Aug 102003

Of all critics possibly the most irksome is the visceral. He won’t tell you why something is great, he just knows when he sees it, or more precisely, when he feels it. Along these lines we have Emily Dickinson, better-known, of course, for poetry than criticism: “If I feel physically as though the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Or most famously, A.E. Housman: “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that my razor fails to act.” Experience has taught me never to use a phrase like “shaving of a morning.”

Such remarks are useless as criticism. They emphasize not the bristling face or the exploding head but the I, I, I. Look on my exquisite sensibility and despair. Anatole France, an arch-impressionist (with and without the hyphen), once defined criticism as “the adventures of a great soul among masterpieces.” Unfortunately the adventures are rarely very rigorous, and the great soul the reader is obliged to take for granted.

Now it is true that aesthetic appreciation is physical, at some level, but this says nothing about the quality of the art. People react as powerfully and viscerally to bad art as good. Housman was the greatest classics scholar of his time and a very popular poet, though not to my taste. When his skin bristles at some line from Euripides, I’m willing to take his word for it that it’s pretty good. But Joel Siegel swears, for publication, that every third movie he sees gives him goosebumps, and what grounds have we to doubt him? We might theoretically hook Housman and Siegel up to a monitoring device and check their respective palpitations; I have no confidence that in such an experiment Medea would prevail over Top Gun.

Terry Teachout, a distinguished critic who surely knows better, unaccountably sets out to adventure among masterpieces in his review of Mark Morris’s ballet V, even quoting Housman with approval. V is a “masterpiece,” Terry is sure, for five reasons, none of which has anything to do with what happens on stage. He is “immediately involved,” he “realize[s] that the person who made it knew exactly what he was doing,” he is not bored, he is “anxious,” because “what I was seeing on stage was so beautiful that I was afraid something would go wrong”; and when he finds that this something, whatever it might be, does not go wrong after all, his “eyes filled with tears.” This is all so refined that I nearly forgot that I began the piece knowing nothing of ballet and ended it in exactly the same state. Tell you what, Terry: if I give you the great soul, will you promise, next time, to talk about the ballet?

(Update: George Wallace comments. Tim Hulsey comments. Terry Teachout replies.)

Aug 092003

Cryptographic revolutionary Alan Bruzzi writes:

I was wondering where my reading level program would fit into cryptography. It takes a sentence out of a book, and computes its reading age. For example, John 3:16, spoken by Jesus Christ, would give a reading age of 33, because that’s when He died. Also, my program computes the age of the Virgin Mary, when she got married, to be 14. It’s an incredible program, but I just can’t figure out where it would be classifed under cryptography, because it converts a whole ASCII sentence into a single value, which would be the person’s age. Please help…

Dear Alan:

It is unfortunate that cryptography is already perfect, pending quantum computing, which offers a theoretical attack on RSA via Shor’s Algorithm, for this sounds like a remarkable program indeed. John 3:16 computes to 33, you say. John 3:17 through 21, also spoken by Jesus, also compute to 33, I assume. The entire Sermon on the Mount? Let me guess: 33. The number of words in the Rolling Rock legend? 33. I assume that computing marrying age, as in your example of the Virgin Mary, is a simple matter of a command-line switch.

Your program will shed light on many important historical questions. No one has been certain how old Homer was when he died or if he lived at all — until now, when we can feed a few lines of The Iliad (Pope’s translation, or Lang’s, or Butler’s, or Fitzgerald’s, I’m sure it doesn’t matter) into the computer, and voilà. If Homer should turn out to fictional, or an amalgamation of authors, will the program return zero, or an error code?

I have a few questions. Does your program require an English translation, or will other languages, say Greek or Aramaic for John 3:16, work equally well? For living authors, does it return their current age, or the age at which they can be expected to expire? Most important, do you reboot your computer by turning it upside down and shaking it until the screen goes gray?

In my professional opinion your program is unclassifiable. It is unique in the history of the cryptography, and I look forward to reviewing the source code.

I remain at your service.

Aug 062003

The first anthropological survey of Objectivism was Jerome Tuccille’s It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand. This, so far as I know, is the second, and a good deal of field work has gone into it. Some of my best friends are Objectivists, and most of the others are recovering Objectivists. I’ve been to Objectivist boot camp, twice, and met most of the high-ranking clerisy at one time or another.

Objectivism attracts a disproportionate number of Jews, to put it mildly. The original Objectivists were the group, including Alan Greenspan, that gathered around Ayn Rand while she was writing Atlas Shrugged. They called themselves “The Collective” (a term fraught with too many layers of irony for me to parse in a single paragraph), and every last one was Jewish. A WASP Objectivist friend of mine once asked Michael Berliner, the chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, how many non-Jewish Objectivists there were. “Only you,” Berliner said.

It is also surprisingly popular with homosexuals, despite Objectivism’s at best ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality. The Internet is lousy with gay Objectivist and Rand-influenced blogs. It makes sense if you think about it. Jews and homosexuals are rootless and persecuted minorites who are logically attracted to tradition-busting philosophies. Objectivism is one; communism, in which they are also prominently represented, is another. The role of the Jews in the International Communist Conspiracy is well-known, and we oughtn’t to forget that three of the Cambridge Four — McLean, Burgess, and Blount — were homosexual.

Objectivists exhibit an odd cognitive dissonance about drugs — not their legalization, of course, but their use. The majority opposes them vigorously, on the grounds that man must be in full focus as often as possible and that drugs are a form of “blank-out.” But there is a good-sized pro-dope faction as well, although they usually know enough to keep quiet about it. Even Dagny Taggart and John Galt imbibed on occasion, illicit drugs are human inventions after all, and if we can improve on our natural state, well, why not? Several Objectivists of my acquaintance used to drop Ecstasy together every weekend. They had all carefully worked out their “Randian” rationalizations, of which “psychic lube job” was the briefest.

My predecessor Tuccille has many of the other details right. The early Objectivists, as he points out, did an awful lot of smoking, including almost every one of The Collective. After all, Ayn Rand smoked herself (from a holder, natch), as do all the heroes in Atlas Shrugged: the enduring symbol of Galt’s Gulch is the cigarettes stamped with the dollar sign. And Tuccille’s anecdote about Murray Rothbard and his unregenerate Catholic wife is true to the spirit of The Collective if not, perhaps, the fact:

Well, if Murray Rothbard’s wife was a Christian there could only be one logical explanation for it: she had obviously never read Ayn Rand’s proof that a Supreme Being does not, will not, and could not exist. Ever.

[Nathaniel] Branden hustled her into an adjoining room and sat her down at a desk with a handful of Rand’s anti-God essays. Joey, relieved to be out of earshot of all this talk of second-handers and floating concepts, pored over the pamphlets while the meeting continued in the other room. When she completed her assignment and returned to the gathering, the drone of conversation suddenly stopped and she found herself skewered by twenty pairs of drilling eyes.

Branden took the initiative. “Well?”

“I found it all very interesting, Nathan.”

“She found it very interezting.” Branden repeated the information to the others at no extra charge. “Anything elze?”

“The arguments are very good, but I’m still not an atheist if that’s what you’re getting at.”

Rand decided to take over. This was unquestionably a matter that demanded her personal intervention. “You haf read ze proofs?”

“They’re all very good and thought-provoking, Ayn. But you don’t shake a lifetime of religious faith with a few articles. I’ll have to think about it for a while.”

“You haf read ze proofs and you ztill inzist on wallowing in your mindless myztizizm? Faith is irrational which means…”

“Which means zat faith is immoral,” said Branden.

“Which means it is anti-life,” said [Leonard] Peikoff.

“Which means it is anti-man,” said [Robert] Hessen.

“Which means it is anti…anti…” said Barbara Branden, searching for a suitable phrase.

Zose z’s in Branden’s speech are not typos either. Yes, Nathaniel Branden, Canadian-born, went so far as to affect a Russian accent. Anyone who doubts it can hear the evidence on the tapes of his early lectures at the modestly-named Nathaniel Branden Institute. Tuccille notes elsewhere that Rothbard probably fell away from Objectivism because he was tired of hearing his name pronounced “Rossbot.”

Still, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand is over thirty and shows its age. The Rachmaninoff-loving all-black-dressing dollar-sign-pin-wearing chain-smoking Objectivist of the mid-60s has gone the way of the dodo. There is no longer one type of Objectivist, if there ever was. In fact there are four.1

1. Protractor. Protractor couldn’t care less about Ayn Rand the novelist, but Ayn Rand the philosopher drives him crazy. He can’t beat the arguments and is too honest to ignore them. Objectivism faintly embarrasses Protractor, like his Songs from the Wood CD, but not so much that he won’t adopt the philosophy or listen to the album. Protractor is second only to Bully-Boy in his familiarity with the Objectivist ouevre, which he picks over constantly in an effort to find something, anything, that he can quarrel with.

Protractor likes science; he is often a computer programmer. Only Protractor, because of his unfortunate habit of actually listening to arguments, can be converted to Objectivism as an adult. He has no role models among the Objectivist clerisy, but he does admire Mr. Spock.

2. Bully-Boy. Bully-Boy read The Fountainhead at twelve and mastered the finer points of the Objectivist epistemology by the time he was old enough for high school. To establish his bona fides, Bully-Boy will hasten to assure you that he doesn’t agree with everything that Miss Rand said. A popular point of contention is her article arguing that no woman should be President of the United States because no self-respecting woman would want to be President of the United States. See? I disagree with that. I’m no slavish follower!

Bully-Boy proselytizes tirelessly, but only with Protractor does he get anywhere. His habits are solitary, largely because no one can stand him. His best friend, if he has one, is Twitchy, never another of his own kind. Often he will serve as consulting ideologist to a school of Sense-of-Life Guys.

Bully-Boy aspires to join the clerisy, among whom his favorites include Nathaniel “The Most Rational Man on Earth”2 Branden (pre-1968 only), Leonard “I’m Not the Pope”3 Peikoff, and Harry “I’m More Randian Than Miss Rand”4 Binswanger.

3. Sense-of-Life Guy. It’s all good for Sense-of-Life Guy, who finds in Ayn Rand an echo of his own child-like wonder at the marvels of the universe. His favorite Rand novel, being the shortest, is Anthem, and he has never quite managed to read Galt’s speech all through despite several desultory attempts. Sense-of-Life may not be much for literature but he is very fond of pictures, in which his taste runs to Maxfield Parrish and airy-fairy British academic stuff like Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema. He often paints himself, with predictable results.

Sense-of-Life Guy is the most gregarious of all Objectivists, and is often, though by no means always, an enthusiastic advocate of Better Living Through Chemistry. Sense-of-Life Guy has no role models among the Objectivist clerisy, of whose very existence he is only dimly aware.

4. Twitchy. Twitchy has one overwhelming appetite that he hopes Objectivism, which seems to have all the answers, will either justify or cure. Sometimes it is for religion (“you haf read ze proofs?”), sometimes for drugs, sometimes for homosexual sex. He scours the Objectivist literature on his specialty, in which he is a match in learning even for Bully-Boy. A gay Twitchy once argued to me that it is “irrational” to choose a sex partner on the basis of gender because “one’s gender is not a moral choice.” Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer “got a light?”

Twitchy’s role model among the clerisy is David “Truth and Toleration” Kelley, ex-communicated for maintaining that it’s OK to argue with Marxists and Kantians. Twitchy always smokes. Wouldn’t you?

And now you’ll have to excuse me. I have a sudden strange hankering to listen to Songs from the Wood.

1Men only. Objectivist women, in my experience, are perfectly normal.
2Rand’s description (pre-1968 only).
3I only act like him.

(Update: Michael Blowhard comments. Mg comments. Uruloki comments.)

Aug 032003

No posts of “crystalline beauty” (–Greg Hlatky, who must be making some kind of chemistry joke) seem to be materializing. Try these instead.

Evan Kirchhoff rips Andrew Sullivan a new, er, one, on the subject of “gay bears.” Have I mentioned that Evan Kirchhoff is a genius? Why yes. Yes I have.

Floyd McWilliams, the scourge of the San Jose Mercury News letters page, on fact checking for me but not for thee.

Eve Tushnet, discussing Marvel comics, gets around to the purpose of literature, in her scattered but endearing way. I will post some thoughts on this, my stomping grounds, when I locate my crystalline-beauty-tron again.

Modern education: what is to be done? Friedrich von Blowhard reaches some dubious conclusions but provides a lot of great history along the way.

Christopher DeRosa on why no one evaluates Derek Jeter rationally, except him.

Jerome du Bois on art-sadist Santiago Sierra. It is lengthy, but if you read only one, read this one. (Via Andrea Harris.)

Aug 022003

Poor Thomas Nashe. He is credited with one of the most famous lines in English poetry, and he never wrote it.

From Summer’s Last Will and Testament

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
The plague full swift goes by.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkes will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree
To welcome destiny.
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Metrically the poem is brilliant. It is nominally in iambic trimeter, but Nashe produces a dirge-like movement by beginning most lines with a trochee, which emphasizes the line breaks. The repeated double trochees that conclude each stanza give the unmistakable impression of death bells tolling, and for thee.

It is also extremely unfashionable. Its grim theme of the inevitable procession to the grave will not resonate with the modern reader, who expects to live forever. Gold buys a lot more health now than it did in 1600, the plague full swift stopped going by in Western countries about a hundred years ago, and there is a good deal that can be done about wrinkles nowadays. The consolation of the afterlife Nashe offers in the last stanza will not persuade many today; indeed Nashe himself seems unconvinced. (He did haste to his welcome destiny nonetheless: like many other Elizabethan poets, including his posse, Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene, Nashe lived fast and died young.)

The poem’s structure is also alien. It is syllogistic, with an argument that might have been taken, as J.V. Cunningham points out, wholesale from Aquinas:

They are such propositions as might have been translated from the Summa Contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas, and they are located in that general tradition. St. Thomas, for instance, discusses the following questions: That human happiness does not consist in carnal pleasures; that man’s happiness does not consist in glory; that man’s happiness does not consist in worldly power; that man’s happiness does not consist in the practice of art; that ultimate happiness is not in this life, “for if there is ultimate happiness in this life, it will certainly be lost, at least by death.” But these are the propositions of Nashe’s lyric, some literally, some more figuratively put.

The Elizabethans often wrote syllogistic poems — Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Ralegh’s The Lie come to mind. Moderns never do. The best modern poems proceed associationally, by coherence of feeling rather than coherence of argument. One may doubt whether this is an advance.

Notwithstanding all of this, Nashe’s poem is famous for the line “Brightness falls from the air.” It’s evocative, it’s ambiguous, it’s thoroughly modern. In Portrait of the Artist Stephen Dedalus has a page-long meditation on the line, which he first misremembers, characteristically, as “Darkness falls from the air.” T.S. Eliot dilated on it. At a less exalted level, James Tiptree and Jay McInerney borrowed it to title their novels, and astronomers are very fond of it.

Trouble is, the line makes no sense in context. All of the other metaphors in the poem are homely and literal. Nashe’s 20th century editor, McKerrow, writes, with a practically audible sigh: “It is to be hoped that Nashe meant ‘ayre,’ but I cannot help strongly suspecting that the true meaning is ‘hayre,’ which gives a more obvious, but far inferior, sense.” What is obvious, once you read this, is that “Brightness falls from the hair” is the correct reading. It is literal, sensible, and on the same order as the rest of the poem. It’s not modern, but neither was Nashe.

Should the line be corrected in future anthologies? Too late; the question is irrelevant. The poem will survive in its current form no matter what Nashe intended. The great literary critic John Ford had the last word on the subject: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

(Update: Glenn Frazier comments. Eve Tushnet posits Philip Larkin as a modern who proceeds logically, not associationally. I don’t quite agree, but I will write about Larkin soon at some length and will take this up then. Terry Teachout points out that Constant Lambert set this poem to music.)