Nov 192003

There was a discussion about Henry James and the movies a while back (here and here) at Terry Teachout’s blog, and I shall join the James Gang, fashionably late as usual. (Terry’s blog is called “About Last Night”; mine should be called “About The Week Before Last,” or “About Last Century.”)

It seems paradoxical that James should be so popular in the movies, because he is known as such a literary sort of writer. In fact he is not literary at all, in the sense that, say, Joyce or Borges is literary. There is no self-reference in James, no Joycean polylingual puns, no Borgesian labyrinths, nothing really but incident. His characters marry, cheat on their wives, win and lose fortunes, and on occasion, as in The Princess Casamassima, resort to violence. James had a taste for melodrama — true crime accounts were among his favorite leisure reading — and a talent for it too: Isabel Archer’s “kiss like summer lightning” with Goodwood that ends Portrait of a Lady, Strether’s exhortation to Chad Newsome to “live! only live!” in The Ambassadors, the entire plot of The Wings of the Dove. The last scene in The Heiress, Montgomery Clift pounding on Olivia de Havilland’s door as it dawns on him that he will never again be let in, may not be true to the text of Washington Square but is certainly true to its spirit.

James only seems literary because, especially in the late novels, he is constantly trying to catch the precise attitudes of his characters toward each other, reflected not just in their conversation but their gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections. This results in the legendary clotted prose that gives the impression, as H.G. Wells described it, of an elephant trying to pick up a pea in the corner. Examples are everywhere; one from The Awkward Age will serve:

Mr. Longdon stared; but even in his surprise seemed to take from the swiftness with which she made him move over the ground a certain agreeable glow. “Does ‘Aggie’ like him?”

“She likes every one. As I say, she’s an angel — but a real, real, real one. The kindest man in the world is therefore the proper husband for her. If Mitchy wants to do something thoroughly nice,” she declared with the same high competence, “he’ll take her out of her situation, which is awful.”

Mr. Longdon looked graver. “In what way awful?”

“Why, don’t you know?” His eye was now cold enough to give her, in her chill, a flurried sense that she might displease him least by a graceful lightness. “The Duchess and Lord Petherton are like you and me.”

“Is it a conundrum?” He was serious indeed.

“They’re one of the couples who are invited together.” But his face reflected so little success for her levity that it was in another tone she presently added: “Mitchy really oughtn’t.” Her friend, in silence, fixed his eyes on the ground; an attitude in which there was something to make her strike rather wild. “But, of course, kind as he is, he can scarcely be called particular. He has his ideas — he thinks nothing matters. He says we’ve all come to a pass that’s the end of everything.”

Mr. Longdon remained mute awhile, and when he at last raised his eyes it was without meeting Nanda’s and with some dryness of manner. “The end of everything? One might easily receive that impression.”

He again became mute, and there was a pause between them of some length, accepted by Nanda with an anxious stillness that it might have touched a spectator to observe. She sat there as if waiting for some further sign, only wanting not to displease her friend, yet unable to pretend, to play any part, and with something in her really that she couldn’t take back now, something involved in her original assumption that there was to be a kind of intelligence in their relation. “I dare say,” she said at last, “that I make allusions you don’t like. But I keep forgetting.”

The passage is lovely in its way, but James is attempting something to which what James Baldwin called the “disastrously explicit” medium of prose is completely ill-suited. Half of it is stage directions, and it could be done better, and more compactly, with movie actors who can follow such directions — which admittedly is asking a lot. James tried, unsuccesfully, to write plays, but the stage, where the actors have to project to the back row, is still too histrionic for what he has in mind. What he needed was the talkies. If James had been born a century later I’m guessing he would have done most of his writing for film, and maybe tossed off a few novels in his spare time.

(Update: Michael Blowhard, while not commenting exactly, jumps off from here to an amusing game of his own. Our Girl in Chicago comments.)

Nov 182003

Jacques Barzun writes:

When an undergraduate at a great university in the nineties, my fatherly friend had taken a course on the English lyric. The readings were from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and the lectures, by a well-known scholar, consisted of a careful account of the lives of the poets. The schools they went to, the patrons and wives they had, the journeys they made, the books they read and published were minutely chronicled, with thoughtful discussions of moot points and rival theories. Then, after two or three hours thus spent, the lecturer would come to the assigned lyric: “And now, gentlemen, what shall we say of this exquisite work? There is only one thing to say — a gem, a gem!”

…that last ritual phrase had become a family catchword that had to be explained to every newcomer. When something was approved of in a general way, but not really known or warmly liked, it was “ajemmajem.” The girls themselves, when asked about a new young man who had proved pleasant but not entrancing, would reply casually, “Ajemmajem.”

Michaela Cooper, writing about Ozymandias, acquits herself more creditably. She steers clear of Shelley’s life, which has long been a magnet for fatuous utterance. She summarizes its themes accurately; ars longa vita brevis and sic semper tyrannis and all that. She discourses on Chinese boxes and Russian dolls — the traveller tells the story to the narrator, quoting the epigraph on the statue, which itself quotes Ozymandias! According to Michaela this represents “three different aesthetic modes,” though I fear that is more her idea than Shelley’s, who was reliably simple-minded. She even throws in a reference to Edward Said. Michaela has a promising future in literary scholarship, and I wish her all the best.

Still, when evaluation time rolls around, she treats us to “intensity,” “dramatic contrast,” and “mind-exploding effect”: ajemmajem, in short. Now I, too, once thought as Michaela and spake as Michaela. Ozymandias was the first sonnet I ever memorized and I still have it off by heart. So it is with regret that I report, from my dotage, that Ozymandias is a bad poem, trite, stereotyped, and imprecise at every turn.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Poets are supposed to take special pains with language; let’s look at the language. “Antique,” with its orientalizing flavor, was mildly embarrassing in 1817; it is more embarrassing now. Edward Said would certainly object were he alive to do so. Nothing could be worse than “lone and level,” unless it is “boundless and bare.” Both pairs are applied to the sands; one would have more than sufficed. The vast and trunkless legs of stone present a striking image. Torsi missing their appendages are common enough, but Shelley’s trunkless legs and head are unique, to my knowledge, in the history of statuary.

The visage raises further difficulties. It’s no easy trick to frown and sneer at once; try it sometime. And to discern a frown, a wrinkled lip, and a sneer of cold command in a shattered visage one would have to be a remarkably perceptive traveller. “Fragmented” perhaps, “faded” possibly; but “shattered”? This was one of Shelley’s favorite adjectives, and he employed it here because he liked the sound.

In line 8 we have the heart that fed. What did it feed? If we generously allow “them” to serve as the object of “fed” along with “mocked,” then the heart fed “those passions” in line 6. The heart must belong to Ozymandias; so the passage means, “the sculptor well understood the passions that fed Ozymandias’s heart, and that the sculptor mocked, and that survive both the sculptor and Ozymandias.” But this is too convoluted to be impressive.

I can sympathize with the sentiment of Ozymandias, as I can with most of Shelley. But its theme is banal, and banally expressed. Michaela describes Ozymandias as “viscerally political and democratic,” emphasizing the political and democratic. Spare a thought for “viscerally” too.

(Update: George Wallace improves on the original. Michaela Cooper replies, in detail. I think she’s right about “antique,” and I like, though am not convinced by, the links to the frowning and sneering statues. Mike Snider comments. Rick Coencas comments. Chris Lott comments.)

Nov 132003

It’s not I’m anti-social, I’m only anti-woik,
Glo-ri-os-ki, that’s why I’m a joik!

What causes crime? The classical environmental “root cause” theories suffer from two crippling defects. First, whatever root cause you choose — poverty, unemployment, peer pressure, parental abuse, parental indulgence — the vast majority of people who are exposed to it do not become criminals. Give us your poor, your jobless, your inadequately-brought-up yearning to breathe free to their therapists, and you will find that the vast majority, in all cases, are law-abiding. Whoever thinks that prisons breed criminals might ask himself who winds up in prison in the first place. Prisons incarcerate criminals. Not a great deal of breeding goes on in jail.

The criminals who have never faced your pet root cause, who grow up well-fixed, with loving parents, in law-abiding neighborhoods, also remain to be accounted for. People save most of their hand-wringing for crimes committed by these types, not because the crimes are especially brutal, but because none of the conventional explanations seem to fit. He was only a lad, he had everything, why would he do a thing like that? The shock comes from ideas smacking into reality.

If crime, metaphorically, is a disease, and its “root cause” is a virus, you can be exposed to the virus without catching the disease, and you can catch the disease without being exposed to the virus. This violates both tenets of Koch’s First Postulate straightaway. Aristotle wouldn’t be too happy either.

All this is not to disparage the sociologists, who presumably are doing their best. Multifactorial phenomena like crime defeat hard scientists as well; witness the struggles of medicine with cancer or physics with the Three-Body Problem. Humans seem not to be very well-wired to analyze more than one cause at a time; in fact the very concept of “cause” implies singularity.

According to Stanton Samenow, criminals cause crime. More precisely, criminal thinking causes crime. By trade Samenow is a clinical psychologist who specializes in criminals, and he came to his views, he writes in Inside the Criminal Mind, with some reluctance. Under his mentor, Samuel Yochelson, with whom he authored a three-volume study of the criminal personality, Samenow began to come around. He found Yochelson’s methods especially convincing:

Dr. Yochelson first had contact with these men… when things were going badly for them. They were about to be sentenced by the court, were already locked up, or had been faced with the loss of something valuable to them such as a family or career. In his initial interview, Yochelson asked few questions of the criminal but instead presented him with so accurate a picture of himself that the criminal could do nothing but agree.

Hey, with a shrink like that I might go myself! Yochelson could do this, Samenow says, because all criminals think alike. It starts early: most criminals have developed their habits of thought long before adolescence. Samenow begins with what most of us could figure out if we thought about it. Criminals all fancy themselves special, more intelligent than straight people. They treat everyone, including their family and closest friends, as pawns to be moved around for the chessboard for their personal gratification. They lie, not just like most of us when they’re in a tough spot, but all the time. They hate work because it’s, well, work. They are impatient and seek quick rewards.

He proceeds to become disquietingly shrewd and well-informed. On the sudden flashes of interest the delinquent shows in school:

The criminal child appears to have a short attention span for most classroom assignments. However, to his teacher’s astonishment, his lethargy is transformed into a burst of concentrated activity once he finds an interest… One teenager recalled that whatever academic interests he had disappeared as soon as someone provided direction, tested his knowledge, or imposed a deadline. He said, “The interest would turn into a conflict when something had to be produced like a paper or a test.” His “conflict” was that he objected to others’ telling him what to do, whether at school or anywhere else… He reflected, “Grading systems always bothered me, because I just disagree with them totally. If there’s anything I’m interested in, I can do it.” … The parts of the curriculum that interest [criminal children] are those appealing to their sense of adventure and thirst for excitement, such as a detailed account of a bloody battle or a dramatic science experiment.

On pleading insanity and getting over in the nuthouse:

To the criminal, the hospital is a permissive prison. Because he is considered sick, his crimes of the past and violations of the present are treated therapeutically, not punitively. He figures, often correctly, that he can do as he pleases as long as he shows remorse and psychological insight later. If he uses illicit drugs, he can explain it as his seeking relief from overwhelming anxiety. If he tries to escape, he can relate it to intense depression. Sometimes he gets away with such psychological rationalizations and may even be praised for them.

Memo to Judith Rich Harris, who has made quite a name for herself by arguing that peers have more influence over children than their parents do: which peers would those be, exactly?

Every secondary school has groups with different names — preppies, jocks, sweathogs [I guess: the book was published in 1984], freaks, and so forth. Snarled one 14 year old, “Preppies, I hate ’em. They think they’re so neat with their alligator shirts.” He chose to associate with the “freaks,” who skipped school, used drugs, and went on shoplifting binges. One father said of his son, “If Guy saw a group of neatly dressed students holding their books and talking about girls, cars, and sports, and he saw a scraggly bunch of boys swaggering around, drinking, and cursing, he would always choose the second group.”

One might argue that Samenow has only pushed the question back. Sure, criminals think a certain way, but why? Nature? Nurture?

Neither. Asking why someone commits a crime is like asking why Caesar crossed the Rubicon. It is the individual, irreducible act of will, what Ludwig von Mises calls “ultimate data.” In the absence of Laplace’s mathematical demon, choice is as low as we can go.

My copy of Inside the Criminal Mind, borrowed from a friend (like Anatole France, I never return a book or get one back, and my library consists entirely of other people’s books), is heavily annotated, mostly with proper names. I recommend my friend’s approach, so long as you don’t write your own name too often. Next to a passage about criminals who cry discrimination to shift attention from their own wrongdoing he writes “Clinton” in the margin. Another about criminal sentimentality and sensitivity to art and music has “Mom” (Mom?) written next to it. Many pages bear the names of our mutual friends, and yes, it’s true, and no, you don’t want to know them.

(Update: Mark Wickens comments, briefly but trenchantly.)

(Further: Michaela Cooper takes me to task, first, quite properly, for my bad manners, for which I hope she accepts my apology, and then for my content. Essentially she makes two points. One is that with criminality we are dealing with “risk factors,” not causation. The jobless commit crimes at a higher rate than the employed; therefore if the government finds everyone a job crime will decline. Not so fast. When sociologists say that X is a risk factor for Y, they mean that X and Y occur together more often than one would expect by chance. Since it is effectively impossible to control for variables in these studies, causal inferences are just-so stories. Joblessness might be a risk factor for crime; but one could also say, with equal logic and considerably more anecdotal evidence, that crime is a risk factor for joblessness.

Michaela also convicts me and Samenow of circularity:

What is a “criminal” anyway? It can’t be just someone who’s been convicted of a crime, since obviously zillions of people convicted of crimes (drug possession, involuntary manslaughter, isolated thefts of opportunity [Dreiser’s Hurstwood], not to mention those wrongfully convicted) don’t fit Samenow’s stereotype. Presumably, for Samenow, a “criminal” must have committed several crimes. How many? And what of those whose recidivism is driven by compulsion rather than sociopathic calculation — kleptomaniacs, flashers, peeping Toms? What about the ordinarily kind and loving alcoholic who assaults people when he’s really drunk? Must they all be crowbarred into Samenow’s singular criminal-mind box?

Surely many, many, many people incarcerated have few, if any, of the characteristics Samenow trots out! So, then, which prisoners do have them? Why the criminals!

I’ve never known a “kind and loving alcoholic who assaults people when he’s really drunk,” although I’ve known several violent alcoholics. I don’t believe in “compulsion,” and I don’t believe in Hurstwood either. Why can kleptomaniacs and flashers manage not to steal or expose themselves when the cop is watching?

Samenow claims that everyone who habitually commits crimes against people and property thinks this way. This is the vast majority of the prison population, including the ones who happen to be locked up for drug offenses, as any criminal lawyer will inform you. Now Samenow may be wrong, but his position, logically, is impregnable.)

Nov 092003

How full of ourselves we bloggers grow:

Some might conclude from the above that, because I reject the solutions that [Steven] Den Beste and [Victor David] Hanson offer, that I’m implying that something more dire be done to “solve” this problem. I am not. Frankly, personally, I am increasingly resigned to the fact that these problems are without solution, to the point that I’m that close to simply giving up, mothballing this site, and accepting that yes, we’re watching Western Civilization self-destruct before our very eyes and there is nothing to be done about it… I’ll probably end my life in a Death Camp of Tolerance for expressing “divisive” views and making “insensitive” remarks.

Thank God for stalwart conservative bloggers! You might think that manning the barricades against the imminent fall of Western Civilization is a lonely job. You would be wrong; the barricades are crowded with Chicken Littles of all parties, although the smoke from all the shooting prevents them from seeing each other. For some of these brave soldiers Western Civ has already fallen and its revival is the consummation devoutly to be wished. The early Objectivists used to say of Atlas Shrugged, “if this book sells 50,000 copies, the culture is cooked.” Several million copies later, well, here we are.

The sky is always falling. The “new philosophy” was putting “all in doubt” in the 17th century (Donne); “Chaos and dread Night” were descending in the 18th (Pope); “the demons [of unreason] were let loose upon the land” in the 19th (Robert Bridges). Today’s featured blogger, one Porphyrogenitus, has found that it is impossible to persuade people with reason who deride reason itself. ‘Twas ever thus, dude. Derrida and Foucault are pretty small beer compared to Hume’s attack on induction, or Bishop Berkeley’s on the evidence of the senses.

Too many bloggers confuse civilization, or culture, with Zeitgeist, which is white noise. Culture does not consist, and never did, of what is taught in college, or what appears on television or in the newspapers. It is an underground stream, the product of a few dozen of the most intelligent people of each generation, and it always appears sounder retrospectively because time takes out the trash. It is opaque not only to statistical analysis but to all but the most acute critics of the time: there is too much to sort through, and it is too easy to read in the light of the pressing issues of the day. Edmund Wilson ventured in 1935 to guess which contemporary poets would survive, a fool’s errand, and came up with Edna St. Vincent Millay (OK, he was married to her) and several other people you haven’t heard of, for excellent reason. He found Frost dull and ignored Crane, Stevens, and Williams altogether. The point here isn’t that Wilson was a dummy — far from it — but that the state of the real culture, except from a very long vantage point, is extremely difficult to discern.

Is Western Civilization on the verge of destruction? I doubt it, but I don’t know, and neither do you. Ask me in a couple hundred years.

(Update: Marvin Long comments. Julie Neidlinger comments. l8r comments.)

Nov 092003

You know who worry a lot about how there are no red-blooded, responsible men any more and the whole world has gone gay? Women. Historical Sports Note: Babe Didrikson Zaharias entered men’s professional golf tournaments, to no complaints from the men, thirty years before Carson Kressley was a queer gleam in his mother’s straight eye.

Note to Agenda Bender: Unless you’re making some joke that’s way over my head — and not for the first time — it’s Mariel. Muriel Spark, Mariel Hemingway.

(Update: Life Imitates Blogging: Mariel Hemingway has published a memoir.)

Nov 042003

George Wallace, standing athwart the history of language yelling “Stop!”, proposes to replace “blog” with “web journal.” He enlists David Giacolone, who argues:

Nurturers and caretakers of language do not have to accept the mindless process that begat the word “blog” and its progeny, even though it may be too late to keep teenyboppers, the hipster insiders, and the trivial users of web log technology from chronically belching “blog” and “blogging.” We can still choose meaningful nomenclature — terminology that best suits the actual format of our web sites and that actually communicates a meaning. “Blog” is the equivalent of slang: yes it belongs in the dictionary, but it should not crowd other (and better) terminology for the same concept.

I’m not clear who died and left David a nurturer and caretaker of language, but when I appoint one, you may be sure he will not use the phrase “nurturers and caretakers of language,” or misplace adjectives either. (I’ve got no quarrel with “hipster insiders” myself; it’s those hipster outsiders who get my knickers in a twist.)

As for “choosing meaningful nomenclature” — actually, we can’t: too late. Neologisms for old things come and go, but a blog is a new thing, and with new things first out of the gate nearly always wins. In diction wars you have to pick your battles carefully. If you must complain, complain about something that drains meaning from the language. For years I objected to the coalescence of “amazing,” “awesome,” “remarkable,” and “phenomenal,” as if English were short on synonyms for “good.” This battle was worth fighting because it was over shades of meaning; there is no English word with the precise meaning of “amazing” except “amazing.” But popular usage has bulldozed me, and it has bulldozed David and George, for better reasons.

What’s wrong with “blog” anyway? It is short. It is more or less Anglo-Saxon. It lends itself easily to back-formations for writing a blog (no ugly “-ize” required) and for the author of one, not to mention felicitious derivatives like “blogrolling” and less felicitious but still useful ones like “blogosphere.” The dispute over whether the verb is transitive will sort itself out in time. “Blog” reminds me a great deal of one of the best neologisms of the 20th century, “blurb,” coined by Gelett “I never saw a purple cow” Burgess. It rolls off the tongue less easily, and lacks its onomatopoeic qualities, but has all of its other virtues.

I look forward eagerly to George’s, if not David’s, future blogging; less eagerly to his description of it.

(Update: David Sucher comments. George Wallace replies. Aaron Armitage comments. And I sold Terry Teachout.)

Nov 032003

Letters aren’t usually to my taste, but I except an odd little book I’ve just finished, W.B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore, Their Correspondence 1901-1937.

One of our correspondents needs no introduction. Yeats the Great The other, T. Sturge Moore (1870-1944), was the brother of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica was still being assigned in freshman philosophy when I was in college. He made his living at the graphic arts, in which he showed considerable flair in an art nouveau vein; it is the sort of thing you will like if you like that sort of thing. Among other things he designed most of the covers for Yeats’ books. Moore the Obscure Moore was also an extremely distinguished poet and verse dramatist, and he wrote at least one poem and two verse plays (Medea and Daimonassa) that are far better than anything in Yeats.

Yeats plays the great man in his letters, as he does in his poetry, constantly prevailing on Moore for small and not-so-small favors. He borrows money — it is not always clear whether he pays it back — makes appointments and breaks them, pleading fatigue or “neuralgia,” and, once, egregiously, sends Moore to the copyright office on his behalf.

I am going to send you a bundle of plays to get copyrighted. Mrs. Emery, who would have done this for me, is away and for certain reasons these plays have to be done at once… You will be able to do the whole thing in an afternoon…. Will you send the plays to the Censor, or, if not, will you send me his address? It might be as well for you to send them. I will of course send you a cheque for the cost.

“I will of course send you a cheque for the cost”: God forbid I should ask you to do me a huge favor and pay you for it in advance. Personally I would have told Yeats to get stuffed. But Moore accedes gracefully, as if he too were convinced of Yeats’s superiority.

At the heart of the letters is an argument about “Ruskin’s cat” that runs for several years. Yeats believed in ghosts and spirits, like many of his mystical Irish friends, and tries to justify their existence to Moore philosophically:

John Ruskin, while talking with Frank Harris, ran suddenly to the other end of the room, picked up, or seemed to pick up, some object which he threw out of the window. He then explained that it was a tempting demon in the form of a cat. Now if the house cat had come in both cats would have looked alike to Ruskin. (I know this for I once saw a phantom picture and a real picture side by side.) Neither your brother [G.E.Moore, who defended in his Refutation of Idealism the common-sense view that the external world exists independent of our senses] nor [Bertrand] Russell gives any criterion by which Ruskin could have told one cat from the other. No doubt if pressed they would have said that if Ruskin’s cat was real Harris would have seen it. But that argument amounts to nothing. Dr. Smyllie, a well-known Dublin doctor, made his class see the Indian rope trick by hypnotic suggestion a few years ago. All saw it: whether the suggestion was mental or merely visual makes no difference. Perhaps Russell would say ‘a real object’ persists, a phantom does not. Shelley pointed out that the same dream recurs again and again… not only things but ‘dreams themselves are a dream.’

Moore replies sensibly enough:

Do you deny that there are such things as illusions? Do you think that there are black snakes wriggling on the counterpane of a man who has D.T.? If so, we are only quarrelling about a fact, not a word. If you suppose there is a separate reality for each one of us that is not what we usually mean by reality it is putting a new meaning to the word… Do you deny that our sense can be deranged and make mistakes, just as our reasoning faculty may, as in Othello’s case, make a mistake? If you bang your head against a door you see stars that are not there but swim around as though they were. The blow has deranged your sense of sight, just as a disease may, or a hypnotic trance, or even a conviction may.

This reduces Yeats to incoherence.

Damn Russell — he is as fine a mathematician as you like, but when he philosophises a politician walking on his hands… Your brother is not a politician but a philosopher. Berkeley and practically all philosophers since have contended that ‘sensations’ are part of the human mind and that ‘we know nothing but spirits and their relations.’ Your brother and his school contend that ‘sensations’ are ‘behind,’ not in, the mind. They, like Berkeley, are concerned with immediate knowledge: what you write about hallucinations has nothing to do with it.

Yeats’s summary of philosophic thought on the mind-body problem leaves something to be desired. He makes a hash of Moore’s brother, who said that sensations were “before” the mind, not “behind” it. And “immediate knowledge” begs the question of whether a hallucination is “knowledge” at all. Yeats goes on in further letters to adduce the range of early 20th century spiritual phenomena — photographs of thoughts, Richet, Madame Blavatsky and the like — eventually exasperating Moore:

It is all moonshine and nonsense… When you say that seeing two pictures on the wall when only one is there is as good proof of the existence of two pictures as if both were on the wall you contradict yourself, because you admit there is only one on the wall. You make a distinction between what you know to exist and an illusion of sense and deny it at the same time. That is to make two contradictory propositions both of which cannot be true. It is not a question as to what happens to be fashionable among intellectuals, but as to whether there is a case that can be stated without involving a contradiction. Fools follow fashions in thought as in other things and then they think because they are very many they must needs be right as well as strong.

This is as close as he comes to calling Yeats a fool. Of course Yeats is a fool. Mrs. Yeats is reported to have said that Yeats simply never understood people; certainly he did not understand Moore.

Now it is possible, I suppose, to be a fool and also a great poet, although I can think of no such case. To take most of Yeats’s poetry seriously it is not necessary to believe in ghosts. It is, however, necessary to prefer aristocratic to democratic government, assertions to reasons, instinct to intellect, astrology to astronomy, and the mystical properties of sex to just about anything else. Even more than Blake, his poetry is preposterous because his ideas are preposterous.

Yeats is generally considered one of the master stylists of the 20th century. Yvor Winters explains his reputation:

In the first place, there is real talent scattered throughout his work; in the second place, our time does not recognize any relationship between motive and emotion, but is looking merely for emotion; in the third place, Yeats’s power of self-assertion, his bardic tone, has overwhelmed his readers thus far. The bardic tone is common in romantic poetry; it sometimes occurs in talented (but confused) poets such as Blake and Yeats; more often it appears in poets of little or no talent, such as Shelley, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers. For most readers the bardic tone is synonymous with greatness, for through this tone the poet asserts that he is great, in the absence of any (or sufficient) supporting intelligence. If the poet asserts his own greatness long enough and in the same tone of voice, the effect is hypnotic; we have seen the same thing on the political platform in the persons of such speakers as Mussolini, Father Coughlin, and Adolf Hitler.

Winters omits one point: Yeats looks like a Great Poet, with his piercing gaze, roman nose, and snowy hair. He was exceptionally jealous of his hair. He refers in the letters to the equally fine-maned Bertrand Russell as “bald-pated,” and in his poetry frequently employs bald men, as in The Scholars, as a symbol for intellect, which he despised. The reputations of Shelley and Whitman also profit from their looks. Moore, by contrast, looks like the harmless village eccentric. And Yeats is a great man, and no one has heard of Moore.

(Update: Colby Cosh troubles to read the Moore poem I cited. He dislikes “carven,” which is a perfectly respectable English word, although it smacks of the 1890’s, from which Moore, and Yeats for that matter, never freed himself entirely. He objects on metrical grounds to line 5, which I scan as follows:

Though un / intend / ed, ir / revoc / able!

The inversion in the fourth foot is unusual, but not problematic. Neither is the elided article in line 6; Moore is writing not about a particular incident but a type. What I think raises this poem to greatness is its perception of the nature of speech; “self-bemusing ease” is a master stroke. Bloggers have talked a lot lately about how easy it is to hit the “Send” button or the “Print” button. This poem is about how easy it is to hit the “Talk” button. I will be very happy if everyone reads it as attentively as Colby does.)

(Further: Alan Sullivan doesn’t like the poem either. Craig Henry comments. Alex(ei) comments. Mike Snider promises to tell me, sometime, why I’m wrong, so I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.)

Oct 282003

At Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen plumps for linking, not thinking:

Glenn [Reynolds] is so successful because he understands the idea of blogs as portals. (This is my view, not Glenn’s own self-description.) Blogs that offer too much of the author, and the author alone, are vulnerable to other blogs that cream-skim them, and other blogs, thereby offering the superior product. The question is not who can write the best stuff, but who can collect the best stuff, and comment on it most effectively. Really smart people are not always used to these terms of competition, I might add. The future of blogging lies in the hands of those who recognize the intellectual and literary division of labor.

Now we non-portal types don’t rightly cotton to this. I can’t speak for Cowen, but I read the blogs I do precisely because they offer the author, and the author alone; “too much,” Steven Den Beste possibly excepted, is never enough. Blogs are amusing because they are personal. The “cream” of a blog always means more to the regular reader, who knows the author’s foibles and obsessions, than the skimmer who happens by only for that. By Cowen’s logic book-readers would restrict themselves to anthologies, and music-listeners to greatest hits. Cowen himself writes an entertaining blog where he ignores his own advice.

Linkers also think, and thinkers link, at least once in a while. The hard-and-fast distinction between “commenting on stuff effectively” and “writing stuff” eludes me. (Here I exclude “heh” and “indeed.”)

Cowen might ask why bloggers prostrate themselves before Glenn Reynolds for links. Is it because they are “vulnerable” to portal blogs like Glenn’s? Or is it, perhaps, because Glenn will drive readers to their site, and some of those readers may stick around to become regulars? Readers of portals presumably want to be ported somewhere. Instapundit, in any case, is not a portal in the sense that Yahoo is. Yahoo’s traffic allows it to sell services; Instapundit’s — well, I’m not sure what it does, besides bloat his traffic stats. By trade Cowen is an economist, and hobbies like blogging, into which many people put many hours with no hope of remuneration, are peculiarly opaque to economic analysis.

Cowen neglects to mention, but obviously understands, one key lesson of blogging: since the most devoted audience of blogs is bloggers, navel-gazing will always boost your hit count.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. Nate Bruinooge comments.)

Oct 272003

Literary criticism turns up in odd places. I’ve been waiting to have my say about Tolstoy, that youthful rake turned pious old fraud, only to find that the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, in his curious novel Mysteries, beat me to it by a century. His main character, Nagel, gets drunk and begins to rant:

To get back to Tolstoy, in my opinion his intellect is no greater than, say, General Booth’s. They are both preachers, not thinkers but preachers. They deal with the status quo, popularize already accepted ides, reduce them to the lowest common denominator, and then sit back and watch them take root. But if you’re going to sell, you must do so at a profit, and Tolstoy’s enterprises show a staggering loss. Once two friends made a wager; one bet the other twelve shillings that he could shoot a nut out of the other fellow’s hand without grazing it. Well, he fired, missed, and blew the whole hand to shreds, but he did it with style. As he was about to faint, his injured friend moaned, ‘You lost the bet — give me the twelve shillings. Give me twelve shillings,’ he said! God, how Tolstoy labors to eliminate humanity’s happy vices and make the world full of love and mankind! It just fills me with shame… It would be different if Tolstoy were a young man struggling against temptation or if he had a battle to fight and tried to win it by preaching virtue and clean living. But his sources have run dry; he has no more humanity left to struggle with. You may say: But this has nothing to do with his philosophy. But it has everything to do with it! Oh, just wait until old age has made you self-satisfied and callous! Then you go to the young man and say, ‘Renounce these superficial trappings.’ The young man ponders, sleeps on it, and comes to the conclusion that this indeed is what the Bible preaches. But he doesn’t ‘renounce’; he goes on sinning for the next forty years. And so it is. When his forty years are up and the young man has grown old, he saddles his snow-white mare and rides off with his crusader’s banner held high in his bony hand, calling out a pious message of renunciation to the youth of the world. It’s a comedy that endlessly repeats itself. I get a kick out of Tolstoy. I’m glad the old boy is capable of so much munificence.

Lord, make me chaste, forty years hence.

Oct 262003

Computers may or may not be changing the nature of art; I leave this question to the eminent Blowhards. But at the very least they could be the handmaidens of literary scholarship. Shouldn’t the Internet be full of concordances by now?

You remember concordances. Those thick books your English professors had on their shelves, where you could look up how many times Milton uses the word “swain,” or Dryden “wit,” or Dickinson “nature”? Now difficult as this may be for some of you juvenile readers to grasp, in antediluvian times scholars compiled these by hand. They are indispensable for serious literary scholarship, and excellent for settling arguments and jogging memories.

There are a few online concordances for the obvious choices, like Shakespeare and the Bible. There’s even pretty cheap software that will do it for you automatically, which these folks have used to make a desultory stab at a few of the British romantic poets. The University of Georgia English Department has managed to post a complete one for William Blake. It is defective (a search for “rose” yields hits for “prose” and “arose” with no way to ask for the whole word only, or to distinguish the noun from the verb) but far better than nothing. Bartleby offers search on its texts, but they are nearly always single works or selections. No remotely complete online concordance exists for, moving in reverse chronological order and considering only a few poets who interest me, Stevens, Robinson, Hardy, Hopkins, Dickinson, Pope, Dryden, Milton, Jonson, Donne, Greville, Ralegh, Gascoigne, Skelton, and Chaucer. Print concordances exist for every one of these authors.

Clearly there’s a shortage people with the necessary technical skills and literary interests to do the job. A sufficiently interested and modestly competent database programmer could rig this up in a jiffy. Do I know anyone like that? Oh. Right. Never mind then.