May 312004

Exiting the bodega today I was accosted by a beggar, which is unusual in itself; I’ve lived in New York for twenty-odd years and by now wear an invisible sign that reads “Don’t Even THINK of Asking Me for Money.” Today’s mendicant hadn’t perfected his invisible-sign-reading skills, or maybe he had, because his opening line was, “I don’t want money,” and he had me hooked.

“You don’t want money. What do you want then?”

“Coffee, juice, anything.”

“How do you plan to buy these things?”

“You can buy them for me.”

“OK, let me clarify. You don’t want money. You want consumer goods that must be purchased with money.”

“But you can buy them!”

And as he wandered off, a scene from The Jerk suddenly, unbidden, flashed through my mind. Steve Martin, having made his fortune from the Opti-Grip, has lost it all in a class-action suit (paging Wally Olson!), for making customers permanently cross-eyed. His wife, Bernadette Peters, sits despondent in an empty living room as the repo men cart away their worldly goods. “It isn’t the money I’ll miss,” she says. “It’s all the stuuuuuuuuff!”

May 292004

In her cheery new book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs writes, with disturbing matter-of-factness:

Another form of architects’ self-regulation is to ban criticism of another’s work, especially criticism that can be heard or read by outsiders. This is why one reads few critical reviews by architects of new buildings, in comparison with reviews by writers, say, of books, drama, and film, or by musicians of musical compositions and performances. Architects’ mutual protection from adverse notice extends, when possible, to criticism by outsiders as well. When I was hired as an editor and writer by an architectural journal, the editor in chief gave me quickly to understand that I must shun critical comment. Otherwise, he explained, not only would our magazine stir up an unpleasant ruckus, but all architects, including those whose work was most interesting, would refuse us information and permission to publish their designs — a death sentence for the magazine.

…Almost always we published only proposals, buildings, or projects we could unreservedly admire, or that the editor in chief unreservedly admired, ignoring others. So for an architect to get his work published in a journal where it could be seen by clients was a compliment, rather like a low-key award. We were attuned to reputations within the profession, and we bowed obsequiously to fashion (a word we never mentioned; architecture has styles, not fashions), as did the architects themselves. Leafing through design and architectural journals a half century later, I see that they still abide by the familiar restrictions.

People get their knickers in a twist when a slick like Vanity Fair writes its advertisers up fawningly. Business has leached into editorial, the horror, the horror! Yet here we have an entire profession engaged, for fifty years, according to Jacobs, in the systematic practice of omerta. I don’t follow the architectural literature, but I know some of my readers do. Is this true? And if it is, why isn’t it a scandal?

May 252004

Hardy looks at the ocean and sees the ocean:

A distant verge morosely gray
Appears, while clots of flying foam
Break from its muddy monochrome,
And a light blinks up far away.
(The Wind’s Prophecy)

Dickinson looks in a meadow and sees a snake:

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens farther on.
(A narrow fellow in the grass)

Wordsworth looks at a landscape and sees — Wordsworth:

— Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under the dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door…
(Tintern Abbey)

A landscape presses, on most of us, thoughts of our own insignificance. Not Wordsworth: Nature puffs him up. Wordsworth beholds, Wordsworth reposes, and Wordsworth sees. Yet Wordsworth notices nothing. The scene is a blur; Wordsworth favors blurring, and there will be a great deal more of it later on. Cliffs, “steep and lofty” God help us, “connect,” oddly enough, the land with the sky; green fruits “lose themselves” in the green meadows. The one distinct feature is Wordsworth himself, who is everywhere, like Ali in the ring. Tintern Abbey would not be worth discussing except that it is commonly considered a great poem and has intelligent admirers who do not make their living exhuming Wordsworth. So here we go.

Begin with the title, which is not merely Tintern Abbey but Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798. This is lucky for the reader unacquainted with the geography of the Lake District, to whom the lines

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

might otherwise give pause. The significance of July 13, 1798, remains unclear. The unfortunate half-pun “oft, in” with “often” is characteristic. In this Bogan poem such near-repetition is used effectively. Of course Bogan had talent.

I grant that bloggers are not in the best position to criticize someone else for being deeply moved by the sound of his own voice; but this is a man who needs a line and a half to clear his throat:

Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift…

A gift, it turns out, for unintentional comedy:

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountain…

A man whose thoughts are never interesting, for all his devotion to them. Tintern Abbey runs to 158 lines, and what thought we get is summarized in its most famous passage:

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

These elevated thoughts amount to nothing more than a very mild version of the ecstatic merger with all existence that we find later, at excruciating length, in Whitman, and still later, with tragic consequences, in Crane. I confess I find the doctrine incoherent. Thirty lines later Wordsworth complains of “rash judgments,” “greetings where no kindness is,” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life,” all surely objectionable but equally surely included in the class of “all objects of all thought.” Where’s that something far more deeply interfused when you really need it? The essence of life, as Nabokov puts it in Pnin, is “discreteness,” and we shall all be one with the sun and the flowers and the trees and the dirt and the worms soon enough. Wordsworth may mean only that God is in all things, but he never mentions Him, and the thought scarcely seems adequate to the occasion.

The experience, to be fair, must be distinguished from the doctrine. One can accept its value, or at least its intensity, and agree that “blue sky” and “sense sublime” (a pointless inversion, a Wordsworth specialty) do little to illuminate it. Again we have “deep,” often favored by people who, like Wordsworth, have trouble seeing surfaces; its derivations appear seven times in Tintern Abbey. “Living air” conveys, in a small way, what he is after; but after numerous readings of this poem I am convinced this is an accident. For Wordsworth flatness, which he calls “the real language of men,” was a matter of theory as well as practice. We are taught in English class that Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads began the counter-revolution toward simple language after more than a century of Miltonic ornament. In fact Dr. Johnson parodied this sort of thing before Wordsworth was born:

I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand;
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Wordsworth quotes this parody in the preface, and his efforts to explain it away make for amusing reading. The difference in style between this and the Lucy poems is very fine indeed.

Wordsworth owes his reputation to several happy accidents, major and minor. He wrote his best verse at the turn of the 19th century, just as the toff and the heroic couplet were going out of style and the peasant and blank verse were coming in, which has made him a convenient stand-in for wide cultural change. He wrote so much and so repetitively, in both verse and prose, that his point is impossible to miss, and scholars have dined for two centuries on his vast corpus like buzzards on carrion. His more deservedly influential friend Coleridge promoted him mightily. He uniquely has a psychiatric cure on his résumé: John Stuart Mill, better known as a philosopher than a literary critic, says in his Autobiography that reading Wordsworth helped him recover his sanity after a mental breakdown. Above all, perhaps, Wordsworth firmly believed in his own greatness, and the fact that so many people still do, after so much time has passed, testifies to the awful, the lofty, the sublime, the deep power of suggestion.

(Update: Ben H. casts the movie version of The Idiot Boy. Esme comments. David Fiore comments. Jim Henley slags Hardy for the same reasons I slag Wordsworth, by way of praising Frost. Fair enough; but note that in The Darkling Thrush, which he quotes in full, the description of the thrush itself, “frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume,” is exactly what a thrush looks like. Tim Hulsey is more generous than I am, and you should read him before you believe me. Also much, much more Wordsworth over at Bandarlog.

May 172004

Instapundit, with Lileks’ encouragement, took 20 minutes off the other day, Lileks himself took a month near-holiday, Teachout has stopped blogging on weekends, Cosh hasn’t updated his hockey page for a week, which I know you’re all busted up about, and even the Blowhards have been backfilling with guest posters. You people griping that I haven’t updated for ten days are so last year. Sloth — it’s the new black!

But I’m making it up to you below. In spades.

May 172004

In Snobbery Joseph Epstein has written as good a book as it’s possible to write without quite understanding your subject. It is full of things I needed to know; for instance, that Wolcott Gibbs once described Lucius Beebe as “menacingly well-groomed.” (Gibbs, who is undeservedly forgotten, wrote a devastating parody of early Time-style, when the sentences all ran back to front. The only thing you need to know about Beebe is that when he went in for minor surgery an acquaintance remarked that she hoped the doctors “had the sense to open Lucius at room temperature.” (“Sense,” where “taste” is meant, is a brilliantly snobbish touch in its own right. (I’m running low on parentheses here.)))

As I was saying. We need more than funny stories and smart remarks. We need a taxonomy, and this Epstein fails to provide. The trouble begins, as usual, with definitions:

…I take the snob to be someone out to impress his betters or depress those he takes to be his inferiors, and sometimes both; someone with an exaggerated respect for social position, wealth, and all the accouterments of status; someone who accepts what he reckons to be the world’s valuation on people and things, and acts — sometimes cruelly, sometimes ridiculously — on that reckoning; someone, finally, whose pride and accomplishment never come from within but always await the approving judgment of others. People not content with their place in the world, not reconciled with themselves, are especially susceptible to snobbery. The problem here is that at one time or another, and in varying degrees, this may well include us all.

Epstein buries the two essential features of snobbery here beneath a mass of irrelevance. First, the snob exaggerates, as Epstein says. Sometimes he exaggerates the importance of whatever form his snobbery takes; always he exaggerates the importance of himself. Sometimes he develops a preposterous vocabulary to buck himself up; oenophiles, for instance. Always he develops a thick rulebook of what ought or ought not to be said or done, Talmudic in its complexity and every bit as arbitrary.

Second, snobbery is social. Snob is as snob does; he needs a victim, or a co-conspirator. To think oneself superior is not enough; we all have such flashes. Action is character, wrote Fitzgerald, who knew quite a bit about snobbery, and snobbish action makes the snob.

Everything else in the passage is wrong. Betters and inferiors have nothing to do with snobbery. The snob is perfectly happy to impress those he regards as his equals — in fact he usually regards his betters as his equals — and the notion, which Epstein expands later on, that there are distinct classes of upward- and downward-looking snobs is absurd. I’ve never met a snob who wasn’t both and I doubt he has either. German has an evocative word for it, Radler, or cyclist, after his posture of bent back above and kicking legs below. You need both to ride the bike.

It is a poor snob indeed whose judgment dovetails with “the world’s valuation.” The snob appeals, with an airy wave of the hand, not to society but to Society — to whatever circle he aspires to join or fancies himself a member of, to everyone who is anyone, to tout le monde, as Tom Wolfe used to put it, meaning just the opposite. The aim is to please your betters (or equals) and discomfit your inferiors, and for this the common judgment will hardly do. Finally Epstein throws up his hands, all but saying that everyone is a snob at least sometimes, in which case no one is a snob, and why are you writing this book, exactly?

Errors in theory, errors in practice:

I recall…the meeting of two distinguished intellectual figures — one a scholar of high international reputation, the other a Nobel novelist — who were joined by an administrative vice president at the university where both men then taught. After ten or fifteen minutes, the vice president departed, and the scholar said to the novelist, “Ah me, I see that X is suffering from delusions of equality.”

Is this a tale of snobbery or merely a devastatingly witty remark? I think the latter. First, because the remark wasn’t made in front of the person at whom it was aimed. And second, because (as I happen to know) that person is himself a considerable snob, a double snob actually, one who sucks up to his betters and looks down on those he takes to be beneath him.

Of course this is a tale of snobbery. Epstein’s reasons for thinking otherwise dissolve in the light, which often happens to people who misdefine their terms. You can’t snob on people behind their backs? Or snob on other snobs? Or be witty and snobbish at the same time? Epstein acquits the scholar because he dislikes the victim, and admires the remark. The story has everything: the toadying implication that you and I are of a piece and he is not; the victim, and the attempted co-conspirator; and, especially, the exaggerated self-regard. You know what the novelist (Saul Bellow, I’m guessing) was thinking? Bellow was thinking: And where the fuck do you get off? Great novelists, of whom Bellow is one despite his Nobel Prize, are, approximately, to scholars, even scholars of high international repute, as scholars are to vice-presidents of administration.

We cannot make shift with a mere great novelist and distinguished scholar either; we must have a “Nobel novelist” and a scholar of “high international reputation,” which is snobbish by Epstein’s lights, if merely pathetic by mine. Noam Chomsky is a scholar of high international reputation, and Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Proust, whom Epstein correctly regards as the world’s foremost authority on the topic, comes close when he says that snobbery is “admiration of something in other people unconnected with their personality.” Saying that someone is morally vicious, or stupid, or lazy, or incompetent at his job, may be nasty but is never snobbish, because these matters are integral, unlike his taste in beer or the cut of his suits. The snob is consumed by inconsequence.

Snobbery is to exaggerate one’s own importance at someone else’s expense. The snob syllogism — you are my inferior in such-and-such a matter, therefore you are my inferior — seems to be missing a premise somewhere. Note that one can be a snob about matters other than taste. Ancestral snobbery is a well-known example. Racism is another, although it no longer seems so, since it has gone out of fashion, to be replaced by an equally snobbish “respect for all cultures.” Nothing is quite so declassé as yesterday’s snobbery.

Food snobs, wine snobs, clothing snobs, school snobs, ancestor snobs, all crowd the lowest rung of the snob ladder. “Snob,” in ordinary use, invariably refers to this crude type, which I will call the snob of matter. Such snobs rarely stick to their last; they combine concerns, which produces, somehow, an effect less of union than of intersection. It never crosses the mind of the snob of matter that other, better people simply do not give a damn about the microscopic aspects of life that engross him. He can always be trumped with a well-played inverse card. Stephen Potter, whose Upmanship books (missing from Epstein’s lengthy bibiliography) are, in the guise of how-tos, among the most acute books on snobbery ever written, advises a counter-gambit against the wine snob:

I shall always remember Odoreida thrusting aside sixteen founding members of the Wine and Food Society with a ‘Well, let’s have a real drink,’ and throwing together a mixture which left them breathless. ‘Pop-skull, they called it in Nevada,’ he said, and poured two parts of vodka into one of sherry and three of rum, adding a slice cut from the disk of a sunflower.

Here we ascend to snobbery of manner, which is where all the action is, in its best-known form, inverse snobbery. Among bloggers Scott Chaffin, The Fat Guy, has mastered this tactic. By the time you’ve absorbed his assurances that he’s jes a bumpkin who dunno nuthin about nuthin he’s already removed the shiv from your back and wiped the blade. The Two Blowhards, Michael in particular, have raised inverse snobbery to high art. They constantly bemoan their “lousy Ivy League” education, the glorious fruits of which can be picked daily on their site — the most glorious, perhaps, being the liberty to sneer at an Ivy League education. Michael happily poor-mouths it in post after post, with references to his “addled” and “fuzzy” mind and failed career in journalism. But should any reader be so naive as to take these demurrals seriously and question his authority, out will come the whip hand. Scott, Michael, and Odoreida all tread in that perilous no-man’s-land between defense, which is never snobbish, and offense, which is.

Snobberies of manner can become dizzying. The most primitive is the political snob, secure that his advanced views show him to be a step up in human evolution. (Tim Hulsey demonstrates this to be literally true.) There is the self-knowledge snob, who knows only that he does not know, and that’s more than you can say. The philosophical ancestor of the self-knowledge snob is, of course, Socrates; Plato reports his conversations but the number of Athenians who punched him in the mouth has, alas, gone unrecorded. The self-knowledge snob often hangs about with his first cousin, the self-hatred snob, whose literary antecedents include Swift and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who employs his own perceived worthlessness to scourge the rest of the race. Fortunately you never see that kind of thing around here, no sirree.

Thus the disease. Epstein despairs of a cure:

You will have to take my word for it when I claim that I never act on what is my downward-looking snobbery, and that in everyday actions I am not a snobbish person. It is only in my thoughts that my snobbishness lives so active a life. Yet why can’t I leave it alone, let it go, continue to make my little distinctions, social observations, but do so without feeling just a touch of corrupting snobbery when going about it?

Many adjectives spring to mind to describe this passage, “searching” not among them. What happened to “acting on that reckoning” anyway? It’s all very New Testament for a writer who makes such a point of being Jewish, and it had a familiar ring. Then I remembered: Jimmy Carter! Committing adultery in his heart as a nation snickered.

W.H. Auden, who thought himself a Christian, claims one warm June evening in 1933 to have been sitting with three colleagues — fellow teachers at a boys’ school, two women and a man — and for the first time his life he “knew exactly — because thanks to the power, I was doing it — what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself… [I] recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed with the spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being.” The heightened feeling, he says, continued for roughly two hours, and lasted, in diminishing force, for two more days.

After which I guess he got the all-clear to resume stealing candy from children.

What Auden apparently had undergone is the experience, or vision, of agape, or Christian love feast, in which one feels a purity of love for all human beings, without invidious distinctions of any kind, the powerfully certain feeling that one’s fellows are worthy of the same respect, sympathy, and consideration as one pays oneself. Wholehearted love with the power of pure objectivity behind it, how glorious it must have been to undergo — and as Auden was too honest not to add, all but impossible to maintain.

Give Auden some credit: he kept warm for his mystic vision, unlike Tolstoy, who insisted on walking Christ-like, heart full of love for the Russian peasantry, into a raging blizzard to his death. But we need nothing so drastic. Instead of loving the peasants more, we might try loving ourselves a little less. Or at least a little more realistically.

(Update: Scott Chaffin comments.)

May 042004

Eve Tushnet posts a list of great book titles, which you ought to read, like most everything else she writes. It is surprising how scarce great titles are, once you get to thinking about it. She marks some of them “in context,” which means you have to read the book to appreciate them, and this strikes me as a bit of a cheat. A great book title, like a great wine, ought to be glorious at first and improve upon acquaintance. Still, I mostly agree — who could knock A Clockwork Orange or Pale Fire? — though she veers more toward the prolix than I might. I am mildly discomfited by the absence of Wyndham Lewis, who is responsible for probably half of the top ten book titles in English. Consider:

The Apes of God (which used to be the name of my fantasy baseball team. Not that I have a thing about omniscience.)
Snooty Baronet
Malign Fiesta
Revenge for Love
The Vulgar Streak
The Doom of Youth
Men Without Art
The Art of Being Ruled (The last three are non-fiction, so they may not be official, but I mean, come on.)

Lewis, I note impartially, can also lay claim to possibly the worst title ever, The Jews, Are They Human? His answer, incidentally, was yes.

(Update: Eve has more, noting that she meant “in context” as meaning only that you know a bit about the book, actually reading it not being necessary. So there turn out to be three categories of great titles. Hey, I’m not false dilemma for nothing!

(She also wonders if there’s a philosophy of titling. I doubt it. I looked through my bookshelves and couldn’t pick out more than a couple dozen really distinguished titles from a thousand books or so. It seems to me mostly a matter of happy chance. The best title for an autobiography, by the way, was proposed by Preston Sturges, who never finished his, and remains unused, to my knowledge: The Events Leading Up to My Death.)

Another: Ian Hamet comments. The Dancer from Atlantis? Someone wean Ian off the sci-fi already.)

May 042004

Now that David Hurwitz has blown the lid off classical music, I feel impelled to do my part.

1. Everything you liked in high school is bad. Everything your English teacher told you to like is also bad, but for different reasons. If you liked what your English teacher told you to like, you are now teaching English.

2. Donne should be hanged for his placing of the accents.

3. Blake was stone loony.

4. Reputation bloat is directly proportional to the fodder the poet supplies for doctoral theses. “Philosophical” poets are especially prized. Wordsworth leads the league in this department.

5. When browsing an anthology, skip any poet you have heard of. Only the one-offs will be any good. In fact someone ought to get around to making an anthology strictly of one-offs, like those Nuggets collections Rhino Records puts out.

6. Eliot’s scholarship is a complete fraud.

7. Pound was actually a nice guy. A traitor, but a nice guy.

8. Only about a dozen poems in English longer than 100 lines are worth reading. One of them, unfortunately, is Paradise Lost.

9. Shakespeare’s sonnets aren’t very good. The plays are pretty good, however.

10. The middle section of Leaves of Grass consists of the sentence “All work and no play makes Walt a dull boy,” repeated 3,482 times.

(Update: Alexei comments, and comments on the comments.)