I May Have Lived in the Wrong Era

To wit:

Virginia’s John Tyler loved Shakespeare from an early age and would often quote or allude to him in public and private communications. Tyler had an elite background. His father had been Thomas Jefferson’s roommate at William and Mary. Tyler attended his father’s alma mater, beginning at the precocious age of twelve and graduating at seventeen. When he ran for vice president on the “hard cider and log cabins” ticket with William Henry Harrison in 1840, he tried to downplay this upper-class education. But he was well versed in music, poetry, and literature and collected an impressive library of 1,200 books.

Still, Shakespeare was Tyler’s favorite, and he felt comfortable citing the bard, knowing that his audience would understand him. In 1855, after he had moved on from the presidency to the role of “well-read elder statesman,” he gave an important speech on slavery and secessionism to the Maryland Institute. The speech was filled with literary allusions. He struck a note of optimism by making an apparent reference to Edgar Allan Poe, who had been a household name since the publication of “The Raven” in 1845: “I listen to no raven-like croakings foretelling ‘disastrous twilight’ to this confederacy …” He also made an adamant stand against secession, doubting that “a people so favored by heaven” would “throw away a pearl richer than all the tribe.” (His views on this subject would change after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and he was a member of the Confederate Congress when he died in 1862.) His reference to Othello in the central point of his argument reflects his confidence that his listeners would share an appreciation for Shakespeare.

Tyler could quote Othello in a political speech because even his most simply educated countrymen were taught Shakespeare and because so many people went to the theater. Average Americans attended plays far more often than we might imagine. One nineteenth-century Massachusetts man managed to see 102 shows in 122 days. Not only must he have been a very determined theater-goer, but he must have had many opportunities. As Heather Nathans observes, “[t]hat he could find 102 opportunities in 122 days to be part of an audience underscores the importance of performance culture in America during this period.” The shows themselves were varied, including not just Shakespeare, but also singers, musicals, minstrels, and orators, both professionals and amateurs. Presidents, as well as regular citizens, both followed and attended.

Okay, so I wouldn't really want to live back in John Tyler's time, without all of the modern conveniences that are part and parcel of my life and which I completely take for granted. But wouldn't it be nice if modern-day "listeners" of political speeches  "would share an appreciation for Shakespeare" that is worth writing about and commenting on? After all, elevated literary preferences might well indicate elevated preferences and expectations for other kinds of discourse, writing, speeches, and rhetoric--including political rhetoric. And the greater one's expectations for political rhetoric, the less patient one will be when politicians try to inundate one with taurine fertilizer as a substitute for elevated, meaningful and truthful rhetoric.

I don't expect politicians to ever fully stop trying to spread taurine fertilizer. But I do want it to be more difficult for them to do so. And in order to make it more difficult, we need a smarter, better educated citizenry; one that is willing to call politicians out when they are less than honest or exemplary with their words and their deeds. Until we get one, we can't expect politicians to live up to what is best in us.

Very Interesting--and Ultimately Irrelevant--Facts about Ali Khamene'i

I will freely admit to finding Akbar Ganji's article about Iran's supreme leader fascinating--especially excerpts like this one:

As a young man, Khamenei loved novels. He read such Iranian writers as Muhammad Ali Jamalzadah, Sadeq Chubak, and Sadeq Hedayat but came to feel that they paled before classic Western writers from France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. He has praised Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Sholokhov and likes Honoré de Balzac and Michel Zévaco, but he considers Victor Hugo supreme. As he told some officials of Iran’s state-run television network in 2004,

In my opinion, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is the best novel that has been written in history. I have not read all the novels written throughout history, no doubt, but I have read many that relate to the events of various centuries. I have read some very old novels. For example, say, I’ve read The Divine Comedy. I have read Amir Arsalan. I have also read A Thousand and One Nights. . . . [But] Les Misérables is a miracle in the world of novel writing. . . . I have said over and over again, go read Les Misérables once. This Les Misérables is a book of sociology, a book of history, a book of criticism, a divine book, a book of love and feeling.

Khamenei felt that novels gave him insight into the deeper realities of life in the West. “Read the novels of some authors with leftist tendencies, such as Howard Fast,” he advised an audience of writers and artists in 1996. “Read the famous book The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck, . . . and see what it says about the situation of the left and how the capitalists of the so-called center of democracy treated them.” He is also a fan of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he recommended in March 2002 to high-level state managers for the light it sheds on U.S. history: “Isn’t this the government that massacred the original native inhabitants of the land of America? That wiped out the American Indians? Wasn’t it this system and its agents who seized millions of Africans from their houses and carried them off into slavery and kidnapped their young sons and daughters to become slaves and inflicted on them for long years the most severe tragedies? Today, one of the most tragic works of art is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. . . . This book still lives after almost 200 years.”

So, Khamene'i has an intellectual and literary bent that I didn't know he possessed. I guess that is worth a "wow," or two, but ultimately, readings like this one do more to inform readers about Khamene'i's "leadership" than does the list of novels Khamene'i has claimed to have read. As mentioned in my recent New Atlanticist article (this in relation to the election of Hassan Rohani as Iran's new president), there is precedent for believing that an affinity for Western culture on the part of the leader of some adversary nation means that said leader is inclined to make that adversary nation into a friendly one (see, e.g., Yuri Andropov and his supposed fondness for jazz, which was supposed to bring about the new détente between the United States and the former Soviet Union). But as we saw in Andropov's case, an affinity for Western culture on the part of a foreign leader is not a sign that the leader in question is going to implement positive changes in his/her country's foreign policy. Something to remember as we contemplate the larger meaning of Khamene'i's supposed list of favorite novels.

Melville and His Influences

A fascinating read:

IN THE GENERAL RARE BOOKS COLLECTION at Princeton University Library sits a stunning two-volume edition of John Milton that once belonged to Herman Melville. Melville's tremendous debt to Milton — and to Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Shakespeare — might be evident to anyone who has wrestled with the moral and intellectual complexity that lends Moby Dick its immortal heft, but to see Melville's marginalia in his 1836 Poetical Works of John Milton is to understand just how intimately the author of the great American novel engaged with the author of the greatest poem in English. Checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs reveal the passages in Paradise Lost and other poems that would have such a determining effect on Melville's own work.

Captain Ahab, that vengeful seeker puffed with "fatal pride," simply could not have been imagined without Milton's Satan, paragon of seditiousness and the heroic sublime. Both tragic heroes are solipsists and madmen who believe that God is an ill-mannered lunatic undeserving of his reign, and yet both evoke our best sympathy in their epic struggles. Ahab knows he is as "proud as Lucifer" and "damned in the midst of Paradise," and he shares Satan's mytho-maniacal poeticism: "I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass."

Like Shelley and Blake, Melville was charmed by the individualism and heroic striving of Milton's Satan, and he imbued Ahab with the same sense of outsized self-mythologizing. His rereading of Paradise Lost during the composition of Moby Dick significantly altered the novel's meaning and mythic scope. The extraordinary fact is that as late as 1849 (Moby Dick was published in 1851), Melville had yet to conceive of Captain Ahab and was focused instead on the non-epic bildungsroman of a shipmate called Ishmael. Take Milton’s Satan away from Melville and you can forget about the earthshaking achievement of Moby Dick.

In his biography of Melville, Andrew Delbanco contends that Melville's "immersion” in great writers at this time “lifted him to a new level of epic ambition." Delbanco gives particular attention not only to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but to Dryden's seminal translation of Virgil's Aeneid, which Melville also reread during the writing of Moby Dick. After that "encounter" with the Aeneid, Delbanco writes, Melville "found himself recapitulating Virgil's story of a haunted mariner voyaging out to avenge a grievous loss." In other words: a vigorous rereading of epics vivified his creation of the most compelling quester in the American canon.

News that Will Either Infuriate You, or Make You Feel Incredibly Smug

If you are spending 10,000 hours trying to make yourself an expert at something, you might be wasting your time:

Like many others who read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” when it came out five years ago, I was impressed by the 10,000-hour rule of expertise. I wrote a column (for a different publication) espousing the rule, which holds that to become a world-class competitor at anything from chess to tennis to baseball, all that’s required is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

David Epstein has convinced me I was wrong. His thoroughly researched new book, “The Sports Gene,” pretty much demolishes the 10,000-hour rule -- and much of “Outliers” along with it.

The practice-makes-perfect theory is certainly inspiring. In 2009, and after reading Gladwell’s book and some of the associated research, a 30-year-old man named Dan McLaughlin decided to quit his job as a photographer, determined to practice golf for 10,000 hours and turn pro -- even though his previous experience consisted of just two trips to a driving range as a child. He now practices six hours a day, and is scheduled to hit 10,000 hours in late 2016.

Epstein’s book suggests that McLaughlin better have a backup plan, because, while real elite athletes have put in plenty of practice time, their aptitude is enhanced by their genes.

Read on. More here. And sorry if I ruined your day.

The World Is Full of Extraordinary Surprises

To wit:

For nearly two centuries, scholars have debated whether some 325 lines in the 1602 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd’s play “The Spanish Tragedy” were, in fact, written by Shakespeare.

Last year, the British scholar Brian Vickers used computer analysis to argue that the so-called Additional Passages were by Shakespeare, a claim hailed by some as the latest triumph of high-tech Elizabethan text mining.

But now, a professor at the University of Texas says he has found something closer to definitive proof using a more old-fashioned method: analyzing Shakespeare’s messy handwriting.

In a terse four-page paper, to be published in the September issue of the journal Notes and Queries, Douglas Bruster argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Additional Passages — including some awkward lines that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean — may be explained as print shop misreadings of Shakespeare’s penmanship.

“What we’ve got here isn’t bad writing, but bad handwriting,” Mr. Bruster said in a telephone interview.

Claiming Shakespeare authorship can be a perilous endeavor. In 1996, Donald Foster, a pioneer in computer-driven textual analysis, drew front-page headlines with his assertion that Shakespeare was the author of an obscure Elizabethan poem called “A Funeral Elegy,” only to quietly retract his argument six years later after analyses by Mr. Vickers and others linked it to a different author.

This time, editors of some prestigious scholarly editions are betting that Mr. Bruster’s cautiously methodical arguments, piled on top of previous work by Mr. Vickers and others, will make the attribution stick.

“We don’t have any absolute proof, but this is as close as you can get,” said Eric Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and an editor, with Jonathan Bate, of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of the complete Shakespeare.

“I think we can now say with some authority that, yes, this is Shakespeare,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “It has his fingerprints all over it.”

On Samuel Johnson and James Boswell

Jorge Luis Borges:

Boswell conceived of the idea of an extensive biography, one that included his conversations with Johnson, whom he saw several times a week, sometimes more. The Life of Samuel Johnson, by Boswell, has often been compared to Conversations of Goethe, by Eckermann, a book that in my opinion is in no way comparable, even though it was praised by Nietzsche as the best book ever written in German. Because Eckermann was a man of limited intelligence who greatly revered Goethe, who spoke with him ex cathedra. Eckermann very rarely dared to contradict Goethe. Then he’d go home and write it all down. The book has something of catechism about it. In other words: Eckermann asks, Goethe answers, the first writes down what Goethe has said…. Eckermann almost doesn’t exist except as a kind of machine that records Goethe’s words. We know nothing about Eckermann, nothing about his character—he undoubtedly had one, but this cannot be deduced from the book, cannot be inferred from it.

On the other hand, what Boswell planned, or in any case what he carried out, was completely different: to make Johnson’s biography a drama, with several characters. There is [Sir Joshua] Reynolds, there is [Oliver] Goldsmith, sometimes the members of the circle, or how would we call it, the salon, of which Johnson was the leader. And they appear and behave like the characters in a play. Indeed, each has his own personality—above all, Dr. Johnson, who is presented sometimes as ridiculous but always as lovable. This is what happens with Cervantes’s character, Don Quixote, especially in the second part, when the author has learned to know his character and has forgotten his initial goal of parodying novels of chivalry. This is true, because the more writers develop their characters, the better they get to know them. So, that’s how we have a character who is sometimes ridiculous, but who can be serious and have profound thoughts, and above all is one of the most beloved characters in all of history. And we can say “of history” because Don Quixote is more real to us than Cervantes himself, as Unamuno and others have maintained. …. And at the end, Don Quixote is a slightly ridiculous character, but he is also a gentleman worthy of our respect, and sometimes our pity, but he is always lovable. And this is the same sensation we get from the image of Dr. Johnson, given to us by Boswell, with his grotesque appearance, his long arms, his slovenly appearance. But he is lovable.

….Now, in the same way that we have seen how Johnson is similar to Don Quixote, we have to think that just as Sancho is the companion Quixote sometimes treats badly, we see Boswell in that same relation to Dr. Johnson: a sometimes stupid and loyal companion. There are characters whose role is to bring out the hero’s personality. In other words, often authors need a character who serves as a framework for and a contrast to the deeds of his hero. This is Sancho, and that character in Boswell’s work is Boswell himself. That is, Boswell appears as a despicable character. But it seems impossible to me that Boswell didn’t realize this. And this shows that Boswell positioned himself in contrast to Johnson. The fact that Boswell himself tells anecdotes in which he appears ridiculous makes him not seem ridiculous at all, for if he wrote them down, he did it because he saw that the purpose of the anecdote was to make Johnson stand out.

Quote of the Day

Presently before the court is the motion of the defendant, Sony Pictures Classics, Inc. (“Sony”), seeking dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The plaintiff, Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC (“Faulkner”) has responded in opposition. The court has viewed Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, read the book, Requiem for a Nun, and is thankful that the parties did not ask the court to compare The Sound and the Fury with Sharknado. Further, the court has thoroughly considered the filings and relevant law. The motion is due to be granted.

At issue in this case is whether a single line from a full-length novel singly paraphrased and attributed to the original author in a full-length Hollywood film can be considered a copyright infringement. In this case, it cannot.

--Judge Michael P. Mills, Chief Judge, United States District Court, Northern District of Mississippi. Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC v. Sony Pictures Classics Inc.

Quote of the Day

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

--William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust. Today, of course, is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

How to Read Proust

Having done the deed, I can appreciate Morgan Meis's advice on the subject

Early readers of the novel can be forgiven for not immediately liking Swann’s Way. In a recent article for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein quotes an evaluation of Swann’s Way from the publishers who first rejected the book. The evaluator complains, “I cannot understand how a man can take 30 pages to describe how he turns round in his bed before he finally falls asleep.”

Many readers of Proust have noticed that he was a writer who took his time. Walter Benjamin once observed that Proust, as a man and writer, loved to multiply complications. Benjamin compares Proust’s love of complication to an anonymous letter that goes: “My dear Madam, I just noticed that I forgot my cane at your house yesterday; please be good enough to give it to the bearer of this letter. P.S. Kindly pardon me for disturbing you; I just found my cane.”

Proust wrote literature with the same sensibility as the man who composed that letter. This can make it difficult to read Proust unless you are attuned to that sensibility. “Attunement” is a good word for what it takes to learn to read Proust — music played a significant role in Proust’s life and writing. The critic Edmund Wilson was one of the first writers to notice the importance of music in understanding Proust. Wilson wrote an essay about 
Remembrance of Things Past for The New Republic back in 1928. In the essay, Wilson argued that, “Like so many other important modern writers, Proust had been reared in the school of symbolism and had all the symbolist's preoccupation with musical effects. Like many of his generation, he was probably as deeply influenced by Wagner as by any writer of books.” Wilson goes on to note that the opening chapter of Remembrance of Things Past is titled “Overture.” Proust was structuring his giant work of literature like a symphony. Over the last few generations of literary scholarship there have been countless attempts to explain just how to interpret each chapter and volume of Remembrance of Things Past along musical lines. You can read, for instance, that Swann’s Way can be broken down into the exposition, development, and capitulation of the sonata-allegro form of musical composition.

But these works of scholarship probably take the musical influence too literally. Wilson is right that Proust was heavily influenced by Symbolism and that he loved music. All this means is that Proust listened to the music of his time, particularly works from composers like Saint-Saens and Gabriel Fauré. He liked the way this music made him feel and he wanted to write literature that evoked the same feeling. What is that feeling? I’d recommend listening to works like Fauré’s 
First Violin Sonata and Saint-Saens’ Sonata No. 1 for Piano and Violin. Either of those works (there are other candidates) may have been the inspiration for the famous “little phrase” of music by the fictional composer Vinteul in Swann’s Way. In the novel, M. Swann becomes obsessed with this piece of music and asks his beloved, Odette, to play it for him over and over again.

The little phrase of music becomes important to Swann because it reminds him that his love for Odette is not a “digression without importance,” but something, “on the contrary, so far superior to everyday life as to be alone worthy of the trouble of expressing it.” Proust goes on to explain that, “Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadows, unknown, impenetrable by the human mind, which none the less were perfectly distinct one from another, unequal among themselves in value and in significance.”

The subject of Swann and the little musical phrase by Vinteul inspired Proust into one of his rhapsodies of language. Such rhapsodies break out every few chapters in 
Remembrance of Things Past. Swann, wrote Proust, “knew that his memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still, almost all of it, unknown), on which, here and there only, separated by the gross darkness of its unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys, keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by certain great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme which they have found, of shewing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night, discouraging exploration, of our soul, which we have been content to regard as valueless and waste and void.”

The passage does not stop there. The discussion of music and the “little phrase” goes on for several more pages of equally breathless prose. When Proust writes like this, when he breaks into his rhapsodies, the sentences get longer. He uses more (and lengthier) subordinate clauses. The sentences are like great piles of words with all the folds and layers of an unspooled bolt of fabric spilling onto the floor. Those sentences, those great unspooling sentences, are the “little phrases” of Proust’s novel. Proust figured out how to write in a way that could create the same emotions that he felt when listening to the contemporary composers he loved. Proust was experimenting with sentences just as the composers were experimenting with musical phrases. Fauré, for instance, was messing around with whole tone scales and various early techniques of polytonality to create a specific emotional feel in his music. Just listen to
 this clip of Michelangeli playing Debussy’s Danseuses de Delphes (Debussy was a student of Fauré) to hear the dreamy effect of whole tone scales.

The point is that composers in Proust’s time were experimenting with the “syntax” of music in order to capture a specific feeling. That feeling is dreamy and indistinct by nature. So, it is hard to talk about. Just listen to the Debussy again. Proust has his own words to describe the feeling that this music evokes. He lays it out in the passage quoted above. He says this music awakens in us, “the emotion … of … richness … [that] lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night … of our soul.”

The third-to-last paragraph is an especially useful guide for Proust-readers.

 

How the Creative Class Created

Quite fascinating:

Nikola Tesla typically worked from noon until midnight, breaking at 8:00 p.m. for dinner every night at the Waldorf-Astoria. Among the many peculiarities of this ritualized repast was his practice of not starting the meal until he had computed his dinner's cubic volume, "a compulsion he had developed in his childhood." Truman Capote, who wrote lying down in bed or on a couch, refused to let more than two cigarette butts pile up in an ashtray and "couldn't begin or end anything on a Friday." Louis Armstrong smoked pot ("gage," as he called it) almost daily and couldn't go to sleep until he had taken his dose of a "potent herbal laxative" called Swiss Kriss. "Armstrong believed so strongly in its curative powers that he recommended it to all his friends," Currey writes, "and even had a card printed up with a photo of himself sitting on a toilet, above the caption 'Leave It All Behind Ya.' "

The prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos believed that "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." And indeed, if there's a drug the artists in
 Daily Rituals can agree on, it's caffeine. Soren Kierkegaard preferred his coffee with sugar, or perhaps it was vice versa: "Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled above the rim," his biographer observed. "Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid."

[. . .]

James Joyce, we learn, woke daily around 10:00 a.m. He'd lie in bed for about an hour, then get up, shave and sit down at his piano, where he'd play and sing before writing in the afternoon and then hitting the cafes later that evening. John Updike, meanwhile, worked mornings, preferring to "put the creative project first," as he put it. Of his discipline, he said, "I've never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again."

“Some of the creative feats mentioned in the book seem godlike. P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, wrote the last 8,000 words of 'Thank You, Jeeves' in a single day.

Charles Darwin boasts one of the book's strictest schedules. After a stroll and breakfast alone, Darwin would begin a 90-minute work session around 8:00 a.m. He'd break to read mail with his wife and then return to his study around 10:30 a.m. for a second session. By noon or so, he'd have completed what he considered his workday, but the rest of his waking hours were no less regimented. He responded to letters, read and rested at regular intervals until bedtime, which arrived daily around 10:30 p.m. "Thus his days went for forty years," Currey writes, "with few exceptions."

(Via 3 Quarks Daily.)