Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer hiatus

I'm changing my schedule this week for the summer: after this, I can't promise weekly updates, as I'll working, traveling, and moving, and will only update on an irregular basis. But check back every now and then, and I'll resume posting on a regular basis this fall!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Odes to Paw Paw

I love my hometown: Paw Paw, Michigan, exit 60 off I-94, just about halfway between Chicago and Detroit. A town with a name that makes women say, "That's a cute name for a town!" men say, "That's a weird name for a town," and phone operators ask, "How do you spell that?"

Watch Google travesty Emily Dickinson

No, Google; no, I did not mean that. Incidentally, what I was looking for was this:
The Things that never can come back, are several—
Childhood—some forms of Hope—the Dead—
Though Joys—like Men—may sometimes make a Journey—
And still abide—
We do not mourn for Traveler, or Sailor,
Their Routes are fair—
But think enlarged of all that they will tell us
Returning here—
"Here!" There are typic "Heres"—
Foretold Locations—
The Spirit does not stand—
Himself—at whatsoever Fathom
His Native Land—
—Emily Dickinson (1515)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Juxtapositions: Sappho and Sidney

Albrecht Dürer: "The Northern Hemisphere" (ca. 1515)
Two fragments of Sappho (early 6th century BC):
ἔρος δ' ἐτίναξέ μοι
φρένας, ὠς ἄνεμος κὰτ' ὄρος δρύσιν ἐμπέτων (47) 
love shook my
senses, like wind on a mountain falling on oaks 
ἔρος δηὖτέ μ' ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει,
γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον (130) 
love already-again—the limb-melter—whirls me,
bittersweet irrational monster

Philip Sidney: Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 16 (mid-1580s)
In nature apt to like when I did see
Beauties, which were of many carats fine,
My boiling sprites did thither soon incline,
And, Love, I thought that I was full of thee:
But finding not those restless flames in me,
Which others said did make their souls to pine,
I thought those babes of some pin's hurt did whine,
By my love judging what love's pain might be.
But while I thus with this young lion played,
Mine eyes (shall I say curst or blest?) beheld
Stella; now she is named, need more be said?
In her sight I a lesson new have spelled,
I now have learned Love right, and learned even so,
As who by being poisoned doth poison know.
Other juxtapositions:
Archilochus and Adrienne Rich 
George Herbert and John Berryman 
Walt Whitman and Wisława Szymborska 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Political risk in an indefinite state of fear

What happens when you give an executive sole responsibility and blame for a nation's security: Hobbes wrote that "every sovereign hath the same right in procuring the safety of his people, that any particular man can have in procuring the safety of his own body."
I'm surprised that, out of all the commentary I've seen on the news about NSA surveillance programs, no one has made one basic observation about the politics of balancing security and rights. (Maybe someone has, and I just haven't seen it.) But it seems to me that the political consequences of a preventable terrorist attack occurring during one's Presidency are far worse than the consequences of violating citizens' Fourth Amendment rights. Until this state of affairs is reversed, any executive has much greater incentives to prioritize security over civil liberties than vice versa.

The political calculation for a given President looks like this. On one hand, let's say that you devote significant resources to national security, but nevertheless, a 9/11-scale terrorist attack happens during your Administration. An inquiry after the fact concludes that the attack was preventable, but only by means of intelligence-gathering programs that your Administration inherited from its immediate predecessor and chose to shut down on legal grounds. Now, however, your Administration and party—and you personally—receive almost all blame for letting a major attack happen on their watch. You will be forever tarred by history as the President who let "a second 9/11" happen. No one will remember anything else about your time in office. If you are in your first term, this spells near-automatic electoral defeat.

Friday, June 14, 2013

When you stepped in, the political relevance went out

If you're at all curious about the extent to which True Blood is not a political allegory for the gay rights movement, or what Bill Compton is going to do next now that he has been resurrected as an avatar of the vampire goddess Lilith—well, this little thing I wrote celebrating the delightful, sheer refusal of the show to "mean" anything more than what it is might interest you. Read it at:

An excerpt:
The dialectic of show-runner and critic has demanded that premium cable shows, in particular, be interpreted as social commentary and high mimesis. That's why, say, Mad Men and Girls get in trouble for their lack of non-white characters with substantive story lines: we expect them not only to mirror reality, but to represent social reality in a holistic way. That's why Breaking Bad gets scrutinized for what it says about the American economic crisis. That's why television critics in 2008 felt the need to claim that a show about libidinous vampires was actually about the gay rights movement. But True Blood is actually a spontaneous piece of fantastical free-association storytelling of a kind that is sorely lacking nowadays.
GIFs were found and inserted by the Internet-savvy staff of PolicyMic. I bear sole responsibility for the picture of Stephen Moyer worshiping the ancient vampire goddess at the top, though. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

If you're looking for something to listen to this weekend...

The brilliant, up-and-coming, underappreciated group Joy Kills Sorrow released a new EP, Wide Awake, a few days ago, and I've been listening to it on loop without interruption ever since. You could describe the ensemble as "bluegrass pop," but it might be more accurate to call them a pop group that happens to have a mandolin, banjo, and double bass. Their original songs are incredible, but the real standout on the EP is their cover of the song "Such Great Heights," which you can watch in the video below. As good as it sounds here, the studio version is even better—completely worth the dollar it costs on the iTunes Store. You can listen to some of their other music here at their website, if you need convincing beyond this video of how amazing this band is. ("Books" is the song that made me fall for the group.) Seriously, listen!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Latin Out Loud; or, "Declaim, Memory"

When you study classics, people often ask you if you "speak Latin" or are "fluent in Greek." It's a little hard to explain that classical languages don't really work like this—that they're mostly languages you read, and sometimes write; that "fluency" is a subjective term, and mainly refers to reading ease; that learning to speak Latin or (ancient) Greek is really hard, because you have to have people around to talk to, and good luck finding those! You might as well learn how to balance your checkbook with a quipu, or keep a day planner using the French Republican Calendar. (Okay, so I may have tried to do the latter back when I was in high school. Don't laugh. Or at least not too hard.)

But that's not to say that classicists never speak Latin. Indeed, there are a number who believe that it's the best—and even the only—way to really get to know the language. In the Renaissance, the ability to converse in Latin was the real measure of one's entrée to the international intellectual community. And Oxford, being the ancient center of learning that it is, is full of little nods to the centuries between Aquinas and Newton when this was the case.

Which brings me to the most classics-y, Oxonian thing I have done in my entire time here, a thing which happened just yesterday: Oxford's annual Classics Declamation Competition. The competition is open to any undergraduate reading for the classics degree, and it is what it sounds like: a competition of people speaking Greek/Latin. Or performing, really: every contestant prepares a passage of Greek or Latin literature, which they then present in front of a panel of judges. There are four categories: memorized Latin poetry, memorized Greek poetry, read Latin poetry + prose, and read Greek poetry + prose.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

New essay!: on the prose style of Richard Ford

A sportswriter in natural habitat. 
I have a new essay on Richard Ford's prose style in his 1986 novel The Sportswriter online in the latest update at Open Letters Monthly. It's built around a close reading of a short passage, Auerbach-style, and was a lot of fun to write. Actually, it started as a draft post for this blog, but when it grew past 3,000 words, it was clear that it could find a home elsewhere. (That said, it's even longer now, so feel free to take an intermission if you need.) A preview:
Bascombe can’t be taken at his word; the reader can never take him altogether seriously. And even he himself can see his own ridiculousness at points. For all his mockably serious self-absorption, his moment of crisis—and Ford’s novel—springs from an inability to take himself seriously because of this power to see the silliness in his reflections and his life. The salient 20th-century everyman who is his progenitor in this regard is not Rabbit Angstrom or Moses Herzog or Leopold Bloom. It is J. Alfred Prufrock.
You can read the rest here, at Open Letters Monthly. Please share by Facebook, Twitter, or sentient messenger dolphin if you like it!