Saturday, December 31, 2011

Quote of the Day on the Most Important Political Issue of Our Time: a New Year's Eve Post

Climate change is the most important issue of our time -- both due to its urgency (the time frame for getting a solution into place is distressingly narrow) and the direness that will result if nothing is done. If you're not convinced of this, read these two posts by David Roberts (follow-up here) -- and worry. Even if you only posit a, say, 5% change that he's right (ludicrously low), panic seems a very appropriate response. Every other issue before us will affect only a few generations, or only Americans, or some other subset of humanity -- this issue will affect the fate of humanity, full stop. It's urgent and it's dire and it's terrifying.

Let's just pause on the consequences for a moment longer. To quote "Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain":
For humanity it’s a matter of life or death ... we will not make all human beings extinct, as a few people with the right sort of resources may put themselves in the right parts of the world and survive. But I think it’s extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at 4 degrees.

‘‘If you have got a population of 9 billion by 2050 and you hit 4 degrees, 5 degrees or 6 degrees, you might have half a billion people surviving."
Read that again. We're talking about the death of 94% of the human race. (The above-linked articles talk about the fact that we are, in fact, heading rapidly for a 4 or more degree (celsius) temperature rise.)

So how is Obama, our "liberal" president, doing on this most pressing of matters? Well, they're working as hard as they can... to sabotage a small European-led effort to work on the problem. From Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker (via):
It’s bad enough—more than bad enough, really—that the U.S. has failed to lead the fight against climate change. This is very nearly as true under President Barack Obama as it was under George W. Bush. As former Senator Tim Wirth, now the president of the U.N. Foundation, put it recently, “I don’t know who and where the climate leadership in the Administration is. It doesn’t exist.”

Now, by trying to block others’ attempts to tackle the problem, the U.S. is behaving in a manner that seems best described as unforgivable. Last week, in a letter to Secretaries Clinton and LaHood, the heads of several of the nation’s leading environmental groups noted that the Administration is “actively thwarting other countries’ efforts to effectively and efficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” a position that is incompatible with the Administration’s own stated commitment to avoiding “a dangerous rise in global average temperatures.” The groups urged the Administration to abide by the European court’s decision, “just as the Administration would wish other nations to respect the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

It’s pretty much impossible to imagine how the world can reduce the risks of climate change without imposing some sort of emissions limits, and airline emissions seems like as good a place to start as any. If the Administration disagrees with the European plan, then it would seem to be under a heavy obligation to propose its own. All it's doing now is shilling for the airlines. Is this any way to run a planet?
For those of you who like to blame the Republicans in Congress for all of the Obama administration's mistakes, please note that they are not involved here: this is Mr. Hope & Change, and his trusty deputies, all on their own.

To say that Obama is working hard to be the James Buchanan of climate change is far, far too optimistic. First, however horrific a crime slavery was, it did not threaten the extension of 94% of the human race. And, of course, Buchanan was followed by Abraham Lincoln -- whereas Obama-as-Buchanan is likely to be followed (whether in 2013 or 2017) by the climate-change equivalent of John C. Breckinridge.

Most people would probably think that I was being histrionic in saying Obama could and should be impeached for this. But the truth of the matter is that it would be ludicrously slight. Obama will be -- to quote a President whose name Obama is not fit to utter -- "damned in time and eternity" for his inaction -- or, rather, for his positive actions on the side of mass death and destruction.

Obama has been a utter disappointment in so many important areas -- civil liberties, executive secrecy, American military adventuring, coddling of 1% lawbreakers, a failure to aggressively address unemployment, a failure to confront inequality, a pathetic tendency to pre-capitulate to the forces of reaction, and an utter failure to use his famously powerful voice to articulate an alternate language to the Ayn Randian culture we have created (something which was begun -- just begun, but begun -- this year by Occupy Wall Street). But I think I could forgive all of that if he had genuinely confronted the environmental crisis. After all, if politics is about utilitarian compromise, then you could certainly argue that the climate crisis outweighs all of the rest put together.

But far from addressing it, Obama is fighting on the wrong side (just as he is in at least the first four of the items in the first paragraph, and arguably the first six (the last two he is clearly just failing miserably, or giving up without trying, rather than actively aiding the forces of Malevolence.)) What, in fact, does he have to show for all his meekness and compromise? A Republican health-care plan, and a number of small symbolic victories -- boy scout medals which he can hang on the wall moments before it is washed away by the flood which will drown the world.

So this is where we are: a crisis of unprecedented proportions, dire urgency, and the mainstream of political life caught between a conservative, business-agenda hack, and whichever loon the Republicans put up to run against him.

I don't, as a principled matter, believe in despair in the realm of the political. "Rage, rage against the dying of the light": yes. But at the moment I don't even see how to forward the hopeless struggle. If we are to fight the long defeat, we at least need to know how to do that. But now, where do we line up to fight in the hopeless battle? If that is the only question left, then I'd at least like an answer to that.

And that's where I see us located, now, on the last day of 2011. Happy new year to you all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy Birthday Joseph!

Joseph Saperstein Frug is 3 today. Happy Birthday!

Pictures from his third birthday party, held at the Science Center on Sunday. (Not unlike George Washington, Joseph's birthday is celebrated on a different day than its actual calendrical date.) The Science Center throws a great birthday party; fun was had by all.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Coates on Greenwald on Hitchens: The Cohabitation of Virtues and Sins

After this long linkfest, I had not intended to return to the topic of the late Christopher Hitchens. But I am drawn to do so by the fact I still have grading to procrastinate on Ta-Nehisi Coates, who continues his irritating habit of being a better and wiser writer than anyone has a right to be, and showing the rest of us up. In response to Glenn Greenwald's thoughtful (negative) posting about Hitchens and the reaction to his death, Coates first noted (via) that "over the last decade, Hitchens sins actually injured his prose" -- an incredibly important point all by itself. But then he goes on to say this:
Nevertheless, I think Glenn's frame is wrong. Virtues don't excuse sins; they cohabit with them. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. Perhaps worse he was a slaveholder who comprehended, more than any other, the moral failing of slavery, and it's potential to bring the country to war, and yet at the end of his life he argued for slavery's expansion, and on his death many of his slaves were sent to the auction block.

At his end, Jefferson sided with those who would eventually bring about the deaths of 600,000 Americans. He argued that the antebellum South would have either "justice" versus "self-preservation." To paraphrase Churchill, it chose the latter and consequently got neither. But Jefferson was a beautiful writer, and a great intellect, whose thinking and prose I consistently find stunning. This admiration does not negate his moral cowardice. Both are true at the same time. (The same point could be made in regards to our conversation over Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)

Given Hitchens own ties to this magazine, of which I'm very fond, I'd like to say that--at least in this space--there's no demand for exclusion, or any sense that Hitchens worthy of unalloyed admiration. No one should ever receive, or wisely desire, such a thing. I can't really speak for other people, but I don't believe in an essential, irreducible moral nature. I don't see Hitchens, or anyone else, as a case of either/or.
Word. Yes. "Both are true at the same time": "Virtues don't excuse sins; they cohabit with them". That captures it -- not just for Hitchens, but for the human experience.

Coates says more in comments:
I don't know that his "virtues outweigh his vices." That presumes a kind of grand authority that I neither want, nor feel qualified, to exercise. It's just not a case I would ever make. Nor am I really interested in making the case, it's sort of irrelevant to me. It seems to originate from the need to either declare someone a "good person" or a "bad person." I think it's clear from my writing on slavery and race that I don't really see the world that way.

...If I disqualified people for the horrendous ideas they held or advanced, my personal canon would be sliced in half. I don't think those horrendous ideas should be shooed away. But they aren't a counter to whatever better ideas the person espoused. You can be a horrendous bigot, and a great father. You can be a raving misogynist and a great novelist. Neither cancels the other out--though I understand people often write as though it should.
(Still more here.) "Neither cancels the other": the simple, basic truth about human beings, human merits and vices, human reality that seems so hard for people to grasp. (Including some of Coates's commentators, a fair number of whom seem, uncharacteristically for his comments section, to miss the point.)

It seems that one fair criticism you could make of Hitchens is that he himself did not recognize this truth at all: that he tended to support or condemn people whole, without the least nuance, without any understanding that virtue and sin can and do cohabit. In that sense (as well as in others) I think that Coates is a wiser writer than the man he credits with inspiring him so.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Poem of the Day: Rudyard Kipling Waxes Metaphorical About Fifteenth Century England

The Dawn Wind

The Fifteenth Century

At two o'clock in the morning, if you open your window and listen,
You will hear the feet of the Wind that is going to call the sun.
And the trees in the shadow rustle and the trees in the moonlight glisten,
And though it is deep, dark night, you feel that the night is done.

So do the cows in the field. They graze for an hour and lie down,
Dozing and chewing the cud; or a bird in the ivy wakes,
Chirrups one note and is still, and the restless Wind strays on,
Fidgeting far down the road, till, softly, the darkness breaks.

Back comes the Wind full strength with a blow like an angel's wing,
Gentle but waking the world, as he shouts: "The Sun! The Sun!"
And the light floods over the fields and the birds begin to sing,
And the Wind dies down in the grass. It is day and his work is done.

So when the world is asleep, and there seems no hope of her waking
Out of some long, bad dream that makes her mutter and moan,
Suddenly, all men arise to the noise of fetters breaking,
And every one smiles at his neighbour and tells him his soul is his own!
-- Rudyard Kipling
I'd always known the opening quatrain only in the context of its use as the epigraph for The Citadel of the Autarch (the fourth book of Gene Wolfe's masterpiece The Book of the New Sun). Recently it occurred to me to wonder what poem it came from; the above is the answer. It's one of a cycle of poems first published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling. Peter Keating notes that "It was used to close chapter VI, ‘The End of the Middle Ages: Richard II to Richard III, 1377-1485.’ An entry in the right hand margin beside the poem reads: ‘The hour before the dawn’ which might – given that the poem is centrally about process rather than achievement - make a more precise title for the poem than the one it carries."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949 - 2011

Christopher Hitchens -- a man who wrote some genuinely fine sentences -- died yesterday. I have mixed feelings about the man's work (which I won't elaborate on now), but none about his death, which is utterly shitty, as all death is. Particularly death too young, when the person had work left to do.

Here are some things that some other people have said.

PZ Myers
Hitch is dead. We are a diminished people for the loss. There can be and should be no consolation, no soft words that encourage an illusion of heavenly rescue, no balm of lies. We should feel as we do with every death, that a part of us has been ripped from our hearts, and suffer pain and grief — and we are reminded that this is the fate we all face, that someday we too will die, and that we are all “living dyingly”, as Hitch put it so well.

As atheists, I think none of us can find solace in the cliches or numbness in the delusion of an afterlife. Instead, embrace the fierce strong emotions of anger and sorrow, feel the pain, rage against the darkness, fight back against our mortal enemy Death, and live exuberantly while we can. Confront mortality clear-eyed and pugnacious, uncompromising and aggressive.

It’s what Hitch would have wanted of us.

It’s how Hitch lived.
The NYT Obituary:
He also professed to have no regrets for a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that — or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me,” he told Charlie Rose in a television interview in 2010, adding that it was “impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.”
David Frum:
A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews.

“You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club. No dice. When the headwaiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”
Dave Zirin:
Christopher Hitchens was a man of prodigious gifts, but in the end, he used those gifts to promote wars that produced a killing field in the Middle East. That, tragically, is his lasting legacy to the world, and no amount of flowery obituaries can change this stubborn fact.
(The Nation's more cordial official obituary is here.)

Andrew Sullivan has a very moving video here. Unsurprisingly, Sullivan's blog has been Hitch central today (many of these links are from there): his first reaction to the news is here; he links to Auden's poetic porn "The Platonic Blow" in Hitchens's memory; two quotes from Hitchens's writings here. With doubtless more to come. (Update: Sullivan has a link round-up of his own Hitchens-related posts here, including a fair sampling of Hitchens quotations too.)

Here's a nicely-done collection of quotes from Hitchens about various subjects. And here are his answers to the so-called 'Proust questionnaire'. Selections from Hitchens's writing in their magazines have been posted at The Nation and The Atlantic.

Hitchens's brother, Peter.

No particular quotes, but here are memorial notices or other quotes, clips, etc from other people:
I may add more later if I see them. (Update: yep. Paragraph List below, too.)

Some more negative responses, which I'll separate in case anyone wants to obey the "hear no evil of the dead" rule:
Interesting to note that as time's gone on (and yes, I keep adding to this -- I don't mean to, but I keep seeing things here and there) the latter list has grown and grown after the former one has stopped expanding. I guess the backlash is well and truly on.


I said above that I wouldn't go into what I disliked about Hitchens's work; I didn't say so, but it was out of respect for the man the day after his death. But maybe I was wrong to do so: Hitchens himself set another standard, as this video clip of his appearance on Fox news right after Jerry Falwell's death shows. Perhaps it would be true to the man to light into his errors, even today?

But no. It wouldn't. For above all, Hitchens was true to himself, and refused to mold himself to fit the opinion of the world. He possessed, in this way, what Emerson called "self reliance" -- a refusal to bow to conformity (or consistency, for that matter.) And if it is Hitchens's way to speak ill of the dead, I do not wish it to be mine.

For the same reason, I will not refrain (as PZ Myers and Greta Christina have urged) from saying "rest in peace" -- not because I have any more belief in an afterlife than they or he, but because I don't actually think it means that: it's just a ritual, something to say when you hear about a death and feel that "every man's death diminishes me, because I am part of mankind".

So I won't say what I dislike about his work; I will wish him (not really, just verbally) a peaceful rest. Because Hitchens exemplified being true to one's beliefs, right or wrong, in the face of the world's lashing you in the face with its displeasure.

And that, Noble Readers, is a legacy. And a loss.

Rest in peace.

Still later update: I keep seeing Hitchens pieces -- I guess because this damn grading is taking forever they're being published everywhere. Most of it has been said well enough in the above (or here), so I shan't update any more. (Probably.) But I can't resist linking to this genuinely brilliant satire of the entire affair by Neal Pollack, "I Knew Christopher Hitchens Better Than You." (Via 3quarksdaily, which notes that within a mere "72 hours we've gone from obsequy to backlash to satire".) If you've read even a fraction of the above-linked items, you should read that -- it's quite hilarious.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quote of the Day

Ta-Nehisi Coates is Too. Damn. Good. a writer. Really. Today's proof:
It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings -- to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter, that were we poor and black our sense of Protestant industry would be a mighty power sending gang leaders, gang members, hunger, depression and sickle cell into flight. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct.

Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, but on the whole, mediocre....

This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this--You are not extraordinary. It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't and then ask "Why?"

This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking "Why?" The fact that we -- and I mean all of us, black and white -- are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling.
I think that "a muscular empathy" is not only an astonishing phrase, but it is the key to why Coates is such an astonishingly good historian. (However much I think he's wrong about some things.) Indeed, I wonder if perhaps "a muscular empathy" isn't an utterly vital component for writing good history of any sort.

Or writing good literature. Or making good public policy. Or just being a decent human being in a world in which that is never an easy or trivial task.

Read the rest. (He has a follow-up post here.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ogre's Feathers

I just watched a brilliant short film called "The Ogre's Feathers", written and directed by Michael Almereyda. I was interested primarily because I'm procrastinating on grading my exams it includes SF writer, critic and all around Man of Marvelous Letters Samuel R. Delany in a small supporting role as the ill king (the first person on the screen is he) who needs an ogre feather to recover. (That's the reason my friend Ron Drummond, who's done editorial work for Delany, linked to it, which is how I saw it.)

The film is based on the story from Italo Calvino's book Italian Folktales called "The Feathered Ogre". (It's only three pages long; you should be able to read it at the link.)

The film is described by its creators as a "silent" film, but that's not quite right: there are sound effects and music. (Actually, both of those are quite well done and are part of the pleasures of the film.) I'm tempted to say "wordless", but that's not quite right either: there are words, put on title cards (white letters on a black screen), as used to be done in silent films. But there are no spoken words in the film.

(Which raises a question for me: why didn't silent films use subtitles? Was it simply that no one ever thought of it, or was there some technical reason (or aesthetic reason) why they wouldn't work? It seems like a far better (subtler, more efficient, less disruptive) way of communicating words on film using text than title cards. Yet I can't recall ever seeing a silent film use them. Does anyone know?)

I will admit that I'm not quite sure the not-really-silent-silent-film aspect really works. It's a bit odd given the sound -- the really quite gorgeously done sound, including, at one point, inaudible voices of children in the background. (Silent movies had music, but this has sound effects -- doors closing, etc -- which make the lack of voices odder.) And it slows down the movie, and makes it artificial... although that last point may be a plus, given that the entirety is a fairytale, but that it is filmed & set in contemporary New York: the oddity may be necessary to make it work. But it's an interesting (and clearly quite deliberate) artistic choice, and doesn't stop me recommending the film.

What I liked best, though, was the cinematography -- the movie is just gorgeously photographed, in incredibly rich black and white, with marvelous settings, frame compositions, and so forth. It really is plain old fabulous to look at. (It's very well acted too; I particularly liked Rachel Chandler as the ogre's wife.)

-- although here, too, I must admit one quibble: the entire film is gorgeous and beautiful... except for two brief scenes which take place on a ferry. Apparently they couldn't get permission to film on the real ferry, so they used rear screen projection for those scenes -- which looks oddly fake and off-putting compared to every other frame of the film.* (And it's odd, because they make it look like an old movie -- one of the movies in which that technique was regularly used -- whereas it otherwise doesn't, for all that it's a (not-really-silent) silent, black-and-white film.) Given that they updated the rest of the visual setting (i.e. talking and acting as if were a fairy tale but filming in NYC), I would have suggested trying the subway, or a bus, and referring to it as a ferry.

But quibbles aside, I really enjoyed it.

So here's the film. It's about 20 minutes long; the youtube is listed as "unlisted", meaning it doesn't show up in search results but is still available for embedding and linking (unlike "private" videos). So hopefully this (or this link) should work:

Finally, now that you've watched the film (come on, those exams can wait...), one small plot quibble which is a SPOILER for the movie (and the short story too):

In the story, the hero is asked by three additional people (apart from the ill king) to bring feathers, but is asked by four additional people for information. Each time the ogre's wife takes a feather she asks a question, so that the monks, the fourth set of information seekers (who requested no feather) go along with the feather for the king (who needed no information). Four feathers, four questions. In the film, however, the monks are cut out, which means that the wife asks only three questions and takes (or we see her take) only three feathers. Which means that I was counting feathers as they redistributed them to those who had asked, sure that the hero would run short. But he didn't: he gave out four feathers. Which is to say, cutting the monks left a plot loophole that I for one wish they had somehow filled (maybe one of the other three questioners could have refrained from asking for a feather?).

* Even the scenes on the ferry are beautiful if you ignore the background and just look at the actors. The background looks lousy, though.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Links, Recent and Otherwise, By Categories

A link round-up. I've been bookmarking these for a while, and forget where I saw most of them, but the majority are probably from Gerry Canavan, and most of the rest from Making Light, 3 Quarks Daily or Andrew Sullivan.


Daniel Abraham, "A Private Letter from Genre to Literature". (This wins my personal "if you only read one of these links" vote, although obviously that will differ for everyone depending on your interests and tastes.)
Terry Pratchett's short story "A Collegiate Casting-Out of Devilish Devices".
Muppets, Avengers and Life in the Age of Fanfiction (AKA Everything is Fan Fiction Now.)
Only the first Muppet movie was real; the others were the movies made by the troop assembled in the first one.
Really awesome interview with Joss Whedon about his film of Much Ado About Nothing... done by some insanely talented (& insanely lucky) high school student.
Alan Moore on the use of his V for Vendetta mask by the Occupy protesters.
The rules of magic in diverse fantasy works.


• T. M. Scanlin (a philosopher whom I knew while I was in college, although I don't think I ever took a course with him) on libertarianism and liberty, with replies by Brad DeLong and Will Wilkinson.
The errors of baseball umpires from various philosophical perspectives.
"Octopuses," writes philosopher Godfrey-Smith, "are a separate experiment in the evolution of the mind." And that, he feels, is what makes the study of the octopus mind so philosophically interesting. Inside the Mind of the Octopus.
Start at any Wikipedia page, then click the first link (ignoring any that are italicised or nestled in brackets), then repeat. For more than 93% of articles, you will end up at philosophy. Guardian article about this fact. Analysis which is the source of the 93% figure. Web application which will trace the path from any given Wikipedia page (or a random one) to Philosophy. Wikipedia's own article about this phenomenon.


Presidential pick-up lines. (Only for those who like dirty jokes. And pictures of presidents.)
• Also from Tumblr: Shit Siri Says.
How to speak Republican.


• David Frum (former speechwriter for George W. Bush) asks When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?
• Genuinely horrifying and shocking story: American government censors a blog, denies due process for over a year.
• Daniel Larison (one of the more interesting conservative writers around) talks to Corey Robin about Robin's new book The Reactionary Mind.
Ethnically-based nation states are a really dumb idea.
Segregated buses in America -- in 2011.

Visual Art

Cool digital colleges by Matt Wisniewski. My favorite:

Mysterious sculptor leaves gorgeous artworks in the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. (More)
Irina Werning gets people to pose for recreations of old photographs (staring themselves as children, or at least much younger versions of themselves). They're quite astonishing. More here. (One or two in each set mildly NSFW).


Paul Simon's Graceland at 25.
Andrew Rilestone on Bob Dylan in concert.
Elliot Carter at a concert in celebration of his 103rd birthday. Carter had "written five works this year [!!] that were included in the program... Never in the history of music has a major composer still been producing significant pieces at such an age."

Profiles and Lives

Jackson Lears on Reinhold Niebuhr
Louis Menand on George Kennan
• Stalin's daughter died recently; she had a bizarre and fascinating life, well worth reading about.
• This has been around for a long time, but I don't think I've ever linked before to this fun little biography of Samuel R. Delany by K. Leslie Steiner (who is, incidentally, Delany himself).

Relating to Universities

Why are they so fucked up? (Latest in a very, very, very long series of speculations & analyses by diverse people)
Marc Bousquet on working as an academic (and how little it pays)
The militarization of campus police.

Things That From a Long Way Off Look Like Flies

A lengthy & fascinating thread on Metafilter in which non-Americans are asked to identify what's weird or quirky about America/Americans.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gilbert Adair, 1944 - 2011

Gilbert Adair died two days ago.

Adair is, I think, best thought of as a writer in that slightly old-fashioned category, "man of letters". Some obituarial writings stress his relationship to film -- he was a film critic, and had some of his novels filmed. But Adair was largely about words and the culture of words so far as I can see.

I've only read two-and-a-bit books by Adair, although I've enormously enjoyed all of it, and read some more than once.

First, I've read Adair's utterly fabulous and delightful novel The Death of the Author -- a postmodern murder mystery (which, incidentally, is a whole subgenre), based around (not Barthes, as one might think from the title, but rather) Paul De Man, and the various revelations around his history of writing literary criticism for a fascist-friendly newspaper during world war two, including at least one directly antisemitic piece. It's really quite terrific, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in that sort of thing (a murder mystery set in academia, a send-up of De Man, a postmodern mystery, or anything else). (Much later update: it turns out the book has been brought back into print by Melville House Publishing, so you can read it, if you like (and those of you who think you might like most definitely will like.))

Second, I've read Adair's astonishing translation of Geroges Perec's lipogrammatic novel La disparition, published under the title A Void. A lipogram, of course, is a piece of prose written deliberately eschewing one (or more) letters of the alphabet; Perec's La disparition contains no instances of the letter e (in French, as in English, the most common letter of the alphabet). Adair's translation, rather remarkably in my view, respects this constraint, and manages to translate Perec's e-less French novel into an e-less English one. (Perec's novel, incidentally, is also a postmodern mystery, in which the lack of an e symbolizes greater, unspeakable losses which haunt an unknowing world.)

For obvious reasons, translating a lipogram into a lipogram is a much harder, and thus in some ways more impressive, linguistic challenge than simply writing one: Perec could shape his novel according to his constraint, discussing things that happened to have no e in French, whereas Adair had to follow Perec's subject matter. There have been critiques of how well he did this (scroll down (or search for Adair) at this link to read Ian Monk's critique of Adair's translation). But personally I am quite grateful that he did it, and did it as well as he did.

(I've dealt with this topic before; for more on the translations of La disparition, see this post; for more on lipograms in general, see this one.)

Finally, I've read a few of the essays in Adair's (unspeakably marvelously titled) collection The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice. I think that title alone justified Adair's existence on this earth, and ought to preserve his memory.

Adair wrote all sorts of other things -- a biography of the real boy who inspired Thomas Mann's Death in Vencie, The Real Tadzio; a sequel to Lewis Carroll's two Alice books, Alice Through the Needle's Eye; and a number of other novels, including his most famous, Love and Death on Long Island, and also a number of other mysteries (about which I know little).

As a man of letters in an age of which tends to max out after 140 or so, I fear Adair is not very widely known, and may well not be long remembered. But it's a pity. Letters really get good when they pile up in long sequences: and Adair did this very well. If you've not heard of him before, and you enjoy sequences of letters longer than 140, see if you can track down The Death of the Author. It's quite fabulous. And I myself may well see if I can track down Love and Death on Long Island, which sounds good too.

Gilbert Adair, RIP.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Slandering My Good Name

My name, of course, being "Frug". It's a name of Russian-Jewish extraction -- my paternal grandfather used to say that we were related to the Yiddish poet Simon Frug (1860 - 1916)*, although my father doubts this, and I have no hard evidence either way. As far as I know, every Frug in the western hemisphere (a small number) is related to me, some quite distantly of course.

Now, the other famous meaning of "frug" is in reference to the 60s dance craze of The Frug. For all practical purposes, the dance hasn't been done by anyone in half a century, but it comes up from time to time in popular culture -- the most prominent case, I suppose, being the Rilo Kiley song "The Frug". But other references -- often in the gerund form, "frugging" -- pop up from time to time. Wikipedia's entry on the dance has a lengthy list of them (at least as of now, until some pompous, killjoy editor decides the list lacks importance). I've previously mentioned that the late writer Thomas M. Disch told me he wrote a pseudonymous story called "If You Don't Frug Baby Then What Do You Do?" which he described as the worst thing he'd ever written.

So: a forgotten (and seemingly bad*) poet, and a forgotten (and seemingly silly) dance craze. And my family. I can live with that.

But then, earlier this week, I read the following (via):
According to complaints on consumer-focused Web sites, some American Solutions calls begin with slanted polling questions before proceeding to a request for money. The tactic, known as "fundraising under the guise of research," or frugging, is discouraged as unethical by trade groups such as the Marketing Research Association. (emphasis mine)
"Frugging" a slimy fundraising tactic! Aghast! I've been slandered!!

Ah, but it gets worse. Trying to dig a bit into this usage, I stumbled upon the entry for "Frug" in Urban Dictionary. There are references to the dance, of course, and references to the words as short for "frugal" (I've heard that one before too -- I believe the Frugal Gourmet is called "The Frug"), but then there's also this:
2. fat, retarded, ugly.
3a. A person who is extremely tight-fisted with money. Considered cheap, miserly, penny-pinching, selfish. Always has a negative connotation - thrifty would not be a synonym.
4. An exclamation used exclusively when you've accidentally just agreed to go on a date with someone that you consider to be repugnant.***
...and a few more which are even more obscure or odd and which frankly I doubt have ever been used in human speech.

Trying to come up with an appropriate response to these vile slanders, I am reminded of a quote from an old episode of the TV show Babylon 5 (of which I was, at one time, a great fan):
I don't know who's been saying these things but I want you to know when we get back I am gonna sue somebody! I don't know how -- and I don't know who -- but by God I am gonna sue somebody!

-- Lyta Alexander, in "Between the Darkness and the Light", by J. Michael Straczynski

* I've read a handful of his poems in translation, and they're all pretty bad. It's hard to know in translation of course -- it's possible the originals were better -- but the one person I've ever run into to read Frug in the original** confirmed to me that no, he was, in fact, simply a bad poet.

** A rabbi at my school (he was, much later, to read the Ketubah at my wedding) who, upon being first introduced to me, exclaimed "Frug! Famous name! Famous Yiddish poet!" and then walked around introducing me to people as "Stephen FRUG" the way one might say "Stephen WHITMAN" or something, which puzzled everyone else in the room since, as with the great mass of humanity (even the great mass of Jews) none of them had ever heard of the poet.

*** I have to admit that this notion -- accidentally agreeing to go on a date -- is so bizarre and amusing that I'm almost willing to forgive someone for ascribing a bad version of it to my name. (Almost.) It's a hard scenario to imagine; here's the sample dialogue from the Urban Dictionary entry:
Other person: "Hey, so, uh, what are you doing this Saturday night?"
You: "Oh, nothing much. Going to Coffee Shop X to study, probably."
Other person: "See you there!"
You: "Frug!"