Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Numbers and Excuses

This is more a set of links than any well-developed thoughts of my own. I am too busy, too tired, too angry, to wrung thin by things from the personal to the global to say much on my own. So this, then, will be scattered thoughts with links what others have said.

Two numbers have impelled a lot of Iraq retrospectives recently -- 5 years, the anniversary of Bush's criminal war that just passed, and 4,000 dead, the number of American soldiers who have died in the commission of that crime. 5 years, 4,000 dead: a lot of regrets are owed, and so some people are paying -- many with wooden nickels.

But the latter number is, at best, misleading: far, far more than 4,000 people have died; that number doesn't include journalists, mercenaries, soldiers from other countries and -- most of all -- the many hundreds of thousands (if not more than a million) of Iraqi civilians who have died. Now, since our government has a powerful duty those who agree to defend it -- a duty, above all, not to waste their lives on criminal actions that end up harming our country (to say nothing of others) -- there is in fact some point to counting the dead American soldiers and noticing that number -- particularly given the sneering disregard for the lives of those "volunteers" that their commanders have shown.* But of course the primary point is, or ought to be, that human life is of incalculable value, and so that all human lives lost in this crime are blood on the hands of its architects. And by that standard -- the standard of our national creed (that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), to say nothing of the religious creeds professed by the majority of our citizens (that all humans are made in the image of God) -- the amount of blood on the hands of its architects is stunning.

So we get a lot of mea-culpas -- or so they are labeled: in truth, mostly they have been other-culpas: an attempt to shove the blame elsewhere. With few exceptions, the collection of reflections by liberal Hawks in Slate (one of the more prominent of these collections of regrets -- or things which are to regrets what Orangina is to real orange juice, an artificial and ultimately revolting substitute) are amazingly self-serving evasions of responsibility or guilt -- which seem to be often motivated by an attempt to pre-position themselves to support the next aggressive war America chooses to wage without contradiction, by describing their "mistakes" in terms that will enable them to do so.**

Rather than read them -- really, even if it weren't a waste of time, it's a drain on the brain cells; simpler to drink methanol*** -- take a look at this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow, who sums it up with the truth that only satire can deliver:

That about covers it.

About covers it, but not totally, because some people wrote more than that.

First is this set of reflections by Andrew Sullivan. While this has led to disdain in some quarters, I think it's not warranted: however dumb his thinking before the war, Sullivan has shown genuine regret, and seems -- unlike most hawks of whatever description -- to have genuinely learned something. It's far more honest than most of the drivel on this topic, and worth reading.

Even more honest is this set of mea-cuplas -- for once the term is deserved -- from John Cole at Balloon Juice. Now that's someone who's learned the lessons of the last five years.

It won't have escaped anyone's notice that it was people who were wrong -- rather than the far more numerous people who were right**** -- who are being asked to write on their past judgments. This is mostly just a reflection of the American media: it is hawks and not doves who are given venues to express their views; no one is declared marginal for supporting war, however crazy the wars they advocate or however wrong they are (indeed, they are usually rewarded with plumb assignments), whereas those who support the legal principles our own country advanced in the wake of WW2 (in the Nuremberg trials) are considered fringe.

But some of them spoke up anyway.

Jim Henley, in a (justifiably) widely-linked post, attempted to draw some humor out of the fact that still, five years later, we hear far more people who supported this criminal and stupid war than people who opposed it. I'll skip the snark, however, and cut straight to his somber conclusion where -- after rejecting various hypotheses about why he was right and others wrong -- says what he thinks those who were right had in common:
What all of us had in common is probably a simple recognition: War is a big deal. It isn’t normal. It’s not something to take up casually. Any war you can describe as “a war of choice” is a crime. War feeds on and feeds the negative passions. It is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. Various hawks occasionally protested that “of course” they didn’t enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. Anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time.
Amen. That's the basic point, the nub, the heart of it: far too many Americans are casual about war, whether because it's fought elsewhere, or out of an exaggerated sense of our own righteousness, or because our political class likes them scared & compliant, or out of simple militarism, or whatever. Those who really saw war was a bad thing could see that the excuses offered were so flimsy that the idea was obviously -- and yes, it was obvious; this was, in the end, an easy call -- a bad one.

He doesn't address his past views, but historian Eric Rauchway's reflections on the fifth anniversary of the war are also well worth reading (even if he highlights the estimate of 100,000 civilians killed, a number which is almost certainly far lower than the grim reality).

Other bloggers decided to honor those who were right about the war too. Quote-and-link round-ups of some of those who got this (again -- very easy) call right include:
Scientician at Open Left
Greg Mitchell at Tom Dispatch

So that's what I've been seeing recently. A good reminder that most of those who got the war wrong still are in the mindset that led them to get it wrong -- and hence are likely to repeat their mistake if offered the chance; that there are some honorable exceptions among those who got the war wrong; and that a hell of a lot of us were able to get this question right in the first place, even without the blunder before our eyes.

Oh, and among those who don't think they were wrong, certainly not about anything essential, in supporting the war in Iraq is Hillary Clinton, who still believes in the war in fundamental ways. Instead of voting for her, we should vote for someone who wants to "change the mindset that got us into war in the first place". (That link, by the way, is not a simple cite for the quote but a good examination of Obama's potential foreign policy -- a reason to hope in grim times. Check it out.)

Update: An additional link -- Hilzoy rebuts an attempt to justify hearing from those who got the war wrong here.

* "Volunteers" is in scare quotes because, first and foremost, a great many of our so-called volunteer soldiers have been prevented from leaving the service when they were scheduled to by "stop-loss" policies -- policies that are clearly unconstitutional under the 13th amendment, even if there isn't a chance in hell that the Supreme Court will ever acknowledge this; and second, because so many of them volunteered, but not for this.

** My favorite (if that's the word) example here is from Jacob Weisberg:
The first thing I hope I've learned from this experience of being wrong about Iraq is to be less trusting of expert opinion and received wisdom... When it comes to continuing debates about the weapons capabilities of Iran and North Korea, I resolve to accept nothing on faith (including the NIE saying Iran has dropped its weapons program).
In other words, Weisberg will express his regret for supporting an invasion based on false premises by being sure to keep an open mind about the merits of the trumped-up excuse for the next invasion. Wonderful.

*** Don't do this. Really.

**** Yes, far more: worldwide, the invasion was overwhelmingly opposed. The US is not the world. But of course plenty of us here were right too; we just weren't listened to.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

...to all those celebrating it today, whether you're celebrating spring, the redemption, or getting lots of chocolate.

(Incidentally, don't read any meaning to my flurry of early-March postings being followed by a period of silence... there really isn't any: I just haven't had anything to say. Bli neder, I'll be back soon...)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Recent Links, Part 2: Politics

If you're looking for non-political links, click here or scroll down. Part two is all about the politics -- dividing the Primary from the Rest. (Update: a link or two added.)

Non-Primary Related

Torture, 24 and Scalia, by Scott Horton.

Why you should be against torture even if you think it may be morally permissible in some cases, by Publius.

The writers of The Wire break away from entertainment to offer political advice:
If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun's manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.
So say we all. (Read the rest.)

• "The first person to call me a self-hating Jew was my father" -- a fascinating essay exploring some of the dynamics of liberal Zionism & anti-Zionism from a personal point of view.

Robert Reich on the four stories of America. (About Obama, but not primary-related since it's about Obama vs. McCain, not vs. Clinton.)

Primary Related

• I've been pushing this historical comparison for a while now (and was hardly original in doing so), but William Lee Miller does it so much better in comparing the (bogus) "experience" argument. (Similar point made here, also well, if not quite as well.)

Funny, with a dash of bitter: oops.

Judging Obama & Clinton on their books.

Hillary Clinton and Rwandan genocide. A genuinely devastating report from Hilzoy.

Polls and how they each might win the electoral college.

• Via-I-don't-recall-who-because-everyone-is-linking-to-it, Chait sums up the current Clinton strategy in a few short sentences:
[Clinton] needs to convince the remaining uncommitted superdelegates to split for her by about a 2-to-1 margin. The only way she can get a split like that is if she can persuasively argue that Obama is unelectable. And the only way she can do that is to make him unelectable. Some people have treated this as an unfortunate byproduct of Clinton's decision to continue her campaign. It's actually a central element of the strategy. Penn is already saying he's unelectable. It's not true, but by the time the convention rolls around, it may well be.
Time for the superdelegates to step in, I think. As someone pointed out, if enough of them endorsed, they could end this race today. Do it now, before Clinton manages to elect McCain in November.

Mark Schmitt is one of the most insightful electoral analysts around:
Contrary to the gullible media's belief that "time" is a "powerful ally" on Clinton's side, in fact, Clinton's only ally is uncertainty. The minute it becomes clear what will happen with Michigan and Florida -- re-vote them, refuse to seat them, or split them 50-50 or with half-votes, as some have proposed -- is the minute that Clinton's last "path to the nomination" closes. The only way to keep spin alive is to keep uncertainty alive...
Ezra Klein adds a few thoughts here.

Recent Links, Part 1: Not Politics

This time I've got enough recent links filling my "hey this is cool I should link to that" folder that I'm dividing it all into two posts, along the political divide. Herewith, the not-political. (Part two is here.) (Update, 3/15: Links added.)

Today's menu: Hallelujah, Comics, Humor, and Things that From a Long Way Off Look Like Flies.

Special "Hallelujah" Section

This essay is a wonderful exploration of the history of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" -- how it turned from a song not even mentioned in a 1996 biography of Cohen to one of his most recognizable works, changing meaning along the way, and finally turned into a standard TV trope meaning "sad montage". Don't miss the montage of montages the author put together. (via)

• ...But the one problem with that wonderful essay is that the author only provides the tiniest snippet of each of the versions he discusses. So you can go here to get mp3s of almost every damn version of Hallelujah in existence and rectify that. (Also here).

• ...Except the most famous version of Hallelujah ever, the Jeff Buckley version. For that, you'll need to go here.

• Also missing: the live version of K. D. Lang doing Hallelujah (the post linked above has the studio version, which is not as good methinks), which the Nielsen Haydens linked to some time ago; it's here on youtube. And also missing -- sadly -- is the version by the author of the blog history of Hallelujah; based on the snippet he gives, I'd like to hear more, but, alas, I have no link to offer for that one..


• Through Sunday night only: Comics Journal #288 is online for free.

• Some time ago, I linked to this Oubapian transformation of Garfield -- removing his speech balloons -- which turned it into a really good comic. Now -- via the Howling Curmudgeons -- someone has taken this a step farther, and produced another -- even better? -- Oubapian transformation: Garfield without Garfield. A quite brilliant strip; check it out.

Grim-n'-gritty superhero comics started before Watchmen (and we're not just talking The Dark Knight Returns either). (via)

Retailer Brian Hibbs reviews 31 classic graphic novels in 31 days. (in progress, but fun so far...)

Artistic integrity defended.


A three-year-old explains Star Wars.

• This may fall into "everyone but me has seen this" category, but I'll admit that this marvelous video of Weird Al Yankovic's "White and Nerdy" was new to me. Appropriately enough, it has an extensive Wikipedia entry, including a correction of the formula in the video...

Famous paintings photoshopped to include superheroes.

• Via both the Nielsen Haydens and 3quarks daily, Paul Krugman has posted on his blog (direct pdf link) a paper he wrote back in 1979: "The Theory of Interstellar Trade". It is genuinely hysterical, although a lot of the jokes require some background knowledge and a certain minimum level of geekiness. One of the things that makes it so fun is that he keeps putting in new jokes all the way through; it's not a one-joke paper. 3QD has an excerpt of the opening if you're reluctant to download a pdf; I share that reluctance, but in this case it's worth it...

Things That From a Long Way Off Look Like Flies

Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia. I like his emphasis on the damnable efforts by many to purge Wikipedia of its odder, charming, best articles.

• If you imagine the Solar System as My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, then you're way out of date. This little article will give you a capsule view of the as-currently-understood solar system -- with a pointer towards others that are out there. It also points towards this great little discussion of Dwarf Planets.

Why near-future SF is becoming impossible to write.

The literary sources of D&D (leftover from my recent Gygax surfing). Rather underplays Tolkien, I think, but still worth a look.

A psychologists vs. the mathematicians in the Netflix recommendation contest (prize: one MILLION dollars!). A neat essay (by Jordan Ellenberg, who I knew back in college).

Peter Watts reviews Francis Collins. If you like intellectual eviscerations, this is well worth a click-through...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Quite Possibly the Best Book Review Ever Written

This is from Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions (p. 184), in the section entitled "Book Reviews and Notes". I present it here, unabridged; the ellipsis at the end of the second paragraph is in the original.
Richard Hull, Excellent Intentions

One of the projects that keeps me company, that will in some way justify me before God, and that I do not think I will accomplish (for the pleasure is in foreseeing it, not in bringing it to term) is a detective novel that would be somewhat heterodox. (This last is important, for the detective genre, like all genres, lives on the continual and delicate infraction of its rules.)

I conceived it one night, one wasted night in 1935 or 1934, upon leaving a café in the Barrio Once. These meager circumstantial facts will have to suffice for the reader; I have forgotten the others, forgotten them to the point where I don't know whether I invented some of them. Here was my plan: to plot a detective novel of the current sort, with an indecipherable murder in the first pages, a long discussion in the middle, and a solution at the end. Then, almost in the last line, to add an ambiguous phrase—for example: “and everyone thought the meeting of the man and woman had been by chance”—that would indicate, or raise the suspicion, that the solution was false. The perplexed reader would go through the pertinent chapters again, and devise his own solution, the correct one. The reader of this imaginary book would be sharper than the detective. . .

Richard Hull has written an extremely pleasant book. His prose is able, his characters convincing, his irony civilized. His solution, however, is so unsurprising that I cannot free myself from the suspicion that this quite real book, published in London, is the one I imagined in Balvanera, three or four years ago. In which case, Excellent Intentions hides a secret plot. Ah me, or ah Richard Hull! I can’t find that secret plot anywhere.

-- Translated by Eliot Weinberger
I came across this in the dead-tree version of this book -- which you can buy here, if you're so inclined -- and was determined to post it for the edification and delight of my readers; but I am grateful that I found the text on this web site, saving me the trouble of typing it in myself.

I could swear I've seen that middle paragraph quoted somewhere, but for the moment I can't recall where. (A small spark of memory makes me want to say that it was in something by Umberto Eco, but that could be completely wrong...)

Monday, March 10, 2008

It's Not "Private" If There Are Laws Against It

Thus endeth the political career of the Governor of my fair state. Alas, Spitzer, we hardly knew thee.

I always liked him, too.

Aside from the sorrow in seeing a potentially potent progressive politician fall, and aside from the overwhelming sense of how can people in power be such !@#$%ing idiots!?!, there seems to me to be one other pertinent issue here.

According to the Times, Spitzer
...made a brief public appearance during which he apologized for his behavior, and described it as a “private matter.” “I have acted in a way that violates my obligation to my family and violates my or any sense of right or wrong,” said Mr. Spitzer...
Except, of course, it's not a private matter. It's not merely simply something that violates his obligation to his family and sense of right or wrong.

Hiring a prostitute is against the law.

You can't say something is "private" when the state enforces laws against it.*

Now, it seems to me that there is a damn good argument that it ought to be private. It is that sense that this is none of our business that Spitzer is -- understandably -- appealing to. Buzz off, he's saying.

And if he campaigned against these laws, rather than enforcing them personally (see the Times story), he might have a point.

But there's no justification for a powerful politician being able to say it's "private" if other people who break these laws are thrown in jail for it.

(And in this case this is heaped on top of the ongoing sexism of the enforcement of anti-prostitution laws, in which the (poor) prostitutes are prosecuted but the (rich) johns are not.)

This is just like the issue of drug laws: Obama, Newt Gingrich, and a host of other politicians all admit to having used drugs in the past. Fine and good: I don't care. But we shouldn't be locking up some people for what others are given a pass for. That's not justice: it's a war on the lower classes.

Right now prostitution isn't a private matter. Maybe it should be. I might well vote to make it one given the chance (I haven't thought about it much, so my mind could be swayed, but that's the way I'd lean.) Perhaps it really ought to be private. I'd certainly respect people who made that argument.

But Spitzer isn't saying, really, that it's private. He's saying that for people like him, it's private. And that is just a minor example of a far more pervasive rot in our country -- the idea that laws and the penalties for violating them only apply to the little people. Not to the new aristocrats.

If you think it shouldn't be illegal, fine. But if you think it should be illegal, everyone -- men and women, whores and johns, governors and everybodyelse -- should be treated the same.

Anything else is -- as someone said in a different context -- "a violation of... any sense of right or wrong."

Emphasis added.

* Update: As I trust should be obvious to anyone who reads this post, let alone knows my position on other issues, the sentence "You can't say something is 'private' when the state enforces laws against it" is only true in a sense. Obviously there are a lot of things that are private, and ought to be purely private, that the state nevertheless meddles in. The point here is that Spitzer himself prosecuted these laws, and was in a position to change (or at least advocate for changing) them. And thus the "private" comment rubbed me the wrong way. But lots of things are (ideally) private, and thus things one might say (indignantly) "that's private!" that are, in fact, not (alas) treated that way.

And it is also unfair for politicians to expect not to be prosecuted for laws that they support when less powerful people are prosecuted. If you think the law is wrong, advocate for it to be changed for everyone; if not, obey the damn thing yourself. (Again, the drug laws here are the prime example.)

The point here is against a dual standard, one for the rich & powerful (& usually male), and one for everyone else -- not against privacy, which I (obviously) think is important regardless of what the law says.

...Ok, all clear? (I think it always was, but it was pointed out to me that, out of context, that sentence might be read the wrong way...)

Update 2: Matt Yglesias makes the same point here, more succinctly.

Update 3: For that matter, I was probably unconsciously echoing here this post from

In Search of the Univocalic Window

I dismiss nitpicking criticism which flirts with philistinism.

-- Christian Bök, Eunoia
If you think lipograms (texts written without using a particular letter) are silly, then you won't want to go anywhere near univocalisms: a univocalism is a text written employing only a single vowel: that is, it is a lipogram in four or five letters (depending on how its author treats y).

Surprising as it may seem to some, though, the univocalism is not uncharted terrain for literature. In fact, I know of a number of different univocalisms: Georges Perec (who wrote the most famous lipogrammatic novel, La Dispiration (translated as A Void)) wrote two: a novella all in E called "Les revenentes" and a short piece in A called "What a Man!" (the original title is in English despite the text itself being in French). Perec's univocalisms have both been translated by Ian Monk: the first under the title of "The Exeter Text" (in an anthology of Perec's writings called Three by Perec); the latter under its original title, as part of his own set of six univocalisms, "Homage to Georges Perec". Also notable in Monk's set is the essay, "Perec's Letterless Texts", a defense of the whole notion of lipogrammatic/univocalic writing. Finally, Canadian poet Christian Bök has written an entire book, Eunoia, whose main chapters are a series of five univocalisms (the entire book is online at the link, if you're curious).

It's an odd little corner of the literary universe, and one that will, without question, not be to everyone's taste (many will be surprised that it's to anyone's taste). I have had on my hard drive for over a year now a lengthy half-finished post, considering the aesthetic merits of these works.

-- But that's not what I'm here to talk about today. Today I just want to ask a question: what is the longest naturally occurring univocalism in English?

By naturally occurring I mean unplanned -- none of the texts cited above count: they were all deliberate. I want to know how long a stretch of prose can be found which unintentionally -- without the author even noticing (at a minimum until after the fact) -- uses only one vowel.

A parallel question concerning pangrams has been asked; it's the search for the shortest pangrammatic window (i.e. series of unplanned, naturally occurring text which uses all 26 letters; so far the record is 47 letters). But if anyone has asked about the univocalic window, I have yet to find it.

-- What's the point, you ask? That's easy: it's a game, it's fun -- a literary amusement. (Whether or not you think univocalisms can be literature, this quite clearly isn't: it's just for fun.)

So: can anyone think of any candidates? Idle thinking hasn't brought to my mind any longer than four words or so, but I bet there's at least a full sentence out there somewhere...

(My real hope here is not so much that my commentators will come up with a good example -- although that would be wonderful! -- but that y'all will spread the meme to bigger sites than mine, which will then lead to lots more people playing the game...)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

How We Like to See Ourselves: Finding Symbolism in the Small Things

The spell-checking dictionary for my copy of Microsoft Word (Version 2004 for the Mac) has "desegregation" listed, but not "resegregation". So, too, does the 2005 Apple Dictionary that came with this computer (which often has words that Word does not), the spell checker that comes with the blogging software upon which I am writing this very entry, and the automatic spell checking that Firefox provides which now (quite conveniently) underlines questionable words as they are typed. All of them flagged "resegregation" -- offering, as a possible correction, "desegregation".

A tiny fable about how we'd like to see ourselves versus how we really are.

(On the other hand, blogger doesn't recognize "Firefox" either...)

"I'm thirty-seven, I'm not old"

Today, I'm thirty-seven (I'm not old).

Happy birthday to me!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Clinton Campaign Should Fire Clinton for "Disgraceful" Comments

After Obama advisor Samantha Power blurted (in a comment she tried almost instantly -- but futilely -- to retract) out that Clinton was a "monster", the Clinton campaign demanded she be fired (despite her having already apologized); within hours she resigned.

But the Clinton campaign has a key figure who is saying something far worse -- and far more destructive for the Democrats in the general election; namely, that while McCain is qualified to be Commander in Chief, Obama isn't. And this figure has been saying it over and over. It's behavior that one (notably temperate and balanced) liberal blogger has called "disgraceful".

So, clearly, that Clinton campaign figure should resign too. Or, failing that, should be fired.

I really see no choice. The Clinton campaign must fire Hillary Clinton.

(PS: See also Yglesias for more on why this actually should be very worrying about what Clinton's politics are.)

Update: Two good things about the Power incident: Hilzoy and Jonathan Schwarz. They're pretty contradictory (although not in the ways you'd expect, i.e. not along the lines of the Obama vs Clinton campaign). I think I agree with both. (This is actually a reconcilable position, but this margin is to small to contain it, so you'll have to wait.)

Explaining D&D to Novices

As part of my ongoing E. Gary Gygax memorial procrasinative web search, I unearthed the following Straight Dope column describing D&D for the uninitiated. As an avid D&D fan back in the day, I read & loved this column as collected in the first Straight Dope book. This slightly revised version still holds up today, I think. Here's a bit of it; I've substituted my from-memory version of the original "Parcheesi" line for the version in the revised draft, which you can find at the link; I think the original was funnier. Quoth Adams:
...let me tell you, R. buddy, this game is weird.

The basic idea in your run-of-the-mill Go Fish-type game is to get all your opponent's cards or all his checkers or some other readily grasped commodity. Not so with D&D.

Here is a quote from Mr. Gygax on the subject: "The ultimate aim of the game is to gain sufficient esteem as a good player to retire your character--he becomes a kind of mythical, historical figure, someone for others to look up to and admire."

A lifetime of Parcheesi doesn't prepare you for this....

There are two main problems: (1) there are one billion rules, and (2) the game requires nonstop mathematical finagling that would constipate Einstein.

The rule book is laden with such mystifying pronouncements as the following: "An ancient spell-using red dragon of huge size with 88 hits points has a BXPV of 1300, XP/HP total of 1408, SAXPB of 2800 (armor class plus special defense plus high intelligence plus saving throw bonus due to h.p./die), and an EAXPA of 2550 (major breath weapon plus spell use plus attack damage of 3-30/bite)--totalling 7758 h.p."

Here we have a game that combines the charm of a Pentagon briefing with the excitement of double-entry bookkeeping.
Equally funny for the player & the newbie, I think -- although in different ways. Read the rest here.

Also fun is this Believer article from a few years ago describing a journey to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to play D&D with GG himself. (via) But it's not as funny, nor as succinct, as Cecil Adams.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Poem of the Day: Harry Mathews, "The Maoist's Regrets"

A cento (pronounced with a soft c -- "sento") is a poem made up entirely of lines from other poems. (One I like is Tom Disch's "There is An Index of First Lines", from his collection Dark Verses & Light.)

A perverse is a line of verse created by crossing two preexisting lines of verse. (Unlike "cento", which indeed is a common term you will find in dictionaries, "perverse" is, I believe, a coinage from the French literary group the Oulipo; I got it from the best English-language introduction to their work, the Oulipo Compendium.)

Naturally, a poem made up of perverses is also a cento -- albeit a cento of a certain type.

The following is a Cento by Oulipo member Harry Mathews; it too comes from the Oulipo Compendium (p. 78 of the recent second edition).
The Maoist's Regrets

Shall I compare thee, China, to Peru?
That is no country! Amid the alien corn,
The wood's decay, the yielding place to new,
The old order changeth: blow his wreathed horn!
They that have the power to (men, lend me your ears!)
Could to my sight that plods his weary way
Rage, rage, against the lie too deep for tears,
The feathered glory of an April day.
That's my last Duchess dying of the light --
Put out the light and gaze towards paradise,
A thing of beauty loved not at first sight
(The uncertain glory from her loosening thighs...)
Something there is that is a joy forever.
Friends, "Romans", country? Never, never, never.

-- Harry Mathews
To my ear, it is, in fact, a good poem -- and certainly one which required a fair amount of creativity to put together, albeit creativity of a somewhat different sort than writing an original sonnet would take. But you could say something similar of all transformative art.

Obviously the play with the borrowed words -- changing their meaning with the context, etc. -- is a part of the pleasure here.

Both halves of the lines Mathews's borrows are used in six cases -- split up and used in different lines of "The Maoist's Regrets", but still both halves are used. Sixteen other sources are used only once, i.e. only half the line is used at all.

Most of these half lines will be familiar to anyone with any familiarity with English-language poetry. Nevertheless, in case anyone is interested in the sourcing, here is Mathews' poem again, this time with hyperlinks:
The Maoist's Regrets

Shall I compare thee, China, to Peru?
That is no country! Amid the alien corn,
The wood's decay, the yielding place to new,
The old order changeth: blow his wreathed horn!
They that have the power to (men, lend me your ears!)
Could to my sight that plods his weary way
Rage, rage, against the lie too deep for tears,
The feathered glory of an April day.
That's my last Duchess dying of the light --
Put out the light and gaze towards paradise,
A thing of beauty loved not at first sight
(The uncertain glory from her loosening thighs...)
Something there is that is a joy forever.
Friends, "Romans", country? Never, never, never.

-- Harry Mathews
My first thought was that the first half of the tenth line was from this Frost poem -- but it can't be, since that leaves the "and" unaccounted for. So Othello it must be.

A far more complicated case is the second half of the first line -- "China to Peru". In the linked version above, I cited it to Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (1749):
Let observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
But Bartlett's familiar quotations notes that the same phrase appears in Thomas Wharton's "Universal Love of Pleasure":
All human race, from China to Peru,
Pleasure, howe’er disguis’d by art, pursue.
-- Since I don't know the date of the Wharton poem, it's not to me clear which came first; most likely the Johnson, but Wharton was twenty-one in 1749, so it's just possible that his poem came first.

But then, the phrase might have been original with neither of them. In a letter to the April, 1907 edition of Modern Language Notes (p. 126), one W. M. Tweetie of Mt. Allison College writes:
The following example of the above phrase may be of interest. It occurs in Sir William Temple's Miscellanea, Part 11 ("Of Poetry " : last paragraph but one):

"...what honour and request the ancient poetry has lived in, may not only be observed from the universal reception and use in all nations from China to Peru, from Scythia to Arabia, but from the esteem of the best and the greatest men as well as the vulgar."

This reads somewhat as if it were a stock phrase. Bartlett in his Familiar Quotations, refers, under Dr. Johnson, only to Thomas Warton.
A similar point was made more recently by Laura Brown in a footnote to Fables of Modernity (2001). At any rate, my suspicion is that Harry Matthews got it from Samuel Johnson.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Election Saw Its Shadow...

...six more weeks of winter.


(And the same thing over & over...)

Update: I don't want an irresistible joke to leave this jaunty: I'm in fact incredibly depressed by last night's results. Rush Limbaugh got what he wanted: it's going to be a long, drawn-out campaign, heavy on the negatives. I think the Republican's chances just got a lot better in November. I think Clinton is still a long-shot to win the nomination... but she has a good chance of taking Obama down with her. (And if by some miracle she wins the nomination, she certainly is very likely to loose the main race.) It was a good night for McCain -- which means, perforce, a bad night for America, and the world. And it's going to be a long six (actually seven, I think) weeks until we get another chance to put it behind us.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

When to Forgive Those Who Got the War Wrong

When the war is over;

When they have asked for forgiveness, and seen that they need it;

When American troops are no longer in Iraq;

When reparations have been made to those who still live;

When all the dead have been buried, and those responsible have genuinely wept for them;

When Iraq has been rebuilt;

When the lives of the American families who lost a loved when there have been rebuilt;

When the imperial ideas that lay behind the forces pushing for war have been uprooted from our national discourse;

When those who got the war wrong have seen the error in their judgments;

When those who actively started the war have been brought to trial for the crimes they committed;

When the terrorists that our ill-conceived war in Iraq allowed to escape in Afghanistan have been brought to justice;

When the damage to the reputation of our nation in "the opinions of mankind" has been repaired;

When the damage to our liberties and constitution that the war has enabled has been undone;

When no one is talking about our starting similar wars elsewhere in the world;

When the debt taken on to finance the war has been repaid;

When the neglect to our national infrastructure that was aided by the money put towards the war has been remedied;

When all those -- likely more than a million -- who died as a result of the war would have long since both died and been forgotten anyway;

When all those families, Iraqi, American and otherwise, whose lives have been shattered by deaths or wounds or exile or ruin, are long since died and forgotten anyway;

When the war is over --

-- then we should forgive those who supported it.

But even then we should never, ever, ever forget.

(apropos of what Atrios said; and, of course, of this.)

RIP Gary Gygax (1938 - 2008)

The Associated Press -- and a variety of fittingly geeky web sites -- are reporting that Gary Gygax, creator (or co-creator, I think?) of Dungeons & Dragons died today. (Robert Farley already nabbed the best headline.)

I still have very vivid memories of the day that I sat down in the public library -- in Westport Massachusetts, I believe -- and, ignoring all entreaties from my family to go to the beech or get some exercise, read the entirety of the Dungeon Master's Guide in one day so I'd know how to be a DM. (A rather ill-conceived plan, but never mind.)

It's scary to contemplate the amount of my psyche that this man influenced, and the amount of my consciousness that he helped to shape.

Rest in peace, Gary Gygax.

Update: Dan Johnson: "What we should do is: every gamer nerd on the planet should chip in some dough and we should build Gary Gygax an enormous tomb filled with the deadliest traps ever devised." (Via ML, which has a nice, somewhat more serious appreciation.)

Update 2: Xkcd weighs in. (again via ML) Also worth a look is this nice piece on D&D (hence, Gygax's) influence on the culture in some unexpected areas (via some chain of links starting here). I think just a hint of this influence can be seen in this 1983 Gygax quote (from this Post obit) about people's reactions to the game: "People said, 'What kind of game is this?' You don't play against anybody. Nobody wins. It doesn't end. This is craziness!'' -- The many ways in which such activities are integrated into (many of) our lives now is a hint of his vast influence.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Polemic That Accompanied the Invention of Language

Quote of the day:
Do you remember the polemic that accompanied the invention of language? Mystification, puerile fantasy, degeneration of the race and decline of the State, treason against Nature, attack on affectivity, criminal neglect of inspiration; language was accused of everything (without, of course, using language) at that time.

And the creation of writing, and grammar--do you think that that happened without a fight?

-- François Le Lionnais, Oulipo: First Manifesto (Translated by Warren Motte, Jr.)

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Poem of the Day: "A Confession" by C. S. Lewis

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening -- any evening -- would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things… peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

-- C. S. Lewis
(From C. S. Lewis, Poems, page 1. Found online here. The French phrase in stanza three is glossed here.)