Archive for December 2011

2011 in review

December 31, 2011

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 95,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Great Sentences: Daniel Deronda edition

December 30, 2011

Blogger’s note: What follows is some 1,200 words on writing and reading.  It’s part of a temporary redirection of my efforts more generally.  I’ve got a month to get out the door a book proposal that’s been languishing for laughably too long.  So I’m going to be doing my damndest to avoid all provocation from the usual suspects — I’m looking at you, Ms. MM, Mr. Brooks, Douthat, et too many al.  Instead I’ll be spending the next several weeks reading and writing in and around the eighteenth century, and as I find choice tidbits there, (and, as there is nothing new under the sun, I will) I shall be sure to share them with you.

_________________

Too many years ago to count, when I was just starting to think like a writer (instead of thinking of myself as a “writer”), I started to keep a notebook of other people’s sentences.

I remember the first one I listed, because it still seems to me to be as great an opening line as any in the English language. That would be the one Edward Gibbon used to launch The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:* 

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.

O! That Augustan grandeur.  The balance of its clauses. Gibbon’s music, too.  Speak the line as you read it:  it rings.

And, of course, the sense of it, all the enormous structural potential energy bound up in the first words of a story of decline.  Gibbon leads us into his story at the point of the action, Rome in unquestioned glory.  Bam!  Like that, one sentence in, you know where we go from here.

That’s writing.

I lost that notebook, decades, homes, loved ones ago.  I’ve written a fair amount since, and I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years — or rather, that I learned to read myself more carefully, and bury more of the dross before it makes me wince in public.  (Blogging works against that training, as it happens; speed is not my friend.)  And most of all, the crab pincers of everyday existence have hacked my reading time — and much of my writing life — to shreds.

But in the last month or so, from somewhere (I think I know where, actually, and I’ll write about that in one of these posts soon enough) I’ve regained something of the habit of reading like a writer.  That is, once again, every day I carve  out time to read something really good — and not necessarily words associated with anything I’m working on or teaching.  And I’m watching as I go, picking up what the author is doing, what makes the engine go of whatever it is I’ve got in front of me.

When I do I look at lots of things.  Structure most of all, for reasons that I think are obvious.  (Basically:  the task of the writer is to make his or her readers feel compelled to go on as they come to  he end of  each paragraph/section/chapter —  up until they reach an ending arrives that is both satisfying and persuasively entailed by what has passed before. You get there through well-worked out structure.)

Then there’s language, down to the level of word choice, and things like qualities of description, use of metaphor and on and on — all the stuff that, properly stolen from others, can make me a better writer.

But while I’m doing all of that — think of it as the scales and chords I need to practice to maintain my chops as a writer — it’s always the exemplary sentences that leap out at me, that stop those worthy runs through all the sharps and flats.  Sentences are what writers make.  We use them to do all kinds of other things, but at bottom, our job is to assemble words into those essential, elemental units of meaning.  And when they’re beautiful, when they signify, the really good ones teach me so much.

As, for example, this one, the first I pulled out of the mix in this recent return to good writerly habits:

She was bending and speaking English to a middle-aged lady seated at play beside her:  but the next instant she returned to her play and showed the full height of a graceful figure, with a face which might possibly be looked at without admiration, but could hardly be passed with indifference.”

That’s from the first page or two of George Eliot’s “Jewish novel” — Daniel Deronda.** 

 

So what first caught my eye/ear there?  That would be the way Eliot managed to construct a physical space out of words — and then impose both design and motion upon it.  Gwendolen Harleth (to whom we’ve not yet been properly introduced), is “bending”…and then, in an instant returns both to her roulette game and to erect posture, “the full height of a graceful figure.”  That’s a delineation of three-dimensional space written by someone who’s looked at a lot of painting.  It presents a tableau (Gwendolen bending and speaking to a sitting player beside her…

and then it animates that set piece in a way that completes the visual description through motion:  Gwendolen returns to the game, and through that gesture reveals her carriage, her figure and her complicated beauty.  In writing classes we talk all the time about that old (true) cliché, the need to show rather than tell.  This is what it looks like, accomplished by one of the greats.

Next, I noticed  all the character-work this little string of words manages to do.  We know on meeting Gwendolen that she’s a gamester (as Jane Austen might have put it) — not just a watcher of the game, but someone enmeshed in the social web of the play, talking to her anonymous tribal kin within the temporary and artificial village about the tables.  Then we get that last piece of not-quite description:  a face that we are compelled to imagine, knowing only that it could be lovely — and that it is marked by some quality that arrests attention, and perhaps desire.

That is:  Eliot here invites the reader to enter into the space of her novel.  We must, constrained by only the merest touch of the author’s authority, construct Gwendolyn’s image.  Eliot does not restrict what we may imagine. All she tells us is that as we read, the woman in our head must hold both our attention and an ambivalence of judgment.  We know from the start that she is flawed, and likely a danger — to herself, probably, as well as others.  She may earn sympathy as well as curiosity; but we will have to read on to find out.

One damn sentence!

Maybe I’m overdoing it here.  Certainly, I’ve read the novel before (though, as noted, very long ago), and I know something of what to expect from and for Miss Harleth.  But as I opened up the book again just a few days ago, I tell you, this line stopped me in my tracks.  The use of just the suggestion of visual representation to orient us to scene, character and  plot is the work of a virtuosos.  Add to that the marvelously tricky way Eliot co-opts the reader into participating in the moment, and you have a writer’s master class in just fifty-two words.

It’s at moments like these that I truly love my craft, not to mention the company it lets me keep — even if all I can do, as here, is hold that master’s coat.

(Oh, and I suppose if you’ve labored this far, you’ve earned an open thread.  Have at it.)

*Properly, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” But I’ve always known it in the other way, so there it is.

**I picked up Daniel Deronda, after a lapse of decades since last I read it stimulated by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blogging on perhaps my favorite novel of all time, Eliot’s MiddlemarchTNC is doing much the same thing I am here, only in greater depth, and engaged with more of the book and Eliot’s technique.

Images: Annibale Caracci, Two Children Teasing a Cat, c. 1590

Caravaggio, The Card Sharps, 1594

An Important Birthday Today, I Hear…

December 25, 2011

…of a fatherless boy,¹ so precariously brought into this world that as his mother lay on her birthing bed, it seemed unlikely so ill-conceived a child could live.²

But he did, and as his contemporaries bore witness, he would fashion miracles in their season.  As proclaimed by one of those who spread the good news — that which in Greek we would call a gospel —  “No closer to the gods can any mortal rise.”³

I’m talking about Isaac Newton of course.*  You were thinking of someone else?

Happy Newtonmas everyone!**

(Footnotes below the jump.)

(more…)

Yes, I do know that Sully is a waste of time, but…

December 23, 2011

…it’s almost wreck-on-the-highway fascinating to watch his Ron Paul fixation play out.*

[Blogger's note: I'm posting in even greater haste than usual, as the holidays impose (enable) family time...(yippee, actually).  So apologies in advance for typos, grotesquely elongated sentences, convoluted language, and flabbiness or outright outrages of thought.  In other words, as always, what follows is worth precisely what you're paying for it.  Chappy Cholidays, all.]

Here’s the latest from today’s blogorrhea:

You need to take all of this into consideration, when assessing a candidate. It seems clear to me that Paul has associated with people with some vile views, and profited from it. At best, that is reckless negligence. At worst, it is a blind eye to real ugliness. Neither interpretation flatters Paul.

So, according to Sullivan, “at worst” Paul is guilty of a “blind eye to real ugliness.”  Uh, no. At worst, he advocates the oppression of millions of Americans, and the absolute priority of the right of the dominant group to continue to do so in the name of “liberty.”

Against that, you have to weigh his character as it has revealed itself over three presidential campaigns, his opponents (whose extremism and bigotry do not need to be ferreted out),

No.  You have to weigh his character over the course of his entire career.  I understand why Andrew wants to narrow our focus here, given his determination to defend his political crush on such a catastrophic object, but to most of us it comes as no shock that one might behave and speak differently when addressing a national audience, especially one composed of those touching naifs, boys and men who never made it past their Heinlein phases, than one does when the cameras are off and the crowd is much more in the “nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat” inner circle.

…and his argument: that domestic liberty requires a drastic re-callibration of our military-industrial complex and an end to the drug war.

And yes, what a lovely thought, and one with which I am in some sympathy.  But when weighing candidates, may I make the gentle suggestion that one pay attention not just to the grand music of their message, but the likely outcomes of what they might do when they get into power.  And hence bigotry, and an economic outlook we have plenty of hard evidence to suggest will beggar the nation and the world probably should weigh in your thinking too.  Sullivan may be too innumerate to grasp the hideous dangers of goldbuggery (though a moment’s pause to recall his hero, Winston Churchill’s entanglement with the gold standard ought to give him some pause).

Or he may simply, again, be so deeply in the hole on his Paul bet that he feels no choice but to double down.  In either case, this is a rigged argument, and I’d wager that Sullivan is a dishonest enough writer to know it.  The measure of Paul’s candidacy is not whether or not we get to blow dope on his watch; it is whether we will survive the damage and division a Paul administration would leave behind it.

Voting is not some kind of purist abstraction. Every candidate is flawed. The moment and the argument matter. Viewing it all together, I would not have a problem supporting Paul if I were caucusing in Iowa. And I think a victory will help enormously in reorienting the GOP away from its dangerous foreign policy belligerence.

Charitably, you can read this as a tactical argument. Sully would support Paul in Iowa, but (perhaps) not elsewhere, to shock the GOP into its senses.  If so, it seems to me that this is surpassingly obtuse, even for a writer who continually argues that actual political actors who call themselves conservatives  aren’t really “conservative” because their actions do not conform to Sullivan’s immaculate conceptions.  Paul could, and may very well win Iowa.  Does anyone with the cognitive abilities of a radish** really think that such a victory will cause the Romney or the not-Romney juggernaut to swerve an iota?  And if you read this without thumbing the scale, then you have to ask yourself if “supporting” Paul means assenting to the whole package.  And if it does, see above.

As a broader thought:  grandiloquent phrases like “the moment and the argument matter” are the shoddy coin of a bad argument.  If Paul’s virtues do not outlast the moment, then their value inside it is, to put it most kindly, suspect.

One final thing: libertarianism, because it is about allowing people to do things, is easily conflated with the things it allows people to do. In that sense, it is always vulnerable to being regarded as indifferent to injustice – not because it is inherently indifferent to injustice (although it may often, in practice, be), but because it puts freedom first.

This is the point at which I felt the Harvard Government Department started to investigate the procedure for calling in its degrees.  If libertarianism as Sullivan understands it (and here, apparently, subscribes to) regards the right to discriminate against African-Americans as an element of “freedom” that cannot be compromised by any consideration of, say, the freedom of African-Americans to do as they would, then, yes, it will and properly should be conflated with that which it allows people to do.  In fact, classical liberalism recognizes the fact of society, which means that there are constraints on an individuals rights that pinch at the point where the exercise of those rights impinges on those of others with whom one rubs shoulders.  The parody of liberalism that modern libertarianism enacts fails at exactly this point.  Sullivan here enters that parody, by asserting that there are these perfectly isolated and opposed concepts of Freedom and Justice.

Much of the left and a great deal of the right has no interest in putting liberty before justice. But I do not believe that that philosophical position renders one a bigot.

And, Mr. Sullivan, you are, in the particular case you are arguing, wrong.  You cannot have liberty without justice.  There.  I said it.

Bluntly, if you do not have, say, equal treatment before the law, then those sacrificed for others’ liberty invalidate the concept for all involved.  I’m going to blog about one of the most eloquent statements I’ve ever heard of this view in a day or two, but I think the basic principle is obvious — and it is grasped by anyone who gets the idea that the exercise of my property rights to dump sewage into my stretch of river does injustice, and is illiberal, by the time it reaches your run of the water.  This really isn’t hard.

Enough.  Sullivan is not, or has ceased to be, anything like a thinker.  This is just reflex, and a child’s approach to argument.  Liberty good! Justice inconvenient!  It would be merely sad, if this author weren’t so widely read.  Over time, however, this kind of nonsense may remedy that unfortunate circumstance.

*Or rather his quite Cheney-esque commitment to never, ever, admitting he might be wrong here.

**With a holiday tip of the hat to that great man, Peter Medawar.

Image:  El Greco, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1570-1576

You Just Can’t Make This Racist Sh*t Up: Fox News Owes Everybody a Great Big Honking Act of Contrition

December 23, 2011

Via TPM, and courtesy (sic!) of  rightist media flack Brent Bozell and Fox News, this gem:

“How long do you think Sean Hannity’s show would last if four times in one sentence, he made a comment about, say, the President of the United States, and said that he looked like a skinny, ghetto crackhead?” Bozell wondered. “Which, by the way, you might want to say that Barack Obama does.”

You also might want to suck down a Clorox shooter, with a Sterno chaser at its back.  The choice to do so would be less stupid.

Bozell might say he was provoked by Chris Matthews’ claim that everyone’s favorite amphibian gum disease “looks like a car bomber.”  Which is, in fact, a stupid thing to say on many levels, but does at least bear some connection to the very broadly shared view of the Newtster as a bomb thrower.  (See e.g. Bush I, and, by pretty direct implication, everyone’s favorite cyborg, Mitt Romney.)

But Bozell, were he to press such a “both sides do it” bit of weak sauce, would, of course, be (deliberately?) missing the real difference here.  Calling Gingrich a man of violence assigns to him a specific crime.  He has agency, individual choice, responsibility.  Dude blows sh%t up.

Describing the President of the United States as a “ghetto crackhead”* falls into different order of rhetorical abuse.  Bozell is saying that the President of the United States is defined by qualities, more or less immutable aspects of self and personality.  “Ghetto crackheads” are (if one were to channel the disastrous Brooks) lost to the culture of their desolate place, and have abandoned agency to their drug.  Such a person is inherently lesser than the non-addict, the non-cultural-determined poor.  Morally, intellectually, there’s no way anyone matching the image in Bozell’s oddly torqued frontal lobes — all that skinny (black, black, blackity black) ghettoness with a monkey on its back — could possibly rise to the fully human capacity for thought and action that a properly brought up (white, white, whiter-than-white male) bomb thrower automatically acquires.

Which is to say that Bozell is a racist f**k not even trying to use the dog whistle anymore.  He’s just flat out calling the President of the United States a drug-fiend slimeball (and did I mention, a black — oh no…please excuse me…a “ghetto” one?). He’s the kind of person a civilized society shuns; that he has such a bold megaphone tells you a great deal, not just about him, but about those who enable (endorse) the dissemination of those views.

Which is to say, if Fox News wants this as their brand, let’s make sure we don’t let them forget it.

Oh — and Main Stream Media:  would you please, pretty please, sugar on top do me a favor?

Could you just this once ask each of the major GOP candidates whether they condemn these remarks, and the network broadcasting them?  You could even ask if they think Fox owes Obama (and America) an apology.

Kthnxbai

*I’ll give him the skinny, I guess.

Image: Canadian War Bonds poster,  “Je fabrique des bombes et j’achète des obligations – Achetez des obligations de la victoire.” (English:  I’m making bombs and I’m buying bonds. Buy Victory Bonds!” before 1945.

 

Time for the Seasonal Stylings of America’s Favorite Singing Statistician, Wouldn’t You Say?

December 20, 2011

From the vocal chords of one Professor T. Lehrer, this celebration of Chanukah.  (Embedding is disabled, but you can cross that link for an…interesting aesthetic experience.)

And, just to provide some more direct stimulus — here’s an old favorite that popped up on my radio this morning.  Nothing seasonal about it, but still, a good time will be had by all:

What would you want an archaeologist 5,000 years from now to find all tangled up in your bony hands?

Sex vs. Money: Sex Makes The Front Page; Money Counts.

December 20, 2011

So another Republican “family values” stalwart turns up gay as a goose. (h/t yuriwho at GOS)

My first reaction was that the seemingly endless GOP of sexual-bigotry-fail is becoming regular enough to resemble how I remember the what the DJ back home in the Bay Area  said about the weather for six months at a time:  “Coastal fog, extending inland night and morning, clearing by midday.”*  And then the announcer would continue,  “Oh, and you can tell its spring:  Mr. and Mr. Joe and James Doe called in this A.M. to report the first sighting of a Republican politician up in the Castro in full seasonal plumage:  chaps, suspenders and not much else.”

OK — I made that last part up, but you get the idea.

Which is to say that I’ve almost completely stopped paying attention to GOP “family values” guys’ same-sex stumbles.  Mayor Greg Davis (R) of Southaven, Miss is certainly in a heap of trouble, all of it of his own making.  The hypocrisy involved is nauseating, but surplus to requirements.  The actual governance of those involved so often contains more than ample evidence of the gap between rhetoric and action that one’s outrage circuits should trip long before we get to the queston of where the parties of the second part place their genitals.

I can’t say I’m entirely immune to the joys of schadenfreude, though.  When those most determined to crush the everyday happiness of others get caught, I do chortle a bit.  It’s not kind, I know:  all sorts of folks get hurt by the toxic collision of the closet and ambitions at odds with one’s self.  But still, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t break out a malicious grin.

This latest case, though, reminds me why that’s such a treacherously easy response.  There’s a reason I don’t care about politician’s sex  lives.  It lies hidden in plain sight in this fact in the report on Mayor Davis:

Greg Davis, the Republican mayor of Southaven, Miss., is embroiled in a spending scandal after state auditors requested receipts for $170,000 (U.S.) in improper charges he made to the city.

That’s the nub of the story.  Mississippi state officials found that Davis stole a ton of money from a town of fewer than 50,000 people.

That his spending spree included “a $67 charge at a store called Priape, which bills itself as “Canada’s premiere gay lifestyle store and sex shop,”  is hardly the point.  Rather, it is that this politician used his power to rob the citizens he allegedly served.  His friends and those from whom he derived power got to share in some fine meals. (Davis is reported to be a good tipper, which I suppose is a mark in his favor, even if it was OPM that fueled his generosity.)  There was  mention of pineapple mojitos — an aesthetic error I might forgive in a friend, but not here.

And, oh yeah, one register slip for some sex toy that set him (or rather Southaven) back about .04% of the total he misappropriated.

Politicians of all parties get caught up in this sort of thievery, of course; it’s only the gay/family values thing that is distinctively a trope for the modern GOP.  But I’ll go all partisan and mean here and say that the belief that government exists not to govern, but to transfer wealth from public to private hands is clearly a GOP crusade these days.

So if simple corruption knows no party — and it doesn’t, I’ll say again — this case reminds me that the legal corruption of our politics these days does make that distinction.  Democrats are hardly blameless — not when you look at the inadequacy of the assignment of risk and loss in the banking and housing crisis, for example. But their sins are venial to the mortal ones with which the Republican party seems bent on for just one example, raising middle class taxes to preserve the tax advantages of the rich.

So, yeah, I’m still grinning about the petard explosion that has lifted the miserable Mayor Davis off the deck.  But it’s a distraction, and as such more useful to the GOP than to those fighting to reclaim even a sliver of public space from those who would rob my son of what his father enjoyed as if by right.

*I swear.  I thought the scene in L.A. Story where the Steve Martin character pre-records the weather report was, in fact, industry practice in my part of the world.  Boston, as they say, is different.

Image:  John James Audubon, American Robin c. 1832.


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