Saturday, February 26, 2005

A Fascinating Correction

A recent Slate article contained the following correction at the bottom of the page:
Correction, Feb. 25, 2005: This piece originally used the word "imprecations" incorrectly, to mean "suggestions." An imprecation is a curse. Slate regrets the error.

I've seen newspapers and publications correct misstatements of fact, but never the misstatements themselves. First time I've ever seen a published article admit to a solecism.

Good God, were I to do that, I'd have about five corrections for every post [note the proper use of the subjunctive "were" in that previous sentence...]

My Oscar Predictions

Who Gives A Fuck?

Friday, February 25, 2005

From The Onion:

"Contemporaries Remember Hunter S. Thompson As Ravenous, Mutant 40-Eyed Lizard-Demon"

Thursday, February 24, 2005

"A Road Man for the Lords of Karma"

More HST.

Many commentators from the world of politics and journalism indicated that they were surprised but not shocked that Hunter Thompson took his own life. These commentators have been joined in their sentiment by two more rather suprising sources: Juan and Jennifer Thompson, HST's son and daughter-in-law. In their interview with the Rocky Mountain News, both indicate that they knew it was a matter of time. Not that Thompson was in some sort of mental decline, but that he just wasn't the type of person who would end his life in a hospital. "There was just no question that when the time came he would choose to do it himself," said Juan Thompson. "The idea of Hunter lying in a hospital bed with tubes, gasping for breath, is so contrary to his whole life and purpose and drive."

Interesting comments, especially considering that someone wrote to Jim Romenesko's Media News website calling Thompson a coward for doing what he did with his family in such proximity (apparently HST shot himself while his family was visiting him; it was Juan Thompson who found HST dead in his study). But apparently his family feels the opposite.

In the same interview, Jennifer Thompson quotes HST: "He was a road man for the lords of karma," she told the reporter. I'd heard him utter this same sentiment a few years ago when he was on "The Charlie Rose Show" doing publicity for the movie version of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. It struck me then, and it strikes me now. "You couldn't ask him what it meant," Juan Thompson told RMN.

When asked if HST had his usual potable, Chivas Regal, at his side when he pulled the trigger, Juan Thompson simply replied "Of course he did."

Of course. What else would a road man have?

Housekeeping, Mopping Up, Admin

New template. You like? Let me know.

Came across a title in the poetry section of KramerBooks/Afterwards called New British Poetry. Browsed it, expecting it to be full of the same pretentious drivel that often occurs whenever the word "new" or "young" finds itself in the title of a collection of poems. Surprisingly, this collection, chosen by Don Paterson and Charles Simic, does a damned find job. Exposed me to the work of Simon Armitage, whom I'd never heard prior to opening this collection, but who, according to the editors, is "one of the UK's most popular poets." Easy to understand, given stuff like this:


And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night
And slippered her the one time that she lied.
And every week he tipped up half his wage.
And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.

Here's how they rated him when they looked back:
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

I'll probably be buying his collection from, since, not surprisingly, his stuff's not available here. The good stuff never is, is it? But you can walk down to Border's and get all the fucking Bukowski you want, eh?

If the title of Mike Dirda's new collection -- Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education -- seems to you just a tad too sure of itself, you really aren't familiar with Dirda. Pithy but elucidating one-offs that, even when read in the spare moment, allow you to put the book down knowing something you never knew before. Those who care about writers and writing should pick it up. The rest of you -- well, you wouldn't have read this far, would you?

In "The Hudson Review": William H. Pritchard on Anthony Powell and his critics. Not bad -- I mean, when is Pritchard ever less than a stellar and sensitive critic? Unfortunately, in this case, The Hitch already beat him to whatever interesting there was to say about Sir Anthony a few years ago.

Dan Jacobsen writes of Philip Larkin's "element" in this month's "New Criterion." A bit too scholarly, especially when the author carts out guaranteed tenture-makers like "[Larkin's poems ] do not merely arise from self-division but are explicitly *about* self-division." You can almost hear Larkin yelping "what ballocks" in the background. Still, it's worth a look.

Sorry there's no quotes or links to make my points. Tired.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson -- A Tempered Defense

Here's something I posted to DC Craigslist in response to a post attacking HST...

Was Thompson a great writer? Sure…until about 1976. It’s something he actually recognized himself. The foreword Thompson wrote to The Great Shark Hunt, published that same year, is dark and foreboding; it’s clear that Thompson sees the collection as sort of his literary tombstone, and even alludes to his potentially killing himself once the foreword is completed. Clearly he realizes he’s finished as writer, that he’s basically dining out on the mythos surrounding his personal and literary persona. And the last couple decades bore this out.

But during his prime, from the early Sixties onward, he clearly captured the zeitgeist. He’s been called a counterculture hero, and he most certainly made friends on the left in his attacks on Richard Nixon, something he did with an almost joyful exuberance. But anyone who’s read his work closely should notice that the leftist counterculture doesn’t escape his wrath either. Indeed, if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about anything, it’s about the ugly, horrid wasteland America had become after the Revolutionaries and the kids from the Summer of Love and bourgeious Middle Class America had finished kicking the shit out of each other. In fact, when liberals found themselves on the business end of a Thompson piece, they weren’t spared either. I don’t think Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey ever really recovered from the unsparing vicious assaults Thompson waged against them in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. In fact, Thompson himself confessed that he was hardly a liberal in an interview he did with PJ O’Rourke for the 25h anniversary issue of "Rolling Stone."

What I admire most about him was his personal and intellectual bravery. In writing Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, he understood what would be involved in getting this story: hanging out with the Hells Angels, and risking becoming a victim of their unprovoked and brutal assaults, some of which he witnessed at firsthand. And, as it became clear that in writing the book he would have to be honest and name names, he also must have understood that he risked a serious thumping should they eventually find him, which is precisely what they did. The attack nearly killed him, something he documents in the afterword to the book. As well, one of my favorite correspondences in all of literature, ranking right up there with the Evelyn Waugh-Nancy Mitford and Kingsley Amis-Philip Larkin correspondence, is the correspondence between Thompson and Newsweek/Washington Post owner/editor Philip Graham. Thompson, then an obscure reporter with a backwater beat as a reporter for the Brazil Herald, had the cojones to write Graham and criticize the paper’s coverage of South America in general and Brazil in particular: "Your South American 'coverage' is a silly joke, and about as nourishing as a month-old hamburger." Graham, so intrigued not only by the prose style but by the temerity of this young upstart, who was clearly risking potential employment with any Post-affiliated paper by doing this, responded personally to the Thompson. The correspondence continued until, ironically enough, Graham’s suicide a few years later.

Besides being one of the first of the New Journalists, writers who abandoned any pretence of objectivity and wrote from a clearly personal point of view, Thompson forged a prose style that was completely his. Take one of his more epigrammatic sentences and place it next to the efforts of some of his contemporaries, and you’ll instantly realize how easy it is to pick his out. Forging a signature prose style that recognizable is no mean feat in the world of letters, and he did it. Not bad for a hopelessly middle class kid from Louisville who never set foot in a university.

Hunter S. Thompson is Dead


Killed himself.

Jesus. I haven't been this inconsolable since Kingsley Amis died.


Resquiscat im Pace, HST.


Saturday, February 19, 2005

"Isn't God a Shit?"

Someone once dared Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston, to read the bible. This was apparently the first question out of his mouth after finishing it. Yes, Randolph, God is a shit.

Sorry I've been inactive. Keep this one short.

If you don't already own Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' latest double album, "Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus," get it. MOJO Mag voted it album of the year last year, with good reason. The song I keep playing over and over again is "There She Goes, My Beautiful World." I liked the song almost immediately, but was even more gratified when I came across these verses mentioning a number of great poets/writers, including -- you guessed it -- Philip Larkin:

John Willmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox
Nabakov wrote on index cards,
at a lectem, in his socks
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box
And JohnnyThunders was half alive
when he wrote Chinese Rocks

Well, me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears
Me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears
Me, I'm lying here, for what seems years
I'm just lying on my bed with nothing in my head

Send that stuff on down to me
Send that stuff on down to me
Send that stuff on down to me
Send that stuff on down to me

There she goes, my beautiful world
There she goes, my beautiful world
There she goes, my beautiful world
There she goes again

Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles
while writing Das Kapital
And Gaugin, he buggered off, man,
and went all tropical
While Philip Larkin stuck it out
in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in
St. Vincent's hospital

Good stuff, that...

Other news from MOJO? Burt Bacharach is coming out with a new album soon. Who's producing it? Dr. Dre. I'd love to see Burt revisit some of his classics Gangsta style..."Why do birds...mothafuckin' appear...every damn time yo ass is near..."

The latest issue of The American Scholar is exhibit A of everything that's gone wrong it with ever since they forced out Joseph Epstein as editor. A big banner across the front featuring an entire section on the War in Iraq. Can't I get that over at Foreign Affairs or The Public Interest or New Left Review? I remember when it used to deal with timeless literary essays. I've never regretted cancelling my subscription after the Epstein debacle.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

What's Your Specialty?

I was having a discussion with a friend recently about the American emphasis on specialization. We want -- nay, insist upon -- specialists, the more credentialed the better. Take the field of literature for
example. Americans expect its novelists -- particularly the ones we've lavished numerous awards on -- to remain novelists at the expense of anything else. Our sense is that big award-winning novelists, rather than waste their literary efforts on mere trifles, should be at home writing the great American novel, and nothing else. For instance, the last thing that our literary culture would expect -- or even want -- from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is, say, a short comic parody of a novelist she despises or a series of humorous vignettes on cooking or gardening, and were she to publish something along these lines she'd be met with critics who were either indignant that she'd abandoned her "true form" or condescending about her latest "trifle," or both; no doubt reviewers would betray their ignorance of genre by reminding readers that "it's no Beloved" (gosh, really?) and more than a few would probably end with something like "let's hope, in her next outing, Ms. Morrison returns to the form that garnered her an audience in the first place."

John Updike's another writer who has suffered, I believe from this emphasis on specialization. Updike's built a well-recognized and well-rewarded career as a novelist, though I personally find his fiction unreadable to the point of being amazed that others not only read it, but *enjoy* it. And yet: Updike is one of the most gifted essayists and sensitive critics of his generation, and has moments when he is simply without peer as a formalist poet. But: this is not, for the most part, that American audiences want. Nice, uh, "verse," Mr. Updike, but would you mind going back to writing those novels of yours?

And we don't just do this to our own writers: we end up "Americanizing" British writers as well. Most Americans think of George Orwell only as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. But without a doubt what he'll be remembered for are his imminently re-readable essays and journalism. Yet try pointing that out to your average undergrad."Orwell? Didn't he write that farm book I read in high school?"

British literary culture, on the other hand, is much different. Not only do they not mind amateur forays into fields that Americans would only allow professionals into, they seem to possess a cultural insistence upon it. Were you to go to your local public library and ask to see a dictionary on music, you would immediately be directed to Grove's multi-volume Dictionary of Music, kind of like the OED of the music world in that it is *the* music reference work. But its compiler, George Grove, lacked formal musical training; instead, he was an engineer/architect and spent the first part of his life designing and building bridges. H.M.W. Fowler, author of the ur-text of English usage, Fowler's Modern English Usage didn't hold a degree in English; he was simply someone passionate about the how "the King's English" was used. Sometimes passion is all it takes.

Alan Bennett is another contemporary example. Bennett first gained fame as a member of Beyond the Fringe, the review that he co-wrote and acted in along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, which, when it debuted in London in the late '50s, became a watershed event in the history of British humor (Monty Python's Flying Circus would have been unthinkable without it). Peter Cook and Dudley Moore took the usual paths out of a successful comic play: Moore of course gained fame in Hollywood, while Peter Cook went on to become the funniest human being who ever lived. Miller's path towards comic fame is also worth noting for its lack of specialization: what did he study at Cambridge? Medicine. He's since become one of the most successful producers in British theater. Since Beyond the Fringe, Bennett has written novels and screenplays; book, television, theatrical and movie reviews; acted and directed; and wrote a monthly column in which he was invited to hold forth on whatever grabbed his fancy. Indeed, his lengthy essay on the poet Philip Larkin is more elucidating and entertaining that 90% of the academic essays that have spilled forth on Larkin since his death.

There are a number of other examples: Kingsley Amis began his career as a novelist, and managed to maintain it while producing two collections of poetry and two collections of essays and reviews; he also edited two poetry anthologies (to include the New Oxford Book of Light Verse), worked in genre fiction (a spy novel, a horror novel, and a science fiction novel); wrote the very first critical survey of Science Fiction as a genre, as well one of the most fantastic pieces of criticism ever produced on -- you guessed it -- the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, The James Bond Dossier ("Is he in hell or is he in heaven, that damned elusive 007?").

It's worth lamenting that an analagous literary culture, tragically, doesn't exist over here. We'd all be much the better for it.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Better Living Through Chemistry

A friend recently forwarded me a copy of Rudyard Kipling's "If...", one of the most popular poems ever written. This poem brought back memories for me. It was the very first poem I ever remember being compelled -- as a lesson in school -- to memorize. But, interestingly enough, it wasn't an English teacher who first forced me to memorize a poem, but -- wait for it -- a chemistry teacher.

In addition to drilling us on atomic weights and balancing equations and computing molality, my chemistry teacher was also rather big on "life lessons." Among the things I had to do to pass his class was tie a tie, fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket (this was Indiana, remember) and recite "If..." by Rudyard Kipling.

Of course, most of us groaned and whined under the pressure of memorizing poetry -- what was the point? -- and put if off until the last minute. I was no different, and barely remember my stammering rendition of it when it came my turn to recite it.

But, along with my own secret (at the time) discovery of T.S. Eliot, forcibly exposing me to the highly cadenced rhythms of Kipling's verse at least provided me a damned fine model of what poetry is supposed to look and sound like. Not that I'm against "free verse" (as if so called vers libre is ever actually "free" of rhythm or meter), but borrowing the neatly arranged words and hearing those rhymes brought a visceral pleasure. Why does Shakespeare survive? Because as any classically trained actor can tell you, it's fun to recite his stuff. It's why they seem so affected when they say it -- they *are* affected, literally entranced by his language and, more importantly, by the sensual pleasure of saying his words. This pleasure is analagous to the sensual pleasure that accompanies singing along to a popular song or chanting the lyrics to a rap song; why people don't get that is beyond me. It should come as no surprise to anyone that poets were at one time treated the way rock stars are treated today -- and that poets obliged by acting like rock stars: drinking and fucking with abandon.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Susan Sontag is Dead

A few years ago, back when the show "Politically Incorrect" was still on TV during its only watchable phase -- when it was on Comedy Central -- Susan Sontag helped me win a contest. Kind of.

I frequently contributed to an online stand-up comedy newsgroup, and one time the moderator held an informal contest: name your "Politically Incorrect" Dream Panel. I won the contest with this offering:

Rain Man
Sling Blade
Little Richard
Susan Sontag

Compelling television, I thought at the time.

Susan Sontag died yesterday. She was probably the last of what's got to be a (pardon the pun) dying breed -- the "public intellectual," someone willing to hold forth on the topics and ideas of the day. That she was intellectually fearless is something widely documented; only a few short years ago she was suggesting publicly that the 9-11 attackers were many things, but "not cowards," a statement that outraged many people still reeling from the effects of those attacks as well as some right wing critics. But she attacked the left, too; her own intellectual honesty wouldn't allow her to continue to defend Communism long after it had become indefensible. Henry Allen's love letter to her in today's Wash Post quotes her famous speech in which she broke with many on the left:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
They were. Of course, my favorite Sontag quote is her witty and pithy description of Communism as "Fascism with a human face." Indeed.

I had been meaning to write about this for some time, but I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention Craig Seligman's fantastic book on both Sontag and Pauline Kael, entitled (appropriately enough) Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me. Reading this prompted me to immediately go revisit Sontag's Notes on Camp and Illness as Metaphor, stuff I hadn't looked at since grad school, as well as seek out the now tragically out-of-print collection of Kael's stuff, For Keeps (BTW: why didn't the publisher of the collection rush out a new version when it became apparent that Sontag and Kael was doing well? The success of Seligman's book virtually guaranteed renewed interest in Kael's stuff, and sales could have piggy-backed off it; don't capitalists run publishing companies any more?). I've written about my own critical influences on this board -- see the entry on Paul Fussell below -- and it's nice to see another critic who understands that to be a good critic means taking critics and criticism seriously and understanding that without it the medium dies. No art survives without criticism. Taking Seligman's cue, my contrasting of opposites would be called Fussell and Eliot: Opposites Attract Me.

Got a number of posts in the well that I'll try to get through. Hope your holidays were more enjoyable than mine.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Poetry and the Age: Sir John Betjeman

In the mid-Eighties I was living in England, and one time, in a pub in Stratford, I won a pound note by being able to name the then current Poet Laureate of England: Ted Hughes. For those of you who don’t know, he was, at the time of her suicide, Sylvia Plath’s husband, and to this day there are people (American feminists, no doubt) who visit her grave in England only to desecrate it by scratching out the “Hughes” in the “Sylvia Plath Hughes” on her tombstone (of course, they’re doing it because they think he drove her to suicide, when, in fact, they should be doing it because he was such a patently bad poet.)

Much later in life did I come to appreciate the poetry of the man Hughes “replaced” (if one can do such a thing). His name was John Betjeman (pronounced “Betch-a-men”) and, at the time of his death in 1984, must have been considered quite an anomaly. First of all, he not only wrote poetry that rhymed and scanned, but he may have possessed one of the finest lyric ears of any poet who ever wrote in English. I’ve read and reread his poetry (perhaps the only compliment available to a poet) and if he ever scribbled a bad rhythm or rendered a line a foot longer than necessary, I haven’t come across it. Second, at a time when poets believed that poetry’s job was to remain as obscure and incomprehensible as possible – rendering readers into the rather cryptic categories of those who “get it” and those who don’t (with those “getting it” generally being academics whose job it was to set up cottage industries inside American universities with the sole purpose of “explaining” it to the undergrads) – Betjeman’s verse was, well, easy – and fun – to read. Clear, concise, comprehensible, Betjeman wrote poetry that actually communicated an experience to readers in terms that allowed to experience it themselves, as well as take pleasure – sheer, sensual pleasure – in the unique and metrical way that English poetry arranged itself. It is no doubt because of the anomalies I list above that no one in the U.S. has heard of him. His assumptions about poetry – that it has nothing whatsoever to do with “self-expression”; that it isn’t a private function of some poet attempting to work in what Philip Larkin called “teased out obscurities”; that poetry is quite public, something that belongs to all of us – are foreign to the American mind. It’s sad, really, that Americans grow up believing poetry to be one thing, only to arrive in colleges and universities to be taught by arid, lifeless academics that it’s something different altogether. Sad, still is that Americans believe these charlatans, and don’t call then out out for the canting, hypocritical wheedling phonies they no doubt are.

I bring this up because the Times Literary Supplement recently ran a review of a new bio of Betjeman. Clocking in at 750 pages, it seems a rather large tome for someone who, throughout his life, remained so humble about his verse (and about the great men and women of the 20th century who sought him out because of it). His life also belied what we now understand the public person of a poet to be: sullen, lost in thought, aetherial, out of touch with the public eye, hesitant to be a part of it. Betjeman, on the other hand, was a public man, always entertaining (at one time it seemed impossible to avoid catching him on the Beeb) by all accounts fun to be around (indeed, every single photo I’ve ever seen of him seems to have caught him in mid-laughter, as if a pub mate had just finished telling him a raucously and lecherously funny joke). We’d do well to have poets like him around, though the literary culture we’ve provided for ourselves just won’t do with the likes of him. Sad, indeed.

One incident from the Betjeman bio bears repeating here. Betjeman visited his biographer in Soho, and noticed a foundation stone engraved “Laid by the Poet Laureate.” “Every nice girl’s ambition,” Betjeman added, twinkle in his eye. Hear, hear.

Here’s a sample of Betjeman, one of my favorites, entitled “A Subaltern’s Love Song”:

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament - you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father's euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o'clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light's in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing's the light on your hair.

By roads "not adopted", by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Trying, Trying, Trying...

I know, I's been a while. Sue me.

Cannot praise enough Robert Conquest's latest article in this month's New Criterion. Basically his "Apology for Poetry" and his "Function of Criticism at the Present Time" rolled into one. This portion, in which he discusses form in poetry, is one of my favorite sections (and, no, not just because he quotes Kingsley Amis):

Much has been published over the past decade or two that has something of the appearance of form, but relaxed, or dissolved, to the degree that it is really no more than an overextended type of free verse. We have indeed noted that this can also be said of verse reaching us from the other pole of arid academicism. There are, of course, many people on all sides who are in one way or another interested in poetry but not for poetical reasons.

Kingsley Amis once wrote me, “The trouble with chaps like that is that they have no taste—I don’t mean bad taste, just the mental organ that makes you say This is bloody good or This is piss is simply missing, and they have to orientate themselves by things like ‘importance’ and ‘seriousness’ and ‘depth’ and ‘originality’ and ‘consensus’ (= ‘trend’).”

Even if its proponents did not say that all obscurity is profound—and some came near to saying that—they certainly implied that all profundity is obscure. But a muddy puddle may pretend to any depth; a clear pool cannot. Coleridge writes somewhere that he read one of Dante’s shorter poems every year for ten years, always finding more in it. This did not mean that it lacked comprehensibility at first reading, merely that in this comprehensibility there were resonances that did not immediately declare themselves.

Here's the link.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Castro Falls

That was what the headline on one website read. I clicked on the link, hoping to read that the warden of the Western Hemisphere's largest prison camp had finally been overthrown. But no, the sonofabitch had only fallen and broken his knee. They shoot horses, don't they?

Oh, well. Have to suffice with Anthony Daniels's pasting of the cult of personality surrounding Che, in The New Criterion. Here's a sample:

...if we analyze Guevara’s popular appeal more than a third of a century after his timely death, we can see that it is the result of aesthetic and emotional responses rather than rational reflection, responses that are now kept alive by a good dose of commercialism. On one website dedicated to his memory, for example (, I found twenty-seven different varieties of Guevara T-shirts for sale, including a distressed olive-green one, one with reflective ink, a black one with glitter, and a black one with red glow. New berets were also available, the site announced with an exclamation mark, as if we had all been anxiously waiting for them, as well as baseball and trucker hats, bandannas, keyrings, Zippo lighters, desk clocks, and brooches. In short, Guevara is not so much an historical figure as a tourist destination. And most tourists don’t read too deeply into the history of the places they are going to.

The Original NeoCon is Dead

Paul Nitze, who is one of two men most personally responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union (George F. Kennan is the other), is dead.

He entered the world early in the 20th century, and watched in horror as Totalitarian Socialism nearly rendered it horrificly inhumane and uninhabitable. He left it, however, a much safer place, as his Washington Post obit makes clear. RIP.

A (Relatively Obscure) Personal Digression...

An Eagles lyric:

There's talk on the street, it's there to remind you...
It doesn't really matter which side you're on.
You're walkin' away and they're talkin' behind you:
They will never forget you 'til somebody new comes along.

Where you been lately? There's a new kid in town.
Everybody loves him (don't they?)
. . . . and you're still around...

There's a new kid in town...
Just another new kid in town...

Ooh-Hoo, everybody's talkin' 'bout the new kid in town
Ooh-Hoo, everybody's walkin' (like the new kid in town)

There's a new kid in town (I don't wanna hear it)...
There's a new kid in town (I don't wanna hear it)...
There's a new kid in town (I don't wanna hear it)...
There's a new kid in town (I don't wanna hear it)...
There's a new kid in town (I don't wanna hear it)...[to fade]
Don't know why this song has been on some sort of synaptical tape loop inside my head, but it has...

Friday, October 22, 2004

Anthony Hecht is Dead

One of the most gifted poets and critics of the 20th century. Here's Michael Dirda's moving reminiscence, from today's Washington Post. And here's a sample of Hecht's verse, one of my personal favorites.

The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, "Try to be true to me,
And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc."
Well now, I knew this girl. It's true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn't judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She's really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it's a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d'Amour.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Dead Derrida Redux

A reader sent me the following, from the website Scrappleface...damned funny (thanks, KA):

Father of Deconstructionism Dies, If 'Death' Means Anything

French President Jacques Chirac announced today that Jacques Derrida, the father of the intellectual movement called deconstructionism, died yesterday of pancreatic cancer, "if indeed 'death' can be said to mean anything beyond the biases of culture, language, religion and philosophy."

"Of course, we can't assert anything positively about Monsieur Derrida's recent failure to exist," said Mr. Chirac, "We can't even state that he ever did exist, since he may have been a mere metaphysical projection of our own prejudices against absolutes. However, in as much as we may categorically claim anything--Mr. Derrida will not likely be showing up for work tomorrow. Although, who is to say?"

Mr. Derrida's many books and teachings spawned legions of American college professors whose stock-in-trade is to "deconstruct" literature and philosophy in order to demonstrate that, for example, the so-called classics of Western literature are so distorted by their authors' cultural prejudices as to render them useful only for literary deconstruction.

"Monsieur Derrida bequeathed a magnificent legacy to the global intellectual community," said Mr. Chirac. "He has provided us all with the intellectual infrastructure to prevent us from seeking after truth. Thanks to him we know it is fruitless to assert anything with conviction, or to say that any ideology is less true than any other. They are all equally trifling. Their value, if any, lies only in the sport they provide for college professors."

In lieu of flowers, friends of Mr. Derrida are urged to devote their lives to convincing at least one young person that there is nothing to which it is worth devoting one's life."

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Scooping The Onion

Compare the headline from The Onion's most prominent story this week -- "Irrelevant Pop Stars Unite Against Bush" -- with the first post from the August 5th edition of The Bloody Crossroads (scroll down to see).

We at TBC patiently await our Pulitzer...

Jacques Derrida is Dead... which the only decent, civilized response is: thank God. Here's his New York Times obit, which, according to Derrida's own philosophy, is so inherently full of its own contradictions that reading it may lead you to believe he's actually still alive. Good luck with that.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Stop the Presses!

Only a few minutes after my post below did I discover that this year’s Nobel laureate is Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek. Here are perhaps the most significant sentences from the NY Times’ lengthy story on her award:
In other ways, Ms. Jelinek fits a more familiar pattern…The academy has also again shown a preference for literature with a political echo….Ms. Jelinek has used her literary work as a form of political engagement.
Well, of course she’s used her literary work as “a form of political engagement.” Art has no other purpose, does it? It’s nothing if it isn’t being used to further some political goal, right? I mean, the Soviets put us right on that, didn’t they? And what, precisely, was the nature of Ms. Jelinik’s “political engagement?” According to the Times, “In 1974, she joined the Austrian Communist Party and remained a member until 1991.” Are you at all surprised? “A more familiar pattern,” indeed. And notice those dates…she was a party member at precisely the time that some of the totalitarian socialist dictators I mention below were liquidating their own populations. In fact, she joined the party the very year that Solzynitzen won the Nobel Prize for providing detailed information about the numerous horrors that Communist regimes were capable of. Props to the Nobel laureate committee: no better reflection of its “peaceful goals” than to award the laureate to someone who was a CP member during the 20th century. Good show, boys: almost as wise and informed a choice as your decision to give the Nobel Peace prize to Arafat.

Marxism is the Theory, Totalitarianism the Practice…

If the last century proved anything, it proved that correct. One question I’ve often asked but have never seen the answer to: why is it that the leaders in the last century who knew the most about Marx were the very same ones who butchered their own people in such incredibly unprecedented numbers? According to The Black Book of Communism (published not by Regnery but by Harvard University Press), in the 20th century Communist regimes were responsible for approximately 80 to 100 million deaths. What do Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Castro all have in common except that they were experts in Marxism? Not much else, actually (well, unless you’re counting the stacks of human corpses they created).

Another thing that rarely gets discussed: the people who ended up getting butchered and slaughtered were often the very same people that Marxists condescendingly claimed to be speaking for -- peasants, the working classes. The 25 million Zeks that Stalin single-handedly starved out of existence could hardly be said to have been of the privileged classes. Want more irony? Most of the proponents of Marxism and revolution throughout the last century came from the privileged classes. Where did Pol Pot learn about Marxism? In the salons of Paris, where, as one of a very few privileged Cambodians of his generation, he went for his education. Of course, you have to be an elitist to believe, as he did, that one of out seven of his countrymen should die so that he could realize his dream of a purely agrarian Socialism, the killing fields being what remained of his attempt to out-Mao Mao.

Why am I turning this crank? Because once again there’s another piece of hagiography where revolutionary/communist figures are concerned: The Motorcycle Diaries, the movie based on Che’s Guevara’s book about his youthful wanderings in South America, was just released. It’s gotten a pass by almost every reviewer. But should it? Writing of The Motorcycle Diariesin Slate recently, Paul Berman puts us right on Che. Here’s his opening salvo:
The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims.
Read the rest of Berman's brilliant takedown here...

Monday, September 27, 2004

Hell, Redux...

"Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven..." This seems to be one of the favorite Milton quotes of quite a number of people. This one, too: ""The mind is its own place, and it itself can make heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven." Both are from Paradise Lost.

Most people don’t know that. And, since they don’t know that, they also don’t know that Milton puts these words in the mouth of Satan, which prompts me to wonder why so many people have them at the ready to explain themselves. Curiously, I found one version of this quote on a website called "Daily Celebrations," which seems to be operating under the delusion that somehow Milton's poem "celebrated the absolute freedom of the individual and the invincibility of the mind and spirit." Such illiterate, invincible ignorance is difficult to comprehend. But to read Paradise Lost closely is to discover that it's not about these things at all (the poem is more accurately about their opposites); as well, to read it is to discover what mendacious bullshit these two popular platitudes are: it’s the same crap that got Satan tossed out of heaven on his ass in the first place. As the rest of the poem makes clear, Satan finds it impossible to make a hell of a heaven and heaven of a hell. And he's so clearly dissatisfied with reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven. The very first thing Satan does after saying it’s better to rule in Hell is leave it; he heads straight to earth with the obvious intention of fucking that up, too. In fact, if Satan as a literary character actually believed what he said, there wouldn't be any need for the rest of the poem: he wants it all, all the glory, all the power, everything, which is why he heads to earth to make it his. He seeks God-like perfection, but ends up only destroying -- kind of like, say, Totalitarian Socialism in the 20th century. I often wonder if people fond of echoing Satan’s words actually understood the context in which he utters them, and can detect the degree of insincerity attached to it. And I often wonder if people actually believe that they can, by sheer force of will, make a heaven of a hell and hell of a heaven…as if people in gulags and concentration camps in the last century suffered merely because of an improper attitude. Things were great there…if only they had simply stopped and smelled the roses, eh?

"Hell is Other People"

...My friend Dave Rockwell's latest post confirms yet again that, despite being wrong about many things, Sartre was right about that.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Back and Blogging

Love Woodley Park. Hate Woodley parking.

I was rereading a Kingsley Amis novel recently, Jake's Thing. Protagonist is Jake Richardson, a guy in his mid-fifties, who, at the beginning of the novel, is having, er, difficulties in the sack, your classic erectile dysfunction problems. Novel is set in the late ‘70s, so the problem is quite obviously psychological and nothing else. So the quite obvious answer is therapy: we follow Jake as he's led through the unsuccessful therapy, which he attends with his wife and a female therapist, as well as through a series of escapades and vignettes in which nearly every single woman in his life (and some who aren’t) end up blaming him for their problems. At the end of the novel, his marriage, along with a number of other relationships, has disintegrated, and we see him once again in a doctor’s office (though this time it’s a different doctor than the one who had "diagnosed" his problems at the novel's start). Turns out, Jake's new doctor tells him, his problem is purely physical, and can be treated by simply taking a few pills, which his doctor offers to prescribe. Suddenly, the narrative makes us privvy to Jake's thoughts:

He did a quick run-through of women in his mind, not of the ones he had known or dealt with in the past months or years so much as all of them: their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with a noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that, according to him.
What does he say to the prescription? “No thanks.”

Jake's Thing by Kingsley Amis. I often wonder if Amis wasn't a precursor to the "laddism" that swept Britain and metropolitan parts of the U.S. over the last couple years, an anticipatory shot fired in the early years of the sex wars. And perhaps the "chick lit" craze is a reaction to this...

The Bloody Crossroads: the place where literature and sexual politics meet, eh?

Thursday, September 09, 2004

My Last Blog As A Resident of Northern Virginia

Yep, that's right. No more blogging from the Commonwealth. Tomorrow I move to Woodley Park. What does this have to with literature and politics? I'll figure it out once I get there.

Thanks to those of you who offered to help me move, and thanks also to those of you who emailed me to make sure that I wasn't stuck, like Principal Seymour Skinner was on the episode of The Simpsons in which Bart stood trial for killing him, under a pile of newspapers and boxes.

Again, bear with me. Internet connection through Starpower, which could take some time to connect. Know anything about their customer service? Email me (sorry, no time for linking) and let me know.

I'll be back blogging soon -- and calling for a couple of senators to represent me in Congress.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Republicans Held Their Convention in NYC And All I Got Was A Lousy "Upright Citizens Brigade" T-Shirt

Survived NYC. And thanks for asking.

Turns out I'm not the only one who noticed the overwhelming police presence in NYC. Here's Michael Novack over on National Review's blog, "The Corner":
Monday a.m., I got a cab to take me as close as he could to Madison Square Garden for an early interview on Tavis Smiley’s show on PBS. Close turned out to mean outside all the barricades and roadblocks at about 31st and Fifth. Not too bad. My special pass got me through every police barrier, block by block, and there were again lines of policemen, firemen, and equipment both sides of the streets. I didn’t realize that the NY police could look as much like a massed army as it does.
Here he is again on Penn Station (remember, TBC Readers, you read it here first:
Let me describe arriving aboard an absolutely fully reserved Acela train at Penn Station Sunday at noon, security all over the train and at the Newark station and in Manhattan. Greeters and policemen all over the place in Penn Station. Squads of them in places. Heavy equipment, and a few powerful looking automatic weapons. Eager and friendly greeters and cops waved the herd of us toward a contrived 7th Ave exit (not the usual one) and then when we got to the street sent us back to the 8th Ave exit, where they said there would be cabs....I pulled three bags, beginning to puff and to sweat by halfway down the block. Hot. Muggy. 33rd Street blocked off to our side. Police all the way down. A siren and other police cars racing up 8th Avenue ahead. No taxis in sight. One taxi at the corner, about 280 patrons waving. Cop says, try walking up the Avenue, maybe 35th, 36th. (“Or,” I thought, “37th of 38th.”)

Hot. Muggy. Stop to switch hands on bags. Rearrange the top bag.

Just past 39th St. I remembered that Mother Cabrini, the first New Yorker declared a saint, is the patron saint of parking places and taxicabs. Swift prayer for help.

Taxi swings around 39th corner, out of nowhere, stops and takes us in.
It was even worse on Sunday. I was lucky enough to get a cab driver who ignored virtually all of the police directions and put me right on the corner of Penn Plaza. When my cab arrived, it was practically the only vehicle on the street, and as it pulled up about a dozen people, who seemed not to have seen a cab in hours, immediately descended upon it, money and suitcases in hand. "No more fares, no more fares," the cabbie shouted. He seemed eager to get rid of me and get out of there. Who could blame him? I don't know how he got me there without the both of us ending up in a police van alongside the anarchists who got arrested earlier in the day; the ride back looked to be even tougher going. I tipped him very well for his troubles, figuring that some of it might have to go towards bail.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Fears confirmed

Yep. The protest is happening on 7th Avenue -- right outside my door. Silly me, booking a hotel room and thinking that, by staying away from Midtown, I'd be away from the action.

Don't know how I'm going to get a taxi. Don't know if I'll even make it to Penn Station. Could be one hell of a bag-drag. Cutting short my vacation just to get home. Paid for a late checkout that I'm not even going to use.

Here's how I protested the protesters: went to Starbuck's and had a Chai Tea latte. Corporate coffee. They hate that.

On a good note: Don't know who owns or runs the St. Marks's Bookstore, on 3rd Avenue in the East Village, but they seem to have been invading my dreams. St. Mark's is is what a new-title bookstore would look like if I were running it and/or buying for it. Excellent selection in the very sections/genres that interest me. Their poetry section is the best in a new bookstore that I've ever seen. Minor quibble: no essays/belle lettres section. But hey, can't expect perfection. Plus, it's right around the corner from the St. Mark's hotel, a literary landmark, since this is where Auden lived the final years of his life, reputedly in rooms that were some of messiest most visitors had ever seen.

Sorry I'm not providing links to some of the places I've visited. On deadline. Getting ready to pack. Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Extra! Drudge-like Sirens! Republican National Convention Coverage courtesy of The Bloody Crossroads!

Well, not really. But that would be kind of cool, huh?

Sorry I haven't updated my blog in a couple weeks. My roommates and I have lost our internet connection. In fact, I probably won't have after-work-hours internet access for a couple of weeks. Moving to Woodley Park, and will have to connect there once I get settled. Bear with me.

In NYC -- not for the convention (as if I could get credentials) but rather for a much-needed vacation. Staying in Chelsea (why was Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" playing in my head as I ate my eggs at the Empire Diner?). Walked around the Village and Soho today. Ate in Little Italy. Hit a number of used bookstores. Walked through Washington Square Park. Here's what I've seen so far...

Went to UCB Theater last nighth and saw "The Swarm". Long-form improv troupe. Saw them last time I was in town and had to see them again. Some of the funniest improv I've ever seen.

Saw tons of barricades, lots of uniform presense from midtown down to the Bowery, lots of Kerry supporters and people looking ready to protest something/anything, some of your usual angry-youth types. I mean lots on both ends. As I was waiting at the taxi stand at Penn Station, the woman in front of me remarked to her friend, "you can just feel the tension." Indeed. Glad I'm out of here on Sunday. Though I don't know if I'll escape unscathed -- rumor is that they're blocking off 6th and 7th Aves, precisely the aves between which my hotel is located. And apparently trying to get out of Penn Station on Sunday is going to resemble trying to get out of Saigon before the fall.

I saw ten thousand drummers whose hands were a blazin' -- wait...I didn't see that. Bob Dylan did. Or so he claims in "Hard Rain."

Anyway, that's it. Write me if you want a souveneir or something.

Been working on a lengthy post on the criticial reception that Dale Peck and James Wood's respective collections of literary essays have been receiving over the last couple months. So, yes, TBC will get back to being about the place "where literature and politics meet." But in the meantime..."woke was a Chelsea morning..."

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Huey Lewis And His News

So Springsteen and Mellencamp and Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Brown -- basically anyone who played a set at the "No Nukes" concert back in 1980 -- have weighed in, and Kerry's their man. Dennis Hopper, who has trouble remembering large chunks of the '60s and '70s, will, albeit surprisingly, choose Bush in 2004.

But I know what you're thinking: someone's missing. Someone has yet to publicly proclaim his support for either candidate. Someone like Huey Lewis.

Wait no more, political junkies. Huey's no longer keeping America's political machine in limbo the way Ike kept us waiting while he decided whether to be a Republican or a Democrat. According to Huey Lewis' website, Huey's chosen Kerry.

Thanks, Huey. Thanks. Now, with this knowledge, we can all return to the heavy-lifting that is America's democratic process.

P.S. "Org?" Huey Lewis is a non-profit? Weird, isn't it?

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Czeslaw Milosz Is Dead

Poet and Nobel laureate whose works were censored by Poland's communist regime, he was also the author of The Captive Mind, a study of intellectuals under communist rule. In the book, Milosz documented how once great writers, comtemporaries of his in Poland, found themselves, to their own horror, instruments of communist propoganda. Here's the story from the Associated Press.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Yeah, But I Like My Headline Better

John Fund of The Wall Street Journal is going to miss Brian Lamb, too. Here's his valentine to Booknotes. I like my headline better, though (see below); he goes for the obvious reference -- while I go for the obscure Peter-Gabriel-era Genesis reference.

Faux Ringo

So...according to this story, a guy acting and sounding just like Ringo Starr breezed into St. Augustine, FL, where the notion that he was in fact Ringo Starr was accepted at face value by both the citizens and the media, even though -- and this is important -- he never actually claimed to be Ringo Starr. When peppered with questions by the local media -– none of whom thought to ask, “uh, hey, are you, like, really Ringo Starr?” -– he simply answered “no comment,” apparently in a desire to “shun media attention.”

There are two things that should have immediately given him away. First, that “shunning media attention” crap. I mean, really – when has Ringo Starr ever under any circumstances shunned media attention? Ringo’s still peeved that Macca gets all the headlines as a brilliant songwriter and that both John and George made rather prudent career choices by dying, though George’s timing and mode of exit (Cancer? How cliché…) are worth questioning. Of course, the second thing that should have given this guy away –- as the photo accompanying the story makes clear -- is that HE DOESN’T LOOK A FUCKING THING LIKE RINGO STARR!

But maybe there’s something in the air these days. Right now there’s a guy running around the country masquerading as a Republican president, who even possesses the temerity to run for reelection as a Republican, even though he’s been spending federal money like he’s channeling the ghost of Harry Hopkins.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

My First "Bleg"

I've booked a trip to NYC, specifically Greenwich Village, for the weekend of the 27th. Staying in the Chelsea district at the Chelsea Hotel, home to a number of painters, writers, and other boho types throughout the last century. Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungeon there; Bob Dylan wrote "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" there; Edie Sedgwick and a number of Warhol girls stayed there in the '60s. Again, I've been to the Village, but never spent a considerable amount of time there. If anyone knows of any good restaurants, used bookstores (besides Strand Books), galleries, interesting sites, walking tours -- anything in general that I simply must see in the Village, feel free to e-mail me. I welcome your recommendations/advice. Thanks.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

A Shout Out to Tryst in Adams Morgan

By the way...these last two posts I created while using Tryst's WiFi hotspot. Thanks, guys. I plan on becoming a fixture there, since I'll soon be relocating to the Woodley Park area. That's right: going to be a DC resident (Taxation Without Representation!)

Ripping Off the Rockwellian

Check out my friend Dave Rockwell's latest post to his blog, in which he documents getting ripped off in Ocean City, how he was hosed down for a cover charge, a two-drink minimum, and an otherwise unpleasant evening of comedy he could have spent doing something -- anything -- else.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Lamb Lies Down On Booknotes

C-SPAN'sBooknotes is no more. Host Brian Lamb is calling it quits after 15 years on the air.

Going to miss that show, primarily because my blog was in some limited way inspired by Booknotes, a place where, every Sunday evening, literature and politics met. Some of my favorite writers have been guests on the program, including

  • Jeffrey Meyers, author of Orwell: The Wintry Conscience of A Generation
  • Robert Conquest, author of Reflections of a Ravaged Century
  • William Gildea, author of Where the Game Matters Most
  • Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
  • Sam Tanenhaus, who wrote a well-received biography of Whitaker Chambers (which warranted a two-part discussion on Booknotes), and who is currently the editor of The New York Times Book Review
  • Andrew Sullivan, author of Virtually Normal, and who currently maintains of one of the most popular blogs on the internet
  • Milton Friedman, who was a guest on the program simply for having written the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of F.A. von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom
  • Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals

I initially wondered how Gildea made it onto Booknotes. I mean, Where The Game Matters Most is a book close to my heart: it's about the 1996 season of open tournament high school basketball in Indiana -- the very last season in which any school of any size could potentially win the state basketball tournament. One of the smallest schools in the state, Milan High School, won the tournament back in the 1950s, and proved to be the inspiration for the movie "Hoosiers." Following that season, Indiana would, for the first time in its history, group together in tournament play and then crown three state high school basketball champions based on the school size. Gildea spent the entire basketball season that year criss-crossing the state, documenting the final season of open tournament play. So I still found myself wondering how a book about Indiana high school basketball make it all the way to Booknotes? And then I remembered: like me, Brian Lamb's from Indiana.

According to this Wash Post chat, Washington Post Bookworld editor Michael Dirda would welcome the opportunity to take over for Brian Lamb. As a confirmed bibliophile, I'd welcome it, too. Most certainly would take on a decidely literary bent.

One of my favorite literary anecdotes is about an author I list above, the noted Sovietologist Robert Conquest. In the mid-Sixties Conquest published a book called The Great Terror, which basically claimed that in the '30s Stalin's enforced famines and massacres killed about 10 million people. The leftist press at the time denounced the book, rationalizing Stalin's actions in ways that only apparatchiks can. Conquest and his book were rather viciously attacked and summarily dismissed. Of course, as history (and the Mitrokin archives) later proved, Conquest actually underestimated (by about 15 million) the number of people that Stalin killed, and on the 25th anniversary of the book Conquest's publisher decided to reprint a commemorative edition, complete with a new introduction detailing how prescient Conquest actually was. Conquest met with his publisher's rep over lunch to discuss the details. The rep thought everything they discussed sounded good, but floated the idea of coming up with a new title, or at least a subtitle to update it. Conquest took a sip of wine, thought for a moment, and then said, "How about 'I told you so, you fucking fools'?" So he did.

Hot New Fad

Cuddle parties.

Sure. But, uh, what do you do afterwards?

TBC Gets One Of Them "Shout Out" Thingies From RCOF, DPUSA

In the latest post to his blog, my friend Rob over at Rob's Carnival of Fear laments that while TBC is "tackling issues like literary criticism and poetry," RCOF "mostly talks about bad experiences with the service at T.G.I.Fridays." Of course, this is probably why people actually read RCOF, while TBC is read about as often as, say, the liner notes for an Evanescense CD or the U.S. Constitution.

Except where Mike Martin is concerned. Apparently the sole proprieter of Dance Party USA was so taken with my review of Auden's Lectures on Shakespeare that he plans on picking up a copy. No doubt my recently purchased copy combined with MM's will gladden the hearts of the publishing house who sagely foresaw its huge domestic American audience, and will thereby keep it off the remainder tables for years to come. And you thought only Oprah and her so-called "book club" could make the publishing world quake with fear...

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Amis fils Gets it Right

Martin Amis, from The War Against Cliche:

You proceed by quotation. Quotation is the reviewer's [or, for our purposes, critic's] only hard evidence. Or semi-hard evidence. Without it, in any case, criticism is a shop-queue monologue. Gallingly, for the lit crit imperialists, there is no means of distinguishing the excellent from the less excellent. The most muscular literary critics on earth have no equipment of establishing that

"Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears..."

is a better line than

"When all at once I saw a crowd..."

-- and, if they did, they would have to begin by saying that the former contains a dead expletive ("do") brought in to sustain the metre. Yet quotation is all we have. To idealize: writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting cliches. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.
Puts me in mind of what Orwell said about poetry: "There is no argument by which you can defend a poem. A poem defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible." Or course, even with this in mind, Orwell would then proceed in his attempts to defend poems.

Auden's Lectures on Shakespeare one of the most stunning pieces of criticism I’ve ever read. Just plain jaw-dropping. As far as Shakespearean criticism is concerned, I place it second only to Northrop Frye’s Notes on Shakespeare.

Back in 1947, Auden proposed a series of one-hour lectures at the New School for Social Research: he would read Shakespeare’s plays in chronologically order and then provide a lecture on each. His lectures would be free of charge and completely open to the public.

The results are just astonishing. He performs brilliantly in the requisite role of explicator de texte. Here’s a sample, from his lecture on Othello:

Aaron, Shylock, Richard III, and Don John the Bastard are all patently villainous characters. Nobody trusts them. The moment they come on stage, we say, “This is a bad man.” Claudius, Proteus, Oliver, and Angelo are the same. They all have direct and visible motives. Claudius is possessed by ambition, Proteus by rivalry, Oliver by envy, and Angelo by jealousy of purity. But the point about Iago is that everyone must trust him. He resembles Boyet, Friar Lawrence, Puck, and Oberon, Prince Hal—Henry V, Hamlet, Pandarus, and the Duke of Vienna – all Machiavellian characters who manage people, though Iago is more like the characters in the comedies, Boyet and Puck, in that he does what he does for fun. Hal wants to rule, Hamlet to trap, Pandarus to revivify love, the Duke to make people conscious of what they are. Most Iagos onstage are impossible because they act sinister, like regular villains, so that no one will trust them. Iago must be plain and innocuous, absolutely ordinary, someone who could be chosen as a Secret Service man today, “honest” because that is what he looks like.

I love that line: "Iago [must be] someone who could be chosen as a Secret Service man." A wonderful example of a critic free of some pet theoretical orthodoxy, a man willing to let his mind confront his topic and bring all of his experience – in this case Auden’s indulges his theater-going experience as someone who actually partakes of this stuff – to bear on his conclusion.

Here’s a snippet from the opening paragraph of his lecture on The Tempest:

People have very naturally and in a sense rightly considered the play Shakespeare’s farewell piece. Whether or not Shakespeare was conscious of it is irrelevant. I don’t believe people die until they’ve done their work, and when they have, they die. There are surprisingly few incomplete works in art. People, as a rule, die when they wish to. It’s not a shame that Mozart, Keats, Shelley died young: they’d finished their work.

Leaving aside Auden’s theories on psycho-biological determinism and the irony of literary careers, what’s shocking is what’s easily glossed over: “There are surprisingly few incomplete works of art.” I’ve never thought about the subject before, but Wystan’s absolutely right. I can think only of a few off-hand: Sydney’s Arcadia and Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon come to mind (well, there’s also Capote’s Answered Prayers, but it’s a mess of a book that poor Truman spent more time bragging about to reporters than writing). Not only are Auden’s lectures stocked with brilliant one-offs like the above, observations remarkable for the way they clarify and instruct, but, as the above example makes clear, Auden’s writing also has that other necessary component of great criticism: a willingness to digress, however briefly, from the topic at hand, to glance over at something else that caught his attention before returning to his task. The effect illuminates the work of art as well as the mind adjudicating it. Those of you with an analogous frame of mind might want to think about how some movie directors often have their hero notice something – an object or a vista – before beginning the arduous errand of saving the day.

Here’s another sentence that jolts one with its obvious clarity: "Art isn’t divided between the good and the bad, but between the boring and the interesting.” Right again, Wystan. And one could argue that literary art stopped being interesting when writers stopped attempting to entertain, when they began removing the interesting parts, the parts that bring pleasure (such as plot, character, rhyme, meter, etc.), and leaving only self-indulgent boredom and teased-out obscurities.

Do yourself and your critical sensibilities a favor and buy Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare. You’ll be rewarded with an object lesson in how criticism should be practiced, but sadly no longer is.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

"Ridiculously Conservative"

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, posted this yesterday over on NR's weblog The Corner:
Got back a while ago from a photo shoot for a group shot of New York conservatives for an issue of a glossy magazine to come out the week of the Republican convention. As the photographer positioned us and snapped away I thought of a paraphrase of that Ben Stiller line from Zoolander, “Sometimes I wonder if there is more to life than being ridiculously conservative.” Although the women in our group added considerably to our snazziness, it must have been the least glamorous/hip group of people to be in this downtown studio in a long time. I thought I detected a little amusement in the woman's voice at the front desk when I showed up in my conservative dark suit and conservative blue shirt and she asked, “You're here with the Republicans?”
Any ideas on which glossy? Vanity Fair? Or have they fulfilled their conservative quota by running the Ron & Nancy cover two issues ago? E-mail me if you have any ideas...

Friday, August 06, 2004

"I'm Dead, Bitch!"

Rick James is dead.

And let's hope all those imitations of Dave Chappelle's imitation of Rick James die with him.

Bill Buckley's "Book"? Or, Conservative Collage-ing...

Let me begin by saying that I like William F. Buckley. I really do. Met him once. Gracious and generous. Hell, it's hard not to like him. As a libertarian/liberal (in the 19th Century tradition), I know that he almost single-handedly resurrected the conservative intellectual tradition for the 20th century, infusing the modern political debate with libertarian/conservative forebears such as Edmund Burke, John Randolph, Hayek, Russell Kirk. And he's not bad with a pen, either, though he does get a bit showy with the vocab. But what the hell: a charming guy who possesses a pleasing, disarming public persona. But...

He's got this really annoying habit: he continues to cull together articles and chunks from other books and then markets the collage as a "new book." I just bought his memoir, Miles Gone By, and it's traditional Buckley nonfiction: chunks from other books or lengthy and recently published articles attempting to stand as a series of recollections. Once again I find myself rereading things I'd already read in other books. I was hoping for a more personal perspective: his early life and education, his years at boarding school, his service in the Army and in the CIA, his Yale years, how National Review came into existence and its early years, his recollections of the famous and infamous (he was, after all, one of the few hundred people who made it onto the guest list of Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, often described as "the party of the century"). But what do we get? Some cursory beginning chapters devoted to his early life, some lengthy treatments on sailing and other recreational activities he enjoys, some pages on wine, music, and then some recollections of people that, to be honest, I've already heard him recollect on. The section on Claire Booth Luce seems to have been borrowed wholesale from On the Firing Line, a fantastic book, to be sure, but a pretty expensive reread, under the circumstances...

Buckley has led a life from which there's plenty to mine. Why isn't he doing it?