Thursday, October 30, 2014

It depends on the meaning of "sandwich"

Victoria sponge: technically a sandwich? A defense.
I'm a member of an email thread where recently someone posted the rather Oxford exam-like question, "Is a wrap a sandwich? Discuss." Initial reaction was firmly on the No side. "No. A sandwich needs bread," wrote one respondent. "A sandwich requires bread, which means a wrap made with a tortilla is NOT a sandwich," wrote another. "I'm defining a sandwich as bread containing filling that is exposed at least on one length-wise side. A wrap cut open length-wise does not have structural integrity. So no, a wrap is not a sandwich," wrote a third. These all seemed to me so incorrect that I had to reply. What follows is my response:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Swift's wit and Johnson's precision

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell on High Street.
From the Hyde Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard.

I've been posting a lot about classics stuff lately, which I suppose is a hazard of the fact that it's most of what I come across these days. But it's humbling to consider the command of Latin and Greek that people used to have, as a couple of literary anecdotes from the 18th century show.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Nobel Prize in History?

When history was literature: the young Mommsen. (
A little over a week ago, the French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the 111th writer to be so honored. The vast majority of past honorands have been poets, novelists, playwrights—people who have produced what most of us think of when we hear the word "literature": imaginative, artistic writing of the kind that you would encounter in a high school English class.

But today I would like to draw to your attention the second-ever winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, who was neither poet nor novelist nor playwright but rather a historian: the great German classicist Theodor Mommsen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Juxtapositions: Season of mists

Edward Steichen. "Experiment in Three-Color Photography."
Camera Work 15 (1906).
Im Herbst
Klaus Groth; my translation (German here)
set for choir by Johannes Brahms, op. 104, no. 5, 1888—listen here

Monday, October 6, 2014

Daydream Syllabus #2: Modernism and the Classical Heritage

Odilon Redon. Le cyclope. 1914? Rijksmuseum
Kröller-Müller. Wikipedia. 
Modernism, with Pound's rallying cry of "Make it new," is often seen a moment of final decline of classicism in Western art: classical learning diminishes, and artists stop using antiquity as a touchstone, interested instead in shattering traditions. But this view is wrong. In this course, we'll look at a range of relationships between ancient and Modernist art, though, and literature—from the manifest to the latent, the certain to the contested—and ask how artists and thinkers used, absorbed, interpreted, and misinterpreted the classical heritage for their own purposes.

Week 1: The Structure of the Psyche
Freud: Das Ich und das Es (The Ego and the Id), trans. James Strachey (1923)
Plato: Republic 4, trans. C.D.C. Reeve

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Invention of Color

There's a postcard on my wall—a reproduction from an exhibit at the Neue Galerie in New York City of a photograph by the Austro-German photographer Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944), who was one of the crucial early inventors of the technology for taking color photographs. It's of a box of paints—he is basically showing off what his new experiment can do: