Friday, June 22, 2018

Neither Athens nor Jerusalem

A number of people I know despise David Brooks's writing; I don't, and for every column of his I think is absurd, there's usually another I agree with on some level or even admire. Still, this paragraph in a column today struck me as a pretty bad misuse of history and literature:
Athens — think of Achilles — stands for the competitive virtues: strength, toughness, prowess, righteous indignation, the capacity to smite your foes and win eternal fame. Jerusalem — think of Moses or Jesus — stands for the cooperative virtues: humility, love, faithfulness, grace, mercy, forgiveness, answering a harsh word with a gentle response.
Achilles, prince of the Myrmidons of Thessaly, had no connection with Athens whatsoever. Moses, famously, never saw Jerusalem. You can argue that Brooks is engaging in cultural metonymy here. But it would be a bit like calling Rob Roy a famous Englishman, or "Detroit—think of Saul Bellow," or "New York—think of Lincoln, of Louis Armstrong, of Toni Morrison—stands for" X virtue.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Mary Bennet is a terrible person

Lady Augusta Murray's commonplace book (Royal Collection Trust)
The other day, I saw this review of a new novel in which Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and the Creature from Frankenstein cross paths. I was intrigued to find that, according to the critic, Constance Grady, "Mary is at the center of a cottage industry of sorts among Austen aficionados. There is a veritable glut of Austen fanfiction, published or otherwise, devoted to rehabilitating Mary and granting her the agency and subjectivity Austen denied her." She refers to one particular essay-review for the website of the Atlantic in 2016 by Megan Garber, who writes, in summing up recent Mary-centered fiction, "The current renaissance of Mary Bennet is literary revisionism that suggests a more sweeping ethical project—one that celebrates the dignity of the marginalized." Both essays describe a sense among today's readers of Pride and Prejudice that Austen's narrator treats Mary unfairly, like a mean girl in the cafeteria insulting the plain bookish girl in the corner, repeatedly making her the butt of some fairly venomous jokes. And the language deployed in favor of Mary—agency and subjectivity denied, dignity of the marginalized—suggests that a modern sense of justice, and perhaps feminist principle, might well be on Mary's side.

These readings, however, overlook the fact that Mary is not, in Austen's telling, merely bookish and prim (and a little self-besotted). She's actively sanctimonious and vacuously sententious in ways that lead her into cruelty toward others. It's easy for a reader in our times to look at Mary and see a proto-nerd, a woman whose talents were thwarted by her times, a figure whom Austen should properly have sympathized with. But a closer look shows that Austen knew exactly what she was doing. Mary is, to her, not merely a passively boring sad sack, but an actively bad person.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Daydream Syllabus: Great Books

This year's iteration of our institution's freshman "Great Books" class is not meant to imply that there is a single fixed canon of great books which, once read, are all ye know and all ye need to know, but rather seeks to offer an initial point of entry into a deeper dialogue with a range of art and ideas through time. But it is founded on the old-fashioned assumption that some books are better—more beautiful, interesting, or simply more influential—than others, and should perhaps be read sooner rather than later.

We knew that there were many works by male writers worthy of inclusion, but wracked our brains and could not bring ourselves to part with any of the influential acknowledged masterpieces in the syllabus as it stands. We assure you that they are all worth your time, and even those with which you may disagree most vehemently will have a formative effect on your own thinking. For those of you who are concerned about the lack of male writers in this class, we hope you will find that there is much time and energy to begin to pursue an understanding of men's writing in other courses and in your own independent reading.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The most popular books in Korea

Every once in a while, I'm going to try to translate some of the blurbs and reviews about the most popular books in Korea. It can be hard for an outsider to get a sense of Korean literature (and the wider landscape of books in translation, self-help books, etc.), so I hope that this might help enable other people interested in Korean books, as well as people who don't know any Korean. Here are Kyobo Books' top ten bestsellers for the week of January 24-30:

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The metaphor of blood

From Vox, originally from Maryon B. on DeviantArt

Perhaps because I’m adopted, I have always been confused by the metaphor of blood relation. The metaphor is anatomically absurd. No one literally shares the blood of their parents, their siblings, or other family members. It should be clear to anyone with a basic knowledge of the facts that one cannot possibly share any blood with one’s father; sperm, being themselves single cells, cannot have blood. And investigation teaches one that one does not, except in rare cases, share any blood with one’s mother, either. A mother’s body transfers nutrients and wastes across the placenta, but for important immunological reasons, no blood is traded. Hence, one also shares no blood with siblings, grandparents, cousins, etc., except in the case of deliberate transfusion or unusual medical accidents. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A simple reason to read novels in the age of TV

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writing.
This is a somewhat random thought I've had for a long time, one that—to my surprise—I've never seen anyone else put down in words, though surely someone has. I'm scribbling it down just to get it out there, since I don't see any point in sitting on this particular idle musing.

There's a lot of talk these days about how TV, much of it very good, has taken the place in our culture that the novel used to hold in the 19th century: a medium in which we think about any number of issues of major public importance through imaginative fiction that reaches across divisions of class, religion, etc. The Victorian age was the heyday of the social problem novel; it was also one of the artistic high points of an ambitious and self-confident genre. A broad public audience looked to the novel to tell them about who they were; just the title of Trollope's The Way We Live Now suggests a certain representational gutsiness. Who shows us the way we live now? At least among most of my friends, as well as any number of writers and critics, you're more likely to hear names of TV shows—The Wire, Girls, Black Mirror—than titles of novels. And you're more likely to be able to have a conversation about them with a random person on the street, too. A wildly successful book sells 150,000 copies in the first week. Even if you sold that many copies every week for a year, you'd only have half the audience of a single episode of the show This Is Us (a title of Trollopesque ambition).

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The best things I read in 2017

I didn't read as much as I wanted this year—but I did get to read somewhat eclectically, which was nearly as fun. Here's a list of the things that made the deepest impression on me over the course of the past year:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Name readings

I can see his face but I can't think of his name...
I forgot in exactly what context I was mentioning Deng Xiaoping to one of the English teachers at the school where I work in Korea. But I do remember her blinking and then saying, "Oh, you mean Deung Sopyeong (등소평)."

Chinese characters aren't unambiguously phonetic, so they can be pronounced multiple ways—in different dialects of Chinese and even in different languages. Still, it hadn't occurred to me that even in the 1970s, Koreans might still call Chinese leaders by the Korean readings of the characters in their names—so that Deng Xiaoping, 邓小平, would become "Deung Sopyeong" when pronounced in Korean.

Interestingly, this practice seems to have stopped at some point. Younger Korean people seem to use the Korean phonetic pronunciation of Deng's Mandarin name; the same is also true of Mao Zedong (Ma-o Jjeodung). But older people might still recognize Mao as "Mo Taekdong." Xi Jinping is just pronounced phonetically; apart from the tones, it transfers perfectly into Korean. He never becomes "Seup Geunpyeong."

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Suite coréenne

It's everywhere in Korea—on t-shirts, in shop windows, on bags and pencil cases. It doesn't always make sense. Whole sections of bookshops are dedicated to works in translation from it. We can analyze the extent to which this state of affairs is an unsavory artifact of a bygone empire, but most Koreans seem to sincerely think the language is stylish or cool. Yes, in Korea, people just can't get enough of French.

If English has become Korea's go-to second language in this century, there is a good case that French is a surprising contender with Chinese and Japanese for the runner-up spot. Not, perhaps, in terms of people who actually learn the language—as a glimpse at a bookshop's language-learning shelves will suggest—but in terms of sheer presence. The languages of Korea's neighbors are almost absent from consumer goods. Even when Japanese cartoon characters are marketed in Korea, the kana have always been transmuted into hangeul; there's no cool factor there (perhaps because of the imperial past). But French? Everyone loves flaunting little French phrases to show off the Frenchness of things, even when totally gratuitous.

Korea loves French-style bakeries: the two biggest chains are called Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette. It's not quite French in the end; better to say that the cafés borrow French-style pastry ideas to make a new Franco-Korean bakery culture. Purists will sniff, but I think the combination (fusion? appropriation?) is delightful. Ideas like croissants filled with red bean paste and pistachio pain au chocolat are just delicious. And the brightly colored birthday cakes these bakeries specialize in—often with more emphasis on fruit flavors and much lighter, creamier frosting than their American counterparts—are works of beauty.

What's interesting to me from a literary point of view is that this seems to seep over into Korean attitudes toward books, too. Korean bookshops carry a lot more contemporary works translated from French than the average American bookshop—even in my little city's modest shop. These books are generally translated straight from French, rather than with English as a "clearinghouse" language (as happens between many other languages: if you're reading Ko Un in Norwegian, the chances are that he went through English first). Korea seems to have a particular obsession with Alain de Botton; more on this another day.

There aren't really any special historical reasons for this love affair, as far as I can tell. Korea never had a special military or technical alliance with France (like Japan's relationship with Germany), nor did it have a French colonial presence (like Britain and Hong Kong) or fall within a generally Francophone sphere. It seems more to be the case that Korea just genuinely likes French culture and its cultural self-projection. Many of the things France loves as little daily aesthetic indulgences—skin care, fresh flowers, nice alcohol, the aforementioned pastries—are also things Korea loves. This decade in particular, perhaps with a sense that the cardinal miseries of the twentieth century are finally dispelled, the South Korean joie de vivre is especially strong. English may be the functional language of hard work here—the language you learn because it's compulsory in school and it's practical in work life—but French is the language of joy, the language you sprinkle onto your daily life out of sheer affection.

Things Korean teenagers like, part 2

Two haircuts are trendy right now, one with boys and the other with girls. There's the "two-block," a kind of stark undercut where a rim of long hair suddenly drops off into a buzz-cut, kind of the opposite of a fade. It's super popular here, but to my eyes has a wince-inducing likeness to the "bowl cuts" inflicted on so many boys (especially Asian boys) by hairdressers in the early nineties. As with so many haircuts, it either works really well on you... unless it doesn't (i.e., if you don't have the looks of a pop star), in which case it looks awful.

The "two-block" (투블럭) cut. From