Jan 202003

self-portraitHe died just shy of 100, the greatest and best-known caricaturist of the 20th century, and he drew until the very end. It is odd to say he was underrated, but familiarity bred, if not contempt, then more familiarity and when you saw him every week in the Sunday Times it was easy to forget what a master of line and tone he was, how much he could do with how little.

Early in his career Hirschfeld dated his drawings. When his daughter Nina was born in 1945 he started hiding her name several times in each drawing; NINA-hunting became a popular sport, so he put the number of NINAs next to his signature instead of the date. One day a devoted fan complained to Hirschfeld that of 43 NINAs she could find only 29. (Howard Owens also has a few words.)

Jan 202003

ANSWER, of the pro-Milosevic, pro-Kim-Jong-il, pro-socialist, pro-mass-murder agenda, organizes a rally against war on Iraq. If you march, how much ancillary support do you give to ANSWER?

Oliver Willis and others who say “none” are surely wrong. The point of a rally is the crowd. When you join a crowd you become of the crowd; you put away individual things. Careful intellectual discriminations are not included with the package. Bigger crowds mean more publicity for ANSWER, and all publicity, as bloggers know better than anyone, is good publicity.

Tacitus says “complete” and Megan McArdle almost agrees. They’re wrong too. More accurately, you support the views for which the organizers are widely known. You can hardly be held responsible for their secret (or at least obscure) views. This is why the analogy Megan gives, of a KKK-sponsored rally for abandoned puppies, is tendentious. The Klan is properly associated in the minds of most of us with white supremacism, not animal welfare.

If you attend a rally, you don’t support, in any significant way, the views the organizers hold. What you do support, besides the views for which they’re already known, is the views that they express that day. And if you marched at the anti-war rally you supported various nasty strains of loopy anti-Americanism. Jim Henley can wave his “PEACE NOW SOCIALISM NEVER” sign as vigorously as he likes, but this weekend he, and all the others of similar convictions who marched, gave aid and comfort to the people that they profess to despise, just the same.

Jan 192003

(Read Part I. Promised tomorrow, three days ago. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Those who prefer the gossip without the theory should skip to the bottom.)

The “New Critics,” now very old or dead critics, having had their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, were a diverse group united, sort of, in the belief that the poem was “autotelic,” in the contemporary jargon. The poem was self-contained and to be read as such. Biography in particular was rigorously excluded: to introduce it was to commit what W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley called “the intentional fallacy,” which held the author’s intention to be irrelevant to the meaning of a poem. “Critical inquiries,” they intoned, “are not settled by consulting the oracle.”

Now that the Age of Psychology is in full flower, and the work serves mostly as grist for invidious speculation about the life, Wimsatt and Beardsley seem quaint. At least critics back then were still trying to interpret the poem. (It goes especially hard these days with authors whose lives were uneventful, like Emily Dickinson. A quiet life is easy to fill with speculation, and her feminist critics, especially, have not hesitated. Anyone inclined to psychoanalysis could have a field day with the critics of “My life had stood a loaded gun.”)

Yet poems do not float in the ether: some context is relevant. The date of composition matters, surely. Words change meanings. Critics who wish to find in a modern poet the secondary meaning of “come to orgasm” in the word “die” will embarrass themselves, since it disappeared by the 18th century. Words go in and out of favor. Our Hardy poem was written in the 1890s, when “hither and thither” were not archaic as they are now. Grammar changes: the dangling participle, considered illiterate now, is a common construction among learned Elizabethans. (See Greville’s “Down in the depths” for instance.)

If we take the “intentional fallacy” at its word, however, it is just as valid to find a pun on “die” in Wallace Stevens as it is in John Donne, and as valid to criticize Greville for a dangling participle as Wordsworth. Wimsatt and Beardsley are right to prefer public evidence, what is found in the poem, to private evidence, what is found elsewhere; but surely one cannot read private evidence out of the record altogether. (Borges’ little fable about Pierre Menard, who rewrote Don Quixote word for word, but 300 years later, making it a different work entirely, is an excellent joke on Wimsatt and Beardsley, or maybe on me, I’m not sure which.)

Nor are dates a mere matter of grammar and etymology. A Christian poem written in the 16th century is a good deal different from one written in the 20th. Without a substantial grounding in medieval theology and philosophy Dante’s Inferno is impossible to understand. Poems are not composed “autotelically”; how can they be read that way?

Even biographical information has its uses. Hardy was a widower who cherished his late wife and addressed many poems to her. One does not need this information to read “My spirit will not haunt the mound” — to which we will keep returning in this series, I promise — but one’s understanding of a line like “I and another used to know/ In backward days” is surely enriched by the fact.

(And now some New Critic gossip from the fine poet Tim Murphy, who had Robert Penn Warren (did anyone really call him “Red”?) and Cleanth Brooks at Yale: “The first time I met Professor Brooks was when the Warrens took me to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. The house was an 18th century Vermont farmhouse, post and beam, lovingly reassembled in the woods north of New Haven. The beams were about five feet eight off the ground, which was fine for Cleanth and his wife but a headache for anyone else. One guest was the great prosodic theorist, William Wimsatt. At six feet seven, he stooped with chin atop one of the beams, peering down at the proceedings like a bemused owl.

“The last time I saw Cleanth Brooks he chaired my oral examination as Scholar of the House in poetry. Like the other eleven SoH’s, I’d been given my senior year off; and I spent it reading all of Shakespeare twice, writing verse, learning Greek, adding to the twenty-five thousand lines Warren had had me memorize, chasing boys, and doing drugs. Having forgotten all about the oral, I’d dropped acid around 4:00 in the morning. At 8:30 the Dean’s office called: “Where are you?” Tripping my brains out, I ran the four blocks to Strathcona Hall. There sat Brooks, flanked by two assistant profs who hated my guts. For the next two hours I recited Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Timmy, leaving little time for questions. When I left, fearing disgrace, I’m told that Brooks urged that Murphy be given Honors for a year productively spent. Mine enemies dared not demur. The end result of this performance was that a terrible student was lifted from the ranks of the unlettered and granted a cum laude degree. Once more, I had escaped.”)

Jan 192003

Bloggers can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that the whereabouts of Kelly Jane Torrance have been verified, but is anyone else worried about Wilde? First he’s stirring up linking/delinking trouble, then he stops updating, then a few vague mutterings about ISP trouble and the next thing you know the plug is pulled. Please report in with any sightings.

(Update: Wilde is back, now as American Empire. Stop in and say hello.)

Jan 182003

The production of The Mikado that I saw last night featured references to junk bond salesmen, Saddam Hussein, the Marx Brothers, cell phones, “checkout girls at Rite-Aid perpetually pissed” (special liberties were taken with “I’ve Got a Little List”), and an amusing meta-reference to all of its modern references. I found this patronizing, although most of the audience seemed to like it. The Mikado‘s contemporary relevance ought to be apparent — the “statesmen of a compromising kind”, “happy undeserving A” vs. “wretched meritorious B”, “to let the punishment fit the crime”, etc. — without filching stuff from the newspapers. If not, why put it on? And after all, there are few or no explicit references to British current events of the 1880s and 90s in the originals. I enjoyed the show notwithstanding, because a well-sung Mikado is impossible not to enjoy.

My commentators may now inform me what a curmudgeon I am. I will construe silence as agreement.

Jan 182003

The Rabbit wants to know, or pretends to want to know, what “Jamaicas of Remembrance” are in the following bit from Emily Dickinson:

And so encountering a Fly
This January day
Jamaicas of Remembrance stir
That send me reeling in.

I will answer the question as if it were serious though this will no doubt lead to my being made fun of. Humiliation favors the bold.

Emily Dickinson spent a lot of effort in her poetry on being odd, although she was pretty odd without trying. She would pick the proximate word very often, not the obvious one but the next one over. Most of her really weird locutions can be traced to this habit. Sometimes it would work, more often not. There’s an instance of each in “There’s a certain slant of light”:

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the heft
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it any,
‘Tis the seal, despair,–
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ’tis like the distance
On the look of Death.

In the first stanza “heft” for “weight” is such an obvious failure, in apposition to “oppresses,” that her first editor, Mabel Todd, used “weight” anyway, even though it has no textual warrant. On the other hand, in the last stanza, “look of Death” for “face of Death” is completely successful. You win a few, you lose a few.

“Jamaicas of Remembrance” is like that. “Jamaica” is an exotic and uncharted region, or was in 1884, and that’s all she means. It sounds like it should be more but it isn’t. (The preceding analysis was partly lifted from the late and great J.V. Cunningham.)

Jan 172003

A while back I took Objectivism to task for its argument in favor of free will. That argument is still lousy, for the reasons I supplied. But in its stead I proposed an equally bad argument, that Newcomb’s Paradox renders incoherent the concept of a superbeing with the ability to predict human behavior:

Consider the following thought experiment, known after its inventor as Newcomb’s Paradox: You have two boxes, A and B. A contains a thousand dollars. B contains either a million dollars or nothing. If you choose A, you get the contents of A and B. If you choose B, you get the contents of B only.

Imagine there is something — a machine, an intelligence, a mathematical demon — that can predict your choice with, say, 90% accuracy. If it predicts you choose A, it puts nothing in B. If it predicts you choose B, it puts the million in B. Which do you choose? (Just so you don’t get cute, if the machine predicts you will decide by some random method like a coin flip, it also leaves B empty.)

The paradox lies in the absolutely plausible arguments for either alternative. Two accepted principles of decision theory conflict. The expected utility principle argues for Box B: if you calculate your payoff you will find it far larger if the predictor is 90%, or even 55%, accurate. But the dominance principle, that if one strategy is always better you should choose it, argues for Box A. After all, the being has already made its decision. Why not take the contents of Box B and the extra thousand dollars?

I would argue that paradoxes cannot exist and that the predictor (and therefore, determinism) is impossible.

I ran this past the estimable Julian Sanchez, a far better philosopher than I, who answered as follows:

You are posed the problem of predicting the output of [a computer] program TO the program. The program asks you: predict what I will respond. And the program is perfectly deterministic, but structured such that once it takes your prediction as an input, the (stated) prediction will be false, even though, of course, you can PRIVATELY know that given your input, it will respond in some different way. (For simplicity’s sake, assume the only outputs are “yes” and “no” — if you “predict” yes to the program, you know that in actuality, it will output “no” — the opposite of your stated “predicition.) This isn’t perfectly analogous to Newcomb’s paradox (with the two boxes, etc.) but I think the point holds good. It looks like something is a problem with free will — if some superbeing predicted our behavior, we could always deliberately act to falisfy the prediction once we knew it. But as the example with the simple computer program shows, that’s not an issue of free will, it’s a problem with feedback loops — with making a projected future state of a system an input into that state.

The light dawned: it’s the interaction that’s the problem, not the superbeing himself. Julian is just as good with other people’s bad arguments and you ought to read him regularly.

Jan 162003

Juan Non-Volokh writes:

Before the D.C. Circuit, occasional [Volokh] Conspiracy participant Erik Jaffe submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Eagle Forum, pointing out that, read literally, the copyright clause does grants Congress the power “to promote the progress of Science and useful Arts,” and then proceeds to specify the means through which that power can be exercised (securing exclusive rights for limited times, etc.). The preamble does not limit the power, it is the power. Therefore, any grant of a copyright which does not promote progress is beyond the explicit grant of power. This argument is not particularly complicated or elegant, but it was enough to convince Judges Sentelle and Tatel on the D.C. Circuit and, in my mind, would have had the best chance of reaching some of the conservative justices on the High Court. Yet for whatever reason, the petitioners never adopted it below, and by the time they reached the High Court, it was too late to do anything about it.

The Copyright Clause is nearly identical, in its structure, to the Second Amendment. One refers to a power, the other to a right, but in both cases the first clause states the purpose, the second the means. So if one accepts this argument in Eldred v. Ashcroft, wouldn’t it follow that the right of the people to keep and bear arms extends only so far as is necessary to maintain “a well regulated Militia”? Yet Eugene Volokh argues elsewhere (I’m quite sure, although I can’t find a decent reference) that the first clause of the Second Amendment does not constrain the Second in this fashion.

Not that Volokhs and non-Volokhs are obliged to agree, of course.

Jan 152003

Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle
Part VI: Practice

“Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.” –Ezra Pound

It should also be at least as well read. Poems are in words, words have denotations, and strings of words have, or ought to have, a logical meaning. The reader’s first obligation is to figure out what that meaning is. This is as true in poetry as in prose. The critic Cleanth Brooks devoted a famous book, The Well-Wrought Urn, to debunking what he called “the heresy of paraphrase,” by which he meant that the meaning of a poem is not identical with its paraphrase. Of course this is true — there would be no reason to write the poem if it weren’t; but I think even Brooks would concede that if we can’t approximate the poem in prose then we aren’t likely to get very far. Consider this poem from Thomas Hardy:

My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.

My phantom-footed shape will go,
When nightfall grays,
Hither and thither along the ways
I and another used to know
In backward days.

And there you’ll find me, if a jot
You still should care
For me, and for my curious air;
If otherwise, then I shall not,
For you, be there.

Forget about the rhyme and the meter for the moment. Just lay it out in prose and ask yourself, what is Hardy talking about? The narrator refers to “his spirit” his “tremulous being,” and his “phantom-footed shape.” The narrator is imagining himself posthumously, as a ghost; once you realize this the other details fall into place. The “mound above my breast” is the dirt on his grave; he will come out “when nightfall grays” because that is when ghosts appear.

A prose paraphrase would go something like this: I will live, after I die, in the places that I loved and in the memories of the people whom I loved and who loved me. Only they, the living, can bring me, the dead, to life again.

Perhaps this seems obvious. Yet two highly intelligent and literate people to whom I have shown this poem have been utterly unable to make it out, and I know they would have easily deciphered a prose passage of equal difficulty.

Tomorrow I will talk about some of the things that are left out of the paraphrase.