Oct 242003

Erin O’Connor favorably cites this piece from the poet Tom Henihan, slagging poetry workshops. Henihan writes:

The teaching of poetry has become epidemic. The question of having the “gift” never comes up; the assumption being that poetry can be acquired like everything else. I have to say that the poets who head up these little retreats are very sensitive, preferring to lie rather than give any genuine criticism that may offend the student. You see they must keep these aspiring poets coming back, year after year, stanza after stanza, by shamelessly lending credence to the most flat literal efforts. I have yet to meet anyone who has been told the truth about their work (good or bad) at one of these little soires in the woods.

The blame shouldnt go so much to the hapless souls that sign-up for these exercises but to the purveyors of snake oil that put them on. I am not suggesting that poets cannot teach one another a trick or two, but taking 10 to 15 aspirants to a nunnery in Sooke for a 3-day workshop is so sweet it could make one cry. It goes up against everything radical, wild and individual in poetry. These people would be better served and brought closer to poetry if they got drunk, got laid, or went dancing.

Erin glosses:

Henihan may come off as a snob at first glance. He may come off as one of those vaguely anti-intellectual artistes who hold critics and teachers–the people who try to analyze the why and the how of their art–in unapologetic contempt. But to read his essay that way would be to miss the point. There are some things that cannot be taught. Inspiration is one, creativity is another, having a “feel” for language a third. Skills can be taught, and those are certainly necessary if one wants to be a writer of any caliber. But too often creative writing courses are about far more than the teaching of skills–there is a dishonesty to them, as Henihan notes. Their premise is that everyone enrolled in the course can write; their guiding principle is that deep down, we all have a poet or a novelist in us just waiting to come out. We don’t.

Doing original mathematics requires inspiration, creativity, a “feel” for numbers, all the mysterious qualities that Erin posits for poets; yet no one would dream of saying that teaching calculus to a class of sub-Eulers and sub-Gausses is useless. Why, then, is there no point in teaching poetry to a class of sub-Jonsons and sub-Dickinsons? Poetry is every bit as technical as car repair, and poets, like car mechanics, need to know what they’re doing. The byways of literary history are crowded with talented poets who damaged themselves with technical misunderstandings and home-grown metrical theories. Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his theory of “sprung rhythm” and “outrides” and his belief that there can be five-syllable feet in English, is the most famous case. Hopkins’ problem was assuredly not that he didn’t get drunk, get laid, or go dancing, although by all accounts, being a Jesuit priest, he didn’t.

Good poets need good models, and most modern poets are bad because their models are bad. Trying to write like William Carlos Williams is hopeless unless you’re William Carlos Williams. Trying to write like Walt Whitman is hopeless even if you are Walt Whitman. Trying to write like John Milton, whose virtues are unique but whose vices are easily imitated, set English poetry back about a hundred years.

I’ve never attended a poetry “workshop,” and I stipulate that they are as ghastly as Henihan says. My poem’s OK, your poem’s OK. The fact that poetry is often taught badly, however, does not mean it cannot be taught at all. If I had a two-week poetry workshop to teach, I guarantee that I would improve the poetry of everyone in the class. Or your money back, no questions asked.

Here are my first three assignments, for those of you following at home.

1. No one who can’t read poetry has any business writing it, and you have not read a poem properly unless you can paraphrase it. Of course the meaning of a poem does not consist entirely of its paraphrasable content; if it did we wouldn’t need the poem. But the paraphrase remains the indispensable baseline. Paraphrase the following three poems: in order of increasing difficulty, Ben Jonson’s To Heaven, John Donne’s Valediction: Of My Name in the Window, and Fulke Greville’s Down in the depths. When you finish this assigment you will understand that poems can argue, with great complexity, and that great poetry is possible with a minimum of imagery, or none whatsoever. These three poems make Ezra Pound’s petals on a wet black bough seem like a pretty pallid affair.

2. Now it’s time to develop a little respect for traditional forms. Find two perfectly regular iambic pentameter lines — no substitutions, no elisions — that differ as far as possible from each other rhythmically. Meter is simply the background, the bass line, as it were, against which the movement of the line takes place. This assignment will turn your attention to syllable length, caesura placement, strength of accent, and all the other aspects of rhythm that make lines move the way they do. It will prove especially useful to people like Ron Silliman, who sneer at “tub-thumping iambic pentameter” as if all metrically identical lines sound alike, or K. Silem Mohammed, who is so bored by meter that he’s going to hold his breath until he turns blue. To get you started I’ll do this one myself. The first line is from the 16th century, Dowland’s Songbook; the second is from the 20th, Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning. They are both regular pentameter lines.

Fine knacks for ladies — cheap, choice, brave, and new!
The world is like wide water, without sound.

Mike Snider has also already completed it.

3. Write three poems in rigid forms. Begin with the easiest, an Elizabethan sonnet, next a rondeau, and finally a villanelle. This will be graded strictly on its adherence to the form in question. Don’t worry that the poems are bad: they will be bad. Attend instead to the way formal demands concentrate the mind. You can’t say exactly what you want because it won’t fit. You begin to revise it until it will fit. Then, if you work at it enough, you find that your revision is better — more precise, more compressed, more poetic — than what you thought you wanted to say in the first place. Poets who always compose in slack meters cannot grasp this process, which is how all great poetry is forged.

(Update: Mike Snider comments. George Wallace comments. Nate Bruinooge comments. Jim Henley reports from the belly of the beast. PF, who seems to know a great deal about Russian poetry, comments. Desbladet comments.)

(Further: Dr. Weevil notes that I misquoted the Dowland line. This has been corrected. Two lines of verse in the damn post, and I get one of them wrong.)

Oct 192003

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

A group of American fourth-graders, led by perky Scarlett Johansson, travels to Tokyo to participate in an international karaoke contest. Jack Black turns in a feral performance as their coach, exhorting them to “stick it to Japan.” Bill Murray plays a wealthy ex-karaoke star who has lost all interest in karaoke and has been prevailed on, for an enormous fee, to serve as a judge. Murray, in a stunning departure from his last eighteen movies, is care-worn and worldly-wise. He encounters Black in the hotel bar and finds his infectious enthusiasm for karaoke grating at first. Eventually he completely fails to be won over.

The children, meanwhile, are left to explore Tokyo on their own. Johansson, in her school uniform, encounters a sarariman who proposes a little enjo-kosai, leading to a series of amusing misadventures and panty shots. Joey Gaydos, as gloomy but talented Zack, wanders down to the hotel bar and runs into Murray, who gets him drunk on sake and prevails on him to lead the patrons in a stirring rendition of “Devil With a Blue Dress On.” Other children are bowed to by the hotel’s staff, and bow back, giggling.

Black does his best with Murray, but the children still lose the contest to the reigning Japanese karaoke champions. They return to America sadder but wiser, having learned from Murray that there are more important things in life than winning, such as raking in huge appearance fees.

Jack Black and Bill Murray, despite the smoldering sexual tension between them, do not actually have sex.

Oct 172003

Congratulations, to begin with, to all Red Sox and Cubs fans, who burnished their reputations as lovable losers, with their teams both snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in dramatic fashion. There is a lesson for them in the plight of the Rangers fan. For decades New York Rangers fans had to endure the mocking chants of 1940! 1940! — the last time they won the Stanley Cup — until 1994, when they finally won it again, only to relapse almost immediately into the mediocrity in which they are still mired today. Now the Rangers fan has no mocking chants to endure, because no one cares; the Rangers have just become another average team that hasn’t won for a while. If you can’t always win, next best is to always lose, which is a distinction. I suspect that many Red Sox and Cubs fans secretly root for their teams to lose, or better, almost win.

Last night’s Yankees-Sox game was certainly thrilling (note to Floyd McWilliams: I’m not listening), although I took advantage of the break between the top and the bottom of the 11th to take out the trash and consequently missed Aaron Boone’s game-winning home run. But at various points Fox showed two players and several fans with their hands clasped together, as if in supplication. Yes, the big bearded man in the sky apparently concerns himself with whether the Yankees rally against Pedro in the bottom of the 8th. Aristotle had the first word on this subject:

[F]or while thought is held to be the most divine of things observed by us, the question how it must be situated in order to have [divine] character involves difficulties. For if it thinks of nothing, what is there here of dignity. It is just like one who sleeps…what does it think of? Either of itself or of something else; and if of something else, either of the same thing always or something different…Evidently, then, it thinks of that which is most divine and precious, and it does not change; for change would be change for the worse, and this would be already a movement…Therefore it must be of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking.

Aristotle, Platonizing, makes God sound rather like Wittgenstein, but you catch his drift. Spinoza is blunter:

For the reason and will which constitute God’s essence must differ by the breadth of all heaven from our reason and will and have nothing in common with them except the name; as little, in fact, as the dog-star has in common with the dog, the barking animal.

And the last from a god, who ought to know, Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen, chastising Veidt for trying to kill him (note to Jim Henley: I am too a comics blogger!):

I’ve walked across the sun. I’ve seen events so tiny and so fast they hardly can be said have occurred at all. But you…you are a man. And this world’s smartest man means no more to me than does its smartest termite.

Surely God, if He can rouse Himself to intervene in human affairs at all, will find beneath His dignity anything less than the World Series.

Oct 162003

My old friend and frequent critic Michael Krantz, taking exception to my criticism of Quentin Tarantino, writes as follows:

Tarantino seems to inspire strong visceral reactions of both kinds, which to my mind is at least somewhat [sic] of a compliment (who bothers arguing about most movies?).

I don’t wish to pick on Michael particularly; one sees this in arts criticism every day, and his instance is brief and near to hand.

We already know that 50,000,000 Frenchmen can be wrong, and frequently are. Here Michael goes this ancient fallacy, argumentum ad populum, one better. The opinion, in his formulation, need not be popular, so long as some people hold it. (“Strongly and viscerally” to be sure. One might think that rational opinions would count for more than visceral ones, but no matter.) Strong and visceral opinions are like — well, everybody has one, and now everybody can publish his too. Controversy, perforce, results. “Controversial” has nonetheless become a term of praise, although a shame-faced one, resorted to by publicists faced with an absence of favorable reviews. Still more debased and narcissistic terms exist, like “talked about” and, at the bottom of this barrel, “widely anticipated.” Controversy, like celebrity, is circular. Why is it controversial? Because I’m talking about it! Why am I talking about it? Because it’s controversial!

Obviously there are a great many fervently held beliefs that have no merit whatsoever. Scientology is controversial. The healing power of crystals is controversial. Everything this side of Gigli is controversial. Tarantino, too, is controversial; ergo Tarantino has merit.

Or as the girlfriend more succinctly put it, “God, that is sooo NPR.”

Michael continues, less temperately:

The plagiarism dismissal was boring and specious ten years ago.

I blog, OK? I stopped worrying about boring people a long time ago. And to the accusation that my plagiarism charge is, um, unoriginal, I certainly plead guilty. By Michael’s own lights, the fact that some people have agreed with me that Tarantino is a plagiarist might give the argument some weight. A hundred accusations of plagiarism can’t be specious.

More seriously, this is a heads-I-win tails-you-lose proposition. If your argument is original, then the reply is that no one believes that. If your argument is old, then the reply is that it’s old. It’s like being put in the asylum, where whatever you do is classified as insanity, no matter how innocuous, and taking notes, say, becomes “compulsive note-taking behavior.”

To summarize: All strong opinions have merit, or at least reflect favorably on their subject. Unless they are old, in which case they are boring and tired and need not be discussed. My thanks to Michael for clearing this up.

Oct 122003

Quentin Tarantino watches a whole lot of movies, to considerable purpose, as most of the best bits in his own movies are lifted from other people’s. Pulp Fiction‘s “cleaner” sequence plagiarizes, down to the name, the one from La Femme Nikita. It even uses Harvey Keitel, who played the same part in Point of No Return, Nikita‘s word-for-word American remake for the subtitle-impaired. The colorfully named crooks of Reservoir Dogs first appear in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, a little thriller so taut and well-made that it must make Tarantino weep with envy. To be fair, the original lacked a Mr. Pink, and Steve Buscemi’s plaint of “Why do I have to be Mr. Pink?” seems to be Tarantino’s invention.

Jackie Brown, which I could not bring myself to see, advertised itself as a “homage” to 70s blaxploitation films, starring Pam Grier for bonus verisimilitude. (This term, in Tarantino’s universe, refers to fidelity not to life but to other movies.) “Homage” is one of the many euphemisms for plagiarism that litter Tarantino reviews. Others include “nod,” “take,” “view,” “deconstruction,” and “twist.”

Tarantino’s new movie, Kill Bill, will be released in two parts; this is Volume 1. The “volume” has “chapters” too. This an ironic reference to the fact that it’s not a book, it’s a movie. The curiously stilted dialogue manages to be at once formal and ungrammatical, as if it had been translated from English to Japanese and back a few times. Now Tarantino, being a genius, knows that “vermin” sounds silly in the singular and the difference between who and whom. Tarantino could not possibly intend lines like “with your own beautiful blue eye” (said to the Daryl Hannah character, who wears an unexplained eyepatch) and “Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids” to pass for wit. So these must be ironic references to the badly translated subtitles of the chop-socky movies to which Kill Bill is a “homage.”

The plot involves a team of beautiful girl assassins, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DVAS, get it? huh? huh?), managed by an off-screen character named Bill (David Carradine), to whom they are utterly devoted. This is an ironic reference to Charlie’s Angels, or a nod to it, or a twist on it, or something. Bill turns against one of his Angels (Uma Thurman) for no specified reason, and on her wedding day sends his whole team to finish the party off.

The combined efforts of Bill and his lovelies result in killing everybody but Uma herself, who awakes from a coma four years later bent on revenge. Tarantino wisely does not overburden the viewer with motive. He sweeps aside bagatelles like whom she was marrying, why she was pregnant, why everyone at the wedding has to die along with the target, why she joined the Deadly Vipers in the first place, how the best female assassins in the world and their boss can botch such a simple job, why the other girls all hate her, and why everyone in the damn movie insists on using swords instead of guns anyway — which I recall seeing an ironic reference to someplace. Vol. 2 may clear these matters up, or perhaps Tarantino will leave them hanging, as ironic references to making sense. In any case, he brings us quickly to the swordfighting, which is really the point. If you don’t enjoy watching people lose their appendages then Kill Bill may not be the wisest choice for your entertainment dollar.

Tarantino is often criticized for drawing on television and other movies instead of his own experience. This is unjust. So far as I can tell, his experience, aside from an occasional bar brawl, consists entirely of watching movies and television. What else would you expect him to draw on?

If your local video parlor is anything like mine, it is staffed by film junkies who pride themselves on knowing the good bits of every movie. They can quote at length from more movies than you and I will ever see and are lost if you ask them what any of those movies is actually about. They are all writing screenplays. If a major studio ever greenlights one the result may resemble Kill Bill.

Tarantino was a video clerk in his youth. It is rare for anyone to find his calling early in life; one hopes that his unfortunate detour into Hollywood superstardom will be short. His movies are pastiche, all good bits because he does not understand what makes the good bits good. This explains his special fondness for blaxploitation and chop-socky, which even at their best have a few memorable lines and scenes with no context to support them. Listen to the great man himself, in his Newsweek interview:

Interviewer: Its like when youre a kid, you say, Oh, just give me the good parts.

Tarantino: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, God, you could almost make a case that thats my whole theory in filmmaking: take out all the shit that weve already seen a million times before, and that we never liked in the first place, and just get right to the good stuff.

For “the good stuff” read “grotesque violence.” At some point it may occur to Tarantino that the goodness of the good stuff depends on all that other shit that we never liked in the first place. Then again it may not.

The true geniuses behind Kill Bill are the brothers Weinstein, who decided to release it in two parts. A tetralogy couldn’t tie up the loose ends in Vol. 1, but what do Bob and Harvey care? They disguise the mess and get two admissions for the price of one production budget. By the time Volume 2 comes out, in February, Tarantino’s fans will have forgotten that the package is nonsense, if they cared in the first place.

About Tarantino there is only one interesting question: Is he firmly convinced of his own genius, or does he wake up in a sweat at 3 AM, wondering when the world will wise up? I don’t know. His best friends may not know. Only one man can say for sure, and he isn’t telling.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. Alex(ei) also comes to Tarantino’s defense.)

(And: Gregg Easterbrook is even harsher than I am, which I didn’t think was possible. The whole Jewish movie executive business at the end of the piece is a bit loopy though. Nate Bruinooge has some especially interesting comments. Ian Hamet strikes a more mature attitude.)

Oct 042003

(I had a pleasant holiday from you, dear readers, and, I trust, you from me as well. Now let’s get down to it boppers.)

Toxicologists say that the dose is the poison, and Americans could save themselves millions of dollars if they only understood what that means.

Everything on earth, from arsenic to mother’s milk, is toxic if ingested in sufficient quantity. If we graph the lifetime dose on the x-axis and the chance of resulting loathesomeness on the y (what’s with me and the graphs lately?), we wind up with the risk curve. For your quotidian poisons like cigarettes, red meat, and smog, the risk begins at zero and stays very close to it until a certain dose is reached, at which point the curve inflects and the risk begins to increase quite radically. Not all risk curves have this shape, of course. For highly toxic substances like sarin or finely-ground anthrax it inverts. The risk escalates very rapidly and then flattens at the top of the graph after a certain exposure, at which point you die.

The curve, however, is always a curve, never a straight line. Have you heard that every cigarette you smoke cuts five minutes, or eight, or ten, off your life? This is the linear fallacy in full flower. Smokers’ diseases like emphysema and lung cancer concentrate overwhelmingly in the heaviest, longest-term smokers. People who smoke for a few years have scarcely higher mortality than people who never smoke at all. (You kids bear this in mind when you’re thinking of lighting up.) The first cigarette you smoke probably does you no harm at all. The 150,000th — pack a day for twenty years — may, like W.C. Fields’ Fatal Glass of Beer, be the one that does you in. The dose is the poison.

It gets worse. An intense dose over a short period is generally far more toxic than the same dose spread out over a lifetime. Risk varies radically not only with the lifetime dose, but also with its rate, which renders extrapolation effectively impossible. Animal tests classically deal with this fact by ignoring it. Suppose you want to determine the long-term risks of swilling pistachio nuts and maraschino cherries, which contain Red Dye No. 3. Time’s a-wasting, and you don’t have 50 years to conduct your research. Instead you stuff a bunch of gerbils with a whole lot of Red Dye No. 3 over a few weeks or months and see what happens. If a few gerbils get cancer, you extrapolate, bury your reliance on the linear model in a couple of footnotes, and voilà! a new carcinogen. Politicians and journalists thunder against the unacceptable risks to maraschino cherry addicts, the Delaney Clause is invoked, Red Dye No. 3 is banned, a new, slightly less attractive red dye replaces it, and the cycle begins anew.

Good-sized industries have sprung up to exploit the linear fallacy. The EPA tells gullible homeowners to shell out a couple grand to a radon-removal outfit if their radon level in their water is more than 4 pCi/I (picocuries per liter). Turns out that exposure at that level for 20 years increases the lifetime risk of cancer by less than 1%, unless you also smoke, which bumps it up to a ghastly 3% or so. Mind you, this is not increased mortality, but increased risk of cancer. Since the lifetime risk for cancer is in the 25% range, we’re discussing, in terms of overall mortality, something less than 0.3%. Save your money and try to stay out of automobiles instead.

The asbestos boys make the radon boys look positively public-spirited. Asbestos is dangerous if you spend your life working with it; non-smoking asbestos workers have cancer rates about five times the general non-smoking population. Asbestos is essentially harmless when it’s minding its own business insulating pipes. In 1985 the British epidemiologists Doll and Peto estimated the annual lung cancer risk from such exposure to be 1 in 1,000,000; other reputable estimates are similar. Yet the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, passed in 1987, mandated asbestos removal for 45,000 public schools, many with airborne asbestos concentrations no higher than the outdoors. When you remove asbestos improperly you stir it up and increase the exposure, and since removing asbestos properly is extremely expensive the incentive to do it improperly is immense. $100 billion or so later, overall asbestos risk is probably higher than it ever was. Lead paint, Alar, DDT: the song remains the same.

So there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is you’re going to die of something. The good news is that it almost surely won’t be an exotic environmental poison.

Sep 272003

Don’t you hate it when people tell you to read something, when what you really need is less to read, not more? This blog, as ever, is at your service.

First stop reading the newspaper. My grievances against Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes are many and serious, but I have always admired his steadfast refusal to read the paper. If yesterday’s paper is good for nothing but wrapping fish, what does this say about what you’ve retained from yesterday’s paper? Besides, the news is depressing.

I know people who have read five times as many introductions to works of classic literature as works of classic literature. Don’t be one of them. Forewords and afterwords are to be treated like dessert: read, if at all, after the book, never before, lest you read through the eyes of Professor So-and-So instead of your own. Professor So-and-So tends to natter pointlessly anyway.

Biographies are the scandal sheets of the literate. Great geniuses have the shortest biographies, said Emerson, incorrectly. Great geniuses now have 800-page doorstops memorializing what they ate for breakfast. If you are interested in a novelist, read the novels; in a jurist, the opinions; in a philosopher, the philosophy; in a painter, look at the pictures. Biography is gossip. Worse, it is disingenuous gossip, which you can read in the guise of acquiring an education. Kelly Jane Torrance, among others, beat me to pointing this out; bully for her.

As I grow older I find more wisdom in Ezra Pound’s stricture that the best reading program is to know a dozen good books extremely well. (Not that ol’ Ez followed his own advice.) If your experience is anything like mine you will reliably forget most of any good book the first couple of times you read it, and misunderstand the rest. Then when you return to it you will be astonished at what an idiot you were. Which is an education in itself.

You can cut down on blogs substantially. Female bloggers, for instance. Not all of them, of course: I read several, ranging from the marvelously surly Andrea Harris to the effervescent Sasha Castel to the brilliant Megan McArdle. They have one thing in common: to my knowledge, they are childless. Mother bloggers inevitably start writing about how the school bully is picking on little Eustace or how little Tiffany has been punished for posting nastiness in someone else’s comments section and it was really her who wrote it, not me, no matter what you think, and how dare you call social services on me, and you must be deranged to imagine that I would do something like that. Follow the links if you must. The point is, you need not.

The biggest spread on Wall Street is reputed to be between your current job and your next one. The biggest spread in the universe, mothers, is between your own and everyone else’s interest in the doings of your precious darling. As for the Father of all Mother Bloggers, am I the only one who skips the Gnat parts?

Finally, stop reading the ingredients on the cereal package. Yes, you. If you’ve reached ascorbic acid and trisodium phosphate you’ve gone much, much too far.

(Update: George Wallace dubs excessive child-blogging Lilexia. I like it. Rick Coencas co-sponsors Lilexia. It’s a meme! It’s a viral meme! Brian Micklethwait comments.)

Sep 242003

Friedrich von Blowhard is on about story structure:

My son loves to watch Stuart Little 2; consequently, I have listened to this film a large number of times while out doing errands. Hearing the movie all the way through repeatedly, it finally dawned on me that its basic story structure is broken up into four roughly equal parts:

Part I — Introduction to our hero/heroines inner, emotional problem

Part II — Introduction to our hero/heroine’s outer, practical problem and the explanation of the link between it and the inner problem

Part III — First round of engaging the practical problem

Part IV — Second round of confrontation with practical problem, culminating in ultimate success or failure

Friedrich applies this to The Great Gatsby and amusingly concludes that it is really a noir, which, considered from a certain angle, it is.

Let’s take Friedrich’s notion out for a spin with one of my favorite novels, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

Part I — Isabel Archer sails from America to England to visit her cousins, the Touchetts. She is young, beautiful, clever, proud, naive, and single. She begins poor, but James provides her with a fortune, in his usual way, to allow her maximal freedom of action, or to put it differently, enough rope to hang herself. Isabel resolves to tour Europe to gain an education.

Part II — She is also touring Europe to find a husband. Suitors present themselves. First is Lord Warburton, who, being handsome, kind, well-spoken, titled, and immensely rich, clearly won’t do.

Part III — Next up is the young American magnate, Caspar Goodwood. Isabel, who by this time has fallen under the spell of the arch-European Madame Merle, refuses Goodwood because he is too good, too wooden, and just altogether too American. Instead she marries Madame Merle’s choice, the evil gold-digging aesthete Gilbert Osmond.

Part IV — Isabel realizes her error, which it is too late to correct, for super-subtle Jamesian reasons to which I cannot do justice in a sentence and to which James, in truth, doesn’t do justice in the novel either.

Well, it works, I guess. Yet it is too vague to satisfy. Friedrich deals in themes, when what we really need is a classification of plots.

Surely there are several plots even if there is only one theme. The Seven Plots (or however many there are, maybe fewer, certainly no more) is one of the desperately needed books that may never be written, along with Albert Goldman’s proposed Encyclopedia of Musical Plagiarism. One of the seven, I am sure, is the hourglass plot, in which two characters begin high and low, cross in the middle, like an hourglass, and swap positions at the end. Martin Amis, for one, can write nothing else. Success is quintessentially hourglass; and Money and The Information both rely heavily on hourglass elements.

Instructors in screenwriting are fond of talking about character arcs, and they may be on to something, much as it pains me to admit. Since all stories take place in time, make time the x-axis. Represent a character’s death as y=0. Graph the plot, with a single line if there is one main character, with more if, as in the hourglass, there is more than one. Zoom out and note the shape. There’s your plot type. A Greek tragedy would look like an upside-down hyperbola, the protagonist cruising at the peak of his powers until the sudden revelation, and disaster. Novels of descent — say, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — would look like straight lines with negative slope, with an occasional squiggle to keep the reader’s attention. Horatio Alger stories are the same, except positively sloped.

The Great Gatsby is another single-line affair, Gatsby himself being the only character who changes. It might be a skewed bell curve: Gatsby begins with nothing, reaches his peak with his affair with Daisy — “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts” — soon realizes that nothing will come of it, and is shortly thereafter found floating face-down in his swimming pool. Tales of peril and redemption will be inverted bell curves, skewed right when the peril takes more space than the redemption, the usual case.

A book’s merit, of course, has nothing to do with its graph. If The Seven Plots is ever written, let alone read, it will serve the useful purpose of dispelling the notion that some types of plots are better than others, and refocus the reader’s attention on other qualities, where it properly belongs.

Stanislaw Lem once wrote a little collection of reviews of non-existent books called A Perfect Vacuum. Its unstated premise was that the review rendered the actual book superfluous, and the titles themselves were marvelous — Die Kultur als Fehler (Civilization as Mistake) by Privatdozent W. Klopper, Being Inc. by Alastair Waynewright, Toi, “a novel about the reader,” by Raymond Seurat. A collection of reviews of non-existent books that we actually need would be an equally profitable exercise.

Sep 212003

Alexander Pope is the most widely quoted English poet after Shakespeare. You know a good deal of Pope whether you realize it or not. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. A little learning is a dangerous thing. What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. To err is human, to forgive divine. Hope springs eternal. Damn with faint praise. Whatever is, is right.

At the same time he is now nearly impossible to read at any length. The reasons for this are related, and interesting.

The 18th century made a fetish of “correctness,” and Pope wrote the vast majority of his verse the heroic couplet, the preferred form of the time. Pope translated Homer, among the least correct of poets, into heroic couplets; it is excruciating reading. His couplets are invariably end-stopped; grammatical units rarely extend beyond the two rhymed lines. The accents are heavy. The caesuras fall mid-line, after the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllables, almost without exception. Enjambment, being “incorrect,” is out of the question. The effect, after thirty or forty lines, is deadly, and Pope’s poems run 500 lines or more. Here is an oft-admired passage, the introduction to Book IV of The Dunciad:

Yet, yet a moment, one dim ray of light
Indulge, dread chaos, and eternal night!
Of darkness visible so much be lent,
As half to show, half veil, the deep intent.
Ye powers! whose mysteries restored I sing,
To whom time bears me on his rapid wing,
Suspend a while your force inertly strong,
Then take at once the poet and the song.

F.R. Leavis comments that “this astonishing poetry ought to be famous and current as the unique thing it is,” which testifies only to Professor Leavis’s capacity to be moved by heavy rhythms and trite language. The passage is as far as possible from being “unique”; it is a formulaic invocation to the Muses. It succeeds to the degree it does precisely because the language is stereotyped. Here Pope mocks the convention, as in The Rape of the Lock; unfortunately ironical triteness is still trite, and still dull. And Pope employs the same procedure perfectly seriously in other poems, such as Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, that Professor Leavis praises with nearly equal fervor.

Pope has better moments:

Beneath her foot-stool Science groans in chains,
And Wit dreads exile, penalties and pains.
There foamed rebellious Logic gagged and bound,
There, stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground.
His blunted arms by Sophistry are borne,
And shameless Billingsgate her robes adorn.
Morality, by her false guardians drawn,
Chicane in furs, and Casuistry in lawn,
Gasps, as they straiten at each end the cord,
And dies, when Dullness gives her page the word.

The passage is energetic but trivial. It would not make the slightest difference to its meaning if Wit were gagged, Science exiled, Morality in chains, Logic stripped, and Rhetoric garotted. And the monotonous movement has begun to set in.

The heroic couplet is indelibly associated with Pope in the history of English literature, but it can be used very differently. Consider this passage from Pope’s near-contemporary, Charles Churchill. He is satirizing Wiliam Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, a notable literary bully of the time.

Bred to the law, you wisely took the gown,
Which I, like Demas, foolishly laid down.
Hence double strength our Holy Mother drew;
Me she got rid of, and made prize of you.
I, like an idle Truant, fond of play,
Doting on toys, and throwing gems away,
Grasping at shadows, let the substance slip.
But you, my Lord, renounced Attorneyship
With better purpose, and more noble aim,
And wisely played a more substantial game.

The passage has a subtle and stately movement; Churchill achieves an especially brilliant effect by ending the self-description at line 7 while suspending the rhyme. One looks in vain for anything like it in Pope.

The 18th century loved its abstractions, large and capitalized. Yet reason, as we understand it, has very little do with Reason, morality with Morality, and science with Science. These facts can be put aside when reading short excerpts of Pope but quickly become impossible to avoid. Pope conceives of Reason as knowing one’s place in universe as the middle link in the Great Chain of Being. “To reason well,” he writes, “is to submit”:

In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.

Professor Lovejoy, whose book The Great Chain of Being is the best on the intellectual history of the century and a model for writing the history of ideas in general, properly terms this “rationalistic anti-intellectualism.” The Age of Reason turns out to be ironically named.

For all Pope’s apostrophes to Isaac Newton, his view of Science shows clearly enough in his lines on the microscope:

Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.

It’s poor flawed humanity jumping itself up again. True Science, intent, as Pope often writes, on seeing things whole, has no need for such artificial aids. Here Pope agrees with his friend Swift; Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, the voyage to Laputa, has much the same theme. It is anti-technology and at bottom anti-scientific. All told the microscope has had a rather more impressive career than seeing things whole has.

Ethics, similarly, is easily disposed of. If whatever is, is right, then what else do you need to know? “Equal are common sense and common ease.” Know and keep your place in the universe is what Pope preaches, everywhere and always. In practice this advice devolves into petty Toryism:

Order is heaven’s first law, and this confessed,
Some are, and must be, greater than the rest,
More rich, more wise.

The best poetry is rarely the most quotable; it derives much of its meaning from its context. Pope is highly quotable because he had a superb verbal gift; but the context is foolish. He is like an exceptionally brilliant student who has mastered his exercises and regurgitates them expertly. His poetry is unsatisfactory because the dominant ideas of his time are unsatisfactory. He might have written great poetry had he been born a hundred years earlier or two hundred later. Instead he was bequeathed a cheap and facile philosophy, lacked the intelligence to think his way out of it, and became a poet of glittering fragments, no more. His vices are those of his age; his virtues are his own.

(Update: Miriam Jones comments. Alex(ei) comments.)