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. 

静夜思
床前明月光, 
疑是地上霜。
举头望明月,
低头思故乡。

—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.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Daydream Syllabus: In the end

Name that movie.
Almost a month and a half has gone by, but before I left for Korea, I received a request from a reader for a "daydream syllabus":

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

To my Trump supporter friends

From Wikipedia
Dear friends who support Donald Trump's presidential candidacy,

I'm writing because, with humility and respect, I'd like to ask you to reconsider your voting plans—whether tomorrow on March 1st, later on March 15th, or, if it comes to pass, on November 8th. I want to emphasize humility and respect: I don't think you're dumb, and I know that you care greatly about the future of our country. There are lots of reasons why someone would be moved to support Donald Trump.

But from a position of civic concern similar to yours, I feel obligated to insist that Donald Trump's proposals and candidacy are not good solutions to the problems that I've heard supporters cite most frequently as their main concerns. Actually, those solutions would, I believe, have the effect of making all those problems worse. The style in which he conducts his campaign isn't going to fix anything either—whether in the general election or the Presidency. There is no good evidence that he plans on changing his policies or personality if elected. In the absence of any evidence, I have to believe he's serious. And I've concluded that would have terrible results for the country.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Korean fiction hits the American literary mainstream

Image from Amazon.
Korean fiction occupies a very small niche in the American literary consciousness. Little gets translated out of Korean into English, and what does is usually picked up by university presses (Columbia, Hawaii) or a specialty independent publisher like the Dalkey Archive. To the frustration of the South Korean government, which would love to have a Nobel laureate in literature to tout, there is no Korean counterpart to Mo Yan, Liu Xiaobo, Kenzaburo Oe, or Haruki Murakami—the Chinese and Japanese novelists and poet who serve as gateways to their nations' literatures, and carry a disproportionate part of those countries' modern literary reputations on their shoulders. (It's a messy analogy, as China obviously wants the world to forget all about Liu, but my point is that international prizes confer tremendous influence and visibility to a nation's literature.)

So it has been striking to see—relatively speaking—huge amounts of attention given this past week to a South Korean novel from 2007, translated and published by a relatively new imprint, Hogarth (< Chatto & Windus < Vintage < Penguin Random House, for those of you keeping score). Titled The Vegetarian, no sooner did I see a review in the New York Times online than I heard about it on NPR the same evening, and then I saw Laura Miller's review for Slate. There are others, too—lots. It is no exaggeration to say that this novel is receiving more attention in America than any other piece of Korean fiction ever published. Here is Miller's description:
Although the title character, Yeong-hye, is a woman who suddenly stops eating meat one day, setting off a chain of catastrophes in her otherwise ordinary extended family, The Vegetarian is by no means a book about vegetarianism or the people who practice it and why. What The Vegetarian is about (always keeping in mind the caveat above) is abstention. Yeong-hye would prefer not to. At first she rejects meat, but eventually she will excuse herself from a number of other common human activities, as well. At last she refuses humanity itself.
As I have noted, most of the books on Korea that you will find at your average American bookstore—even a very good American bookstore—are about North Korea or the Korean War. So that makes it all the more striking to see a contemporary South Korean novel get this degree of attention. At the same time, a remarkable story popped up in the Guardian about a collection of short stories smuggled out of North Korea under the pen name Bandi. Titled The Accusation, this is how the book's agent, Barbara Zitwer, describes the book:
“The stories depict the everyday lives of various characters living in North Korea – they are personal stories that illuminate the umbrella of horror that North Koreans live under all the time. They are the voices of mothers and sons, fathers and brothers, sisters and aunts,” said Zitwer. 
One, she said, tells of a mother whose toddler is frightened of a huge poster of Karl Marx that he can see from their window, so she closes the blinds. A government official later comes to find out why her blinds are closed before a major parade that day, and she explains how her baby was scared of the image. “Within a few hours, however, the husband returns home and is scared to death that his wife was honest and shortly thereafter, guards come to take the mother, father and baby out of their home and they are put on a train to somewhere we can only imagine.” 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Margaret Talbot's 2005 profile of Antonin Scalia

After I heard the news yesterday that Antonin Scalia had passed away, I immediately thought of Margaret Talbot's 2005 profile of the Justice for the New Yorker. It was one of the first pieces of profile journalism that I ever really loved: smart, vivid, and simultaneously respectful and critical. This was before William Rehnquist died, before O'Connor, Souter, and Stevens retired, before D.C. v. HellerCitizens United, and Obergefell v. Hodges—and reading it now really is like stepping into a time machine. There are some remarks that seem prescient:
Over the years, Scalia has become an increasingly frustrated and unheeded voice. For those who helped to pick him for the Court, his failure to persuade his brethren has been a big disappointment. Douglas Kmiec, a former Reagan Administration official who worked on judicial appointments, says, “Sometimes one wishes that Justice Scalia’s computer came with a delayed ‘Send’ button, so he could read some of his footnotes the next morning and see if they were worth the carnage.” His champions did not take into account that charm does not make a consensus-builder out of a person who doesn’t particularly value consensus.
Her characterization of Scalia's style as a writer has stayed in my memory for more than a decade—in particular, the part here about the Peace of Westphalia:

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wine in snowstorms

People have been stocking up on the Malbec before a big snowstorm for 2,600 years. See Alcaeus, cited in Athenaeus:

338 Athenaeus, Scholars at Dinner Athen. x 430a–b (ii 435 Kaibel)

For this poet (Alcaeus) is found drinking in all seasons and in all circumstances: in winter in the following lines:

ὔει μὲν ὀ Ζεῦς, ἐκ δ’ ὀράνω μέγας
χείμων, πεπάγαισιν δ’ ὐδάτων ῤόαι
<              ἔνθεν                      >
<                                                          >

κάββαλλε τὸν χείμων’, ἐπὶ μὲν τίθεις
πῦρ, ἐν δὲ κέρναις οἶνον ἀφειδέως
μέλιχρον, αὐτὰρ ἀμφὶ κόρσᾳ

μόλθακον ἀμφι <βάλων> γνόφαλλον.

Zeus rains down, and from heaven a great 
storm, and the streams of water have been stopped 
<              thence                      >
<                                                          >

Overthrow the storm, setting a fire 
up, and mix the sweet wine 
unsparingly, moreover set a soft ribbon 
around your temples 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A game of fake first lines

Image from Oxford Games (here).
Will play this with anyone who wants to go halves on a copy: 
"Ex Libris is a subtle, yet highly entertaining game of bluff that will challenge your literary acumen and test your writing skills as you attempt to compose fake, but plausible, first or last lines for genuine English novels. One hundred authors representing widely different writing styles are featured in Ex Libris – from Charles Dickens to Harold Robbins, from Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland. ...
"Ex Libris comprises a hundred cards, each of which gives you the title, author and plot summary of an English language novel or short story. At the start of a round one player, taking a turn as the reader, picks a card and reads it out loud. The other players then have each to write a plausible opening or closing sentence to the work in an attempt to bluff fellow players into believing his or her ‘script’ to be the genuine one. These are all handed in to the reader, who has meanwhile written down the genuine sentence (given on the back of the card). The genuine and fake are shuffled together, and then each sentence is read out. Each player votes for the sentence he/she believes is the real one. Players win a point for each vote cast for his or her entry (while further points are won if you manage to identify the genuine sentence). The reader receives a point if no one manages to identify the authentic sentence."

Friday, January 15, 2016

Cool stuff: accents, cuneiform gingerbread, NYPL release, and intangible heritage

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs:
Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Sancho's feast."
The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1700.
http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/3f8982f0-db8e-0130-5057-58d385a7b928
Last month, UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage met to add to its list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding—a kind of "endangered species list" for the world's cultural practices—as well as its representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. You can browse the items on this year's list, as well as all previous years, here. I am always thrilled to encounter things I never even remotely knew about—and indeed, entire cultures about which I know nothing—through the Lists. UNESCO does a huge service to all of us just by drawing attention to these cultures and practices every year, and their website—which features excellent videos on each of the new items that are well worth watching. I knew nothing about the Koogere stories of the Basongora, Banyabindi and Batooro peoples, or Vallenato music in Colombia, or Mongolian camel-coaxing rituals. But learning just a little about them is a cause for wonder at the ingenuity, beauty, and variety of human culture, and a reminder for all of us who call ourselves humanists of why we do what we do.

Last week, the New York Public Library released high-resolution scans of 180,000 public-domain images, as the New York Times reports. The oldest items are beautiful 11th-century manuscripts. It's definitely worth it to visit the NYPL's website and play around with their tools and projects, especially the quirky, fun visualization tool that provides a fun way to browse, explore, and imagine the sheer scale of what 180,000 images looks like.

Those who like the accent tests featured on the New York Times and BuzzFeed in recent years will have a blast with George Mason University's Speech Accent Archive, which maps samples of English speech from around the world, along with recordings and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions—a delight for all amateur actors and language lovers. It makes me curious what a French or Spanish or Chinese version might look like, too. What does an Italian accent sound like in Georgian? What does it sound like when an Urdu speaker learns Korean? For now, we will content ourselves with what English sounds like via Amharic, Khalkha Mongol, Wu, and Milwaukee. For now.

Lastly, the grad student behind the brilliant blog Mostly Dead Languages has a wonderful project to show off: how to make cuneiform gingerbread cookies. If you ever wondered what an edible Enuma Elish might look like, here is your chance. A bonus: the blog also features incredibly graceful translations of texts from ancient Mesopotamian languages, ranging from letters to epics to jokes, many of which I doubt have been presented in so readable a form before now. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The way we speak now: What theory wrought

I never thought I'd be one of those people who inveighs against the jargon of social theory—and it makes me almost embarrassed to realize that I have become one. The company is awkward, reeking of cultural and sometimes political conservatism. And it wasn't supposed to happen to me. In college, I defended the most challengingly polysyllabic tendencies of academic writing doggedly. I devoured all the scariest social and literary theorists I could find and came back for more. Much of my favorite literature is from the acme of the vaulting modernist sentence-paragraph: Proust, Woolf, Toomer, Faulkner. I'm still a staunch defender of the right to "write difficult."

Nor does an allergy to theory-speak fit me ideologically. To the contrary, I think that the knottiest critical, social, and literary theories of the mid- and late-twentieth centuries are worth taking seriously—it still bugs me when people scoff at post-structuralism out of hand—and I think there's a lot to learn from what some still call, with a twinge of xenophobia, "Continental thought." The social activists who employ the language of academic theory extensively in their work today are generally working toward ends with which I agree. Indeed, their work vindicates one of my most insistent hopes and beliefs: that work done in the academy, the world of ideas, and especially the humanities ultimately brings about real effects—that, to quote Isaiah Berlin paraphrasing Heine, "philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization"—or save one.