30 March, 2006

Sartor ne ultra bracas

A good while ago, back when I really had no readers, I wrote a long post on Intelligent Design; at the end of this piece was quoted my favourite joke, about the tailor's trousers, from Beckett's Endgame. Well, it turns out that Beckett didn't come up with this joke. I just stumbled on an article by Richard Raskin ('God Versus Man in a Classic Jewish Joke'), which quotes the same joke, although told without Beckett's brilliantly subtle command of irony, translated from a 1925 French collection by Raymond Geiger:
Yossel stops in at Rabinovitch's shop and orders a pair of pants from him.

— "But it's on one condition: that you deliver the pants to me tomorrow evening. I need them; I'm about to set out on a trip. Otherwise I'll go to Hirschberg."

— "Count on me. I give you my word of honor that you will have them tomorrow evening."

But Rabinovitch is lazy and forgets his customer's order. Two years later, he remembers, hurriedly makes the pants and rushes off to deliver them. Yossel looks very displeased:

— "Rabinovitch, you're some tailor! It takes you two years to make a pair of pants, while God needed only six days to create the world!"

— "Yossel, please, don't compare me to God: take a look at the world and just look at these pants!"
As my readers can probably tell, this is obviously a Jewish joke. It all makes sense now! Raskin discusses the mechanism of Jewish humour, as exemplified here. He detects two comic currents in the narrative, both focusing on the punchline; firstly, the 'crafty salesman' reading, according to which the tailor is duping his customer—this produces a joke akin to those found in the mediaeval fabliau or jestbook traditions. The other reading is one which identifies with the tailor's sincere lament—this produces a genuinely tragic vision of the world, with man's dominion narrowed in scope to mere 'tailoring', man the creator succeeding at least where God the creator has failed so miserably.

Raskin doesn't mention Beckett's version in his survey article; when I asked him about this, he admitted ignorance. I wonder, though, to what extent Beckett's comedy derives from Jewish models, either in general tone or by direct borrowing. Perhaps there has already been a book on the subject. . . or one waiting to be written?

29 March, 2006

Official alcoholism

Said Rabha: A man is obliged to intoxicate himself on Purim, till he cannot distinguish between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai."

Babylonian Talmud, Book Four, Megillah, ch. 1.
A curious injunction. As Daniel Alder notes ('Drinking on Purim: When to Say When?'), you'd have to be really massively drunk not to be able to distinguish those two phrases; this fact leads him to consider less literal interpretations. One mediaeval commentator suggests that what is required is the repetition of a tongue-twister, something like "Cursed be Haman. Blessed be Mordecai. Cursed be Zeresh. Blessed be Esther", which would be a little more taxing. The famous talmudist Rashi, meanwhile, claims that the festive wine will send the reveller slumberward, thus unable in sleep to distinguish any two phrases. Yet another mediaeval, predictably, follows the gematria route, demonstrating the numeric equality of the two phrases in question. Compare another oenophilic Hebrew trick:
A simple example of gematric power might be the Hebrew proverb [nik' nas 'jajin jå' så sōd], lit. 'entered wine went out secret', i.e. 'wine brings out the truth', in vino veritas. The gematric value of יין 'wine' is 70, and this is also the gematric value of סוד 'secret'. Thus, this sentence, according to many Jews at the time, had to be true.

— Ghil'ad Zuckermann, 'Language Conflict and Globalisation' (2003).
Why would any organised religion promote pleonastic inebriation? Alder's solution is merely a celebration of communal triumph over hardship, alcoholism providing a means of overcoming rationality, in the manner of soma and Sufic whirling. Which isn't really any explanation at all. But for a different take on drunkenness, so typically Greek in its rational irony, see Plato's Laws (his last work), end of Book One. In this dialogue, the Athenian Stranger, who takes Socrates' place, argues that institutional drunkenness would test the moral resolve of young soldiers, just as gymnastics tests for physical fearlessness in peacetime:
The legislator would induce fear in order to implant fearlessness; and would give rewards or punishments to those who behaved well or the reverse, under the influence of the drug?


And this mode of training, whether practised in the case of one or many, whether in solitude or in the presence of a large company—if a man have sufficient confidence in himself to drink the potion amid his boon companions, leaving off in time and not taking too much,—would be an equally good test of temperance?

Very true.

Let us return to the lawgiver and say to him, 'Well, lawgiver, no such fear-producing potion has been given by God or invented by man, but there is a potion which will make men fearless.

You mean wine.

Yes; has not wine an effect the contrary of that which I was just now describing,—first mellowing and humanizing a man, and then filling him with confidence, making him ready to say or do anything?

28 March, 2006

O'Neill and the nothing new

As mentioned earlier, on Saturday I met an interesting pair of friends; one of these is an earnest young man named Felipe, obviously very bright, well-educated, and engagé. He asked me if I studied at the university. I said no, I preferred to read. He nodded: yes, he said, he liked to read too. And write. Oh, I replied: what do you write? Poetry? Or more scholarly work? Felipe was diffident. Well, he murmured, what I write, it's. . . well. . . I don't make such a distinction between the. . . you might call it, a sort of philosophical treatise. In verse. (I waited eagerly to hear more.) It's an old tradition, he was anxious to assure me. Lucretius, he added earnestly. I raised a metaphorical eyebrow: Lucretius? How about Parmenides? Thus I won. He mumbled something about Orphism, but he knew I'd won. This is how men work; it's a terrible habit really, and hopelessly superficial, but it gives us pleasure. I liked Felipe, maybe a lot.

How soon the tritest of triumphs gives way to the most oppressive trituration. Tonight, reading E. R. Curtius on mediaeval literature, I experience the terrifying unheimlich of the nothing new. I contemplate suicide. I wake up my wife from her sonorous slumber, but the feeling is impossible to convey. I realise my own total insignificance. Curtius is the Total Perspective Vortex of the academic world. I end up thinking, Perhaps I could be a decent teacher?
When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.

Long Day's Journey Into Night (1941).
My confidence has been sufficiently shaken that when I flick over to PBS in the Seinfeld commercial-break, only to have Eugene O'Neill's embarrassing drivel rammed down my ears, for a moment I am swayed by the commentator's praise of its great beauty. Just for a moment, mind. It really is a steaming heap of shit.


Strange things are said about speaking and writing. Even genuine conversations are but a game of words. The ridiculous mistake, which we ought to marvel at, is that people think they speak of things. But no one knows the peculiarity of language, that it is concerned only with itself. This is the reason why language is such a wonderful and fruitful mystery. If someone speaks only for the sake of speaking, it is then that he really expresses the greatest, most original truths.

— Novalis, Monologue (1798).

24 March, 2006

Alone in N.Y.C.

Sidney Lumet, dir. The Pawnbroker (1964).
Martin Scorsese, dir. Taxi Driver (1976).

Dos Passos has a lot to answer for; New York has been the great locus of romantic urbanism in literature at least since Manhattan Transfer (1925) and USA (1930-36). In 1940, Piet Mondrian moved to the city and was transfigured, rendering the upbeat grid of downtown Manhattan in vivid primaries. And the camera loves the place, since the twenties soaring adoringly upwards along long magnificent facades, and opening up the perspectives of its glass and steel canyons. But the world of The Pawnbroker and Taxi Driver—dirty uptown Harlem, Mau Mau Land—is another place altogether. There are no vistas here, no glittering verticals; only two men who look out at the city from a cell—pawn shop, taxicab—and see only filth. "One day a real rain is gonna come and wash all the scum off the streets".

Neither Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) nor Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro, of course) belong in NYC. Both are haunted by carnage, but of a fundamentally different nature; the camps and senseless Nazi torture for the Jew, and the purposive guerilla warfare of Vietnam for Bickle. Nazerman reacts to this experience by turning away into an amoral, impassive solipsism, relieved by bouts of anger. But Bickle's fury is a righteous, active one—it quickly becomes his goal to purify the city of its disgusting elements. Each character loses himself in his work; the routine allows him to dissociate himself from his surroundings, preventing the establishment of meaningful relations with those around him. Nazerman, although he openly expresses disgust at the prostitution and objectification of women, is too broken, too stilled and distant, to help those in distress; Bickle, on the other hand, obsesses over such a self-levied imperative. He has to, in order to articulate some meaning in his life. In the end he loses all touch with reality, whereas the Jew, who had almost given up, begins to reconnect. What constitutes a dereliction of duty to our world?

17 March, 2006

I've been found out!

I am the first fole of all the hole navy
To kepe the pompe, the helme and eke the sayle
For this is my mynde, this one pleasoure have I
Of bokes to have grete plenty and aparayle.
I take no wysdome by them; nor yet avayle
Nor them preceyve nat: and then I them despyse;
Thus am I a foole and all that sewe that guyse
That in this shyp the chefe place I governe
By this wyde see with folys wanderynge;
The cause is playne, and easy to dyscerne.
Styll am I besy bokes assemblynge
For to have plenty it is a plesaunt thynge
In my conceyt and to have them ay in honde;
But what they mene do I nat understonde.

— Alexander Barclay, Ship of Fools (1509)

A typical trope of satire: the poet-scholar admits his own folly as a prologue to his observations of the follies of others. No doubt we academics and proto-academics can all relate to this passage; I, for one, suspect on a daily basis that I am just such a foole, chief with my incomprehensible books among the others.

This particular satire, hugely popular in its day, is a late Middle English translation and adaptation of the Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant (1494), retaining the woodcuts of the original, allegedly by Dürer. (Above, the standard mediaeval Jerome, patron saint of librarians and translators, is conflated with a motleyed fool.) The 'ship of fools' theme was common in the late Middle Ages, a product of what Auerbach labelled the 'creatural realist' sensibility of Northern Europe in the 15th century; compare Huizinga's description of the Waning of the Middle Ages. Hieronymus Bosch, a classic artist in this mould, produced a painting of the theme.

14 March, 2006

Medical materialism

Medical materialism finished up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox's discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh.

— William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (1901)

In any event, as regards the correlation between mind and body, we may note for future application in this essay, that the poet will naturally tend to write about that which most deeply engrosses him—and nothing more deeply engrosses him than his burdens, including those of a physical nature, such as disease. We win by capitalizing on our debts, by turning our liabilities into assets, by using our burdens as a basis of insight. And so the poet may come to have a "vested interest" in his handicaps; these handicaps may become an integral part of his method; and in so far as his style grows out of a disease, his loyalty to it may reinforce the disease. . . I think we should not be far wrong if, seeking the area where states of mind are best available to empirical observation, we sought for correlations between styles and physical disease. . . So we might look for "dropsical" styles (Chesterton), "asthmatic" (Proust), "phthisic" (Mann), "apoplectic" (Flaubert), "blind" (Milton), etc.

— Kenneth Burke, 'The Philosophy of Literary Form' (1941)

Joyce's magnificent verbal music is seen as the other side of his poor sight and Proust's novel as a function of his physical and psychological ailments (although Proust's chief "wound," his homosexuality, Wilson slides over euphemistically). To the Finland Station, in fact, is almost a parody of the doctrine, and there are times when Marxism seems to be no more for Wilson than the sum total of Marx's insomnia, carbuncles, boils, influenza, rheumatism, ophthalmia, toothache, headache, enlarged liver, and excremental obsession, not to speak of Lassalle's syphilis and Bakunin's impotence.

— Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Armed Vision (1948) on Edmund Wilson

This first approach [to reading Great Books] is primarily biographical. Here we are concerned to know how a particular book came to be written in a particular way. Thus the fact that Marx had carbuncles made him vent all the more vitriol on the bourgeoisie in his Capital. Or we are told that Rousseau's constricted bladder made him all the less coherent at the time he wrote the Social Contract.

— Andrew Hacker, 'Capital and Carbuncles' (1954)

13 March, 2006

Basia #7: notes

Johannes (or Janus) Secundus, a Dutchman, was a 16th-century Keats; he died at the age of 24, and his collection of Basia or Kisses was published posthumously. The basium, at least in classical usage, is not the lover's kiss (suavium), nor the cheekpeck exchanged by acquaintances (osculum), but the kiss on the lips between close friends. The sense here is obviously sexual, but not as lewd as might be thought. 'Basium 7', like others in the collection, is an imitation of Catullus. I made an attempt at a French version, but only got so far, producing a little Surrealist-dissociative piece with an attractive rhyme:
Cent centaines de bises,
cent milles,
mille milles,
autant mille milles
que les gouttes dans la mer de Sicile,
que les toiles dans le ciel sur l'asile—
The last line uncontrollably transforms stars (étoiles) into webs, canvases, sails or paintings (toiles), which in conjunction with asile suggests the paranoid delirium of Leonardo's free-association daydream, so admired by Breton et al. (Alternately, the last line could end 'sur la ville', or one could follow an even more conventional route: 'que les clairs/yeux des étoiles dans le ciel'.) Already in the first movement there is rich potential for the later development of sound-play, as cent easily becomes Neaera's eyes, presque sans son, or Secundus' own sens; gouttes suggests goût, mille and ciel suggest miel for flavo (l. 24), Sicile suggests Secundus' vision which is later difficile, toile might become toi, là—and so on. I attempted German as well, although a silly stereotype (not to mention my rudimentary command of the language) impeded me only too soon, spawning a Pythonesque sort of irascibility:
Hundert hundert Kussen,
nein, hunderttausend,
nein! Tausend Tausenden!
It should be one goal of translation to hear the original language through the new. Louis and Celia Zukovsky demonstrated the absurdity of this approach taken to its limit in their own phonetic rendering of Catullus, a work widely cited in books about literary translation. But the idea of nudging a poem's semantics in a new direction, given wit, I find valuable; hence mollish for molles (soft), and ogles for its cognate oculis (eyes), a substitution which fits the voyeuristic theme of the poem.

Update. I am informed that the verse-form of 'Basium 7' is the Catullian form (used in hymns 34 and 61) of 'Glyconics mixed with Pherecrateans'—delightfully obscure!

12 March, 2006

Basia #7

Johannes Secundus, Basia (1541), #7.

A hundred hundred kisses,
a hundred thousand,
a thousand thousand—
and such thous and thousands
as drops in the Sicily sea,
as tips in the siderate sky—
upon those purpure chops
and swollen poor poutive lips
and eyelids half uttering
might I bear in continual impetus
o limpid Neaera!
But whilst I cling, here,
as limpet to rutile lips
as limpet to rosy chops, ellipses,
to eyelids half uttering,
a futile ellipsis is
my vision of your lips and rosy chops,
your eyelids half fluttering
with mollish laughters,
which (as Cynthius rips
cowled clouds from his rafters,
and clips at peace through aethers
on jewelsheathed steeds
beaming as a golden orb)
from afar with aureate will
my lachrymate chaps
and the plaints of my soul
and my sighs and my sickness collapse.

Oh, why were my ogles
born in battle with my lips?
Could I myself old Jove's
arrival match, eclipse?
My eyes as rivals
will not match my lips.

Et origo, in imitatione Catulli:

Centum basia centies,
centum basia millies,
mille basia millies,
et tot milia millies,
quot guttae Siculo mari,
quot sunt sidera caelo,
istis purpureis genis,
istis turgidulis labris,
ocellisque loquaculis,
ferrem continuo impetu,
o formosa Neaera!
Sed dum totus inhaereo
conchatim roseis genis,
conchatim rutilis labris,
ocellisque loquaculis,
non datur tua cernere
labra, non roseas genas,
ocellosque loquaculos,
molles nec mihi risus;
qui, velut nigra discutit
caelo nubila Cynthius,
pacatumque per aethera
gemmatis in equis micat,
flavo lucidus orbe,
sic nutu eminus aureo
et meis lacrimas genis,
et curas animo meo,
et suspiria pellunt.
Heu, quae sunt oculis meis
nata proelia cum labris?
Ergo ego mihi vel Iovem
rivalem potero pati?
Rivales oculi mei
non ferunt mea labra.

11 March, 2006

Enfin. . . il pluie, il pluie!

143 days—over. Thank God!

She played and each time her fingers moved, the rain fell pattering through the dark hotel. The rain fell cool at the open windows and the rain hissed down the baked floorboards of the porch. The rain fell on the rooftop and fell on hissing sand, it fell on rusted car and empty stable and dead cactus in the yard. It washed the windows and laid the dust and filled the rain-barrels and curtained the doors with beaded threads that might part and whisper as you walked through. But more than anything, the soft touch and coolness of it fell on Mr. Smith and Mr. Terle. Its gentle weight and pressure moved them down and down until it had seated them again. By its continuous budding and prickling on their faces, it made them shut up their eyes and mouths and raise their hands to shield it away. Seated there, they felt their heads tilt slowly back to let the rain fall where it should. . . The fifty years of drought were over. The time of the long rains had come.

— Ray Bradbury, 'The Day it Rained Forever'.

09 March, 2006


The threat of rain continues to hover, unfulfilled; today came clouds. And there is something in the air, the suggestion of horror. My past continues to shed itself ritualistically in the sloughing of dead skin from my arms, and I pass on campus a junior preacher warning his small crowd about the evils of the Church of Vodka and Burritos, which cares not for men's souls. His mentor stood by approvingly. Meanwhile my nephew looms on the threshold of existence.

Yesterday I labelled our foe as a "compassing Mabuse of words"; the reference was not idle. We have, in fact, been watching Fritz Lang's original Mabuse movies, Der Spieler (1922) and Das Testament (1933). The difference between the two is astonishing: where the first creeps inexorably for four silent hours towards its climax, fleshing out its anti-hero as a concrete übervillain with a line in telepathic hypnosis and a network of accomplices throughout Berlin, the second reduces the insane Mabuse to a cipher, literally as letters scratched in a window-pane, his voice channelled through Baum, the head-doctor of the asylum in which he is incarcerated, exerting a sinister power on all from afar. The first scene of Das Testament breaks noisily from the silence of Das Spieler: all dialogue is subsumed under a roar of machinery. Mabuse's silent spoken mantras in the first film give way in the second to reams and reams of written commands through which he manifests his influence. Baum (whose own name, 'Tree,' is almost an anagram of 'Mabuse') shows us at the beginning that his patient had been writing and writing with his hands on air, until supplied with a paper and pencil; at first his gestures produced meaningless scribbles, but these scribbles slowly congealed into words, and then intelligible sentences, outlining imaginary crimes in meticulous detail. The suggestion is not just Hitler scrawling his Kampf at Landsberg in 1925, as some have observed, but even the birth of language itself, a parodic inversion of that Enlightenment vision of the creation of language to cement social concord. Here words emanate only from the individual, and threaten to destroy society in apocalypse.

The ultimate appeal of Mabuse as criminal mastermind is his nihilism: it is explicitly stated that his goal is not personal wealth or gain, but total destruction of the world. Crime is a total entity for Mabuse, an expression of pure destruction, almost mystical: "When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the empire of crime." But the spirit of total annihilation is discovered in both films to be self-annihilating, as the villain is defeated each time by personal demons, guilt. Compare Kenneth Burke in A Grammar of Motives (1945) on Raskolnikov:
Crime produces a kind of "oneness with the universe" in leading to a sense of universal persecution whereby all that happens has direct reference to the criminal. There is no "impersonality" in the environment; everything is charged with possibilities. . . A sense of guilt may lead to crime as its representation; and by such translation, a sense of persecution that might otherwise verge upon the hallucinatory can be made thoroughly real and actual.
Everything in Mabuse's world is indeed charged with possibilities, and his persecution does become 'real and actual', effecting his capture at the end of Der Spieler; but here we see also the opposite process, as the real and actual Mabuse becomes hallucinatory in his hypnotic power. If crime for Burke is a sort of mystical communion with the universe, then so is gambling:
Experience itself becomes mystical when some accidental event happens to be "representative" of the individual, as when a sequence of circumstances follows exactly the pattern desired by him. Hence the mysticism of gambling, where it is hoped that one's "pure purpose" in the pursuit of money will be in perfect communion with the inexorable decrees of fate.
Mabuse himself is the ultimate 'gambler' (Spieler), cheating the stockmarket top-hats and swindling aristocrats of their riches over illicit poker rounds in the Berlin underworld. Except he isn't a gambler, and he has no need of hope—as he ensures by hypnosis that his pursuit of money is indeed "in perfect communion" with the decrees of fate. With his stares and mantras he dictates fate (fatum, 'that which is spoken'). Mabuse is therefore less the mystical initiate, and more the demonic God or Ahriman, creating the accidental event as "representative".

Finally, all of this plays into Mabuse's status in the first film as a respected doctor and psychoanalyst. Lang's Expressionist sensibility, as noted in his work on Dr. Caligari (although David Kalat advises caution with the Expressionist label), is of course intrigued by the phenomena of insanity and psychoanalysis, and Mabuse suggests the same scepticism about the 'authoritative discourse' of psychiatry in general that would be expressed later by Foucault et al. A thin line, we see, separates the fatherly psychoanalyst, fascinated by madness, and the raving maniac himself. In one powerful scene, the spectral Mabuse, incarnating himself in Baum, assumes the bulbous, distorted head of the African sculptures adorning Baum's office—the same sculptures called primitive in the popular mind, and linked intimately to the infantile, and to the delirious.

08 March, 2006

Sous les pavés, la plage!

Moments of shame, moments of triumph: thus is my memory structured. These two types of event I recall better than all others. (And so it was, I assumed, for all people, until a particular interlocutrix assured that these were the moments she tried to forget.) I recall one triumph with peculiar relish. In October 2003, the entire English Literature MA program at York University was called to afternoon assembly, wherein we were to be taught how to write by one Dr. Lawrence Rainey. As my readers can perhaps imagine, I was incensed by the proposition that some spore-nogginned academic, and a scholar of Modernism at that, had the temerity to tell me how to write! Even before attending, I was looking for a ruck. And I got one.

Rainey wanted to know how long the academic sentence should be. And before this presumptor had the opportunity to inform his credulous audience of the correct answer (24 words, if you must know) I raised my hand and observed that, of course, anyone who knew anything about prose style would be aware that an ideal prose varies the lengths of its sentences from one to the next. Again, when Rainey attempted to demonstrate the folly of long sentences with one desultory example plucked quite not-at-random from some incompetent lit-crit tearjerker, I replied insolently and out of turn, almost suffocated with contempt, that I had read, and indeed written, sentences twice as long and of perfect lucidity, because really, the quality of a sentence, of a prose, lies not in word-length but in structure, style, emphasis. "Well," he snorted, "if you want to write like Thomas Browne. . . !" I wonder now how many in the room had heard of Thomas Browne. But the triumph was sealed, as quite a number of disenchanted students approached me afterwards with congratulation. "I wanted to stand up and say Amen brother," said one.

This anecdote, despite what my readers may think, is related not to demonstrate my superiority as a human being. It illustrates, I believe, a serious problem. Readers, we are being coerced towards the writing of telegrams, passport-applications. This, from a Modernist! We are 'up to our ears' in cliché, too. Just the other day, on my way into the cinema to see the latest assault on imagination that is Tristram Shandy (I urge my audience not to see this: read or re-read the book instead, please), I caught sight of a promotional poster for the latest 'life-affirming' working-class British comedy, On a Clear Day, the tagline of which is 'All or nothing. Now or never. Sink or swim.' Amazing: three bone-dead expressions in a row, without a soupçon of irony. I felt raped. Depucelated, even. A little part of me was, as they say, gone forever. What is this monstrosity being forced upon us?

Now, everywhere I look, there I see the same. I sign up for a university e-mail account, so as to penetrate official mailboxes without being spammitized. Guidelines are provided for me:
* Cover only one topic per message, which facilitates replying, forwarding and filing.

* Type in upper and lower case. Text in all upper case gives the impression that you are shouting.

* E-mail does not show the subtleties of voice or body language. Avoid attempts at irony or sarcasm. The most effective e-mail is short, clear and relevant. If you receive a message that makes you upset, do not respond immediately.
Gentlemen, we are becoming inured to the stuff of life! We are being made to capitulate to the tyranny of a received pronunciation, a Museum English, an Ethics masquerading as Grammar: we are becoming Strunked and Whited. Eschew obfuscation—split no infinitives—abolish the passive voice—write 's/he', 'he (or she)'—never use a preposition to end a sentence with—this is 1968, people, and our foe is a compassing Mabuse of words, the Academy, the electronic and disembodied voice of a HAL/IBM, and the committees churning and churning out endlessly—Ni Dieu ni maître! Mort aux vaches!

05 March, 2006

Abercrombie & Žižek

Old news, yes. But who can resist applause when they hear of Slavoj Zizek, the Lacanian 'philosopher-entertainer', that prize among post-structuralist Slavs, whose particular gimmick is to "psychoanalyse the world", hawking his pen to a 2003 Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue? I quote this website:
Discussing a shot in which a topless blonde turns her face to the sun while her two male companions undress, the author of Enjoy Your Symptom! restricts himself to musing, ''This now of the peaceful satisfaction is to her infinitely preferable to the prospect of copulation.''

. . . But Zizek bristled at the suggestion that there was anything unseemly about an internationally renowned intellectual writing copy for a clothing catalog. ''If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing [EXPLETIVE] to get a tenured post,'' he growled, ''I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!''
Well, quite. I'd like a copy of that catalogue, actually. But what next? Will ransackers of Derrida's estate find lost editorial for TV Quick? Geoffrey Hartman convinced to produce menus for the Four Seasons? Or perhaps Judith Butler will do a Playboy centrefold with Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva: hubba hubba! One can't help but think that the fêted élite of critical theory have missed their best audience.

03 March, 2006

The Great Chain Game

Today, a game I invented—well, sort of—and played a few times with various people. It's named after Arthur Lovejoy's classic 1936 book, The Great Chain of Being, which is about Greek hierarchical cosmology and its ramifications in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Yes, really!

The Great Chain Game involves two persons, but not in direct competition; rather, they operate in an unsettled sort of partnership. The basic premise is this: the first man, X, asks the second, Y, which of two objects, a and b, Y prefers. Y can answer either a, b, or 'I don't know', but not 'neither of the two'—and he must answer truthfully, and with consideration. When B has given his answer, X asks Y the same question, either about two new objects, c and d, or about c and either a or b. It is required only that Y be consistent; if he picks a over b and b over c, he must pick a over c. The process continues for as long as is desired.

By this means, a hierarchy of values is gradually established. If discussing novelists, for instance, a short exchange might end up with:

Jane Austen (best)
Virginia Woolf
George Eliot
Thomas Hardy
Rudyard Kipling
Marcel Proust
Franz Kafka
James Joyce (worst).

The ultimate aim of the game, necessarily played over many sessions (called elenchi), is to work towards creating a ranking of all the items in the world, both material and intellectual, concrete and abstract, in mutual relation. One wants, really, to reduce the complexity of the entire universe to a single line, a scale of perfection, from the best to the worst—a 'great chain of being'. This, I contend, would be a beautiful product.

Note well: the game takes as axiomatic the principle that one can evaluatively compare 'red' to 'juniper', and both to 'reply', and 'justice'. Note also that the elements being ordered are things, not words (words can be elements, but only qua things). Any verbal ambiguities must therefore be clarified: if asking about 'round', clarify whether 'curved' (round body) or 'set/group' (round of ammo, round of drinks), if asking about 'marble', clarify whether you mean the stone or the glass ball. The words 'round' and 'marble' are also acceptable. Homonyms must be separated.

Like all good games, the Great Chain Game possesses strategies, even though there is no winning or losing. It is a dull game if one sticks to favourite novelists; but if, having created the above list, X asks Y, 'George Eliot or Golden Retriever?', or 'James Joyce or Sing Sing?', the situation becomes interesting. X must trust Y to evaluate carefully, weighing up the virtues on each side. Furthermore, there is opportunity for X to ask according to mood: one day fastidiously determining the relative merits of the shades of a particular hue, the next playing all over the conceptual gamut. One might even suggest that the structure of an elenchus corresponds to the structure of a personality—and the Game provides a far better insight into one's personality than any Myers-Briggs test or online quiz.

It is crucial to see the Game not as the conflict of two wills, as with most games, but as the tension or dialectic between two creativities. The Game is ultimately about making order out of chaos, an Aristotelian endeavour; X provides the matter (the items which he picks from the infinite multitude), and Y the form (the arrangement of those items). X is the primary active force in the Game; his goal is to aid Y in plotting the line, to delimit precise areas of Y's taste, but also to foil him, to make him think, to challenge him with new connections and contrasts. X sets up oppositions, and Y demolishes them. Ultimately, as it can go on indefinitely, the game is to be construed as a continuous activity, open-ended and poetic, jovial and desperate also, a struggle with the bacterial growth of useless existents.

01 March, 2006


"But I have worked it, worked it out," I once heard a lass of twenty continually repeating. "If I read all the books I am supposed to read I shall be 187 years old before I. . . 187. . ." The rest of the sentence was broken.

[Footnote: "And what about Bandello?" I actually replied, with a grim smile, because we must suppose she was supposed to read the Italian Sources and the Sources of the Sources too.]
This passage, from Stephen Potter's classic One-Upmanship (1952), demonstrates the rich possibilities of academia as game-playing. Potter illuminates many specialised aspects of academic one-upmanship, including gobbetship, the judicious employment of quotations real or imaginary at appropriate times, and well-readship, or how to know a book without really reading it. Compare this, from Martin West's textbook, Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique:
I had by then read the greater part of Aristophanes, and I began to rave about it to [Friedrich] Leo, and to wax eloquent on the magic of this poetry, the beauty of the choral odes, and so on and so forth. Leo let me have my say, perhaps ten minutes in all, without showing any sign of disapproval or impatience. When I was finished, he asked: "In which edition do you read Aristophanes?" I thought: has he not been listening? What has his question got to do with what I have been telling him? After a moment's ruffled hesitation I answered: "The Teubner". Leo: "Oh, you read Aristophanes without a critical apparatus." He said it quite calmly, without any sharpness, without a whiff of sarcasm, just sincerely taken aback that it was possible for a tolerably intelligent young man to do such a thing. I looked at the lawn nearby and had a single, overwhelming sensation: νυν μοι χάνοι ευρεια χθων. Later it seemed to me that in that moment I had understood the meaning of real scholarship.
I trust the reader to understand that translating the Greek here would fundamentally violate the spirit of this post. Speaking is a young Eduard Fraenkel, a great classicist of the early twentieth century, notorious for writing a two-part review of the 'Harvard Servius' so monumentally scathing that the new edition promptly ceased production halfway through. In the present passage, Fraenkel himself has just been one-upped beautifully. See, these old folks knew the essential comedy of their situation: it was a battle of wills against wonts fiercer and funnier than any clash of spears or swords.

And the game and the battle are curiously close. Huizinga makes some suggestive comments in his fashionable history of play, Homo Ludens (1939-44), comparing the two ritual situations; he mentions diverse phenomena, from the mortal jouissance of Abner and Joab (II Samuel 2.14) to duels and challenge-exchanges among First World War airmen. We recall the soccer of boche and tommy in the Christmas trenches, too.

Precious little real violence in the journals today, alas; in a recent issue of Romance Notes, Marchand and Baldwin complain like total wimps of scholarly malfeasance by a rival philologist, Yakov Malkiel, who mocked their gaucherie. In contrast, Arthur Kennedy observes (in Hardin Craig, ed. Stanford Studies in Language and Literature) that among the Victorians, academic philology was a byword for vicious, undignified argument, red in tooth and claw—Oxbridge Anglo-Saxonists, Whig scholars infatuated with Continental linguistics, the fight for the inchoate OED, the specter of Webster's reformed spelling, the Queen's English vs. English wot is spoke, and the blood feud between Max Müller and William Dwight Whitney over Sanskrit and linguistic metaphor—these people still had a spark in their pens and hearts. No longer. There's not enough at stake!

So battle has died down, and so has the game. That word, game, meant the coming together of men (ga-, together + man), and to play was to pledge, to invest oneself in a situation; no wonder the mid-century socialist avant-garde became so enamoured of the idea, from Huizinga's study to the Surrealist 'exquisite corpse' to Bakhtin's 'carnivalesque' to Derrida's 'free play with signs' to Wittgenstein's language-games to Hesse's Glass Bead Game (1931-45). For these writers, the notion of play was a means to transcend political, social, linguistic tyranny, an escape from the dictatorship of Enlightenment Reason, where each man remains an island. Our humanists are no longer so invested in their situation, I think. It is now de rigueur to praise a scholar's erudition and generosity of wisdom; but without the smart snide correctives of play and battle, without the threat of being one-upped, without the contest, that joyous and accepting refusal which might align the academic enterprise with the heroism of engaged life, such erudition amounts to very little.