Sunday, April 23, 2017

Notes on re-reading Orwell

From Wikimedia.
I've been reading, and re-reading, Orwell this past week—some essays I'd never taken the time to read before, and others that I'd barely read since middle and high school. It is amazing to me that one author (and, in an American context, an English writer) should have been so much a part of my early formal education in English; amazing all the more that, at least to the best of my knowledge, he still is for many students—high schoolers, college freshman writing classes. Many high schools teach 1984 or Animal Farm at some point, and a number use a handful of his essays as models for expository writing: "Shooting An Elephant," "Politics and the English Language," "Why I Write." When I was teaching high schoolers the summers of 2013 and 2014, Orwell was in the readers.

Why? I suppose Orwell seems clear and accessible, not so far removed from the way we write now that a student has to engage in quite the amount of work involved in understanding the prose of Austen or Dickens. Those essays are also a good length for a manageable classroom discussion. "Politics" and "Why I Write" are reflexive in their subject matter. The novels are short, and ripe for introducing terms like metaphor, allegory, and irony. 1984 is pleasingly close to science fiction for those so inclined. Then there is ideology: in the American classroom, Orwell often gets painted as nothing more complicated than an anti-Communist—a picture which leaves out a lot, but which will not raise the hackles of parents or school boards. (If the average American better understood Orwell's politics, the chances are good he wouldn't be taught at all.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Speech after long silence

Myron's Discobolus. The British Museum.
tum mihi prima genas vestibat flore iuventas,
mirabarque duces Teucros, mirabar et ipsum
Laomedontiaden; sed cunctis altior ibat
Anchises. mihi mens iuvenali ardebat amore
compellare virum et dextrae coniungere dextram;
accessi et cupidus Phenei sub moenia duxi.
ille mihi insignem pharetram Lyciasque sagittas
discedens chlamydemque auro dedit intertextam,
frenaque bina meus quae nunc habet aurea Pallas.
—Evander at Aeneid 8.160-68

Back then, the first blush of youth covered my cheeks with a flower.
& I stood in awe of the Trojan chieftains, & certainly in awe of
the son of Laomedon himself—but taller than all strode
Anchises. Oh my brain burned with young love
to go right up to that man & grasp his right hand in mine;
I drew near &, full of longing, led him under Pheneus' walls.
As he parted, he gave me his famous quiver, his Lycian arrows,
his cloak with the gold woven in, & the double reins of gold
which now belong to my son Pallas.

[Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young / We loved each other and were ignorant.—Yeats]

Friday, November 18, 2016

Make 'em laugh

The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote his essay "Epic and Novel" in 1941. It was not a good time to be in Russia, and certainly not in Moscow. The poet Osip Mandelstam had been exiled by Stalin eight years before, and was now three years dead. Hitler was invading. In his lifetime, Bakhtin had already been exiled by the secret police and sent to Kazakhstan; he lost his leg due to disease in 1938. Those were darker times than anything we have known.

One can ask why on earth Bakhtin was writing expansive literary criticism on Rabelais, Dostoevsky, and the history and theory of the novel in the middle of all of this. I don't pretend to know the answer. I don't claim that it was a good idea. I do think that Bakhtin arrived at insights that sustained him and still explain why you might want novels or comedies—or even just scholarship on novels and comedies—in times like his.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why I am afraid

Athenian ostrakon. They used these to vote citizens into exile.
(From the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names.)
I spent all day afraid—a lump in my throat, a twitchy tension in my shoulders, as though I worried someone was about to punch me. I don't even have the most to fear—I am not an American Muslim, I am not Latino, I am not African-American—and I was, nevertheless, afraid all day because the country elected Donald Trump president. It's not Trump I fear, at least not mainly—I refuse to grant him the dignity of being feared—it's what his election says about the country, my fellow citizens, and how the country views any minority or immigrant. For the first time in my life (and knowing this feeling is new to me actually makes me remarkably lucky), I feel anxious just—and specifically—because I'm not white. There is no real likelihood that I'm going to be deported, or shot by the police due to implicit bias, or have my house of worship vandalized—and yet I am afraid, and I don't know when that fear is going to subside. Let me describe why I feel this way, especially for those who may never have known any fear like it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Unity Cup?

"For it is the Unity of the Representer, not the Unity of the Represented, that maketh the Person One. And it is the Representer that beareth the Person, and but one Person: And Unity, cannot otherwise be understood in Multitude."—Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 16, "Of Persons, Authors, and Things Personated." Convergent iconographic evolution?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

How avant-garde artists can change how you see the world

Renoir: "Palais des Doges" (1881). From here.
The visits that Bergotte paid us were a few years too late for me now, because I didn’t like him as much any more—which doesn’t contradict the fact that his reputation had grown. An oeuvre is rarely completely victorious and comprehended without another writer’s work, perhaps still obscure, beginning to replace the cult that has almost finished coming to the fore with a new one (at least among a few more hard-to-please minds). In the books of Bergotte that I re-read most often, his sentences were as clear before my eyes as my own ideas, the furniture in my room, and the cars in the street. All things were comfortably obvious—even if not exactly as you had always seen them, at least as you were used to seeing them at the present time. But a new writer had started publishing works where the relationships between things were so different from those that bound things together for me that I could barely understand anything he wrote. For example, he said, “The watering hoses admired the lovely upkeep of the highways” (and that was easy; I slid down the length of those highways) “which left every five minutes from Briand and from Claudel.” I didn’t understand any more, since I’d expected the name of a city, but instead it gave me the name of a person. I didn’t just think that the sentence was poorly made; I thought that I wasn’t strong and quick enough to go all the way to its end. I picked up my spirits and clambered on hands and feet to get to a place where I could see the new relations between things. Each time I got a little closer to the midpoint of the sentence, I fell back down, like the slowest soldier in a regiment during the “portico” exercise. I admired the new writer no less than the clumsy kid who gets a zero in gym class admires a more dexterous child. From then on, I admired Bergotte less; his limpidity now seemed to come from inadequacy. There had once been a time when people recognized things when Fromentin painted them, but not when Renoir did.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Glossomania: A (Somewhat Rambling) Set of Reflections on Language Learning

Oxford psalter, 13th century, Morgan Library (MS M.43 fol. 9v).
I feel a greed for languages the way I used to feel a greed for books, the way that other people feel a greed for money. A greed for languages is really a greed for time—the time to learn the languages, then use them. Wanting to learn more languages is a way of spitting in the face of death.

We need to dispel the myth that it takes a special intelligence or aptitude to learn languages. It doesn't. Jürgen Leonhardt, in his wonderful book Latin: Story of a World Language, points out that, before the rise of the nation-state, polyglossia was the norm, and still is for many people around the world in linguistically diverse regions: ordinary people—merchants and workers and farmers—spoke (and speak) multiple languages for economic survival—not just an elite or scholarly class.

Modern America, where polyglossia is seen as an unusual attainment, is the exception, not the rule. In modern America, if you speak multiple languages, it probably means that you are either an immigrant or someone with an unusually good education, or both. The people who have learned even the most halting English on the go through economic necessity deserve the respect we accord scholars (or used to, anyway).

Friday, July 8, 2016

Juxtapositions: Moon

From Sky and Telescope.

[Every translation is a failure. As the philosophers say: any merit belongs to others, and all errors are my own.]

Thoughts on a Quiet Night 
Before I go to bed, the moon shines bright;
I don't know if the frost has fallen yet.
I lift my head and stare at the bright moon;
I bow my head and think of how the country used to be. 


—李白 Lǐ Bǎi

To the Moon
You lovely moon—I remember coming here,
so anxious, to this hill to stare at you
at the turning of the year. How you loomed there
over this wood; how when you do, you shine!
But now I shiver, clouded, from the tears
that soak my lashes: and then your face smiles
in my eyes. My life has been so painful,
and so it is; and its style stays the same,
oh moon, my lover moon. And yet the memory
delights me, and the memory of the epoch
of my grief. In time of youth (when hope still has
so far a way to go, and memory so short),
which needs the thankful remembrance of things past,
how sad those things still are—and how the panic lasts!

Alla Luna
O graziosa luna, io mi rammento
Che, or volge l'anno, sovra questo colle
Io venia pien d'angoscia a rimirarti:
E tu pendevi allor su quella selva
Siccome or fai, che tutta la rischiari.
Ma nebuloso e tremulo dal pianto
Che mi sorgea sul ciglio, alle mie luci
Il tuo volto apparia, che travagliosa
Era mia vita: ed è, nè cangia stile,
O mia diletta luna. E pur mi giova
La ricordanza, e il noverar l'etate
Del mio dolore. Oh come grato occorre
Nel tempo giovanil, quando ancor lungo
La speme e breve ha la memoria il corso,
Il rimembrar delle passate cose,
Ancor che triste, e che l'affanno duri! 

—Giacomo Leopardi

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nationalism and the Humanist

I know it will be hard to read this post as anything other than a response to Britain's decision to leave the U.K. That decision certainly precipitated this. But it only provides an occasion to voice some thoughts about a set of ideas I've been considering for a long time—the past five years or so. And my thoughts, which are mainly about nationalism as a global force, are not mainly about the U.K. alone—nor do I think that nationalism was the only reason why one might have voted to leave. (It obviously wasn't, and I don't claim it was.)

In particular, I've been thinking about nationalism as a force in global politics and modern global history. My analysis is that of a cultural scholar, not a political scientist, and it may come as a surprise to some of you that I have been thinking a lot about this, because it's not high on the list of my obvious published interests. A lot of my ideas take the form of broad generalizations without hard data, and some feel so blindingly obvious that I worry I'm speaking in platitudes. But I haven't seen anyone concisely express what I see anywhere, so I hope that sketching these out here might be of some value.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Diary: The death of Arthur

Arthur Hallam, remembered. (From Wikimedia.)
This week at work, I spent some time with a 1832 letter from Arthur Hallam to Emily Tennyson, as well as Martin Blocksidge's biography of Hallam. Hallam, the closest friend of Alfred Tennyson, died suddenly of an aneurysm at age twenty-two; the grief that the future Poet Laureate felt eventually gave rise to the great 1849 poem In Memoriam A.H.H., still one of my favorite works of literature. The last time I read it was in the summer after my sophomore year of college; I was just shy of twenty, studying abroad during the break in Cambridge, walking the same streets that Hallam and Tennyson had wandered 180 years earlier. Reading about them then, they belonged in the same patinated category of the historical as everything else I read for the first time that summer—Middlemarch, Hard Times, Cardinal Newman. And above all, there was the sense that the things they did and wrote were the products of people older than I was—like most literature. (Keats wrote his odes at age twenty-four! I still had five whole years to go until I was twenty-four.)

How unheimlich to revisit the story of Hallam now, on the other side of college, almost exactly six years later. Now I can really understand what it would mean to have died at twenty-two—myself, or one of my friends. Beyond that, it's surprising to find that, with time, I have grown less impartial, and more judgmental, toward young men like Hallam. It's the kind of judgment that comes from now having been there in roughly the same spots as Hallam and Tennyson found themselves—both in school and fresh out of it. At nineteen, I found it easier to treat their life decisions as historical abstractions: they were making career choices and impulsive travel plans, falling in love and out of friendships, in a sociological framework that no longer exists. I had anthropological detachment.