Friday, June 29, 2012

Are We Allowed To Insult His Intellect and His Integrity Now?

Justice Antonin Scalia, whom some count as a certain vote against the law, upheld in 2005 Congress’s power to punish those growing marijuana for their own medical use; a ban on homegrown marijuana, he reasoned, might be deemed “necessary and proper” to effectively enforce broader federal regulation of nationwide drug markets. To imagine Justice Scalia would abandon that fundamental understanding of the Constitution’s necessary and proper clause because he was appointed by a Republican president is to insult both his intellect and his integrity.

-- Laurence H. Tribe, February 7, 2011

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Our present course leads to certain catastrophe"

The basics of climate change in 17 minutes:

If you're not panicked, then you're not paying attention (or are in denial, or have swallowed some very malignant lies.)

Dave Roberts comments on his own video, giving still images of the slides & links, here.

(The issue is, what can possibly be done about it? If anyone has any answers to that one that aren't based in denialism, don't depend on fantastical deus ex machina workarounds of either technological or political problems, and aren't a counsel of utter despair, I, for one, am desperate to hear them. (Myself, I know of only one... a very, very bad answer, but an answer, that fits all three of those. I'll try to blog it soon.)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Remarks on Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Everything was as before, except for... the wild and senseless footprints on the ceiling.

-- Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Monday Begins on Saturday
"nearly used" as an epigraph to Francis Spufford, Red Plenty
I recently read Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, and wanted to make a few notes on it -- not quite a review, perhaps, more a series of reactions. But I can sum up my brief review of the book into one short phrase: it's fabulous.

The rest of this note will be devoted to spelling out some of the ambiguities in that phrase: what is it, that it is fabulous, and in what way(s) is it fabulous.

First, on the question of what it is, I think that most of the hard work has already been done by the (fabulous) novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote a review as part of Crooked Timber's Red Plenty seminar, through which I first heard of this astonishing book (and which I mentioned before in this post). Robinson essentially devoted his review to defending the idea that the book is a novel -- the title of his piece is "Red Plenty is a novel" -- and the core of his argument on this point is as follows:
There seems to be some unnecessary confusion as to [Red Plenty's] form or genre. You can see that in the front matter of the American edition, in which it is described as “like no other history book,” “a collection of stories,” “’faction’,” “part detective story,” “a set of artfully interwoven genres,” “the least promising fictional material of all time,” “reverse magical realism,” and “half novel/half history”. Of course it does not help that the first words of the novel are “This is not a novel. There is too much to explain…”

All wrong. There is always too much to explain, and yet novels are still novels. They have an immense capacity to include and shape all aspects of the real. Red Plenty is not even a particularly unusual novel, in terms of length, complexity, self-awareness, historical inclusions, bricolage technique, or any other matters of style or content. Shall we say Moby Dick is not a novel, or War and Peace? No we shall not. Red Plenty is a novel like they are, and should be discussed as one.
Precisely so. I admit that I thought Red Plenty was a novel when I picked it up, and that this preconception doubtless influenced my perception of it; nevertheless I have an extremely hard time imagining how anyone could have believed otherwise. It is a series of fictive passages, written in series of changing, third-person viewpoint characters. Each of the six parts begins with an italicized section with direct history -- essentially, necessary background for the fiction that follows. (This technique Spufford borrowed (on his own testimony) from Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy.) But again, the notion that these brief sections make the entirety anything other than a novel ridiculous.

Why is there this confusion about the work's genre, if the answer is, in fact, so straightforward? I think the answer here is that it's largely due to the claims of Spufford himself -- not in the text of his book (although yes, it does deny its novelistic status*), but rather in various extra-textual remarks he made about the book, which presumably shaped the book's promotion, which itself focused on (and highlighted) the supposed confusion of the book's mode.

Why did he do this? Well, those of us picking up the book after its completion have (or should have) little difficulty in seeing it as a novel. But Spufford, as the author, lived the process of its creation -- and while the book ended up as a novel, it didn't start out that way. Spufford is a non-fiction writer, by all accounts not simply in the opinion of the publishers and booksellers who categorize his work, but by self-conception; and he began to research and write his book as a history. In his search for ways to accurately convey the history of a particular idea, he found himself drawn into the process of fiction: but it seems that, in his own mind, the books origins as an attempted history blinded him, somewhat,** to the fact that what he ended up writing was, simply, a novel.*** A novel that tells a true story, sure -- but many novels do that (using, as Spufford does, ficitonalizing techniques, which makes them novels).

But what about the notes? Red Plenty has a copious number of notes, patiently explaining what in the work is true, what is based in truth but distorted, what might be true but we don't have enough documentation to know, what is sheer fiction, and so forth. These notes -- as, again, was noted in the Crooked Timber seminar -- are very different than the in-fiction, ironic sort of notes that one gets in other novels.

But not exclusively, and Spufford's footnotes are by no means without precedent. Many historical novels have brief afterwards or author's notes doing essentially the same thing that Spufford does, albeit more briefly. And other works have provided closer precedent for Spufford's book. The notes that comes to my mind most readily are Alan Moore's extensive notes to his historical fiction, the graphic novel From Hell, which provides a (self-consciously) far-fetched presentation of the truth of the Jack the Ripper murders, and in the process writes a book that presents late-19th century London with as much richness and diversity of class as The Wire does early-21st century Baltimore.**** Moore's footnotes -- in a very different way than Spufford's, naturally, since Spufford is making up fairly free fiction about a lengthy era, while Moore is speculating in the unknown crevices of tightly-matched historical events -- document his sources, where he is making things up, and so forth, just as Spufford does.

Some reviewers have seemed to think that Spufford's notes are a mistake, or diminish the fiction in some way, but this strikes me as utterly wrong. The fictional reality Spufford creates is in no way lessened by our knowing what in it is true and what is not: the brilliance of fiction is precisely that a made-up story can be as affecting as a real one. One can, of course, simply skip Spufford's notes -- but I recommend against it: you learn a lot of interesting things in many of them, for while some of them are simple references, others are richer, little essayettes in their own right. And some even contain particularly fine examples of Spufford's wit or masterly writing that would otherwise be missed, such as this note to the phrase (from part 2, chapter 1, "Shadow Prices"), "Granite giants holding up the Academy's facade":
[S]o far as I know, there are no muscle-bound stone Atlantids straining to support the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Those are all in Leningrad/St Petersburg. But the symbolism is too good to miss; and if a fairytale would be improved by giants, it gets giants.
So my advice is to not skip the notes. Every once in a while, though, Spufford throws a spoiler for later in the chapter into an earlier note, and constant reference to them is distracting; my advice (which I myself only imperfectly followed) is to read each chapters' notes after finishing the chapter, although in my case this did mean that once or twice I went on a tiresome googlesearch for some transliterated term of Sovietology, only to find it clearly explained in a footnote.

Ok, it's a novel. What sort of a novel is it? Here Robinson, so useful in clearing up the major confusion about Red Plenty's mode, actually contributes to the somewhat more minor confusion about its genre. Which is to say that (again referring to the Crooked Timber seminar) some people claim it's science fiction, only about the past, and real science, while others claim that it's a historical novel. Which is it?

Well, Spufford himself notes the following:
But – historical novel, as Rich Yeselson and Carl Caldwell urge, or SF, where Gilman and Robinson are beckoning? I think the two genres are basically isomorphic, as Ken Macleod’s point about history being SF’s secret weapon suggests. They share the increase in the story’s explanatory load, and in the need to create familiarity from a standing start for the reader, and in the increased prominence of world-as-character. In terms of characteristic difficulties, they share the problem of how to make characters something other than just an expression of researched or invented perspectives. They both aim to transport. Where they differ is in whether they transport us to a combination of human possibilities which has already existed, or to one that only might exist, elsewhere or -when. Since the Soviet Union in 1960 existed all too solidly, it looks like an open and shut case for the historical.
Spufford follows this paragraph with the words "and yet...", but his point here is correct: that a history points to alternatives, hints at counterfactual possibilities, and so forth, don't make it any less a history, and the same point holds, mutatis mutandis, for a historical novel.*****

Now, historical novels differ in how closely they adhere to real history: some use real-world people as characters, some do not; some dramatize real events, some are simply set in a real (more or less accurately rendered) era. And on the spectrum of things, Red Plenty is a very historical historical novel. It's purpose is to capture the history of an idea, and the feel of the society in which the idea rose and fell. It stars many real people, and features many real events -- even real quotes (usually in their original context, sometimes not). Some historical novels can't teach you any history at all; Red Plenty can, and does, teach you quite a bit. It is a fictional presentation of real history -- a history that, Spufford discovered, he could best genuinely convey using the means of fiction. Sometimes the best way to convey truth is to tell it as a story.

(One parallel that occurs to me -- a work of fiction, that is unquestionably so, but that deals in real history, and teaches you an enormous amount about it (while still being a great work of literature) is Michael Frayn's brilliant play Copenhagen, about the 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the titular city, then under German occupation. Note that Copenhagen is another work of fiction (a play, not a novel) with extensive notes about what is and is not real, about sources, and so forth, much in the matter of Red Plenty. (Actually, it goes further, and in places characters essentially give footnotes on stage, in the dialogue. Like Red Plenty, it only sounds like it shouldn't work.))

Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone. ‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says. ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock. But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’

-- Soviet Joke, quoted by Francis Spufford

So, yes. Red Plenty is a historical novel. What's it about?

Well, it's about the idea that briefly took hold in the Soviet Union, largely during the Khrushchev era (1953 - 1964), although the dismantling and wreckage of the idea extended into the Brezhnev era, that communism could (and should, and indeed (in several senses) must) out-perform capitalism, and that the Soviet Union, as a planned, communist economy, could become the richest society on Earth. The idea, that is, of red plenty.

In other words, it's about the intellectual history of Soviet economics, largely ideas that have been discredited (plus some that were never quite tried, although they're probably impossible too), and the social history it interacted with.

If my Noble Readers reaction to this is that this is about as dull a topic as could be imagined, then I should note that, before beginning the book, I would have mostly agreed with you -- I'm interested in ideas and their history, so I wouldn't have put it that strongly, but I will admit it sounded a bit dull. In fact, after browsing the Crooked Timber seminar on the topic, I more or less decided to buy the book, but thought that (in all honesty) I'd put it on the stack of books-to-read that I metaphorically have (its actually bookcases, and intermixed with books I've already read, books I never really want to read, and many other categories of books), and get to it,,,, sometime. Maybe.

In fact, if my Noble Readers think that the topic sounds boring, then it is not only I that (formerly) agreed with you; Spufford himself thought so too. As he writes:
Red Plenty is wilfully devoted to the deadest of dead issues: the planning problems of a no-longer existent system which has no prospect of ever becoming existent again. Unicorn husbandry, biplane manufacture, sermon publishing – take your pick of impractical comparisons. This seems like a good place to start. Because though the imp of the perverse played a major part in my decision to write the book; and I was positively attracted to the whole business of being the first person in thirteen years to consult Cambridge University Library’s volumes of The Current Digest of the Soviet Press; and in general to the challenge of taking on the most outrageously boring subject-matter I could find, and wrestling it to the floor, and forcing it to disgorge its hidden jewel of interestingness...
So even the book's author agreed that the subject matter was, inherently, not that interesting.

But I downloaded the Kindle sample, and found myself, on a Saturday night, reading the opening. And by the time I got to the end, I went and bought (on iBooks -- I think it's a better program, at least for the iPad) the electronic book, because I couldn't wait to keep going.


Well, first of all, it's really well written. And I mean that on every level. It's nonfiction introductory sections are incredibly engrossing, well-written as non-fiction. And the fiction that make up, well, the bulk of the novel are quite well crafted. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of the first chapter proper (i.e. excluding the (marvelous!) initial italicized section), "The Prodigy, 1938", which I chose largely because it's part of the excerpt on Spufford's site and therefore I could lazily cut & paste rather than retyping anything:
A tram was coming, squealing metal against metal, throwing blue-white sparks into the winter dark. Without thinking about it, Leonid Vitalievich lent his increment of shove to the jostling crowd, and was lifted with the rest of the collectivity over the rear step and into the cram of human flesh behind the concertina door. “C’mon citizens, push up!” said a short woman next to him, as if they had a choice about it, as if they could decide to move or not, when everyone inside a Leningrad tram was locked in the struggle to get from the entry door at the back to the exit at the front by the time their stop came around. Yet the social miracle took place: somewhere at the far end a small mob of passengers burped out onto the roadway, and a squeezing ripple travelled down the car, a tram-peristalsis propelled by shoulders and elbows, creating just enough space to press into before the door closed. The yellow bulbs overhead flickered, and the tram rocked away with a rising hum.
It's not that this is just a very well written paragraph, filled with fine prose. It's that it also neatly threads into its metaphors the actual topic of the book: phrases like "Without thinking about it, Leonid Vitalievich lent his increment..." can be read as actually about the way economics and economies work -- but, of course, it works well for boarding a crowded train, too. (But it is, I claim, not heavy-handed: in any other book you would pass the phrase by without thought, and even in this one it is very easy to do so.) Spufford is not a flashy writer, and his prose doesn't dazzle like, say, Nabokov or Updike. But he is a very fine craftsmen, and his prose is filled with quite triumphs of the scrivener's art.

("Leonid Vitalievich", by the way, is Leonid Vitalievich Kantorovich, the only Soviet economist to win the Nobel Prize in economics (in 1975), one of the (many) central characters in the novel.)

Red Plenty is also a fine book on other counts, well written at higher levels than the sentence, filled with compelling characters and well-observed scenes, like the scene where a Soviet propagandist, faced with the unexpected reality that the American guide at an exchange show is an African American, nevertheless presses on with her attack on the U.S. as unjust system due to racial segregation, or the extraordinary description of how cancer starts in a smoker, or the hillarious scene with Kruschev's chauffer confronting his own new reality after Kruschev's ouster. And on and on. Spufford makes you sympathize and care about people he frankly calls (and shows to be) gangsters and monsters, as well as (in much larger number) their victims and (especially) their mid-level flunkies. It's a social portrait, done through a series of compelling narratives and character sketches.

(To be sure, it's episodic, and characters weave in and out -- which is why some misguided reviewers call it a short story collection. But nearly all come back, and they all centrally revolve around a well-developed theme, and incidents in one narrative reflect and illustrate those in another -- all, of course, standard parts of the novelists' bag of tricks.)

Secondly, Red Plenty provides an interesting narrative of a part of history that I (for one) know too little about: the Post-Stalin, pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union. As Spufford puts it, it is a part of history which
has effectively been crushed flat by hindsight. It’s part of a story we think we know already, about how twentieth-century communism moved from utopian hope, through totalitarian menace, to senile decay and collapse. What’s more, it’s a part that doesn’t matter very much in the story as we now tell it. It’s an interlude, a brief period of delusory Soviet confidence and reformist false dawn, in between the much more important dramas of Act Two (Stalin) and Act Three (Collapse)
Spufford -- as both great historians and historical novelists do -- brings us out of our present mental world, and puts us in that one: makes us forget, almost, how the story ends, makes us forget what economics seems to say, that the dream of red plenty was always impossible. And while he focuses on this one aspect of the period, he ends up telling a lot about Soviet history that I, for one, found fascinating.

Actually, even as an American historian I found the book useful as a reminder of why, and in what way, Americans found the Soviet Union threatening: not just as a military competitor, not just as a monstrous tyranny, but as a system which they (we) feared might be more attractive than ours. It's easy to forget that that seemed genuinely possible, but it did, and it throws a useful light even on the history of this country.

And then there's the core story that Spufford tells, a fascinating one in its own right, filled with interesting ideas about computers and math and how society works and politics and all sorts of things. It turns out that this particular idea is filled with fascination -- at least in Spufford's hands.

I won't go so far as to say that everyone should read this book: it is a bit of a specialized taste. What I will say is that if the prospect of a good historical novel about an idea (in the abstract) sounds interesting to you, don't let the fact that this particular idea doesn't sound interesting as a topic for such put you off. Anyone who likes a good novel ideas will like this book.

Highly recommended.

Coda: In the midst of one chapter -- the first chapter of part four, "The Method of Balances, 1963", there are the following sentences about a mysterious industrial accident that one of the beurocrats is trying to deal with:
In the old days, heads would have rolled over this on principle. It would have been labelled as sabotage just to close the books on it. The organs of security would swiftly have uncovered a conspiracy of wreckers, vilely determined to cheat the people of their rightful viscose. But the policy now was not to compound the effects of an accident by losing, in addition, the expertise of skilled workers over it. After all, accidents did happen.
I must admit that I found one of those phrases incredibly funny -- so funny that I have (as you may have noticed) adopted it, at least temporarily, as a self-description.

* In favor, however, not of being a history, which the work also denies, but of being a fairy tale: and how many modern, book-length fairy tales are not also novels?

** But only somewhat, yet (it seems to me) still somewhat, even after everything. Spufford, following the folkway of the Crooked Timber seminar, wrote a (multi-part) response to the various reviewer's posts, and here is what he says about Robinson's assertion:
Here was a large reason for the first sentence of the book. When I wrote, ‘This is not a novel. It has too much to explain to be one of those’, I was partly teasing. And partly I was negotiating a particular difficulty that had arisen during the original publication, which made it important to assert that whatever it was, it wasn’t a failed novel. But I meant it, too. I was – am – genuinely uncertain over whether, as a piece of writing in which individual experience ceaselessly takes second place to idea, and some kind of documentary purchase on the world is being asserted, it should really qualify. Heaven knows, I’m glad to be contradicted by Kim Stanley Robinson, and if my having done my best to through-imagine it all as a kind of concrete (and viscose) poetry saves it in other people’s eyes from occupying the place I feared it had in the uncanny valley, zombyishly half-alive itself – I’m certainly not going to argue. Alright, it’s a novel.
Spuffords ongoing doubts, it seems me, are simply mistaken: and his final sentence should loose its qualifiers and become boastful. It is not only a novel, full stop -- but a wonderful novel.

*** He's not alone in this: I recall reading that Tolstoy referred to Anna Karenina -- written after War and Peace -- as his first novel. But that is partly because what the novel was when Tolstoy got finished with it was not what it was before he began. His confusion, therefore, is somewhat more reasonable than Spufford's. But they're both wrong.

**** Or is it late twentieth century? Although The Wire was made in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and purports to take place then, much of the reporting its fiction is ultimately based on was from the last two decades of the twentieth century: in some sense is is a fully fictional world, with a mix of late-twentieth and early twenty-first century conditions that never manifested in precisely that way in the real world (but which is no less brilliantly documentary for that).

***** The isomorphism of the SF and historical novel genres is not a point original with Macleod, nor with Spufford -- it was made earlier by (somewhat ironically) none other than Kim Stanley Robinson, in his brilliant essay "Notes for An Essay on Cecelia Holland" -- which, sadly, is not online, although someone put up an excerpt here. In it, Robinson notes that SF works are historical fiction about history that is fundamentally unknowable -- the future, or alternative (unrealized) possibilities. By this standard Spufford, whose work deals with only the familiar unknowability of all history, is quite clearly a historical novel, not an SF one.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Philosophical Anecdote of the Day

J. L. Austin in wartime:
During the war, Austin had been recruited to set up, and ended up heading, the "order of battle" section of what became SHAEF (the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force) under Eisenhower. The section was responsible for collecting and analysing information from a variety of sources, including the top-secret Enigma at Bletchley Park, but also through the developing art of aerial reconnaissance (which later became satellite imaging) and human intelligence from the resistance across Europe, in support of the war effort generally and to prepare for the D-Day landing. It is said that when the German army surrendered at Frankfurt, Austin was the only person amongst the Allies who knew where all of the German army was actually located.
And supposedly this helped shape Austin's postwar philosophy:
Returning to do philosophy at Oxford from this high-level Intelligence posting, it was natural for the young Austin to try applying this very special war experience in his resumed philosophical investigations. He set himself the task (again, as he preferred it, and had found more effective during the war, through team-work) of demystifying philosophical concepts in a somewhat parallel way, one imagines, to the manner he employed as scattered data (e.g., pictures) or separate pieces of information (e.g., a train movement) were painstakingly 'put to work' in order to interpret the data being gathered -- very much a bottom-up, piece-by-piece approach to finding out what these meant.
Hmm. Have to think about that one -- maybe even read the reviewed book (quelle idee!).

(Link via)

Friday, June 22, 2012

I Link, You Click

...if you're interested, of course.

• Saw it too late for my earlier Bradbury linkfest: John Crowley on Ray Bradbury

Interesting personal article about a friendship with Noam Chomsky. A sample:
I finally asked him how he felt about my having gone into electoral politics. I also mentioned that I was then staying with a former progressive friend who was working for a major bank who had told me that morning that he did not want to meet Noam because he assumed Noam would put him down. Noam was genuinely shocked by the story. “Why, we’re all compromised,” he said. “Look at me. I work at MIT, which has received millions from the Defense Department.” He seemed genuinely puzzled and hurt that either my friend or I would think that he would denigrate us for what we were doing.
And speaking of Chomsky, here's a great interview with him, focusing on his (Jewish) childhood and his thoughts on Israel.

• I can't wait to see How to Survive A Plague, the new documentary telling the history of AIDS, focusing on ACT-UP. Andrew Sullivan's review here. Larry Kramer's objection to the aforelinked review here (and yes, though AS is less than fully clear about it in that post, that is the great Larry Kramer himself writing in.) Democracy Now!'s interview with the director, and one of the protagonists -- including several clips of the film -- here.

• A marvelous discussion of the two Hobbits (two versions of the story written by Tolkien, that is -- we're not talking about any future cinematographic calumnies) by blogger Adam Roberts.

• Also by Roberts: a marvelously (and, I think, self-consciously) mad reading of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities. What I love about this one is that it starts of convincing (i.e. that Dickens's affair with Ellen Ternan affected the story) and ends up in insane, Aish-style numerology (the reading of prisoner 104's "name"), but the dividing line between them is so hard to place: where, exactly, does Roberts's reading slip from plausible to lunatic? It's fascinatingly hard to say.

Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter* writes an interesting article about work/life balance for women in our society. (Via) Follow-up interview here. Commentary from the left, and the right, and the left.

* If I say "Full disclosure: I knew her when she was at Harvard, and even did some research work for her", is that pretentiously pretending to be a journalist, or pretentiously name-dropping, or is it moot because these days "naming dropping" and "being a journalist" are almost synonymous, so we can just say it's pretentious? I get so confused sometimes.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Quote of the Day: One Genius Admires Another

Doctor Horrible is unbridled genius.

-- David Simon
(Link not in the original.)

That, by the way, is from the comments to David Simon's blog (!!!!), which has the marvelous title "The Audacity of Despair". Word to that.

I found the blog because superblogger Gerry Canavan linked to this post on it (which is awesome, incidentally).

Update: Bonus quote from the-website-that-ate-my-morning (thanks, Canavan):
One of the happiest memories of my years working on NBC’s Homicide was the meeting with Orioles officials to propose the above storyline [in which a murder was committed at Oriole Park].

“A murder? Why would we show a murder at the ballpark?”

“It’s Yankee fan who gets killed.”

“Okay, but still…”

“Another Yankee fan kills him.”

Long pause, smiles in the room. Sold.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I Would Never Have Watched This If It Didn't Star Amy Acker

But since it does, I did, and I'm glad I did. It's a cool little film, a 2-minute short -- sort of the video equivalent of a short story, or maybe even a short-short. Amusingly weird. (Not at all NSFW, but there is a fair amount of screaming, so watch the volume.) Check it out:

File under "why the web is awesome", sub-category, "outlet for low-cost creativity that puts larger budgeted corporate glop to shame".*
(Via Whedonesque)

* Although come to think of it, that may be damning with faint praise.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Holy Mackeral, I Agree With the National Review on Something!

Really, honestly, truly: I am not being sarcastic or facetious here. This is right on:
The president... is not intended to be the personification of our national identity. The president is simply the chief executive in the federal bureaucracy, and the government is not the receptacle of our national greatness. The cult of the presidency is bad for America. (And the cult of the commander in chief is even worse.) Nobody talks about the dignity of the office of dog-catcher, but the president is a manager of dog-catchers.... But it isn’t only the presidency. Political job descriptions are in the process of being transformed into semi-aristocratic titles. It is to my ear ridiculous when politicos refer to Mitch McConnell as “Leader McConnell” or Nancy Pelosi as “Leader Pelosi.” It is even worse when politicians refer to themselves that way, as Nancy Pelosi does. Long-out-of-office functionaries continue to be known as Governor Palin or Governor Sununu or President Bush (or President Bush) until death. It is part of the American way that we do not invest people with titles. Elected officials are not our rulers; they are our employees, a condition about which they need constant reminding.
And then, just to prove it wasn't a fluke, another National Review writer agreed with the first (via Sullivan):
I’m with Kevin and the president in preferring “Mr. Romney” over “Governor Romney.” The primary debates were all “Governor”, “Senator” and “Mr. Speaker”, even though there wasn’t a single governor, senator, or speaker on the stage. What’s the point of a republic if a guy can serve one term in the House of Representatives in the early Seventies and be addressed as “Congressman” until he keels over half-a-century later? Turning offices into titles of nobility is, to my mind, even more unrepublican than having a bunch of marquesses and viscounts queening it up because “Senator”, “Governor” et al. are titles that by definition are in the gift of the people and, when the people are no longer willing to bestow said title or the office-holder declines to submit himself to their adjudication, the use thereof should cease.
It would be too much to expect it to be unanimous, I suppose. Authority-worship still has a voice in their Corner. But still: two of three. Time to raise a toast to William F. Buckley, I guess.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

It Almost Goes Without Saying That This Is The Quote of the Day

Maude Lebowski: ...The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.
The Dude: Oh yeah?
Maude Lebowski: Yes, they don't like hearing it and find it difficult to say, whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his 'dick', or his 'rod', or his 'johnson'.
The Dude: Johnson?

-- The Big Lebowski
(Anyone wise or blessed enough to skip the news sufficiently that they don't get what this refers too, should click the first link. Life imitates art. Anyone foolish or benighted enough that they haven't seen The Big Lebowski should go watch it at once. If you're short on time, just skip the news enough to make up for it.)

Update: Tom Tomorrow's cartoon on this incident.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Telling It LIke It Is

Some people say they can't understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?

Read it four times.

-- Paris Review Interview (via)

Friday, June 08, 2012

Four Great (Mostly Geeky) Links, Not (Despite Appearances) All Stolen From Gerry Canavan

...because while now Dr. and soon-to-be Professor Canavan did link to all four, one I saw independently. Really.

Anyway, didn't T. S. Eliot say something like "bad bloggers imitate, good bloggers steal?"

Ahem. The Links:

1. The Wire: The Musical.

Only worth seeing & funny if you've seen The Wire... but if you have seen The Wire, then you should click over and see this without fail. (If you haven't seen The Wire, then you should go get the DVDs and watch all five seasons because it's so !@#$% awesome and there's a reason that everyone says that it was the best show ever on TV and that's that it was the best show ever on TV. Then see step one.) Update: David Simon's response to the musical: "Someone hand me a burner and Sondheim’s number."

2. David Graeber, "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit".

Graeber may have embarrassed himself terribly at the recent Crooked Timber seminar on his work, but that shouldn't distract us from the fact that he's one of the more interesting and creative public intellectuals working today, and one who really manages to bring an array of different types of ideas to bear on our current situation, and does so in a way that actually provides some sort of hope -- even, some sort of hope that feels real. It's a remarkable accomplishment, and this essay is Graeber at the top of his form. (If you've never read any Graeber, or never heard of the man, the best place to start is probably here.)

3. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for Wednesday, June 6

Ok, when I opened this to copy the link, the image didn't load, and it seems to be broken. Hopefully by the time you actually read this it'll be fixed. Because this short (14 panel) comic strip is actually a flat-out terrific SF story -- sort in a PKD meets Greg Egan mode. It should be in all the "best SF of the year" anthologies next year (but probably won't be). SMBC has become one of my favorite web comics, actually -- it's got a somewhat XKCD sensibility at times, but is also very much its own thing. Other recent favorites include this one, this one and this one, and actually today's is pretty good too. But the one linked above is the best... assuming they've fixed the link, that is.

4. Andrew Hickey's review of Before Watchmen

I have some thoughts on the entire BW fiasco that I haven't managed to write up yet (and earlier posted certain other people's thoughts on the matter that actually summed up my views on the matter fairly well), but beyond that I actually have no interest in reading the relevant extruded corporate comic product myself. But Hickey did (don't worry, he starts off: "Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am? I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…they started it."), and his report is well-worth reading for some choice points about this particular chillul hashem.

Actually, to end where I (almost) began, while T. S. Eliot's famous line (above imitated) is often quoted as "bad poets imitate, good poets steal", what he actually wrote was:
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest....
-- which is a key part of the answer to anyone who asks (as many have) what the difference is between Moore's reuse of concepts and ideas from earlier works and the extruded corporate product that is Beyond Watchmen.

And that's all, folks, quoth the rabbit (and the pig).

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

More on Ray Bradbury

...who, as I noted in the last post, aujourd'hui est morte. (Note on updates: I'm adding to this after posting it. Deal with it.)

* The best mainstream media coverage I've seen of his death, and life, is from the LA times, which has a lot of great articles. (No surprise, perhaps, as it's his hometown paper.) The two photos here are from their photo round-up, for instance. I love this one of him as a child.

I also like this (oft-told) story of how he wrote (the novella that was expanded into) Fahrenheit 451 at a public library, on typewriters that cost a dime every half-hour to use. The novella took 49 hours to write, apparently.

• Appreciations: Junot Diaz in the New Yorker. Neil Gaiman 1; Neil Gaiman 1.5; Neil Gaiman 2. Melissa McEwan. John Scalzi.

The New Yorker has also unlocked, on its site, the two pieces of writing that Bradbury published in that magazine: a mainstream short story from 1947, "I See You Never"; and an essay from its current issue, which just happens to be its (first-ever) science fiction issue.

• This site has (or claims to -- I haven't checked it) a complete list of Bradbury's stories, helpfully organized both by collection and alphabetically, with each listing including all the collections a story is in (Bradbury did a lot of reprinting in multiple places). It does leave out The Martian Chronicles -- presumably because it's a "novel", although it contains a lot of stories. But still, a useful list (and a good supplement to this.)

• I kind of love that Obama made a statement on Bradbury's death. (Oh, I'm cynical enough to know that he's doing it so people will forget about stuff like the fact that he is murdering people (including children) on his sole authority, ignoring one of the gravest crises in human history, and so on. But of course the reason politicians do stuff like this is because it works, so it shouldn't surprise us when it works.) And this is spot on: "For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury's death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world..."

• I didn't know until reading the obituaries that Bradbury had written a sequel to Dandelion Wine (which I first read in school, yes, eighth grade, at the age of thirteen: although I loved it, and reread it many times myself. (The others -- Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Moon, and on and on -- I read on my own initiative.) There's an interesting review of the sequel, which was titled Farewell Summer, with some information about it's history, here.

* Ta-Nehisi Coates -- who is not only one of the best bloggers on the net but is a SF geek, and so I went to see what he had to say -- hadn't even read Bradbury, but he still managed an amazing post simply by coming up with this astonishing quote from Bradbury's Paris Review Interview:
You seem to have been open to a variety of influences.

A conglomerate heap of trash, that's what I am. But it burns with a high flame.
Damn. On a related note, Stephen Andrew Hiltner has a terrific post about fact-checking Bradbury's Paris Review interview. (If you don't have the time and the patience for the whole interview, search for "Electrico" and read that little story (it runs the next few paragraphs, until the end -- it's fabulous.)

Bradbury once met Rachel Bloom. (Her tweet upon his death.) She wasn't the only musician inspired by Bradbury, but so far as I know, she was the only NSFW one. It's funny how her song has now worked itself indelibly into the Bradbury legend.

• All my Bradbury books, I think, are in storage right now -- a lot of my books are, and I read Bradbury mostly decades ago. But just browsing around, looking at titles and tables of contents, bring back so many amazing stories (and not just from The Martian Chronicles, which don't get me wrong is an amazing book, although in my memory other books of his stories, like The Illustrated Man, are even better): "A Sound of Thunder", "The Murderer", "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit", "Hail and Farewell", "The Town Where No One Got Off", "All of Summer in a Day", "The Long Rain", "There Will Come Soft Rain", "Way in the Middle of the Air", "The Veldt", "Kaleidoscope", "Marionettes, Inc.", "Zero Hour"... there's a lot of amazing stories there. He was a wonderful, wonderful writer.

• He could also be a crank. Ah, well; as Auden noted:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
(Auden went on to prove the point that writers needed pardoning for silliness by deleting those stanzas from later editions of the poem.)

• My sense is that the best Bradbury collection is the 1980 retrospective of 100 stories, The Stories of Ray Bradbury (not to be confused with the similarly-structured sequel, Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales, which is actually non-overlapping, I believe.

• In addition to the three quotes on death I pulled from Bradbury's work for my first post (two I remembered, instantly, on hearing the news; the third I came across in finding one of the two, and only remembered then), the Washington Post offers this from Something Wicked This Way Comes:
Death doesn’t exist. It never did, it never will. But we've drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we've got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.
(And now it's four in the other post, because I added another.)
• Jorge Luis Borges (!) wrote a preface to the Spanish translation of The Martian Chronicles; an English translation of it is here (h/t).

Once again: RIP.

Ray Bradbury (1920 - 2012)

Douglas was crying.

She roused herself again. "Now, why are you doing that?"

"Because," he said, "you won't be here tomorrow."

She turned a small hand mirror from herself to the boy. He looked at her face and himself in the mirror and then at her face again as she said, "Tomorrow morning I'll get up and seven, and wash behind my ears; I'll run to church with Charlie Woodman; I'll picnic at Electric Park; I'll swim, run barefoot, fall out of trees, chew spearmint gum.... Douglas, Douglas, for shame! You cut your fingernails, don't you?


"And you don't yell when your body makes itself over every seven years or so, old cells dead and new ones added to your fingers and your heart. You don't mind that, do you?"


"Well, consider then, boy. Any man saves fingernail clippings is a fool. You ever see a snake bother to keep his peeled skin? That's about all you got here today in this bed is fingernails and snake skin. One good breath would send me up in flakes. Important thing is not the me that's lying here, but the me that's sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that's downstairs now cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I'm not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family. I'll be around a long time. A thousand years from now a whole township of my offspring will be biting sour apples in the gumwood shade. That's my answer to anyone asks big questions! Quick now, send in the rest!"

-- Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine (1957)

Later on:
YOU CAN'T DEPEND ON THINGS BECAUSE... machines, for instance, they fall apart or rust or rot, or maybe never get finished at all... or wind up in garages... tennis shoes, you can only run so far, so fast, and then the earth's got you again... trolleys. Trolleys, big as they are, always come to the end of the line...


...they go away.
...strangers die.
...people you know fairly well die.
...friends die.
murder people, like in books.
...your own folks can die.


He held onto a double fistful of breath, let it hiss out slow, grabbed more breath, and let it whisper through his tight-gritted teeth.

SO. He finished in huge heavily blocked capitals.


But the fireflies, as if extinguished by his somber thoughts, had softly turned themselves off.

-- Ibid.
Granger stood looking back with Montag. "Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime."

-- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
And lastly (h/t):
When I was a boy my grandfather died, ad he was a sculptor. He was also a very kind man who had a lot of love to give the world, and he helped clean up the slum in our town; and he made toys for us and he did a million things in his lifetime; he was always busy with his hands. And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands? He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.

-- Ibid (a page or two before the previous one)


Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Clash of the Titans

I've seen this awesome anecdote sourced to places like Wikipedia (whose current page on the topic seems to have deleted it, presumably in keeping with their "make sure Wikipedia isn't cool or fun" policy), and even seen doubts cast on its veracity, so I thought I'd quote the incident, with sourcing intact. Besides, it's too fun & funny not to:
It was at another party, given a little later in the year by the highly fashionable clothes designer, Fernando Sanchez, that [then 77-year old British philosopher A. J. Ayer] had a widely reported encounter. Ayer had always had an ability to pick up unlikely people and at yet another party had befriended Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez's West 57th Street apartment, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: 'Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world.' Ayer stood his ground: 'And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.' Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campell slipped out.

-- Ben Rogers, A. J. Ayer: a Life (2002), p. 344
(The footnote on this paragraph, incidentally, is to John Foster, A. J. Ayer (1985), p. 297.) I just submitted this to Awesome People Hanging Out Together, but since it's prose, not an image, I'm not optimistic.

No, Tyson couldn't best old A. J. If you want to see Professor Ayer get slapped around but good, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Helen Vendler is the Emperor of Interpretation

I just came across this really remarkable piece of interpretation. I present it here for your literary pleasure and edification. First, here's the poem Helen Vendler is interpreting, in its entirety:
The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

-- Wallace Stevens

And now here is Helen Vendler's remarkable reading of the work:
For purposes of experiment, I have put the details the poem gives us into the form of a first-person narrative; I see the poem as a rewritten form of this ur-narrative, in which the narrative has been changed into an impersonal form, and the linear temporal structure of narrative form has been replaced by a strict geometric spatial construction – two rooms juxtaposed. Here (with apologies) is my conjectural narrative ur-form of the poem, constructed purely as an explanatory device:

I went, as a neighbor, to a house to help lay out the corpse of an old woman who had died alone; I was helping to prepare for the home wake. I entered, familiarly, not by the front door but by the kitchen door. I was shocked and repelled as I went into the kitchen by the disorderly festival going on inside: a big muscular neighbor who worked at the cigar-factory had been called in to crank the ice-cream machine, various neighbors had sent over their scullery-girls to help out and their yard-boys bearing newspaper-wrapped flowers from their yards to decorate the house and the bier: the scullery-girls were taking advantage of the occasion to dawdle around the kitchen and flirt with the yard-boys, and they were all waiting around to have a taste of the ice cream when it was finished. It all seemed to me crude and boisterous and squalid and unfeeling in the house of the dead – all that appetite, all that concupiscence.

Then I left the sexuality and gluttony of the kitchen, and went in to the death in the bedroom. The corpse of the old woman was lying exposed on the bed. My first impulse was to find a sheet to cover the corpse; I went to the cheap old pine dresser, but it was hard to get the sheet out of it because each of the three drawers was lacking a drawer-pull; she must have been too infirm to get to the store to get new glass knobs. But I got a sheet out, noticing that she had hand-embroidered a fantail border on it; she wanted to make it beautiful, even though she was so poor that she made her own sheets, and cut them as minimally as she could so as to get as many as possible out of a length of cloth. She cut them so short, in fact, that when I pulled the sheet up far enough to cover her face, it was too short to cover her feet. It was almost worse to have to look at her old calloused feet than to look at her face; somehow her feet were more dead, more mute, than her face had been

She is dead, and the fact cannot be hidden by any sheet. What remains after death, in the cold light of reality, is life – all of that life, with its coarse muscularity and crude hunger and greedy concupiscence, that is going on in the kitchen. The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau – the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom. Life offers no other tableaus of reality, once we pierce beneath appearances.

Now go read that poem again.

Incidentally, when I took a class on modern American poetry back in college (not, alas, with Helen Vendler herself -- rather to my regret, although I took a bunch of poetry classes I never took one with her), I was told that the makers of Emperor ice-cream (i.e. that brand of ice-cream) wrote to Stevens and asked if they could use his poem in their advertisements. Reportedly he wrote back, very politely, and explained that they really wouldn't want to.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Oh Dear God Please Tell Me He Can't Be That Naive

...there's a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that. My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn't make much sense because I'm not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again...

-- Barack Obama
He makes Charlie Brown, preparing to kick Lucy's football, look like a hard-nosed skeptic.

Obviously Obama is not, in any sense, a stupid man. But there comes a point where an idée fixe can produce the functional equivalent of stupidity. And we're way, way past it.

Update: It belatedly occurs to me that liberals' hope that Obama isn't as naive about negotiation and the realities of politics in our day as he seems, and that he'll come around soon, is precisely parallel to Obama's hope that Republicans aren't as insincere about negotiation and devoted to destructive politics as they seem, and that they'll come around soon.