Monday, October 31, 2005

A great, great poet ...

Little time -- and energy -- to blog tonight (I have a review to work on), but the day cannot end without acknowledging that on this date in 1795 John Keats was born. As much as any poet Keats got me interested in poetry. Few have ever been more adept at turning language into music ("Yet would I on this very midnight cease,/And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds..."). Here is a nice site dedicated to him. And here is one of my favorites among his poems:

To Sleep

O SOFT embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,
And seal the hushèd casket of my soul.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Elites, experts and the like ...

The other day, in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan had a piece about our "elites" making "A Separate Peace". Today Glenn Reynolds links here and here to commentaries on Noonan's piece.
I admire Peggy Noonan immensely, but I tend to agree with much of what Phil Bowermaster and Justin Katz have to say in response. The "experts" the maninstream media has come to rely on tend to be experts in ... commentary and little else. As Katz points out it was genuine experts in typography that put the lie to Dan Rather's fake documents. And asI have suggested here, much public discourse these days has to do with the "meaning" of something without any real reference to what was said in the first place. I listened the other night to a blogger on a panel bloviate about the mainstream media's complicity in the administration's "lies" about WMDs. Well, I can be as critical of the MSM as anyone, but I'm sorry: U.S., British, Israeli, French, German, and Russian intelligence all indicated that Iraq had WMDs. Iraq had used WMDs twice -- against Iran and against the Kurds. Hans Blix wanted more time look for WMDs because ... he suspected they were there. Even the fact that they have not been found does not in itself demonstrate that they were not there. After all, the reason people hide things is to keep them from being found. But even if we grant that they were not there, that would only indicate that all the experts in this matter were wrong, not that anyone lied.
Which brings me to a point I have been meaning to get at for a while regarding th level of public discourse. Calling mistakes lies is bad, to be sure, and lowers the level of discourse. But there are more fundamental problems in this regard: the failure to define terms, for instance, which one sees all the time in the Darwinism/Inteligent Design debate (such as it is). Evolution and Darwinism are not equivalent terms; neither are intelligent design and creationism. More and more, arguments tend to be framed incorrectly. The Inquirer recently had something devoted to "What If." What it amounted to was a collection of counterfactual conditionals (which, as Umberto Eco has pointed out, always lead to correct conclusions, precisely because the propositions themselves are false -- running, as they do, counter to fact). Time and again, in public discourse, correlation is presented as causation and weak correlation as strong. If the media spent more time dispassionately sorting out the faulty argumentation that takes place frequently on both sides of any debate -- rather than taking sides in any of them, however covertly (in fact, especially covertly) -- it would perform a public service consumers might well find indispensible.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Ponderings and questions ...

The Guardian recently published some excerpts from Robert Winston's forthcoming book, The Story of God.
I don't know about the book as a whole, but the excerpts seemed to me to raise more questions than were answered.
Take, for instance, the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity. The intrincically religious regard religion as an end in itself, the extrinically religious accept it as a social convention. Winston cites a study suggesting that the latter are more susceptible to mental and emotional disorders than the former. He then tackles the notion of religion as an advantageous adaptation in human evolution. Specifically, he cites David Sloan Wilson's thesis that "religiosity emerged as a 'useful' genetic trait because it had the effect of making social groups more unified. The communal nature of religion certainly would have given groups of hunter-gatherers a stronger sense of togetherness." But that sounds like extrinsic religiosity to me, which isn't the variety that offers the advantages. (If the communitarian aspect of religion is what makes it advantageous for survival, this is likely to be the result of a a genuine commitment to the faith. The communal attachment minus the commitment would probably not have such an effect. In other words, if relgion does have an adaptive advantage, it must derive from genuine belief, not superficial assent.)
Winston also cites the study of identical twins that suggested there may be something genetic about religious sensibility. But while genetics may serve to explain why identical twins, separated at birth and raised by parents with vastly different outlooks, end up having the same outlook themselves, what explains identical twins who don't end up having similar outlooks?
I certainly think there is a difference between those who regard religion as a social convention, and accordingly go to church, and those who experience God as a living presence in their lives. I also think that what has really bothered many Catholics about the sex abuse scandals in the Church is the suspicion that members of the hierarchy may be more loyal to the Church than to God -- or, what may be worse, draw no distinction between the two.
Finally, there is what Winston quotes from Richard Dawkins:

"Religious behaviour in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolised medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion."

I wonder how the Apostle of Darwinism explains this singularly maladaptive behavior and how it has managed to survive and indeed flourish.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A touch of blogging ...

It has been a wearisome week at The Inquirer. There is a buyout offer on the table and quite a few people have signed up for it. People I have worked with for 20 years and more are planning to exit. And no one can really say for sure what things will be like when it's all over -- except that it won't be the same.
And so, after a couple of very long days, I shall confine my blogging to noting that on this day, in 1903, Evelyn Waugh was born. Here is a fine piece on him by George Weigel. And this, from my favorite among his novels, Brideshead Revisited, nicely summarizes how I have been feeling of late:

How ungenerously in later life we disclaim the virtuous moods of our youth, living in retrospect long, summer days of unreflecting dissipation, Dresden figures of pastoral gaiety! Our wisdom, we prefer to think, is all of our own gathering, while, if the truth be told, it is, most of it, the last coin of a legacy that dwindles with time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Come to the Village (the East Village, that is) ...

Debra Matsumoto, publicity manager for North Atlantic Books, sent me an interesting email the other, which she gave me permission to share:

Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose was the brainchild of some freelance producers who love books. On Nov. 10, 9:30-11 pm, laundry and language will spin together at the Avenue C Laundromat, 69 Avenue C @ 5th St. in the heart of the East Village. Following a successful inaugural event with Legs McNeil and Sam Lipsyte in August, this second installment will feature Rob Brezsny, the syndicated astrology columnist for The Village Voice and Jungian beatnik, and fiction writer Kelly Link.

This format is urban multi-tasking genius and creative guerrilla bookselling for fly-over city centers where competition for attendance is the most challenging and competitive. For more information, please contact Emily Rubin,; cell: 917.501.9825.

Too bad it's a Wednesday. Hard for me to get to Manhattan in the middle of the week. But it sure sounds interesting.

One more time ...?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," wrote
George Santayana. This piece by Jonathan V. Last offers further evidence that Santayana was right. (Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Taken to task (cont'd) ...

Oni Lasana, one of the email correspondents who was critical of the last line of my review on Sunday of Caryl Phillips's Dancing in the Dark, responded today to the answer I sent her and has given me permission to quote her. Here's what she wrote:

Hi Frank,
I'm surprised you wrote back in such detail to defend your review. Thanks. I understand all points you made, especially about human nature and the definition of shame. However in my experiences, human nature transends one's race.
To be quite frank, as a person of color, I still find your last line in the review to be a subliminal act of sabotage to the author and publisher of the book. What person of any color would want to read a book that will make them feel ashamed. In my humble opinion, the review was excellent, only the last line was in bad taste.
All the best...all the time~

This got me to thinking. Specifically, I began to think that Oni was right: I certainly didn't intend it -- in fact, it was the opposite of what I intended -- but that last line might very well turn potential readers off. I should have stuck to the fact of my response and not gone beyond it to a judgment about how others should respond. So I'm going to send out a changed version for the KRT wire and have the online version changed as well. I'll stick to how I felt and not tell others how to feel.
Thanks, Oni.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Taken to task ...

And now for another behind-the scenes glimpse in the life of a newspaper book review editor:

In my review yesterday of Caryl Phillips's novel Dancing in the Dark, based on the life of black entertainer Bert Williams, I had the temerity to write the following:

One would hope that an African American, reading this book, would feel compassion for its melancholy protagonist, trapped in a cultural double-bind. Any white American, reading it, ought to feel ashamed.

My colleague Michael Rozansky warned me that that final sentence might elicit some critical email. And so it did. I can't quote any of them -- there were five, I think -- because I don't have the writers' permission, but the gist of all of them seemed to be that the racism that existed in this country at the time was certainly deplorable but nothing that white Americans today need be ashamed of. I suggested to a couple of my correspondents that it would seem to me perfectly reasonable if a contemporary German felt ashamed over what happened in Germany during the Nazi era. So why shouldn't we be ashamed of our country's racism? I reminded another that the primary defintion of shame is "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety." Accordingly, I think shame is an altogether appropriate emotional rsponse to certain things that have taken place in American society. Finally, I told all of them that I believed in a common human nature and a universal moral law and that decent people tend to find certain actions and attitudes shameful.
So far, none of my correspondents has written back.

The trouble with experts (revisited) ...

Earlier this month I posted some thoughts about The trouble with experts in which I commented somewhat unfavorably on a column by George Will regarding the Harriet Miers nomination. I was interested to see that John Hinderaker of Power Line has an article in The Daily Standard that echoes some of my sentiments:

... there is no Constitutional requirement that Supreme Court justices be lawyers. It might well be good to have a non-lawyer or two on the Court. Such justices may not bring much value to issues of, say, bankruptcy law; but the Constitution is a straightforward document, intended to be read and understood by men and women of ordinary intelligence and experience. There is no reason why expositing that document should be solely the province of lawyers.

Harvard law professor Charles Fried also had an interesting article on the same subject in yesterday's Boston Globe.

But perhaps most interesting of all, at least from the point of view of taking Will to task, is this piece by Dafydd ab Hugh at Big Lizards Blog.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Schools of evolution ...

In the Oct. 8 edition of the British magazine The Spectator, historian Paul Johnson made a most interesting point in a column headlined "Increasingly it is historians who have the answers in science" (available online only to subscribers). Here's the money quote:
Evolution is ... a matter of history. When biologists tell me, as a historian, to get off their turf, my reply is that I have at least as much right to be there as they do. No one disputes that the evolution of life forms took place. But how? Darwinian fundamentalists -- by which I mean those who claim natural selection is the sole and exclusive form of evolution -- have an obligation to produce a chronology showing how their theory fits into the chronology of life on earth. So far as I can see, it does not fit -- natural selection is too slow to be the evolutionary matrix in all cases. It is on this point that Darwinian theory crumbles. And it is a historical point. Clio knows best.
Please, before criticizing me -- or Johnson -- for espousing creationism, read that passage carefully. Note the phrases "sole and exclusive" and "all cases."
I noticed that, last week, at the trial taking place in Harrisburg regarding the Dover Area School District's requirement that students be made acquainted with intelligent design theory, biologist Michael Behe, author ofDarwin's Black Box, testified. I read Behe's book some years ago and interviewed Behe. The book, as I recall, was strictly about biology -- by which I mean there was no discussion of religion in it -- and Behe seemed a very reasonable fellow when I talked to him. I can't see why Behe's book wouldn't be suitable to a reading list for science students. But, presuming I'm wrong, and it wouldn't be appropriate, what about Evolution in Four Dimensions : Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life, by Eva Jablonka and Marion C. Lamb? This posits that not all evolutionary change can be attributed to selection among random genetic mutations; acquired changes, as well as induced changes, also play a part. If anyone out there catches a whiff of Lamarckianism, well, Jablonka and Lamb previously authored Epigenetic Inheritance and Evolution: The Lamarckian Dimension. And speaking of Lamarck, what about Lamarck's Signature : How Retrogenes Are Changing Darwin's Natural Selection Paradigm by Edward Steele, Robyn A. Lindley, and Robert V. Blanden? This shows how at the molecular level characteristics acquired by the immune system can be inherited.
If other factors, besides natural selection, can be shown to figure in the process of change known as evolution, that is something worth knowing. Or shall books such as these not be allowed in the classroom either, because they challenge what Johnson calls Darwinian orthodoxy? (None of these books, by the way, so far as I know, has any bearing on, or in any way makes a case for, intelligent design theory.)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

More about self-publishing ...

This past summer, my colleague Tanya Barrientos wrote an excellent piece about the explosion in self-publishing. Scores of thousands of books are being published every year through iUniverse, Xlibris (which is part-owned by Random House, which guarantees that any book published by Xlibris that sells a certain number of copies will be referred to a Random House acquisitions editor), and AuthorHouse. It is not only possible, it is altogether likely that at least some of these books are as good as anything brought out by commercial publishers. Michael Hoeye's Time Stops for No Mouse was originally self-published. So was Leaves of Grass. The problem is finding out which, among all those that are out there, are the ones worth paying some attention to.
Xerox Corp. came up with a promising idea recently: an Aspiring Authors Contest. There were more than 250 entries and the judges were well-respected critics: Maureen Corrigan of National Public Radio and Emily Chenoweth, fiction editor of Publishers Weekly. I blogged about the contest here and here. The latter post announced that Tanya -- who has written a couple of well-regarded novels herself -- had agreed to review the winner, Barbara Ghosh's Tenure Track to Mommyville.
Well, Tanya gave it her best shot, but said she felt it wouldn't be a good idea to review the book in The Inquirer. She explained why in an email (which she has given me permission to quote in full here):

The romance of do-it-yourself publishing is irresistable to anyone who loves fairy tales. Or to anyone who's ever labored over a novel in obscurity, daydreaming of the moment their hard work will be discovered and - poof!- they become the prince or princess of the publishing world.

I like happy endings as much as anybody else, which is why I came to Tenure Track to Mommyville, a self-published novel by Barbara Grosh, with great expectations. After all, it was chosen by Maureen Corrigan, the widely respected book critic for National Public Radio, and Emily Chenoweth of Publishers Weekly, and as the winner of a national contest staged by Xerox Corporation to find true talent in the slush bucket of print-on-demand titles.

The main character is Elaine Barlow, an economics professor who did not get tenure and has found herself transitioning into the life of a stay-at-home-mom. Her husband, a veterinarian, is resentful. She is unsure of her ability to mother well, and is certain she's lost her intellectual edge.

In the publicity material, Corrigan is quoted as calling the novel "a picture of the trials and tribulations of 21st century motherhood."

But a well-crafted picture it's not. The story is serviceable, as is the prose. But there was nothing about Mommyville that made me think the self-publishing world is bubbling with undiscovered gold.

The narrative read too much like non-fiction. It dragged and wandered and employed dialogue that didn't sound natural. So much for fairy tales.

I haven't read Ghosh's book myself, but I trust Tanya's judgment. The key observation in her email is that "the narrative read too much like non-fiction." There are plenty of autobiographical novels out there -- D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, all of Thomas Wolfe's novels, and all of Henry Miller's. Miller's are worth considering in this context, because he invented little -- but he exaggerated a lot: he turned his life into a burlesque. My point is that for a novel to work the author has to do more than transcribe the details of his or her life and just change the names of persons and places. There has to be a powerful imaginative element.
Ghosh has plenty to be proud of. It's not easy to write a book. It takes time and effort amd perseverence. She should keep at it and I hope she does. In the meantime I'm going to continue paying as much attention as I can to what is going on with all this self-publishing.

Back to blogging (again) ...

The book I am currently reading for review, Henry Hitchings's Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary contains a sentence that goes far to explain my absence from the blogopshere this past week:
[Johnson's] thoughts on the nature of writing convey the impression that he considered it something to set oneself to 'doggedly', to persevere at, to achieve 'by slow degrees'.
I would extend this to include literary and journalistic endeavor generally: Writing, editing, and research have their pleasures to be sure, but they also involve a lot of plain hard work, much of it singularly unexciting. I took the week before last off (and was able to do a good bit of blogging as a result). When I returned to work, though, I was faced with an office that had accumulated a week's load of books and galleys, which needed to be sorted and shelved. There was also a week's worth of email and snail mail. And there were, of course, reviews and articles to be edited and moved to the copy desk, meetings to attend, etc., etc.
Luckily, I had some help. Kevin McManmon, one of The Inquirer's dwindling number of editorial assistants, was assigned to lend a hand -- and that helped mightily. So by week's end everything was pretty much back in order. But it was a week of long days -- and I had some events to attend several nights as well. Finally, my home office needed some attention too, which it got yesterday.
In short, now that order has been restored, I can resume blogging.
I mention all this because, first, this blog is supposed to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what it's like to be a newspaper book review editor and, second, it's useful to remember that writing, painting, sculpting, composing and the like are not always glamorous undertakings. They have more than their fair share of drudgery and success in them, however modest, comes from going at them with a will.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

More Ibsen ...

Last night, my wife and I went to see Ibsen's The Lady From the Sea in a production at the Lantern Theater Company. The production was quite good, and the play is the only Ibsen play I can think of that has a happy ending (Peer Gynt does, too, in a way, but it's ambiguous). It is, however, a transitional work and so not entirely satisfying. Ibsen took a big step in it away from purely social drama and toward symbolic drama (but he retreated a bit with his next, Hedda Gabler). One of the interesting things about the play is that Hilda Wangel, who fatefully visits Solness, the title character in The Master Builder (which we saw Wednesday in New York), appears as a young girl, apparently before her initial encounter with Solness. It is clearly the same character, though. It is not at all surprising that this little girl would grow up to be the character in The Master Builder (of course, we get to know her family background as well).
The important theme in The Lady From the Sea is that love must be unconditional and that the one who loves must grant the beloved freedom, even if that freedom entails the loss of the beloved. Once again I was reminded of how far above most contemporary dramatists Ibsen towers. He thought originally, powerfully, and was never in thrall to fashionable ideas or poses.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The essay revisited ...

In August, commenting on a post of mine -- Exploring the mind ..., Melville Goodwin cited Joseph Epstein as a worthy, contemporary counterpart to Montaigne. In last week's edition of The Weekly Standard, Epstein had a piece titled "The Culture of Celebrity" that goes a long way to support Melville's claim. A key paragraph:
Far from being devoted to ideas for their own sake, the intellectual equivalent of art for art's sake, the so-called public intellectual of our day is usually someone who comments on what is in the news, in the hope of affecting policy, or events, or opinion in line with his own political position, or orientation. He isn't necessarily an intellectual at all, but merely someone who has read a few books, mastered a style, a jargon, and a maven's authoritative tone, and has a clearly demarcated political line.
But, as Glenn Reynolds would say, read the whole thing. (Hats off to the indispensible Arts & Letters Daily.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Putting my foot in it again ...

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Carlin Romano wrote an excellent review of Michael Ruse's The Evolution-Creation Struggle.
In the meantime, in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, a court case is proceeding having to do with whether or not it is permissible to teach intelligent-design theory in public schools. There has been much in The Inquirer about this case, though I confess to having read very little of it. But a thought occurred to me yesterday that may be pertinent (then again, it may be impertinent): The subtitle of Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker is "Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design." Dawkins's book, presumably, is meant as a work of science. It is therefore advancing as a scientific notion the thesis that evolution (at least in its neo-Darwinian version) is proof that the universe has not been designed. How widely is this thesis accepted among scientists, I wonder. And whether widely accepted or not, could such a book be taught in a public school? It is, after all, advancing a thesis regarding nature and design.

Another playwright ...

Harold Pinter has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I can't say I've ever been much of a fan myself. Pinter's work has always struck me as a leaden amalgam of the pretentious and the boring. Since there are accolades galore, let's, for variety's sake, take a look at the the dissenters. Here's Roger Kimball. And here's J. Bottum.
But to be fair, here, from the right, is also a defense.
What is most annoying about this award is that the Swedes continue to ignore the first-rate in their midst, namely, Torgny Lindgren. As for American writers who deserve it, I'll stick with Elmore Leonard.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Afternoon at the theater ...

I am on vacation this week and yesterday my wife and I traveled to Manhattan to see a fine production of Henrik Ibsen's great play The Master Builder at The Pearl Theatre Company in the East Village. If you feel starved, as I often do, for real drama, classical drama -- as opposed to the ax-grinding sermonettes so many theaters seem compelled to stage -- then consider a subscription to this company. My wife and I sure are: Following the Ibsen run, they'll be staging plays by Wycherley (The Gentleman Dancing Master), Euripides (Hecuba), Shakespeare (Measure for Measure) and Schiller (Mary Stuart).
The weather made traveling less than pleasant yesterday, but it was worth it, the play was so well done, perfectly paced and without any cutesy-pie contemporary spin (a very smart move -- Ibsen wasn't just ahead of his own time; he looks as if he's even ahead of ours).
The actors all have a sound grasp of their parts, so the ensemble work is excellent. But it's the three central roles -- Halvard Solness, the master builder; Aline, his wife; and Hilda Wangel, the young woman who fatefully re-enters his life -- who give this play its strange power, and Dan Daily as Solness, Robin Leslie Brown as Aline, and Michele Vazquez as Hilda are fully up to their tasks. Brown is both chilling and heartbreaking as a woman whose very soul has been paralyzed by grief. The scene where she tells Hilda of her dolls -- destroyed in the fire that destroyed the house she grew up in, and which she still played with even after her marriage to Solness -- is touching and wrenching at the same time. As for Vazquez, she brings just the right measure of coquettish passion to what is a very ambiguous role. It's certainly easy to believe she could inspire an aging architect to risk his life to please and impress her. Then there's Solness: Daily captures not only his confident charm and ruthless imperiousness, but also the insecurity beneath the pluck. But he captures something more: the terror that lies at the heart of this man's existential drama. When Solness tells Hilda of what really went on that day she saw him place a wreath -- for the first and only time -- at the topmost point of the building -- a church -- that he had just finished, it is really scary: Solness has defied God -- and has been pursued by Him ever since. So Hilda is a kind of angel -- and an angel is messenger from God.
I could go on on and on about The Master Builder, which I first read in college, but had never seen staged until yesterday. When I first read it, I was a young man with artistic aspirations; now I'm an aging man with no illusions, and few aspirations left. Seeing it had a strange effect on me, which I will have to mull a bit before I get a handle on it -- if I can get a handle on it.
Saturday night, my wife and I are going to see another Ibsen play: The Lady From the Sea. This was the first of Ibsen's late plays, in which symbolism became an integral part of his work. Interestingly, Hilda Wangel is one of the characters in The Lady From the Sea. So I'll get to see what she was like as a child.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Letter from Dublin (1)

Katie Haegele, who filled in for me here briefly this past summer, and who reviews young adult books -- and much else besides -- for The Inquirer, has flown to Dublin to matriculate at University College, Joyce's alma mater. I asked her to send me a letter from time to time, commenting on what she observes of the literary scene there. Here is her first:

This Modern Life: A Dublin Diary

Hello Inqy readers! I’m writing to you from a tiny
cottage in Dublin. The house I’m staying in
is just outside the city center in an old
working-class neighborhood, nestled in a row
of what they call workers' houses — teensy,
one-story stucco joints that Guinness built for its
employees in the 1880s. Think Roddy Doyle in South
Ostensibly I’m in here to study toward a master’s
degree in modern English literature. But between me
and you, I’m also here for the experience. The
experience of living in a foreign country on my own,
of finding out how much of my personal perspective has
been culturally determined, of learning how to buy
rounds and remain standing after they’ve all been
drained. So while it’s true that I’ve been living it
up since I got here, my out-of-classroom experiences
are proving to be about as literary — and definitely as
modern — as anything on my reading list.
Last week I heard a talk given by Declan Kiberd, the
chair of the Anglo-Irish Department at University
College Dublin. He spoke eloquently, and with energy
and a refreshing directness, on James Joyce’s Ulysses and what he called the “common culture.” Ulysses is
the quintessential modern novel in many ways, of
course, not the least of which was its then-shocking,
God-is-a-shout-in-the-street sense of secularism. But
Kiberd went on to say that modernism itself was a
village phenomenon — that Joyce wanted to maintain the
sense of community they’d enjoyed in the old days
(after first chucking any residual provincialism and
ignorance). Ulysses was both a celebration and an
epitaph of the culture that produced it, Kiberd said,
because it chronicled everyday human interactions in a
city that, by the time the book was published in the
1920s, would no longer be the kind of place where
people went out strolling just to see who they might
run into for a chat.
I know Kiberd is right. Dublin has changed
dramatically over the last 100 years (especially the
last 20), and it’s now a wealthy, bustling, and
international city. On some streets you’re about as
likely to hear Spanish, French, or English being
spoken with a Caribbean lilt as you are to hear a
local brogue. There are also plenty of folks here who
rush around in suits and eat in overpriced fusion
restaurants and are about as pleasant to spend time
with as those kind of people are anywhere. (Maybe
that’s what my professor means when he talks about
global modernization — the Western world’s unfortunate
acceptance of yuppies.) But from my perspective,
Dubliners still talk and listen to each other much
more than people do in Philadelphia. The majority of
the people I’ve met here, including strangers on the
street, seem *present* in their day-to-day
interactions, not simply nodding as they mentally tick
off an endless to-do list, preoccupied with something
that seems more important simply because it hasn’t
happened yet. I don’t mean to romanticize the place;
people are just people wherever you go. Anyway, it
could be just a matter of size. With only around six
million people Ireland is a small country and, as I’m
finding out, a lot of them know each other.
The evening after our first class a bunch of us went
out to get acquainted over a few pints. I got to
talking to the only girl in my class who might fairly
be described as a hipster. Her shoulder tattoos were
on display, and she talked about postmodernism in a
cute, croaky smoker’s voice. She seemed like someone
who might share my taste in books so I asked her who
in Ireland is writing good stuff right now. She told
me about the poet Paula Meehan, who she likes because
she writes about Dublin as it is today rather than
taking some wistful stroll down a cobble-stoned memory
lane, which is apparently a local publishing trend my
classmate considers overdone and hokey. When we met
again at class the next day, she’d brought me an
anthology that contained some of Meehan's work and
also included a poet named Eavan Boland. I got all
excited when I recognized Boland’s name and started to
talk about one of her poems, which is hard to do when
you can’t remember the title or any of the imagery.
Synopsis doesn’t exactly do poetry justice. But I did
remember that the poem was about the birth of her
daughter and that it had a fantastic line saying that
the next time they meet will only be a reunion. After
I recited it my classmate looked at me evenly for a
good second and my face got hot as I worried I’d said
something stupid.
“Well,” she said drily, “I know her daughter, and
she's a bit of a bitch.”
Something tells me that writing about literary Dublin
is going to read more like a soap opera than a blog
entry. So be sure to tune in for the next episode ...

-- Katie

Monday, October 10, 2005

Poetry meets technology ...

The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil is, I think, one of the really important books to come out this year. My review of it appears in the Health & Science section of today's Inquirer.
Ray Kurzweil is very smart guy. But don't take my word for it. Listen to what he had to say in an interview I had with him last week.
Over the weekend I took a look at Ray Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poet.
Yes, our intrepid inventor has devised a program that enables a computer to write poetry. The link explains better than I ever could how it works and let me say, before the sensitive plants among us flex their tendrils in exasperation and rage, that it's worth your time. I suspect a published poet who had a sufficient body of work in hand could use the program to flesh out a too-thin new volume. Problem is, I suspect critics would complain that old territory was being explored in much the same way.
What I think might be interesting would be to acquaint the computer with one or more poets, then feed the computer data about a particular subject, as well as ideas and images suggested by same to the person using the program. I would also program the computer, if possible, with information about certain strict forms -- the villanelle, say. And see what comes of that.
But, you wonder, a machine writing poetry? Well, the more intimate the machine and its operator become, the more personal and orginal the poetic output might become as well. At present, the poems Ray's program has generated strike me as skillful, but cold. My God -- has he tried language poetry, I wonder?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The trouble with experts ...

Last month, I posted some thoughts on The Matter of Experts. With the President's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, the subject has now become a matter of national debate. Last week, in the Washington Post, George Will wrote a column in which he declared that "constitutional reasoning is a talent -- a skill acquired, as intellectual skills are, by years of practice sustained by intense interest. It is not usually acquired in the normal course of even a fine lawyer's career."
Says who? The United States Constitution, as I have had cause recently to point out, happens to be written in plain English. Its authors, for instance, would never have been so sloppy as to call something a talent in one phrase and a skill in the next.
Having spent more than 40 years reviewing books (to say nothing of editing them and much else besides), I think I know something about texts. One thing I know is that you should hold off on trying to figure out what something means until you're pretty certain you know what it says. In that idiosyncratic masterpiece, The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Albert Jay Nock records an anecdote that has some bearing on this:
The ex-president of one of our colleges tells me that for a dozen years he carried on experiments in the value of literacy, using freshman as his guinea-pigs; that is to say, he experimented on persons who were not only literate, but who had gone so far as to pass their entrance-examinations. Selecting a paragraph of very simple but non-sensational prose, he asked his students, taking them one by one, to read it carefully; then to read it carefully again; then to read it aloud to him; then to write down the gist of it in their own words. Hardly any one could do it; hardly any one was able to bring anything like an adequate power of reflective thought to bear upon the substance of a simple paragraph. In other words, they could not read.
"While the ability to read must presuppose literacy," Nock observes, "literacy is no guarantee whatever of the ability to read." When you have Harry Blackmun writing about penumbras and the shadows thereof you have a literate person either unable or unwilling to read what the text under consideration says -- or does not say. Only an expert, a man with years of experience on the bench, could come to such a pass.
As it happens, the document that Mr. Will thinks only those with the requisite talent or skill (whichever) can comprehend serves up only two qualifications for Supreme Court justice: nomination by the President and confirmation by the Senate. Now Mr. Will is not the only conservative -- and not the only advocate of "original intent" interpretation of the Constitution -- who has objected to Miers's nomination. What exactly do they think the original intent of the framers was in this instance? Of course, there were no law schools then, so they obviously wouldn't have thought that the best people for the court would be law professors. Maybe they thought that honest people who could read would be able to figure out what a given statute meant and decide a case that way.
I should think that the court would benefit greatly from the perspective of a highly successful practicing lawyer (see Beldar for excellent and comprehensive arguments and evidence in support of this viewpoint). Moreover, confining court membership to scholars or jurists unnecessarily -- and counterproductively -- narrows the focus on the cases before the court. It is also unwarranted by the Constitution itself. If membership on the court ought to be restricted to law professors and other jurists, then let's get to work drafting a Constitutional amendment to that effect.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A poet worth remembering ...

Dave Lull, commenting on my earlier post noting Wallace Stevens's birthday, quotes Randall Jarrell as saying that Stevens "wrote some of his best and newest and strangest poems during the last year or two of a very long life." Another poet of whom the same can be said is far less known than Stevens, but deserves to be better known: John Hall Wheelock, friend and classmate of Van Wyck Brooks and Maxwell Perkins. The poetry Wheelock wrote during most of his career was solid, senstive stuff. But the arrival of old age -- he lived into his 90s -- seems to have brought out the best, the deepest, and the most original in Wheelock. Here's a sampler. The second, I think, is particularly good.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit has a post with an extensive quote from the transcipt of the President's news conference today. Hard to read this -- complete with a reference to John Barry's excellent The Great Influenza -- and not wonder about the conventional wisdom regarding George W. Bush's smarts. Seems to me there's quite a command of the facts on display, as well as pretty sound syntax.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Happy Birthday, Mr. Stevens ...

Wallace Stevens was born on this date in 1879, in Reading, Pa. I am unusually fond of his poetry. Every year I manage to read most of The Collected Poems. How, as a native Philadelphian, can I not like the poet of these lines:

Only the rich remember the past,
The strawberries once in the Apennines,
Philadelphia that the spiders ate.

If you read Stevens's Collected Poems from start to finish, one finds him arriving at rather a serene state, tinged with melancholy, perhaps, but wise, intimating over and over that life cannot be reduced to its constituent ingredients.
The earlier poems delight, but the later ones edify. Here's one of the last:

The Planet on the Table

Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Ahead of the curve ...

Roger Simon cites hemoclysm as the new vocabulary word of the day. Why, we only used it here yesterday! And in reference to much the same thing.