Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Ouch (2)


Jeopardy clue: "Inscribed on Woody Guthrie's guitar: 'This machine kills' these." Contestant's response: "What is 'trees'?"

(Correct question: "What is 'fascists'?" Kudos to Jeopardy for remembering, especially now.)

Sunday, July 07, 2019

In Kakania


Robert Musil:
The administration of this country was carried out in an enlightened, hardly perceptible manner, with a cautious clipping of all sharp points, by the best bureaucracy in Europe, which could be accused of only one defect: it could not help regarding genius and enterprise of genius in private persons, unless privileged by high birth or State appointment, as ostentation, indeed presumption. But who would want unqualified persons putting their oar in, anyway? And besides, in Kakania it was only that a genius was always regarded as a lout, but never, as sometimes happened elsewhere, that a mere lout was regarded as a genius.
The Man without Qualities (Wilkins-Kaiser translation). "Kakania" was Musil's coinage for the kaiserlich und königlich Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Lucas, His Long Marches



Julio Cortázar:
Everybody knows that the Earth is separated from other heavenly bodies by a variable number of light-years. What few know (in reality, only I) is that Margarita is separated from me by a considerable number of snail years.

At first I thought it was a matter of tortoise years, but I've had to abandon that unit of measurement as too flattering. Little as a tortoise may travel, I would have ended up reaching Margarita, but, on the other hand, Osvaldo, my favorite snail, doesn't leave me the slightest hope. Who knows when he started the march that was imperceptibly taking him farther away from my left shoe, even though I had oriented him with extreme precision in the direction that would lead him to Margarita. Full of fresh lettuce, care, and lovingly attended, his first advance was promising, and I said to myself hopefully that before the patio pine passed beyond the height of the roof, Osvaldo's silver-plated horns would enter Margarita's field of vision to bring her my friendly message; in the meantime, from here I could be happy imagining her joy on seeing him arrive, the waving of her braids and arms.

All light years may be equal, but not so snail years, and Osvaldo has ceased to merit my trust. It isn't that he's stopped, since it's possible for me to verify by his silvery trail that he's continuing his march and that he's maintaining the right direction, although this presupposes his going up and down countless walls or passing completely through a noodle factory. But it's been more difficult for me to check that meritorious exactness, and twice I've been stopped by furious watchmen to whom I've had to tell the worst lies since the truth would have brought me a rain of whacks. The sad part is that Margarita, sitting in a pink velvet easy chair, is waiting for me on the other side of the city. If instead of Osvaldo I had made use of light years, we probably would already have had grandchildren; but when one loves long and softly, when one wants to come to the end of a drawn-out wait, it's logical that snail years should be chosen. It's so hard, after all, to decide on what the advantages and the disadvantages of these options are.
Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Lucas, the narrator, is a kind of alter ego of the author. The above piece is the final chapter of the book (which has been out of print for many years).

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Age of Ubu



"A painting by Jean-Martin Bontoux of King Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, late twentieth century," via The New York Review of Books. The image accompanied an article by Charles Simic, who wrote in part:
One only had to watch the confirmation hearings for Trump's cabinet to fully grasp the sort of men and women who are now in charge in all spheres of life in this country. Lacking any feeling of empathy for their fellow Americans and their problems, convinced in their minds of their superiority because of their immense wealth, eager to pillage this country even more, they are bound to do evil because that's the kind of people they are. In the meantime, the crimes and injustices that are bound to multiply in the months and years ahead is what we have to look forward to. Ubu Roi may not be a great play, but we don't deserve Shakespeare.
"Year One: Our President Ubu"

Two years on, the situation has only grown more grotesque.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Notes from a Commonplace Book (25)


Quoted entirely out of context:
Being in a strange land and among strange men and things, meeting with customs and surrounded by circumstances widely different from all their previous experience, ignorant of the precise state of affairs here, and wanting education and flexibility by which they could adapt themselves to their new and unwonted position, they necessarily form many impracticable purposes, and endeavor to accomplish them by unfitting means. Of course disappointment frequently follows their plans. Their lives are filled with doubt, and harrowing anxiety troubles them, and they are involved in frequent mental, and probably physical, suffering.
Report on Insanity and Idiocy in Massachusetts, by the Commission on Lunacy, Under Resolve of the Legislature of 1854.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Curiosity Cabinet



This entertaining popular account of the Victorian mania for natural history was published by Jonathan Cape and Doubleday in 1980, and has apparently been out of print for decades, perhaps because its color plates would have made it too expensive to reprint. That's unfortunate, because Lynn Barber (on whom more below) did a first-rate job of researching, organizing, and writing the book, and has many interesting things to say both about natural history as a popular Victorian pastime and about weighty scientific figures like Owen, Agassiz, Philip Gosse, and Darwin, not to mention the likes of Frank Buckland, who seemingly ate everything he studied. I read it not too long after it appeared and have occasionally revisited it. Many fine books on the history of 19th-century natural science have appeared before and since but I suspect that few are as entertaining. Barber has a solid command of the major scientific advances and controversies, but she also has a sharp wit and a knack for a good anecdote.
The diary of Caroline Owen, wife of the zoologist Richard Owen, records an odd incident when she was visited by a lady who produced out of her reticule 'a thing which she had been told was an unborn kangaroo.' She (the lady visitor) had brought it to show Richard Owen, but 'she was hesitating about bringing such an "indelicate" subject to a gentleman.' Caroline set her fears at rest by assuring her that the kangaroo had not only been born but had lived for some time, and they then settled down to tea and chat, since Richard was not at home anyway, but it is surely strange that a woman who had no qualms about carrying a dead kangaroo around with her would then start blushing and trembling at the thought of showing it to a gentleman. It reminds us, if we need any reminder, that Victorian delicacy had very little to do with natural modesty and a great deal to do with cultivated prurience.
Of Buckland's gustatorial experiments there is much to report, including:
While at Oxford, he feasted on panther, sent down from the Surrey Zoological Gardens. 'It had, however, been buried a couple of days,' he noted, 'but I got them to dig it up and send me some. It was not very good.'
And here is Barber on science versus religion in the days before Darwin upset the apple cart:
When we talk about the 'clash' between religion and science in the Victorian era, we are talking about the 'clash' between an articulated lorry and a grain of sand. Science counted for absolutely nothing compared to religion. It stood, at best, in the relation of a handmaid to religion but, like a handmaid, it could be sacked if it ever showed signs of being uppity.
The jacket flap of the book identifies Lynn Barber as "a British journalist educated at Oxford," and notes that "she is currently working on a new book focusing on another aspect of Victorian popular culture." (Unmentioned in the author bio is the fact that her journalism had included seven years at Penthouse.) As far as I can tell, she never published the "new book" alluded to, but she didn't disappear into obscurity either. She has had a long career as a writer and interviewer for various publications (she has been called "the rottweiler of Fleet Street"), and has published a memoir recounting her affair, while in her teens, with a dashingly charming older man who turned out to be not only involved in various criminal activities but married to boot. That account, An Education was made into a likeable 2009 film starring Carey Mulligan, which I saw several times before I realized that she and the author of The Heyday of Natural History were one and the same. As to her curious career path and Heyday's place in it, Barber has this to say:
There are whole subjects I used to know that I have since forgotten. I have a certificate that says I can do shorthand at 100 wpm – how did I acquire that? Did I bribe the examiner? I got top marks in A-level Latin – eheu fugaces, I can't translate a line of Horace now. In my brief, improbable career as a sex expert, I wrote a manual called How to Improve Your Man in Bed that was accepted at the time as an authoritative guide. How did I have the chutzpah to do it? I also spent five years researching and writing a book, The Heyday of Natural History, which involved reading all the popular natural history books of the Victorian era. Gone, all gone. I seem to have an auto-erase button in my brain that says that once I have 'done' a subject, I no longer need retain it.
Luckily, talent is the one thing she has apparently never been short on.