm of two minds about the virtual certainty that Trump will run the most corrupt administration in American history (follow-up) by an order of magnitude or more. On the one hand, given the number and scale of problems we face, it's way, way down the list. Next to the unleashing of attacks on minorities of all stripes, the ending of health care for millions, the destruction of the planet's biosphere, the reinstatement of torture as official US policy, etc, etc, it's trivial.

Frankly, if they were really just in it for the money, I for one would personally be thrilled to highball the amount Trump & all of his cronies expect to make from their years in office, multiply it by ten, and give it to them in straight, no-strings, untaxed cash, if they would resign & let the winner of the popular vote take office in January. The Republic would be vastly better off.

On the other hand... Corruption gets to a lot of people who don't care about (or are even on the other side of) other issues. Clinton lost so narrowly that any of dozens of factors can be blamed, but among the leading causes is clearly the (largely false) idea that she was corrupt (laughable compared to her opponent, of course). And Trump's farcical claim that he would "drain the swamp" was, apparently, a big deal for those who voted for him. Certainly the notion that corrupt elites run things helped him, so that showing that he is the most corrupt of them will probably do some good with at least some Trump voters.

So... yeah. Trump: corrupt. Let's make that point, early and often, along with all the others.

Update: This quite seriously understates the danger of Trump's corruption. See this Matt Yglesias post for what I missed.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016


…Val was an optimist herself. Or at least people often accused her of it. And indeed she did try to make the best of things. It seemed to her that that was the way one should behave… Making the best of things was what courage meant, in her opinion; that was right action in the face of life. And how hard it was, given how dark her thoughts had become, and how dismal everything sometimes appeared to her; how against the grain of her temperament it had become. But she kept at it anyway, as an act of the will. And all it did was to get her laughed at, and most of what she said continually discounted or put down, as if being optimistic was a matter of a somewhat obtuse intelligence, or at best the luck of biochemistry, rather than a policy that had to be maintained, sometimes in the midst of the blackest moods imaginable.…

…And the world being what it was, Val supposed that there was some truth in it. Why be optimistic, how be optimistic, when there was so much wrong with so much? In a world coming apart it had to be a kind of stupidity. But still Val held to it, stubbornly, just barely.… It took an effort to be optimistic, it was a moral position. But no one understood that.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, ANTARCTICA

...Need I add that this is, for me, aspirational not descriptive? That to say that I fall short of this is beyond overstatement, and that I am by intellect and temperament pessimistic in the extreme? That this is me talking to myself as much or far more than others? Ok then.

(By the way, this quote is in my sidebar quotes, in a much more truncated version; this is a longer chunk. For the still longer version, read the book!)

"Neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain"

Dover Beach 

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 —Matthew Arnold

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

"The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing"

Election Day, November 1884

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest
scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor
your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-
loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones—nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes—
nor Mississippi's stream:
—This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name—the
still small voice vibrating—America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the
quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd—sea-board and inland
—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and con-
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:)
the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the
heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Even If Sanity Wins, Tomorrow Is Just the End of the Beginning

A friend of mine (whom I'll name if he likes, but otherwise won't) said yesterday on FB that he isn't against conservatism, just Trumpism. This is dangerous thinking, which we must combat as we move through and beyond tomorrow's vote.

Some writers (such as a recent, otherwise strong piece by Ezra Klein) have focused on Trump as a potential authoritarian, focusing on his personal flaws. But most of Trump's personal flaws are simply slight amplifications of longstanding conservative tendencies. Trump's racism, his proud ignorance (and attendant mendacity), his misogyny, his demagoguery, his authoritarian impulses, his breaking of constitutional norms, his wild and unfocused threats — all arise out of what the GOP has been since it began to merge with the conservative movement in 1964.

There is, abstractly, a set of conservative ideas that don't truck in white nationalist politics, in hatred of knowledge as "elitist", in authoritarian power-worship. (Although they're still terrible ideas!) But they don't have a base in this country. Since Goldwater lost in a landslide but won deep south states on the back of his opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, conservatives have, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, sold conservatism as a vehicle for racist, anti-knowledge, authoritarian (etc) ideas which are the real appeal. (The best exemplification of this is the times when Trump ditched (inconsistently) conservative dogma, and still won the GOP nomination: most of their voters don't really care about low taxes; they're there for the white nationalist authoritarianism.)

Trump is an outlier — he says the soft parts loud. (As Ezra Klein says in the piece I referred to above, "…the compliment I can pay Donald Trump, and I pay it with real gratitude [is that] he never hid who he was.") He turns things up to 11. But they were already at 10. Because they're baked into recepie. And what Trump has accomplished this year, even if he looses, is to make them even more central, even more virulent, even more dangerous for the foreseeable future.

To say the problem isn't conservatism but Trump is to miss the point: Trump is conservatism.
People who don't like politics — most of us — have been telling ourselves that this is different, that institutions which have departed in extraordinary ways from their normal practices to call out Trump can now go back to their normal blind bipartisan blandness. But it's a mistake, a deep mistake, and if persisted in it will in time be a fatal one. If you think that we've had to go all-out to defeat Trump, then you should also think we have to stay all-out to defeat Trumpism. Otherwise the next Trump — just slightly more self-controlled — will win.

Most Americans — including, very much, me — are looking forward to tomorrow as the end of a nightmare. But we're wrong. It's just the end of the first inning.

We will be fighting Trumpist demons from now on, until some time we can't imagine, or until we loose. This is our future. This is our country. This is us, from now on.
(Cross-posted from Facebook.)


Post script: Jonathan Chait says all this better and less histrionically (although with still the requisite amount of hysteria to be accurate; a lack of hysteria is pretty much a sign that one isn't being accurate in one's depiction of the world) is here:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Few Words on Little, Big

A few days ago I finished listening to the audiobook (read by the author) of John Crowley's Little, Big — my second time through the audiobook specifically and third time through the text of the novel as a whole.*  I come away once again overwhelmed by what an amazing, marvelous book it is.

I want to recommend it to everyone.  Virginia Woolf famously said that George Eliot's Middlemarch was "one of the few English books written for grown-up people", a remark that strikes me as about 15% insightful and 85% silly.  But in the same way one could say that Little, Big was one of the few English books about faeries written for grown-up people.**  Middlemarch contains a village, at a fairly brief moment in time; Little, Big contains a family (it is family chronicle, a rather old-fashioned but marvelous form), stretched out over time and space (or, if not space, then location, the locations being the country house and the City).  It's breathtaking and heartbreaking and wonderful.  Its prose is not as pyrotechnic in a way that Nabokov's or Updike's can (at times excessively) be; but it is as good as theirs are, which is to say, as good as English prose gets.  Gene Wolfe (one of the few living writers in his class) said that Little, Big was "an education in modern fantasy all by itself"; Ursula Le Guin said it is "a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy".  Harold Bloom's canonized it.  Seriously, people, this is an amazing book.

I want to recommend it to everyone: but with a word of warning.  It's not an easy book to get into.  Several very fine readers whom I have pushed it upon have begun it, seen its merits, but not finished it.  I myself began it several times before finishing it.  After I did so, I went online and searched for information about it, and found person after person saying some variation of, "it took me several tries to get into it but now it's one of my favorite books".  Well, me too.  It reminds me of what Umberto Eco said in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose:
After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey's own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are alike a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.  Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.
Just so: the same is true of the life of a family that lives in the country and waits for a Tale to unfold.

It is not a book that you "can't put down": it is that much deeper and more wonderful thing, a book that you must continually put down to catch your breath, to marvel at the view, to hold a phrase tightly in your mind in sheer delight.  But it is a journey worth taking.  Some reviewers have complained that "nothing happens" in the book: which is not at all true, though I grant that there is no punching or shooting (well, except for the person who ends up getting shot, I mean.  But not that sort of shooting).  But it is not a novel paced to the attention spans of the digital age.  It's the richer for it: but it has become for us, I think, a harder read than it was when it first came out.  But it will repay you richly if you make the effort.  Sometimes long journeys need to be taken on foot, to be the more marvelous when you finally, dusty and tired, arrive.

Two notes on two ancillary works of art that spring from the novel.

First, as I mentioned, I listened to the audiobook, read by Crowley himself.  It's marvelous.  Crowley is not a professional audiobook narrator, and does not have the characteristic style they do (with, for instance, their multiple voices for multiple characters); but the text is his, and his voice makes it (if possible) even better.  If you've gotten stuck in the book, try the audiobook.  (Local Ithaca folks might note it's in the TCPL system, though housed at a different library.)

Second, my friend Ron Drummond has been working for some years on a special limited edition of Little, Big, one with an author's corrected text*** and illustrations by Peter Milton — pictures not created for the book, but used to illustrate it.  That last — the entwining of a text with pictures made separately from it — sounds as implausible as, well, a novel about faeries for (in a Wolfian sense) grown-up people.  But, implausibly, miraculously, it works.  The other day Ron was kind enough to show me several chapters as laid out for the in-process edition.  What was remarkable to me about it is not only how well they graced the text, but the way in which Ron, taking details from various pictures, sometimes reversing or reusing them in creative and counterintuitive ways, has made out of Milton's art and Crowley's masterpiece something yet other, a third work of art, with its own aesthetic surprises and joys and marvels.  It is, perhaps, the art of curating (a underappreciated art in any event); but it is a first-rate example of it.  Ron has hit some speedbumps, and the edition as yet has no publication date,  but keep an eye out for it, and catch it when you can.

In the meantime, don't let that hold you up: get any old edition of the novel and read it — or get the audiobook and listen.  If you get stuck, keep going.  Don't let the amazing transition that occurs in the first sentence of part three throw you (it threw me, when I first hit it).  It's worth it.  If you finish it once, you'll want to read it again.


* The first time I used the admittedly old-fashioned medium of trees, pulped & smashed flat, and systematically dirtied in specific patterns.  Weird, I know.

** Don't let the word ''faeries" turn you off; these are neither Peter Pan's cute comrades nor Tolkien's wise warriors.  They are marvelous and terrifying and convincing in a way that I might have said, before reading the book, was impossible.

*** Used as the text for the audiobook edition, incidentally.

Dylan, Nobel Laureate

I am genuinely quite, quite thrilled by this news.

There has been no better writer than Dylan in the years Dylan has been writing. The Nobel for Literature has never gone to anyone more worthy than he.

There are, to be sure, other writers equally worthy: I would love to see someone from the SF field win it (Le Guin is most frequently named, and would be a fitting winner, as would Wolfe, Delany, Crowley, and others). I'd plug Alan Moore. The various sneers at Philip Roth are misplaced; he, too, would be a great winner. All that said: there is no better choice. Dylan is entirely and fully deserving.

A splendid, perfect choice.

Two further points:

First, I would like to thank the Nobel committee for taking my mind off this genuinely stomach-turning election (due, I should add, entirely to one candidate: I mean no false equivalence here), and giving me something to be genuinely happy about this morning.

Second, note to self: really, really gotta resist getting into it with the people who are, in various fashions, sneering. Shouting doesn't help people be less tone deaf.

PS: Ted Gioia totally called it some years ago (fun list all around, incidentally).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Poem of the Day: Archaic Torso of Apollo

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell
(A neat page with both the original German and several different English translations is here.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Thoughts on the State of the Democratic Nomination Race, Especially Where Sanders Is & Should Go

A lot of people are frustrated that Sanders hasn't dropped out yet. As a Sanders voter, I agree he needs to withdraw, but I think far more important then when he drops out is how he drops out. He has raised a large number of issues, pushed the political conversation (and Clinton) to the left and above all energized young voters powerfully & importantly. He needs to drop out in a way that does several things:

1. Gives them a sense of all they accomplished. Because they accomplished a lot.

2. Imparts to them the absolute moral imperative of voting for Clinton over Trump.

3. Keeps the activists he has inspired engaged in politics, ideally spinning off organized movements and not just individual activists.
Those movements could be a lot of things; two important areas, in my view, are A) downballot organizing (nothing will happen without multiple victories at every level; Sanders's organization could and should be a powerful force pushing the democrats both left & into power), and B) issue organizing (holding all democrats' feet to the fire on issues of inequality, money-dominated politics, and the other issues that Sanders focused on). Ideally they'd do A through November and B thereafter, but any combination would be good.

Conceding last night wouldn't have down much for any of those three goals. So I don't think he should have done so. But he needs to be laying the groundwork. Will he/is he? The signs are mixed: a lot of (not entirely credible) reporting is portraying him as very personally bitter; at the same time, there are reasons to be hopeful (he requested & is having a meeting with Obama on Thursday). It could go either way. I hope he does the right thing. Taking his time & doing it carefully is not only consistent with that, it's necessary for it.

Electing Clinton is necessary to progress in every area Sanders supporters care about; it is sufficient for progress in none. If Sanders, and we, can bear that in mind, we'll do well. So keep hope alive, as another Democratic candidate who didn't receive his party's nomination used to put it.

Cross-posted from Facebook.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Boodle to Quoodle, Buffy to Puffy

Then there is my Lord Boodle, of considerable reputation with his party, who… perceives with astonishment that supposing the present government to be overthrown, the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle—supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then, giving the Home Department and the leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can't offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can't put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows?…

On the other hand, the Right Honourable William Buffy, M.P., contends across the table with some one else that the shipwreck of the country—about which there is no doubt; it is only the manner of it that is in question—is attributable to Cuffy. If you had done with Cuffy what you ought to have done when he first came into Parliament, and had prevented him from going over to Duffy, you would have got him into alliance with Fuffy, you would have had with you the weight attaching as a smart debater to Guffy, you would have brought to bear upon the elections the wealth of Huffy, you would have got in for three counties Juffy, Kuffy, and Luffy, and you would have strengthened your administration by the official knowledge and the business habits of Muffy. All this, instead of being as you now are, dependent on the mere caprice of Puffy!

— Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 12

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kay Ryan Week: A Sequel

Four-plus years ago I went on a binge of posting Kay Ryan poems.  The other day I saw her latest book — Erratic Things (2015)* — on the new book shelf in the library.  I'm still reading it, but partway in it's fabulous.  Here's my favorite so far:
On the Nature of Understanding

Say you hoped to
tame something
wild and stayed
calm and inched up
day by day. Or even
not tame it but
meet it half way.
Things went along.
You made progress,
it would be a
lengthy process,
sensing changes
in your hair and
nails. So it's
strange when it
attacks: you thought
you had a deal.

— Kay Ryan

* The title is enriched by an epigraph, a definition of "erratic": (n) Geol. A boulder or the like carried by glacial ice and deposited some distance from its place of origin.