Jan 232003

Valdis Krebs performed a simple experiment. He looked at the “buddy list” on Amazon of several dozen top-selling political books and graphed the results. (Link from BoingBoing.) The result is two clusters, as one would expect, but with one book in the middle, with “buddies” on both sides: What Went Wrong by Bernard Lewis. (Also, arguably, The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington.)

The “cocooning” controversy could be resolved the same way. Steven Den Beste theorized last year about blog clusters but without data to back him up. So the assignment, for someone less lazy than I am, is to create a chart, after Krebs, for blogs instead of books, using for data the top 100 blogs and, say, the first ten blogs in their neighborhoods at BlogStreet. This would be imperfect but indicative. How many clusters would there be? Who would be in the middle? Do people often read blogs that they disagree with or are blog readers, like book readers, blinkered by confirmation bias?

Jan 222003

If we had finished the Gulf War Saddam Hussein would be dead. If we had finished the Korean War no one would have ever heard of Kim Jong-il. There may be a lesson in this somewhere.

Jan 222003

Ian Hamet writes:

Dear Mr. Haspel,

I’ve just launched my own blog, and included you on my blogroll. Since I’m not up on blog etiquette, letting you know seemed the decent thing to do. I’m not asking for reciprocal links or a mention or anything, just letting you know that I’m here.

My blog roll is broken up by lines from classic movies. There’s no real rhyme or reason to your being listed under “I have two ex-wives, a mother and several bartenders depending on me,” from North by Northwest (1959), so if you want something else, just drop me a line.

Thank you for your time.

Now wouldn’t you give a link to someone who asked so politely? I would. His blog is called Banana Oil, and it’s about movies mostly. He explains the title here.

Jan 212003

From Tropic of Cancer:

The book must be absolutely original, absolutely perfect. That is why, among other things, it is impossible for him to get started on it. As soon as he gets an idea he begins to question it. He remembers that Doestoevski used it, or Hamsun, or somebody else. “I’m not saying I want to be better than them, I want to be different,” he explains. And so, instead of tackling his book, he reads one author after another to make absolutely certain that he is not going to tread on their private property. And the more he reads the more disdainful he becomes. None of them are satisfying; none of them arrive at that degree of perfection which he has imposed on himself. And forgetting completely that he has not written so much as a chapter he talks about them condescendingly, quite as though there existed a shelf of books bearing his name, books which everyone is familiar with and the titles of which it is therefore superfluous to mention.

I don’t know anybody like that. Do you?

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.