Jun 202003

Niceness counts, your mother used to tell you, and so it does, for you and me. When you are one of the best in the world at what you do, niceness stops counting. I am reminded of this by the sportswriters’ treatment of Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds is one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, and his unearthly bat speed, unerring plate discipline and perfect balance make him a joy to watch. The pleasure he has given anyone who enjoys baseball, including some sportswriters, can never be repaid. He is also rather surly with the media and disinclined to give interviews. Tough. Nobody cares about how Barry Bonds’ relations with the press except the press, and if they had any respect for greatness they would keep quiet about it.

Babe Ruth, in another era, was celebrated for promising to hit home runs for sick children, although by the authoritative account he was a lout. But really, does anything matter about him except the way he played baseball?

I have quoted Yvor Winters before on the relations between distinguished poets and scholars, but his words serve equally well to describe the relations between great athletes and sportswriters:

To the scholar in question, the poet is wrong-headed and eccentric, and the scholar will usually tell him so. This is bad manners on the part of the scholar, but the scholar considers it good manners. If the poet, after some years of such experiences, loses his temper occasionally, he is immediately convicted of bad manners. The scholar often hates him (I am not exaggerating), or comes close to hating him, but if the poet returns hatred with hatred (and surely this is understandable), he is labeled as a vicious character, for, after all, he is a member of a very small minority group.

David Halberstam, he’s talking to you.

Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect, has an anecdote about a distinguished jurist, a member of the Supreme Court, who was profiled in a newspaper article the largest point of which was that the jurist rose early every morning and cooked breakfast for his family. In the forty-odd years since Barzun’s book was published his anecdote has been reprised countless times, almost exactly in the case of Justice Rehnquist, about whom ten people could tell you that he put stripes on his gown and sings Christmas carols for every one who could tell you a thing about his jurisprudence. This is supposed to “humanize” great men. By “humanizing” is meant “making seem more like you and me,” although what is interesting about the great is precisely what makes them unlike the rest of us. These “human” qualities are attractive or unattractive, according to the disposition of the writer: they are always irrelevant. I don’t want to see great men humanized. I want to see them praised, or even damned, for the qualities that make them great. Everything else is pornography.

(Update: Howard Owens comments.)

Jun 172003

The relative reputations of Oliver Goldsmith and George Crabbe have long troubled me; I worry about such things.

Goldsmith is best-known for The Deserted Village (1780), which still appears in many standard English literature textbooks, like the one I had in high school. Crabbe is scarcely known at all. Goldsmith slaughters him in a Googlefight by a three to one margin, although to be fair Goldsmith, unlike Crabbe, has some fame outside of his poetry for his plays and his one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, which are better than the poetry, and for being a butt of Samuel Johnson’s jokes, which are excellent.

The Deserted Village mourns the death of the English village, somewhat prematurely, in a manner befitting someone who spent most of his adult life in London coffeehouses:

And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree;
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
The young contending as the old survey’d;
And many a gambol frolick’d o’er the ground,
And sleights of art and feats of strength went round;
And still, as each repeated pleasure tir’d,
Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspir’d;
The dancing pair that simply sought renown
By holding out to tire each other down:
The swain mistrustless of his smutted face,
While secret laughter titter’d round the place;
The bashful virgin’s sidelong looks of love,
The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove…

Etcetry etcetry. You notice nothing because there is nothing to notice. Another dozen lines of this and we are informed that “all these charms have fled,” along with the villagers themselves. It does not occur to Goldsmith that the villagers may have fled because they thought that they would find a better, or at least less miserable, life in the city, which the mortality rates of the time bear out. Instead the usual villains, trade and wealth, are called to account:

But times are alter’d; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,
And every want to opulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.
Those gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
Those calm desires that ask’d but little room,
Those healthful sports that grac’d the peaceful scene,
Liv’d in each look, and brighten’d all the green,–
These, far departing, seek a kinder shore,
And rural mirth and manners are no more.

This poem irked Crabbe to no end, though not because of its foolish economics: why people left the village for the city concerns Crabbe not at all. What concerns him is Goldsmith’s sentimental picture of English rural life, which Crabbe, who grew up in the country and spent considerable time as a village parson, knew very well. In his reply, The Village (1783), he paints a rather different picture:

Where are the swains, who, daily labour done,
With rural games play’d down the setting sun;
Who struck with matchless force the bounding ball,
Or made the pond’rous quoit obliquely fall;…
Where now are these? Beneath yon cliff they stand,
To show the freighten pinnace where to land,
To load the ready steed with guilty haste,
To fly in terror o’er the pathless waste,
Or, when detected, in their straggling course,
To foil their foes by cunning or by force;
Or, yielding part (which equal knaves demand),
To gain a lawless passport through the land.

It is obvious whom to believe, but more than that, Crabbe’s verse is superior in every detail. His couplets are firm where Goldsmith’s are flabby. He eschews, except to mock, the clichés of the period, where Goldsmith indulges in them. “Swains” and “gambols” and “shades” that were already tired by the time Milton used them in Lycidas a century and a half before. There is nothing else especially rural about Goldsmith’s details; he seems to be viewing his subject from an immense distance, as, in fact, he is.

The Deserted Village lives, briefly, when he forgets that he is supposed to be apotheosizing the villagers and begins to satirize them instead. Thirty dull lines on the virtues of the minister, and then this:

The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e’en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.

I know bloggers like that. I may even be one. Goldsmith’s characterization of the “parlour splendours” of the “village statesmen” is also very sharp:

While broken teacups, wisely kept for show,
Rang’d o’er the chimney, glisten’d in a row.

These are the best lines in The Deserted Village. It is a poor harvest from a 400-line poem that has been in the canon for more than two centuries.

Crabbe’s village minister, on the other hand, is unforgettable:

And doth not he, the pious man, appear,
He, “passing rich with forty pounds a year?” [the quote is from Goldsmith]
Ah! no; a shepherd of a different stock,
And far unlike him, feeds this little flock:
A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday’s task
As much as God or man can fairly ask;
The rest he gives to loves and labours light,
To fields the morning, and to feasts the night;
None better skill’d the noisy pack to guide,
To urge their chase, to cheer them or to chide,
A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
And, skill’d at whist, devotes the night to play.

His village doctor is better still, or worse:

Anon, a figure enters, quaintly neat,
All pride and business, bustle and conceit;
With looks unaltered by these scenes of wo,
With speed that, entering, speaks his haste to go,
He bids the gazing throng around him fly,
And carries fate and physic in his eye:
A potent quack, long versed in human ills,
Who first insults the victim whom he kills;
Whose murd’rous hand a drowsy Bench protect,
And whose most tender mercy is neglect.

Crabbe is at his best in natural description. He was a sort of amateur botanist, who annoyed his wife by bringing home mosses and lichens and spreading them around the bedroom. Goldsmith’s description is all “mossy” this and “shady” that; here is Crabbe’s:

From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thin harvest waves its wither’d ears;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o’er the land, and rob the blighted rye;
There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infant threaten war;
There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil,
There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf,
O’er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.

“Sickly” in particular, with its double meaning, is a master-stroke. You will not find more accurate nature poetry than this in any English poet save Hardy — not in Wordsworth, who interested himself in nature only as a prop for his jejune philosophy, and certainly not in Goldsmith.

Crabbe also provides a clue to Goldsmith’s continuing popularity, and to his own neglect:

From this chief cause these idle praises spring,
That themes so easy few forbear to sing;
For no deep thought the trifling subjects ask;
To sing of shepherds is an easy task;
The happy youth assumes the common strain,
A nymph his mistress, and himself a swain;
With no sad scenes he clouds his tuneful prayer,
But all, to look like her, is painted fair.

I couldn’t say it any better myself. So I won’t try.

(Update: Several solecisms corrected. I was drunk when I wrote this.)

Jun 142003

There is pleasure in the wet, wet clay,
When the artist’s hand is potting it.
There is pleasure in the wet, wet lay,
When the poet’s pad is blotting it.
There is pleasure in the shine of your picture on the line
At the Royal Acade-my;
But the pleasure felt in these is as chalk to Cheddar Cheese
When it comes to a well-made Lie.–
To a quite unwreckable Lie,
To a most impeccable Lie!
To a water-tight, fire-proof, angle-iron, sunk-hinge, time-lock, steel-faced Lie!
Not a private hansom Lie,
But a pair-and-brougham Lie,
Not a little-place-at-Tooting, but a country-house-with-shooting
And a ring-fence-deer-park Lie.

–Rudyard Kipling

What’s a lie, anyway? The question is not so obvious. One might say it’s an untrue statement, which seems a bit harsh, as it makes habitual liars out of all of us. A while back I wrote that the Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell was unanimous, when it was actually 8-1. Was I lying, or was I merely mistaken?

Or one might say that it’s a statement that one knows to be false. In this case I’m off the hook for Buck v. Bell, which I thought was unanimous. Of course you will have to take my word for that, and therein lies the difficulty. You have no access to my inner life, or anyone’s except your own. The Bedlamite may really believe he is Napoleon Bonaparte.

Predictions, by any standard, cannot be lies. As a rule any statement in the conditional or future tense is disqualified. When Bush says that we will find WMDs in Iraq, he can’t be lying if we turn out not to find them. When Max Sawicky writes that “the biggest lie…is the Bushist denial that a successful Iraqi occupation would require many more troops than it is currently within the power of the U.S. to station,” he is discussing a policy disagreement, not a lie, unless Bush has personally informed Max that he knew better all along, which I rather doubt. When Howard Owens lists among anti-war lies that “there will be 500,000 dead and wounded,” “Saddam will destroy his oil fields,” “the Arab street will revolt,” and “there will be more terrorist attacks on the United States,” sorry, but those aren’t lies either.

This is not to say that Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell et al. weren’t lying. Maybe Powell really did fabricate evidence of Iraqi WMDs for his UN speech, although that would be pretty foolish, and Powell has been accused of many things but rarely foolishness. Maybe all of Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s talk about Iraqi-sponsored terrorism was calculated to distract the public from their secret plans for world hegemony. Maybe. The point is I don’t know, and neither do you.

In general trying to catch politicians lying is a fruitless exercise. They are expert in avoiding it. Even the First Golf Cheat had to be subpoenaed before he was finally nailed in a ring-fence-deer-park lie. Error is objective, and for the most part we would be best off sticking to that. It makes for less catchy slogans though.

(Update: Howard Owens comments.)

Jun 132003

My blogging holiday was lovely, thanks for asking. I spent a good portion of it trying to figure out how to use a remote Oracle database in a Microsoft .NET application, no easy trick because Microsoft’s support for Oracle is largely theoretical. They don’t really want you to use Oracle at all when you can use SQL Server, their wretched excuse for a production database, instead. Which is all neither here nor there. And now, drugs, which I assure you I was thinking about even before embarking on this excellent adventure.

Full Disclosure: I have a good bit of personal, if not professional, experience with drug use. Several of my friends were heavy users of alcohol, crack, and heroin at various times. I have myself indulged in — “experimented with,” if I were running for office — all of the major food groups at least a couple times. (Q: Mr. Haspel, how many times have you experimented with marijuana? A: Several thousand times, sir. Science requires replicable results.)

Theodore Dalrymple points out, by way of prologue, that heroin withdrawal isn’t all it’s, er, cracked up to be:

I cant tell you how many people Ive withdrawn from heroin. You never get any problems with it. Its not like withdrawal from serious drinking which can be, and often is, a medical emergency. From a medical point of view, Im much more worried in the prison when someone tells me hes an alcoholic. Im much more worried about the physical consequences of his withdrawal because they are really serious, and he can die from them. But nobody ever dies from heroin withdrawal. With the vast majority of them, you just take them aside and say: “Im not prescribing anything for you, I will prescribe symptomatic relief if I see you have symptoms, but what you tell me has nothing to do with it, Im not going to be moved by any of your screaming.” One chap came in and said “What are you prescribing me?” and I said “Nothing”, and he screamed at me, “Youre a butcher! Youre a f***ing butcher”, and he screamed and shouted and eventually I said “Take him away.”

In their more honest moments my drug-using friends have all acknowledged that Dalrymple is right: quitting, alcohol excepted, just isn’t all that tough. Most junkies have quit and returned several times when physical dependence was no longer an issue. I’ve quit smoking twice myself, suffering nothing more than low-level irritability probably indiscernible from my usual demeanor. The inner emptiness where nicotine once was never quite disappears, but whether that is physical or psychological who can say? So to me Jacob Sullum’s tale of the 44-year-old big-shot ad executive/weekend smack dabbler sounds utterly plausible.

Then why do so many people let drugs consume their lives, if it isn’t to avoid a couple days of the flu? Boredom, mostly. Human beings are goal-directed to such a degree that they will substitute a destructive goal if nothing constructive presents itself. Drugs fit the bill admirably. You think you need more, you want more, you have nothing better to do, and you go out and get more. Now you have a goal. Now your life has meaning.

This pseudo-meaning is enhanced by ceremony and ritual, a vastly underrated aspect of drug culture. Paraphernalia assume a mystical significance. Many cigarette smokers worship at the Shrine of Zippo. Some potheads of my acquaintance used to insist on using a particular double album, usually by Genesis, to clean weed. Cokeheads like to snort through $100 bills. Heroin users have the spoon, the tie, and the needle; crack users the pipe and the Chore-Boy (you trap the fumes and get a second hit by lighting it — less powerful, but included in the price). Psychedelics failed to achieve the popularity they deserved in large part because they have no paraphernalia; in cultures that supply a substitute, like peyote-based religious rituals, they are popular.

All-consuming drug use travesties purposeful behavior, the way the Mafia travesties legitimate business. And drug users testify, strangely, to the Misesian proposition that man is a being who acts toward ends.

Post scripta: Drug names are an excellent illustration of Hayek’s thesis about the collective wisdom of the marketplace that may not have occurred to Hayek himself. The market produces crack, smack, crank, ice, pot, blow, and X; committees produce — you can choose your own, but some of my recent favorites are Intuition (a razor for women), Deja Blue (bottled water), and Teen Spirit (a deodorant, God help us).

(Update: Eve Tushnet comments very nicely, but says I lack permalinks. It’s that little chain icon on the right. This from a Blogspot blogger, no less; ah, the irony.)

Jun 082003

Old joke. Q: How can you spot an intellectual? A: He’s the guy in the corner worrying about “the problem of the intellectuals.” The problem of blogging, then.

The principal lesson of blogs is that the market price for reasonably well-considered rumination is zero, and the competition for readers at that price is fierce. This understandably alarms people who are paid for ruminating — “thumb-sucking” in the argot — as opposed to reporting. It also explains both big-media hostility to bloggers, and concomitantly, blogger hostility to big media, columnists in particular. Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman are regularly savaged by people who write as well as they do, think much better, and must wonder to themselves why Dowd and Krugman have highly-paid jobs at The New York Times while all they have is their damn blogs.

It is odd, and unprecedented, that people think they ought to be able to make a living doing what they enjoy. Back in the salad days of Spy magazine, its writers were paid almost literally minimum wage, and there were 50 people who were dying to work there for every one who did. Anyone who has taken a freshman economics course will tell you that these two facts are intimately related. (One of Spy‘s best writers was asked at his year-end review what he wanted in the coming year. “More money,” he answered. He went on to become a well-known TV producer and is now richer than Croesus.)

Michael Blowhard has an essay on the economics of book-writing that has inspired a fair amount of hand-wringing in the thread. He gives several reasons for writing a book, the most important of which is being “an obsessed lunatic.” It is to obsessed lunatics that we owe the greater part of the world’s permanent literature. For most of history authors not only didn’t make money from their work, but often risked their lives by publishing it. Although it is impossible to assess a counterfactual, I see no evidence that this seriously impoverished literature. To take an obvious instance, Russian literature flowered under conditions so harsh as to be nearly unfathomable. Thomas Gray may believe in “mute inglorious Miltons,” but I don’t. Neither does Ludwig von Mises, who essentially exempts art, or art worth having, from economic calculation:

The activities of [artistic geniuses] cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is not leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about a result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation…

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him…

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact of praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses this term.

The productivity of labor has become so high in this country that most anyone who has bothered to acquire some marketable skills and is not grimly devoted to his job is awash in leisure. Trollope, who produced 40-odd novels by arising at 4 AM daily and writing for two hours before his day job at the post office, would envy us. The Marxist fantasy of a people milking cows in the morning and practicing drama criticism at night has nearly come to pass, though not in the way that Marx intended. You want to make money and write in your spare time, be my guest. You want to make money writing, write romance novels or technical texts. You want to make money writing serious books about your cherished passions, go whine to someone else.

(Update: AC Douglas comments. The Digerati Peninsula comments.)

Jun 082003

Homework help continues apace, as the search strings grow increasingly, and suspiciously, specific. IP wants to know “what does no man moved me mean in Emily Dickinson’s poem I started early I walked my dog”? He further inquires “what does frigates in the upper floor mean in Emily Dickinson’s poem I started early I walked my dog”?

Well,, the poem begins, “I started early, took my dog,” not “I walked my dog.” You might want to reread it a couple times before resorting to Yahoo. As for “frigates,” consult the dictionary: they’re ships. The “upper floor” is the sea’s surface; you will note that mermaids are in “the basement.” You’ve heard of rats deserting sinking ships? Rats (and mice) board them the same way, on ropes. That’s what “hempen hands” are.

“No man moved me” is more difficult. The sea in this poem represents, most generally, destructive power. It is death, and has elements of male sexuality as well: the tide goes “past my bodice” and “made as he would eat me up.” She is saying that she was untouched by, and even unaware of, this power until she experienced it; and having done so, she flees to the safety of “the solid town.” The sea withdraws, like a proper gentleman, but its latent power remains, and we shall all confront it eventually.

I trust you can write your term paper now, and next time you have questions, just ask, OK?

Jun 062003

It was beautiful biking weather today, roller-bladers were scarce, and to top it off, so to speak, I saw a guy with a Kid ‘do, a bit wilted from basketball but a good ten inches tall in its full glory. Or maybe it was a Play ‘do, who can remember?

Anyone who bicycles in New York will eventually encounter a Mexican man, in his 50s or 60s, riding sedately on a low bicycle — usually with a front basket, a banana seat, and a sissy bar — festooned from end to end with bells, lights, horns, streamers, and occasionally pictures of the Virgin Mary. Lacking a camera I can’t do this justice, but it is one weird subculture, and there’s a paid article in it for someone more industrious than I am.

And while I have been failing to fill what Spinal Tap called a “much-needed void,” have a look at Alan Sullivan’s seaworthy new design, one of Sekimori’s better efforts. You should of course be reading him anyway. He’s a real poet, I just talk about them. Stumbling Tongue has a stirring defense of ignorance. Colby Cosh, who embarrassingly posts more when he says he isn’t blogging than I do when I say I am, discusses the politics of Witness, that Amish movie from the ’80s, but fails, oddly, to note how remarkably thick Kelly McGillis’s neck is.

Jun 032003

Special thanks to AC Douglas, for flagging this bitter little resumé of the state of poetry. And extra-special thanks to “Abiyah,” “a locally acclaimed hip-hop artist,” for touching, in one ill-written paragraph, on everything that has gone wrong with aesthetic theory in the last couple of centuries:

Certainly, there are basics of poetry that may need to be learned, but the learning of these techniques may inhibit rather than enhance the Hip Hop poets ability to express himself or herself. Academia or academic settings tend to discourage the Hip Hop poet, especially those who are innovative and experimental. Poems cannot and will not be created by recipe. In a classroom setting, particularly one focusing on creative writing, pre-emptive judgment calls by an instructor on the validity of a students poetry can be extremely detrimental. The instructor must be well-versed in cross-cultural contexts in order to fairly interpret each individual students poems.

Put aside the question of how one is to know that one is original by cultivating a studious ignorance of the history of poetry. Like Keynes’s proverbial madman who hears voices in the air, Abiyah assuredly has no idea what a profound debt she owes to academic scribblers, a bunch of late eighteenth-century German and English aestheticians in her case. “Innovation” and “experimentation” did not spring, like Athena, fully armed from Zeus’s breast. Until quite recently poetry was generally conceded to give words to the familiar: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Folk poetry like The Iliad is this way practically by definition.

The Elizabethans did not especially prize originality. They often rewrote each other’s poems, trying to improve them. (This tradition, ironically, survives in hip-hop in the remix, although for rather different reasons.) One of Ben Jonson’s best lyrics, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” is a translation of Philostratus, an accurate one, the scholars say, though lacking Greek I cannot judge. The theory of the organic imagination originated, probably, with Herder and Schelling at the end of the eighteenth century, and was popularized, plagiarized, and jargonized by Coleridge — “esemplastic imagination,” “assimilative power,” “coadunating faculty,” and the like. The mind of the genius was supposed to be not like a mirror, reflecting an agreed-upon external reality, but like a plant, taking mere nourishment from reality and recombining it in strange and wonderful ways. (Shakespeare, its best illustration, largely owes this theory his exalted reputation.) Hence originality is the true mark of genius. It is a small distance from originality to shock, and from this theory to épater les bourgeois.

Our locally acclaimed hip-hop artist is certain the purpose of poetry is to express oneself. I’ve got a news flash for you, cupcake: nobody cares about your precious personality except your mother, and maybe not her either, if she’s anything like my mother. Self-expression, too, is a relatively recent development in aesthetic theory, heralded by the ever-grandiose Wordsworth in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which makes it sound a good deal like road rage. The more spontaneity, the better, according to J.S. Mill: Natural poetry, the best kind, “is Feeling itself, employing Thought only as the medium of its utterance.” Naturally technique and study are positive hindrances to spontaneity; our hip-hop artist reminds us that “poems cannot and will not be written by recipe.” This whole business so irked T.S. Eliot that he called for “the extinction of personality”; too late. The spiritual descendant of Wordsworth and Mill is Picasso, with his “Whatever I spit — that is art.” And here we are.

*The definitive work on the evolution of these ideas is M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, although Abrams appears not to recognize the disastrous consequences of the ideas that he chronicles so thoroughly.

Jun 022003

I just finished Michael Lewis’s terrific book about Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who consistently fields a great team with one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues. The A’s are baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s particular albatross. Selig harps on the need for more baseball socialism (“revenue-sharing”) because of the alleged “inability of small market teams to compete,” when in fact it is only incompetently managed small market teams who can’t, Selig’s own Milwaukee Brewers prominent among them. Beane must drive him to drink. Now to anyone who has played fantasy baseball and read Bill James, which seems to be half of the male portion of the blogosphere, how to put together a winning baseball team with little money is no secret. You exploit inefficiencies, which is to say, you take advantage of the fact that many baseball executives are stupid. Certain traits are overvalued by other teams, like sculpted physiques or blazing speed or cannon arms. These don’t translate very well into on-field success anyway, and you ignore them. Other, more useful traits, like a deceptive pitching motion or the ability to draw walks, are undervalued, and these are what you look for.

The golden rule is that past performance indicates future performance, and ugly doesn’t count. Essentially you work from the spreadsheet instead of the scouting report. Scouts hate that. So do fans, stat geeks like me excepted, because it slights any knowledge of the game that comes from actually watching it. When I played in a fantasy league I would regularly tell other owners that they watched too much baseball, and that they needed to stop believing their own eyes. I was delighted to note that Beane often tells his scouts the same thing.

Beane himself is a former major-league player and hot prospect of exactly the type that he has trained himself, and his staff, to ignore. He was a high-school “tools” player, the type who looks better playing than he actually plays, and so highly regarded that many scouts and executives wanted to draft him first in his class, ahead of such future luminaries as Darryl Strawberry. But Beane’s tools never translated into major-league success. By his own account, his temper destroyed him as a player: he couldn’t cope with failure, and one bad at-bat would wreck his game, or his week.

In other words, Beane, instead of hiring in his own image, has become a brilliant success by doing the opposite. If there are other executives who have done this, I don’t know who they are.

(Dr. Manhattan reviews the book at greater length.)

(Update: Floyd McWilliams comments.)

(Update: Robert Birnbaum has an interesting interview with Lewis.)

May 282003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle

Since Jim Henley kindly listed me among poetry bloggers, the least I can do is a little poetry blogging, I figure. Remember that endless series on How to Read a Poem I wrote a while back? Thought not, but no matter: it’s practice time. I will take Wallace Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice-Cream, partly because it’s interesting and short, partly because Stevens is one of my favorite poets, partly because it’s inscrutable on first reading, and mostly because AC Douglas suggested it, and I like to indulge AC Douglas. The third-party imprimatur also protects me from accusations of choosing a poem that happens to illustrate my theories, not that I would ever do such a thing.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

My advice was first to paraphrase, and to paraphrase first look up words that you don’t understand in context, “deal” in my case. There is nothing mysterious about “a dresser of deal”: “Deal” is a term from the lumber trade, meaning a board of fir or pine at least 3″ by 9″. (Stevens’ Collected Poems actually has a period after “deal,” which shatters the syntax, so I’ve followed most editors and used a comma instead.)

Now that we know all the words, what the hell is going on? Some sort of social event, whose nature is finally cleared up in the second stanza, when a sheet (embroidered with fantails, in a stab at art) is pulled from a dresser to cover a woman’s head. This is a low-class funeral, with flowers in last month’s newspapers, sloppy wenches, and a dresser with three glass knobs missing.

I also recommended pillaging the poet’s life and work, should it prove useful. Here it does. Stevens was a wealthy and cultivated man who knew Key West well, which is probably where this poem takes place, since ice-cream was commonly served at funerals. His poetry has a single theme: hedonism. For Stevens all is illusion but immediate sensation. “Let be be finale of seem” means “Abandon all effort to give meaning to existence, and take what comfort you can from the roiling life around you.”

Ready to paraphrase:

“Observe the cheap goings-on in this cheap kitchen at a funeral: girls who won’t dress properly, a cigar-roller making ice-cream, a boy bringing flowers in old newspapers.

“Now go to the next room, where the dead woman’s body is laid out, uncovered. Take a sheet out of the drawer and give her a shroud. The sheet is hand-cut, but embroidered with fantails; she tried to make some art out of her life, poor as it was. But the sheet’s too short and her feet stick out, making her look even colder and deader than when she was uncovered. Artifice fails to hide the brute facts. Take a good look. (‘Let the lamp affix its beam.’) Reality is in the kitchen, and there is nothing else.”

If you prefer, Helen Vendler, a reliably awful critic, supplies a more overwrought version. Ignore the prefatory chatter about ur-narratives and ur-forms.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream essentially inverts ars longa, vita brevis, the embroidered sheet being literally too short to serve even as a proper shroud. Vita, if we translate it loosely as animal vitality, is what lasts. Truth resides with the wenches, the muscular roller, the big cigars, and the concupiscent curds. In the idiom of the seventh line, be trumps seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Now that I understand the poem, I don’t like it. Stevens’ immense metrical gift does not desert him; the last two lines of each stanza are beautifully executed tetrameter/alexandrine couplets, which are almost impossible to manage gracefully in English verse, where pentameter is expected. But the poem is snobbish: Stevens invites the reader to sneer at the characters of the poem as from a hill. It is written entirely in the imperative, except for the last line of each stanza, to some unspecified hearer. Imperative tense, used this way, enforces distance: when the boxing announcer says “Let’s get ready to ruuuumble!” you can be sure that you (or he) won’t be doing any rumbling, personally. Stevens takes special pains to remove himself, and his reader, from the scene, the better to hold his nose. Even the pleasures of hedonism are only for the few, and only for a while, and here they have spoiled. Now hedonism is an exceptionally limited view of the world, but it has real compensations, and Stevens has written about them elsewhere, in some of the greatest lines of the last century:

She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

(Update: AC Douglas offers his own analysis. He doesn’t seem quite as unhappy with mine as the rest of my commentators.)