Sunday, March 31, 2013


The U.K. goes back to what Americans call Daylight Savings Time today—or, as it's been known here since its inception in 1916, British Summer Time (BST). In honor of the occasion, Virginia Woolf's paean to BST in her great 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. (You can read about "Mr. Willett," proponent of BST, here):

For the great revolution of Mr. Willett’s summer time had taken place since Peter Walsh’s last visit to England. The prolonged evening was new to him. It was inspiriting, rather. For as the young people went by with their despatch-boxes, awfully glad to be free, proud too, dumbly, of stepping this famous pavement, joy of a kind, cheap, tinselly, if you like, but all the same rapture, flushed their faces. They dressed well too; pink stockings; pretty shoes. They would now have two hours at the pictures. It sharpened, it refined them, the yellow-blue evening light; and on the leaves in the square shone lurid, livid — they looked as if dipped in sea water — the foliage of a submerged city. He was astonished by the beauty; it was encouraging too, for where the returned Anglo-Indian sat by rights (he knew crowds of them) in the Oriental Club biliously summing up the ruin of the world, here was he, as young as ever; envying young people their summer time and the rest of it, and more than suspecting from the words of a girl, from a housemaid’s laughter — intangible things you couldn’t lay your hands on — that shift in the whole pyramidal accumulation which in his youth had seemed immovable.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

On Good Friday

Giotto: Crucifixion, ca. 1300 (Wikimedia)
Oxford closes down for Good Friday, which catches an American abroad off-guard. It is a reminder that in Britain, the church technically is the state, and both are, in theory, the monarch. In practice, of course, the U.K. is not so different from the U.S. in its dedication to popular democracy and a secular state. In fact, the U.K. is a good deal more secular than the U.S.: only about 10% of the British population attends church more than a couple times a year. In the U.K., you don't have people trying to get intelligent design taught in state schools. To the contrary—when I went to a service on Candlemas in Magdalen College, the priest announced that the following Sunday—the closest to Darwin's birthday on February 12—was informally observed by the Oxford chapels as "Evolution Sunday," a chance to meditate on the "not-always-happy relationship" between science and the Church; the sermon would be delivered by a vicar from Cambridge who was also a junior faculty member in Chemistry. The Church of England allowed gay priests to become bishops this past January, and has allowed women to be priests for decades; the House of Commons approved gay marriage in February. For all the lack of formal barriers between the two, the intersections of church and state, law and faith seem much happier and less contentious, more civil and courteous here. Though it is, as everyone in the U.K. is fond of telling Americans, "a little island."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Juxtapositions: Herbert and Berryman on astronomy and God

Hubble Deep Field image. (NASA) At 13.2 billion years,
this is some of the oldest light humanity has ever observed.

As part of an occasional series, two poems, presented side by side, with minimal commentary. 

"The fleet Astronomer can bore,
And thred the spheres with his quick-piecing minde:
He views their stations, walks from doore to doore,
Surveys, as if he had design'd
To make a purchase there: he sees their dances,
And knoweth long before
Both their full-ey'd aspects, and secret glances. [...]

What hath not man sought out and found,
But his deare God? who yet his glorious law
Embosomes in us, mellowing the ground
With showres and frosts, with love & aw,
So that we need not say, Where's this command?
Poore man, thou searchest round
To finde out death, but missest life at hand."

—George Herbert, "Vanitie" (vv. 1-7, 22-29)

Herbert (1593-1633) was an Anglican clergyman who wrote a number of devotional poems which stand out in quality far above the many forgettable religious verses of the era. He retired to life in the church after a promising but brief career in the court of King James I, becoming a country preacher on Salisbury Plain.

"Let us rejoice on our cots, for His nocturnal miracles
antique outside the Local Group & within it
& within our hearts in it, and for quotidian miracles
parsecs-off yielding to the Hale reflector.

Oh He is potent in the corners. Men
with Him are potent: quasars we intuit,
and sequent to sufficient discipline
we perceive this glow keeping His winter out. [...]"

—John Berryman, "Lauds," in Delusions, Etc. (1972)

Berryman (1914-1972) was best known for his sequence The Dream Songs; this poem comes from his last original collection. He cycled through many forms of religious belief and doubt in the last years of his life, while also racked by alcoholism and depression; he committed suicide later in the same year that Delusions, Etc. appeared

Monday, March 25, 2013

On reading novels and being young

A short general essay about the novel, twentysomethings, and the occasional dark night of the soul, which you can read here. Preview: 
In Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, the title character leaves home at age nineteen to seek his fortune. On his first voyage, he is shipwrecked; then, on setting out again, he is kidnapped and enslaved by Moorish pirates, only escaping two years later through a mix of subterfuge and luck. He nearly dies while trying to make his way to civilization, but is rescued by a Portuguese slave ship, which deposits him in the strange new land of Brazil. This is a rough metaphor for the way that many people in their early twenties feel after leaving college.
Read more at PolicyMic, and feel free to post on Facebook if you liked it... 

Roman sketches

I was going to post some writing today, but it kind of got out of control and it's going to take longer than I realized. In the meantime, some sketchbook pages:
Sketch of the copy of the bust of the Athena Giustiniani in the Art Institute of Chicago 

As imagined from this bust in the Glyptothek Münch. Sulla attempted to save the Roman Republic
in the 80s b.c.e  through reforms instituted while he was constitutional dictator; he failed and the Republic
dissolved within a half-century. 
If you like these, consider reposting on Facebook!

Firefly from Petersburg to Moscow

A slightly-higher quality scan of the cartoon I already put on Facebook:
Click to enlarge.
If you like this, repost it on Facebook! 

Friday, March 22, 2013

That time when George Eliot hung out with Franz Liszt

Hanfstängl: Franz Liszt (1858). [Wikipedia] 
Weimar, August 1854. Franz Liszt, virtuoso pianist, one of concert music's first modern celebrities, is Kapellmeister to the Duke. Forty-three and still dashing, he is being pursued madly by a Wittgenstein princess.

Meanwhile, Liszt's old friend George Henry Lewes, a British intellectual, has come to town in the company of a young woman named Marian Evans. He is researching a biography of Goethe. She is translating Spinoza's Ethics. They are fleeing scandal after Lewes fled a marriage from which he could not secure a divorce despite his wife's public philandering to be with Evans. Evans has not yet started writing fiction, and is therefore not yet known to the world under the pen name that would make her famous: George Eliot.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The name “Lewis Carroll"

Frontispiece of Through the Looking-Glass

Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. He was also a professional mathematician at Christ Church College at Oxford. Dodgson loved logic puzzles and word games, a love that is evident to anyone who has read the Alice books. So it's fitting that the very name "Lewis Carroll" is a form of wordplay—a kind which would have made sense to any mid-Victorian gentleman of Dodgson's day, but which now is a little arcane, because it runs through Latin.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sticky Note Cartoon #3: La Wall-E

Operas that should probably not be written, #57
A joke with what I will freely admit is a very small audience.
This should explain some things: 
I swear my sense of humor will get less geeky. Eventually. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sticky Note Cartoon #2: Hipster Philosophers

I realize that hipster jokes are probably getting old, but saying so would make you sound a bit, well...

The Hipsters [syncope from Hipposteroi, Gr. οἱ Ἱππόστεροι] were a group of post-Socratic philosophers who associated on porch roofs (claiming they were "so over the Stoics"), were totally into vegetarianism way before Pythagoras, and mainly relied on fashion to distinguish themselves from the Cynics. No Hipster texts from antiquity survive, although we do have their extensive quotations of the works of other philosophical schools (probably ironic), a scattering of moody poetry, and a pristine collection of LPs. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Grace Paley's pie

On the occasion of 3.14, a poem of which I am very fond for reasons I can't fully explain critically:

The Poet's Occasional Alternative

Grace Paley

I was going to write a poem 

I made a pie instead     it took

about the same amount of time 

of course the pie was a final

draft     a poem would have had some

distance to go     days and weeks and

much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking

tumbling audience among small

trucks and a fire engine on 

the kitchen floor

everybody will like this pie

it will have apples and cranberries

dried apricots in it     many friends

will say     why in the world did you

make only one

this does not happen with poems
because of unreportable

sadness I decided to

settle this morning for a re-

sponsive eatership     I do not

want to wait a week     a year     a

generation for the right

consumer to come along

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Letters that aren't

These are some pen-and-ink things I did towards the end of my sophomore year of college for fun that have been kicking around my hard drive ever since. I figured that I'd finally show them to people this way, since I finally have a space and an occasion to do so!

(Forgive the image quality; these are photos, not scans.) I've really liked calligraphy since reading E. L. Konigburg's book The View From Saturday in sixth grade. While it's not something I do that much anymore—for one thing, all of my pens and ink are on the other side of the Atlantic—or something that I ever did very well, it is something that I remain very interested in. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Prose close reading: Alice Munro

Quince tree
As Alice Munro's short story "The Moons of Jupiter" begins, the narrator—a middle-aged woman named Janet—has just taken her aging father to the hospital. The doctors have told him that he needs an immediate heart-valve operation in order to survive; even with the operation, however, he probably has only about three months to live. Janet lives in Vancouver, but she is house-sitting for her daughter Judith, who lives in Toronto; her father lives a couple hours away in rural Ontario.
The thought of my father's childhood, which I always pictured as bleak and dangerous—the poor farm, the scared sisters, the harsh father—made me less resigned to his dying. I thought of him running away to work on the lake boats, running along the railway tracks, toward Goderich, in the evening light. He used to tell about that trip. Somewhere along the track he found a quince tree. Quince trees are rare in our part of the country; in fact, I have never seen one. Not even the one my father found, though he once took us on an expedition to look for it. He thought he knew the crossroad it was near, but we could not find it. He had not been able to eat the fruit, of course, but he had been impressed by its existence. It made him think he had got into a new part of the world. 
—Alice Munro, "The Moons of Jupiter" (1978)
Alice Munro might be the most widely respected writer of English-language short fiction currently alive, but it's the plot and subject matter of her stories that most clearly marks them out as hers. I've always found her style strangely anonymous, more a matter of the kinds of observations her narrators make than they way they make them. She's far less idiosyncratic than someone like Cormac McCarthy or David Foster Wallace—writers who set out personal style as a deliberate end in and of itself. What is Munro's style? Even if it is not ostentatiously distinctive, it must exist. There are differences between her narrative prose and that of others who write graceful standard English; it can't be wholly impersonal.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sexism in the book review world—but not just “literature"

My friend Sam Meier suggested that I write a reaction to this year's VIDA Count for the website she works for, PolicyMic. The VIDA Count tabulates the ratio of male to female writers reviewed and reviewing in various influential literary publications over the course of the past year, in the hopes of spurring those publications to do something proactive to change for the better. This is obviously a worthwhile and important goal. But it seems to me as though one factor behind the bad ratios for a lot of these magazines is really due to something else that needs to be fixed—the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. You can read why I think this might be the case here. A preview:
None of the politics books on the Economist's best books of 2012 list were by women, nor any of the economics nor science books; of the history books, only one, Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain, made the cut. Of the New York Times's best nonfiction books of 2012, women wrote just two of the current events or policy books — and both of those concerned, in large part, Michelle Obama. Of the science books, Florence Williams's Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History was the sole book not written by a man. When Charles Murray's Coming Apart, one of the most widely discussed social science books of the past year, came out, it was reviewed by a male critic in the New Yorker (Nicholas Lemann), New York Times (Nicholas Confessore), New Republic (Timothy Noah), New York Review of Books (Andrew Hacker), Wall Street Journal (W. Bradford Wilcox), the Nation (William Julius Wilson), and, one imagine, many more publications. The only review by a woman I could find was in Salon (Joan Walsh). 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sticky Note Cartoon #1: This Duck

The first of what I hope will grow to be a series of sticky-note-sized drawings and cartoons (this one mainly for the Latin students out in the crowd):  

The ducks are anates, but the dux is a general.

Schoenberg for people who think they don't like Schoenberg

... and no, I don't mean "Verklärte Nacht" (wonderful though that is, too).

The Piano Concerto doesn't get as much air time—or concert stage time—as it really deserves. But it's not only one of Schoenberg's most exciting pieces; I also think that it's one of the most accessible, even despite the fact that it's a full-fledged, serialist, late-in-life work. It's full of dehiscent lyricism punctured by sudden bursts of fire. I think it's actually less aurally challenging  to make sense of certain Bartók string quartets or Elliott Carter's work or even, in some respects, The Rite of Spring than this concerto.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Moveable Feasts

If I mention "a moveable feast," does Hemingway spring to mind? Or maybe a squad of people with overflowing picnic baskets? On its own, the phrase seems kind of surreal, like it's halfway on its way to becoming "the exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine" or "colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

But it's actually a reference to the calendar for the church year, in which feast days to commemorate the birthdays of saints, and various other observances, are divided into two categories: moveable and fixed. Fixed feasts are like Christmas, which happens on the same date every single year (December 25). Moveable feasts, though, are like Easter, which can change dates. 

Most of this is due to the variability of the date of Easter, in fact, because that date affects the date of all the church holidays attached to it—Ash Wednesday, Ascension Day, Pentecost, etc. And the date of Easter is pegged using a lunar calendar rather than a solar one in an elaborate calculation called the computus (not to be confused with the Locutus). That's in large part because the only way to establish the ceremonial anniversary of the crucifixion is with a lunar calendar—because it's not exactly clear what year the crucifixion happened, by the time church ritual became institutionalized, it was impossible to figure out at what time of year it had happened. 

So the only way to identify Easter was to identify it in relation to Passover/Pesach, which is itself pegged using the lunisolar Hebrew calendar. There was lots of nasty, anti-Semitic back-and-forth in the early Church as early Christians tried to establish the independence of their own dating methods (see the computus article above), but as Anthony Grafton has established, there was actually lots of covert interfaith dialogue throughout the Middle Ages, including efforts on the part of Church scholars to check the date of Passover with European Jewish communities.

Also, I have a new essay-review online at Open Letters Monthly! Read it here

Sunday, March 3, 2013

On Gilbert Highet, the classics, and the scholarly life

I have a new essay-review on Gilbert Highet's quirky 1957 book Poets in a Landscape at Open Letters Monthly, which you can read here. A brief preview:
It is hard to imagine today that a book of even very user-friendly biographical sketches of great Latin poets could ever attract the readership that Poets did in its time. Highet himself has started to fade from living memory. His academic work already seems incorrigibly dated, and instead it’s these chatty, acrobatic, imaginative essays that will survive for posterity, precisely because he preferred to be a teacher rather than a scholar. 
You can get the book itself here, if you're so inclined; Romans, Italians, and poetry await. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

That time when the Beach Boys covered the Beatles

Assorted Beatles and Beach Boys hanging out with the Maharishi, circa 1967-68.
In 1965, the Beach Boys put out an album of informal live covers called Beach Boys' Party! (exclamation point sic). The conceit is that you're at a house party that just happens to be played by the Beach Boys: there's lots of stagey background noise, laughter, and hand-clapping, and Dennis Wilson doesn't play anything bigger than the bongos. What's wonderful is that you get to hear the Beach Boys playing other people's music: "The Times They Are A-Changin'," for one, and also several Hard Day's Night and Help-era Beatles songs, like this cover of "Tell Me Why":

Unfortunately, there are no examples of the Beatles singing, say, "God Only Knows" (though we can pray that there might be moldering acetate of such a blessed event out there somewhere); "Back In the USSR" is, however, obviously an oblique Beach Boys reference. And as you can see from the picture above, they had a shared interest in transcendental meditation. Some fans even say that it's implicit from the lyrics ("Full speed ahead, Mr. Barkley! ... Aye, sir, fire!") that the yellow submarine was really on the hunt for the Sloop John B—probably one reason why the crew of the latter had such an awful time on board. 

Additionally, let me take you down: check out my now fully-linked-up archive of things I've written here. Nothing to get hung about.