God of the Machine – Page 30 – Culling my readers to a manageable elite since 2002.
Feb 052003

I’m forced to link again to Colby Cosh, dammit, for his superb reply to Michael Fumento’s TNR article about Attention Deficit Disorder. A man who takes Thomas Szasz seriously is a man to be reckoned with. What I want to know is, is blogging a trait or a disease?

Dr. Manhattan essays Bill James and warblogging, and is kind enough to include me on a short list of warblogging statheads. (My friend Mark Riebling should be there as well. Cosh, too, is an admitted stathead, though not exactly a warblogger. By warblogging standards I’m not much of a warblogger either.) Should Bill James switch to politics, as this piece argues, not entirely seriously? Not with spring training opening in less than a month.

And Riebling, while I’m on the subject, claims that posting will be slow because his new book is due March 2. What kind of excuse is that? Just because the guy has a job and writes books on the side doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be posting more often than someone like me, who, uh, doesn’t.

Jim Ryan has an excellent series on Kekes and the problem of evil, at four parts and counting. No, you’ll want more parts, honest.

Mark Wickens is giving Bjorn Lomborg’s critics the what-for.

Homme sans Qualités squares off with Eugene Volokh on intelligent design. They’re both agin it.

Agenda Bender interviews Justin Timberlake.

Cindy’s Guide to the ‘Stans is the best thing on this list; you should read it right now if by chance you weren’t paying attention when Glenn told you to. Sample:

The Kyrgyz are the Welsh of Central Asia. They’re jolly, profoundly democratic, and inhabit a beautiful, mountainous country that no one visits and which has no natural resources at all except for some gold and clapped-out mining. They are divided north and south in lifestyle and geographical orientation, and are widely associated with sheep-related activities. They still practice droving, and have the worst cuisine in the world. Their southern valleys are home to heroin connoisseurs. They have never ruled anything, not even Kyrgyzstan, and don’t really seem to care. They think their neighbours are soft and secretly wish they too were Kyrgyz. Their neighbours rarely think of them at all, except in a comic context, but if pushed will say they distrust them as sly and two-faced. Russian spittle-licking suits them just fine, and hey, Ivan, why don’t you buy some of our lovely smack while you’re here?

Cindy will be annoyed that he generates traffic by quoting someone else at length. Tough; so do I.

Feb 022003

Over at Tightly Wound, in a post appealingly titled, “Note to Poets Everywhere — Basically, You Suck,” Big Arm Woman nominates William Carlos Williams as the all-time poetry villain. It’s a curious choice. I’d have to go with Milton myself, for throwing over the logical structure of the Renaissance, nearly single-handedly, in favor of sentimental associationism. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” was a syllogism; less than fifty years later Milton is getting away with “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” collections of details loosely related to joy and melancholy, respectively. Milton also wrote a bizarre cognate of English, mixed with Latin, and, as Donald Sutherland says in Animal House, his jokes are terrible.

Williams, it is true, is usually a bore, though never as resounding a bore as Milton, and his slogan, “No ideas but in things,” indicates Williams’ distant acquaintance with the intellect. Nonetheless his talent was real, and his poems only superficially resemble the slack stuff that you find in the poetry journals nowadays. His best poem, I am sure, is “To a Dead Journalist”:

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps —
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

Any mildly attentive reader can hear that the rhythms are of verse, not prose. The metaphor for the experience of recognizing death is better than anything outside of Emily Dickinson. The three near-spondees, ending with “too late,” cleave life and death absolutely.

Even the notorious red wheelbarrow:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The first line is unforgivable, and the poem is tiny, but the miraculous “glazed” stamps the image in my mind indelibly. Nothing so well-executed is to be despised.

Big Arm Woman may object more to Williams’ influence than to Williams himself. There are writers — Wyndham Lewis calls them “literary barrens” — who are great themselves but disastrous as influences; Joyce is the best example. Except Williams wasn’t one of them. He was the opposite of an innovator: he adopted uncritically a literary movement (Imagism, the brainchild of Pound and H.D.) popular in his youth, never strayed, and brought it to its highest polish.

She mysteriously proceeds to plump for Whitman, who, um, sucks. He doesn’t even scan. Maybe it’s because he’s patriotic. He sounds patriotic, anyway, but Whitman is a transcendentalist. Remember Mikey in the Life cereal commercials, the kid who hates everything? Transcendentalists love everything, America included. It’s all part of the universal current:

One thought ever at the fore —
That in the Divine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space,
All Peoples of the globe together sail, sail the same voyage, are bound to the same destination.

Bad as the verse is, the thought is worse, and both are characteristic.

Big Arm Woman points out that Whitman served as a nurse in the Civil War, which is supposed to make his war poetry, which she discreetly refrains from quoting, “haunting and moving in ways that Adrienne Rich should weep over.” Unfortunately his service failed to endow with him talent. The most haunting and moving novel I know about war is The Red Badge of Courage, written by a man who had never seen a shot fired. I have no use for Adrienne Rich either, but if any of Whitman’s war poetry is half as good as the Williams poem I’ve cited, I’ve yet to encounter it.

Feb 012003

Ian Hamet isn’t sure if it is true, as I claim, that popularity is entirely irrelevant to a work’s ultimate value. After all, he asks plausibly, “a work endures because it maintains a kind of popularity, does it not?”

Yes and no, but mostly no. A work, regardless of its ultimate value, is no sure bet to endure at all. There are almost certainly many great works of literature that have been forgotten. No work survives unless some distinguished person campaigns for it. One of the loveliest sonnets in English, “Fra bank to bank”, was written by Mark Alexander Boyd in the 16th century and received no attention for 250 years. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch saw fit to include it in The Oxford Book of English Verse in 1919. Ezra Pound picked up on it, writing in The ABC of Reading in 1934: “I suppose this is the most beautiful sonnet in the language, at any rate it has one nomination.” The poem is now well-known, at least to Renaissance specialists; but it would likely still be obscure had Quiller-Couch not anthologized it, and Quiller-Couch need never have been born.

F.G. Tuckerman’s great poem “The Cricket” went unread for 50 years until Witter Bynner and Edmund Wilson began to champion it in the early 20th century. It is now a standard, but if these men are forgotten it may disappear again. Even Shakespeare had periods, like the middle of the 17th century, in which he was scarcely read at all, and Bardology as we know it today is only about 150 years old. Artistic survival, in short, is precarious. It is inspiring that a few anthologists and critics, or even one, can by themselves resurrect a worthy work of art; and sobering that, even to greatness, survival is not guaranteed.

(Update: The Fredosphere comments.)

Jan 312003

Jim Ryan stands up for “he” as the universal antecedent. Cinderella learnedly notes how vastly the status of women in Iran has been improved by the fact that Persian possesses a unisex substitute. Jacques Barzun, in the magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, has the absolutely last word on the subject:

[I]t is unwise to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served. In Genesis we read: “And God created Man, male and female.” Plainly, in 1611, and long before, man meant human being. For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; “Man inhabits all the climactic zones.” Logicians have said “Man is mortal,” and philosophers have boasted of “Man’s unconquerable mind.” The poet Webster writes: “And man does flourish but his time.” In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others, two related meanings, which context makes clear.

Nor is the inclusive sense of human being an arbitrary convention. The Sanskrit root of man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being and does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for “I think.” In the compounds that have been regarded as invidious — spokesman, chairman, and the like — man retains that original sense of human being, as is proved by the word woman, which is etymologically “wife-human being.” The wo (shortened from waef) ought to make woman doubly unacceptable to zealots, but the word as it stands seems irreplaceable. In a like manner, the proper name Carman is made up of car, which meant male, and man, which has its usual human being application…

In English, words denoting human beings of various ages and occupations have changed sex over time or lost it altogether. Thus at first girl referred to small children of either sex, likewise maid, which meant simply “grown-up,” and the ending -ster, as in spinster and webster, designated women. It is no longer so in gangster and roadster. Implications have shifted too. In Latin, homo was the human being and vir the male, so that virtue meant courage in battle; in English it long stood for chastity in women. The message of this mixed-up past is that it is best to let alone what one understands quite well and not insist on a one-sided interpretation of a word in common use.

…To repeat at frequent intervals “man and woman” and follow it with the compulsory “his and her” is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires. It is unfortunate that English no longer has a special term for the job like the French on. But on is only the slimmed-down form of hom(me) — man again.

…The truth is that any sex-conscious practice defeats itself by sidetracking the thought from the matter in hand to a social issue — an important one, without question. And on that issue, it is hardly plausible to think that tinkering with words will do anything to enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women’s authority and earnings in places where prejudice is entrenched.

Any questions?

(Update: Dean Esmay comments. At length.)

Jan 292003

Goodwin Liu has exposed, in the Washington Post and at greater length in the forthcoming Michigan Law Review, a flaw in the thinking of affirmative action opponents that he calls the “causation fallacy.”

Affirmative action is widely thought to be unfair because it benefits minority applicants at the expense of more deserving whites. Yet this perception tends to inflate the cost beyond its real proportions. While it is true that affirmative action gives minority applicants a significant boost in selective admissions, it is not true that most white applicants would fare better if elite schools eliminated the practice. Understanding why is crucial to separating fact from fiction in the national debate over affirmative action…

…Allan Bakke, a rejected white applicant who won admission in 1978 to the University of California at Davis’s medical school after convincing the high court that the school’s policy of reserving 16 of 100 seats each year for minority students was unconstitutional. For many Americans, the success of Bakke’s lawsuit has long highlighted what is unfair about affirmative action: Giving minority applicants a significant advantage causes deserving white applicants to lose out. But to draw such an inference in Bakke’s case — or in the case of the vast majority of rejected white applicants — is to indulge in what I call “the causation fallacy.”

This is a “fallacy,” according to Liu, because the vast majority of rejected white applicants would still be rejected, even without affirmative action. This fallacy works in mysterious ways. The lower the standards for black applicants, the more rejected whites clear the bar. The more rejected whites with better credentials than accepted blacks, the less certain it is that any particular white would have been admitted if there were no affirmative action. It follows, from Liu’s logic, that the lower the standards for blacks as opposed to whites, the less cause for whites to complain!

Liu makes a big deal of the fact that Gratz and Bakke very likely wouldn’t have been admitted regardless, and in any case couldn’t be sure. He then publishes the following table, of admissions rates at “five highly selective universities” (this is thanks to Ampersand, who takes it from Liu’s full Law Review article, which I haven’t read and isn’t yet online):

SAT score
< 1000
Black rate
White rate
Rate w/o AA

One wonders, first, what the raw numbers are. They would be easy to include and would prove instructive. (The nice round numbers in the upper rows in the black column make me suspect that we are dealing with a vanishingly small sample size.) It is fishy that the percentages of whites admitted in the upper percentiles declines without affirmative action. Ampersand comments that “[a] white student with a combined score below 1000 has a 96.7% chance of rejection from a selective school with affirmative action, and a 93.3% chance of rejection if aa didn’t exist. In either case, the odds are overwhelming she’ll be rejected; and the primary reason for the rejection is her poor SATs, not her race.” An opponent of affirmative action might retort that whites with such scores would have twice as good a chance at admission. This is a fine example of how to lie with statistics.

But the overwhelming question about this data is, how does he know? If Bakke and Gratz can’t prove that they would have been admitted in the absence of affirmative action, how can Liu establish the SAT distribution in its absence?

Ampersand also notes how whiny the AA plaintiffs are:

Anti-affirmative action lawsuits are not put forward by whites who would have gotten in to a selective college if only affirmative action didn’t exist. They’re put forward by whites who have such a strong sense of entitlement that they can’t admit they failed to gain admission because, on the merits, they didn’t deserve admission.

Well maybe, but Gratz and Bakke are paragons of virtue compared to Miranda, Escobedo, Gideon, and other plaintiffs in famous Constitutional cases. Spy magazine once ran a little story profiling such plaintiffs called “Dirtball Heroes of the Constitution,” and there isn’t an AA plaintiff who would even come close to qualifying. In any case, aren’t you supposed to take the plaintiff as you find him?

This whole business of percentages disguises the fundamental fact that for every black applicant who is admitted because of affirmative action there is a white applicant who is rejected for the same reason. We may not know which white applicant, but that fact is immaterial. Liu suggests “rethinking the conventional view that a race-conscious admissions policy pits whites against minorities in a zero-sum game,” but a zero-sum game is precisely what it is, and what it has to be.

Jan 282003

Popular, Popular, Unpopular!
‘You’re no Poet’ — the critics cried!
‘Why?’ said the Poet. ‘You’re unpopular!’
Then they cried at the turn of the tide —
‘You’re no Poet!’ ‘Why?’ ‘You’re popular!’
Pop-gun, Popular and Unpopular!

–Alfred Tennyson

Alexandra of Out of Lascaux has sinned. Her sin was to defend Thomas Kinkade, the twinkly light guy, modestly, because she thinks some of his paintings are pretty good. (It looks like kitsch to me but I’ve never been close enough to one to say for sure.) This is too much for the reliably “elitist” AC Douglas:

So let’s hear it for Thomas Kinkade, Stephen King, Andrew Lloyd Weber, George Lucas, Williamsburg VA, and Reality TV! They are hallmarks of our populist age after all, and so not to be despised.

Oh yes let’s. I pause to note that capitalism does such a nice job of gratifying my own desires that I am even willing to forgive it for gratifying everyone else’s. But there is a still more obvious point to belabor. Nobody, certainly not Alexandra, seriously defends some work of art on the grounds that it is popular. The argument has always been between people who think some popular art is good, and people who think no popular art is good, and the second party has some explaining to do. (Shakespeare, Mozart, Dickens, Rodin, Frost, to pick four different centuries and five different fields.) Kinkade might be good, or bad, but his popularity surely does not bear on the question.

The “elitists” waste their ammunition deriding popular taste when what they ought to be doing is defending objective standards in art. Reordering established reputations, resurrecting a neglected work and explaining why it’s superior to something better known, differentiating between good and bad on some grounds other than “I prefer it” — this is useful and, I daresay, “elitist” work. It beats bloviating. On the other hand it’s much harder.

(Update: AC Douglas responds. I am amused to be called a multi-culturalist for suggesting that if one dislikes Thomas Kinkade one ought to adduce some reasons beyond his popularity. Popular art, if good, is apparently not really popular, because the many people who appreciate it fail to do so at the level at which it ought, properly, to be appreciated. It’s a neat trick, to be able to speculate unerringly on the inner life of one’s fellows. Where do I sign up for the course?)

(Another: Lynn Sislo comments. So does Ian Hamet. And AC himself, who always gets the last word, replies to my reply.)

Jan 272003

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

Consider the following two lines of verse. The first is from John Dowland’s songbook and was written in the late 16th century. The second is from Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” and was written in the early 20th.

Fine knacks for ladies — cheap, choice, brave and new!

The world is like wide water, without sound.

In rhythm they could hardly be less alike. The first is choppy: it sounds like the spiel of a carnival barker. The second is as calm as the water it describes. However, they are metrically identical. They are both perfectly regular lines of iambic pentameter.

They sound so different because rhythm is not meter. Meter is the arithmetic norm, the background. It’s like a time signature in music. One of the odd things about poetry is that it is a simple, easily recognizable meter that makes possible complex rhythmic effects. Syllable length, strength of accent, placement of caesura all make individual lines of poetry move differently, yet no meaningful variation is possible without underlying regularity.

In scansion, whether a syllable is accented depends not merely on the amount of emphasis it receives but on its place in the line and the line’s place in the poem. In this famous line from Ben Jonson

Drink to me only with thine eyes

the last four syllables are accented progressively more heavily; yet in the context of the line, and the poem, which is iambic tetrameter, “with” is accented and “thine” unaccented. Long syllables are also often unaccented. In the above line the longest syllables in the line are the first and the seventh, and neither is accented.

The major difference between the lines from Stevens and Dowland is in the strength of the accents. Stevens’ line sounds calm and regular because all of the accented syllables are longer, and receive more emphasis, than all of the unaccented ones. In Dowland, neither is true, and the effect is radically different.

Nearly all pentameter lines have a caesura, or a natural pause, because most humans cannot speak ten syllables without drawing breath. In the Dowland line the caesura is at the dash, after “ladies”; it’s a long pause that absolutely cleaves the line. In the Stevens line there are actually two short caesuras, one after “world” and the other after “water.” Its continuity, its wateriness, is emphasized.

One can also vary the meter itself; not every iambic pentameter line must contain five perfect iambs. But most rhythmic variation is achieved by other means, and poets who complain that a rigid meter like iambic pentameter is too confining have probably not seriously investigated its possibilities. Even poets who employ traditional meters sometimes make the same mistake. When Michael Snider, who advocates traditional meters, says, “using traditional meters means I don’t have to teach my readers how to hear the rhythms of my poems,” he confuses meter with rhythm and gets the case exactly backwards. The simpler and more obvious the meter, the subtler the rhythmic effects that are possible against it — the more your readers have to learn.

Here are the caesuras in our Hardy poem, longer pauses marked with a double slash:

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.

Each stanza ends with a four-syllable line, with a caesura in each: first after the third syllable, next after the first, and last in the middle, resolving the other two the way a note resolves a chord.

The metrical scheme is perfectly iambic, with three exceptions, all worth noting. Each of the poet’s two self-descriptions, “tremulous being” at line 4 and “curious air” at line 13, contains an extra unaccented syllable, which ties them together. The back-and-forth of “hither and thither” is beautifully conveyed by the inversion of the first foot in the line. It’s easy to overanalyze this sort of thing, but Hardy is one of the finest metrists in English, and I am certain that he heard these effects, even if he didn’t stoop to analyze how he produced them.

All of these effects can be traced back to meter, the one thing that distinguishes poetry from prose. Even free verse has meter, which is to say it’s not really “free” at all. The scansion of free verse is a large subject that I will save for another day, but here’s a heuristic: the one thing that free verse cannot be is iambic, because that’s what ordinary speech is. Loosely iambic free verse inevitably tightens up into blank verse, or devolves into prose. Almost all bad free verse contains large undigested chunks of iambs, like lumps in the mashed potatoes. If you find them, you’re not reading poetry. You’re reading prose broken up at odd places on the page.