Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

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Friday, September 05, 2003

Russian verbs of motion: even more fun than you thought!

Two history articles:

  • David Greenberg describes the "dicey dynamics" of exposing presidential lies.
  • The Telegraph reviews a new biography of Napoleon's first wife, Josephine. An excerpt:

    Josephine might have been "romantically and sexually out-gunned", as Stuart says, but she seldom resisted his counter-attacks. He bombarded her with bread pellets at official dinners and stroked her breasts in front of red-faced foreign dignitaries. At Malmaison, she owned a cockatoo that screeched "Bonaparte!" to visitors in the waiting room. After their divorce in 1809 (Napoleon needed a son), she cherished the mementos of their stormy marriage: a globe that "bore the [unspecified] marks of certain impatient moments" and a leather armchair that Napoleon had slashed to ribbons with his penknife.

    Josephine's great merit in Napoleon's eyes was that she looked lovely, even first thing in the morning, and gave off such a pleasant natural odour that he always begged her not to take a bath before they met.

    How charming. (via AL Daily)

Now it's back to the archives.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

I spent some time watching Russian television last night, and almost came to an unfortunate conclusion: The Simpsons just isn't a funny show in Russian. The voices were all wrong, the humor didn't always translate easily, and the program seemed like a complete waste of time. My only doubt--and the reason I say that I "almost" came to this conclusion--is the fact that the episode I watched was never very funny in English. So, for all I know, the original episodes of the show might actually be hilarious in Russian.

In general, I'm surprised by how much bad American television is shown on Russian TV. Of all the WB shows to air, why would you choose Charmed? (That program is often advertised, and I've come across it several times while channel-surfing.) Why not show a more popular program like, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The only current WB shows I've seen in Russia have been Charmed and Smallville, which look fantastic compared to the other American entertainment on Russian TV. The movie Rat Race has been aired several times this week, for example, and Married with Children seems to be shown nightly. Watching Russian TV, I'm almost ashamed to be an American.

Maybe some higher-quality American shows have aired when I wasn't watching. (I believe I've seen ads for The Sopranos, for example, and shows like Buffy may also appear on Russian TV.) I have to wonder, though: is it too expensive to get the rights to air good American TV shows? Is the audience too small? Is the audience for American TV in Russia so indiscriminate that it will eat up Rat Race as quickly as it would devour a movie that's actually amusing? Do Russians just have unusual taste in entertainment? (I seem to recall that the show Alf was bizarrely popular in Germany long after it had gone off the air in the U.S., for example...) I find these questions both intriguing and perplexing, and I wish I knew the answers.

A professor at Western Michigan University discusses Bernard Lewis's ahistorical approach to Middle Eastern history. (via the History News Network)

There's also some interesting stuff at The American Prospect right now. Michael Tomasky has an online article on Orwell that's interesting (but a little generous to people like Al Franken.) Geoffrey Nunberg, meanwhile, has an article on the liberal label. I'll look forward to reading some of the magazine's other articles (like some of the other language pieces and the article on the history of The King and I) when they go on-line.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

I think I need to read more Russian tabloids. The other day, as I was riding the metro home, I saw a man reading a tabloid article about the cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova; I couldn't tell what it was saying about Tereshkova (the man with the newspaper was several seats down from me), but the article looked deliciously scandalous. Then, when I was on the metro yesterday, I saw a man reading an article about Ivan the Terrible. This article was even harder for me to see, but the word "devil" was featured very prominently.

Or perhaps I need to read more Russian men's magazines. There was a stack of magazines in my apartment when I arrived, including everything from a random movie magazine to the Russian version of Maxim. One of the Russian magazines featured a profile of the model Tatiana Semichastnaia; the article had lots of pictures and very little text of interest (apparently she likes smart men with a lot of life experience.) I did learn one interesting tidbit, however: Tatiana is the granddaughter of Vladimir Semichastnyi, a former KGB chief whose memoirs I bought last week. Interestingly enough, those memoirs begin with a denunciation of today's Russian youth, who don't care about public life, don't want to join the army, and are overly interested in Western fashion. I wonder what Vladimir thinks of his granddaughter's career choice?

You can learn about Russian history from a lot of different sources, it seems! Then again, something tells me I won't get a Fulbright if I say that I plan to spend my time in Russia reading tabloids and looking at contemporary men's magazines.

Pancho Villa: reality TV pioneer?

I get really tired of stupid newspaper stories about how "[random historical figure X] was the first blogger!" or "the work of [random writer Y] prefigured [a random pop culture phenomenon of your choice]!" But Pancho Villa is cool, so I just had to link to this.

Bonus Pancho Villa fact: Like a lot of people, good ol' Pancho wanted his last words to be memorable, but unlike Dylan Thomas, he couldn't think of anything fun to say. He therefore uttered the words "Don't let it end this way. Tell them I said something!" just before he died.

Here's a silly little linguistics question that first occurred to me when I was in Moscow a year ago: is there a term for a word that originates in one language, is adopted by a second language but given a new meaning, and is then readopted by the first language with the second meaning?

The example I have in mind is "bistro." According to the traditional story, the French word bistro originated during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1815, when Russian soldiers demanded faster service in restaurants by shouting "bystro!" (or "quickly!"). If you wander around Moscow in the neighborhood of Tverskaya, you'll see many restaurants described as bistros--which would seem to be an example of a Russian word being incorporated into French and then back into Russian (with a different meaning and a slightly different spelling.)

(Of course, I realize that the origins of the French word bistro are disputed. The story about Russian soldiers demanding faster service is repeated in every first-year Russian textbook and every American travel guide to Russia, but some lexicographers argue that the French word had different origins.)

In any case, can anyone think of another word that fits the category I've described? (Or a real example of such a word, if the bistro example is incorrect?) Does this type of word have a name?

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

This movie sounds kind of cool. Then again, I'm a political junkie who studies Russian history, so that's not exactly a surprise.

Three questions that perplex me:

  • Why is the movie Kangaroo Jack appearing in Russia under the name "Kangaroo Jackpot"?
  • Why would anyone in Russia want to see Kangaroo Jackpot?
  • Why would anyone, anywhere, want to see any version of Kangaroo Jack?

As a wise woman once said in reference to this movie, "I felt dumber just watching the preview!"

Tangential addendum: My favorite "translation" of an American movie title into Russian was when Die Another Day was released as Die, But Not Now.

For another take on presidential mendacity, read Josh Marshall's article in the new Washington Monthly. (Jeff Greenfield's review of the new David Greenberg book is also worth reading--especially if you're a close friend or family member who'd like to know what books I want for my birthday.)

Monday, September 01, 2003

This morning, the quiet street I live on suddenly became far more lively. I was woken up by the noise of a big crowd and by loud music outside: the square surrounding the Plekhanov economics institute was filled with people and adorned with balloons, and a speaker was addressing the crowd between songs being played over a sound system. It seems that classes are beginning, and that back-to-school day at the Plekhanov institute is a lot like the first day of summer camp. I wonder what the Mensheviks would think of that?

When I came home briefly in the early afternoon, the street was full of college-age kids. Several students were smoking in the driveway near my apartment building, and several beggars had appeared out of nowhere. (I noticed both a couple of babushki and a family of Roma, or Central Asians, or some non-Russian minority. Poor people on the streets of Moscow, it seems, are almost invariably elderly, disabled, or non-Russian.) I'm curious how the neighborhood will look during the rest of my trip, and I wonder whether the first day of classes is like this at every Russian institute of higher learning.

The development of Chicago's historic Pullman neighborhood is the source of new controversy.

On a completely different subject, there's some stuff worth reading in The New Yorker: an article on James Thurber and a Philip Gourevitch interview about Kim Jong Il. Neither is fabulous, but both are interesting enough.

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Two interesting articles from The New York Times:

Oh, and check out both Michael Dirda's review of a book about oracles and Jonathan Yardley's review of former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson's newly published book about FDR. The National Post, meanwhile, reviews the book Stasiland.

More random Russian commentary to come tomorrow.

Linguistic oddity #2: Last week I finished reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I found the book alternately engrossing and unsatisfying, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint; parts of the book seemed kind of anachronistic, though in reality they probably weren't. (I'd have enjoyed the book more if I knew more about medieval history and the Catholic church, I think.) In general, I preferred the book to Foucault's Pendulum and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who thinks it sounds interesting.

Oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of the book was the author's postcript, which was charmingly written and loaded with fun anecdotes about writers like Lamartine and Manzoni. Sometimes the postscript seemed smart and interesting and sometimes it seemed shallow and glib--if anything, I'd recommend that people interested in writing read the book so they can then read the postscript.

The postcript also helped me to understand part of why the book left me unsatisfied. For those of you who don't know, The Name of the Rose is a mystery story set in a fourteenth-century abbey; the mystery includes both a detective story and a more philosophical plotline whose mysteriousness added to the book. The narrative was said to have been written by one of the two central characters in the novel, a novice monk, though it was also said to have gone through later revisions. In Eco's words:

Actually I decided not only to narrate about the Middle Ages, but to narrate in the Middle Ages, and through the mouth of a chronicler of the period. I was a novice narrator, and in the past I had looked at narrators from the other side of the barricade. I was embarrassed at telling a story. I felt like a drama critic who suddenly exposes himself behind the footlights and finds himself watched by those who, until then, had been his accomplices in the seats out front.

Is it possible to say "It was a beautiful morning at the end of November" without feeling like Snoopy? But what if I had Snoopy say it? If, that is, "It was a beautiful morning..." were said by someone capable of saying it, because in his day it were still possible, still not shopworn? A mask: that is what I needed.

I found this passage amusing and appealing, but it points to one of the reasons I sometimes found the book unsettling. Adso of Melk, the narrator, typically comes across as inexperienced, naive, and unsubtle, a series of character traits that often come across in the narrative. At times this added to the manuscript and made it more interesting. It undoubtedly allowed Eco to explain things, or to add stylistic and factual details, that would have been difficult to include had the narrator been more sophisticated. At times, though, the story seemed a little flat or unnuanced--as one might expect when the narrator is as unsophisticated as Adso. There are advantages to using a novice monk, rather than a learned inquisitor or an abbot, as the narrator of a medieval mystery, but there are disadvantages as well. You'd need a very good reason to write a novel narrated by Snoopy, after all--even if trite and shopworn phrases are to be expected from your narrator, they can still come across as trite and shopworn. Eco, I would argue, had a very good reason to use a novice monk as his narrator--but there were still times when this led to awkwardness. Eco's solution to this problem may have been the best one available, but it was far from perfect--just like The Name of the Rose.

Linguistic oddity #1: yesterday, as I was riding the Metro home, a passenger got onto my subway car, and, as the doors closed, swore very loudly in English in a strong Russian accent. (It turned out that he'd gotten on a car going in the wrong direction; he pushed his way out of the car at the next station to correct his mistake.)

This confused me. I've always had the impression that foreign language speakers are most likely to swear in English when their own language doesn't have especially strong swear words. (Back in high school, a substitute German teacher of mine even lamented, at length, about how German "doesn't have any good strong swear words when you really need one.") I'll be the first to admit that my Russian vocabulary tends toward the historical more than the scatological, but Russian strikes me as a far better language than English to swear in. (Ever seen a dictionary of English obscenities?) Perhaps the person I saw yesterday wasn't actually a Russian--it can be hard to differentiate accents, after all--but I strongly suspect that he was. Weirder things have been known to happen, I suppose.

I'm amused by this idea: The Washington Monthly's upcoming issue includes a presidential mendacity index, attempting to measure which of the last four presidents told the biggest lies.

The article is entertaining as a fun little magazine feature, but I'm not sure I like the way it presents the issue of presidential dishonesty. As Tolstoi might have put it, all honest presidents are alike, but every dishonest president is dishonest in his own way: I'm not sure that it's especially useful to compare, say, the lies of George W. Bush to the lies of his father.

Here's my quick take on the way the last four presidents lied:

  • George W. Bush, I would argue, is the most dishonest president in recent memory when it comes to policy-making. Jonathan Chait has shown convincingly that his budget figures are loaded with intentional inaccuracies--and that the press has been too cowardly to call the administration on this. (The New Republic article making this case is, unfortunately, unavailable online.) Even if weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq, the administration built its case dishonestly, like a sleazy prosecutor determined to stretch the truth in his case beyond all appropriate limits. (This doesn't necessarily mean that the war was wrong, of course--but, at the very least, it calls into question the way it was fought and organized. What was the need for a largely unilateral, immediate attack on Iraq if the WMD issue was much less pressing than the administration had led us to believe?) It's easy to raise similar doubts about other issues the Bush administration has been interested in--say, the stem cell debate. On issue after issue, the administration has been willing to twist the facts to get its way on policy to a degree unprecedented in decades.
  • Bill Clinton was a liar on all sorts of things, mostly personal. I don't think I need to go into this one.
  • George H.W. Bush's lies were mostly dishonest campaign promises that were silly on their face (like the claim that Bill Clinton had raised taxes 128 times as governor.) I'm not convinced that the "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge was really a lie--I think it was just a stupid campaign promise that Bush quite sensibly broke. My feeling is that George H.W. Bush was a reasonably honest and decent man in his private life, who didn't much like the day-to-day campaigning of politics, and who felt that he had some sort of duty to lead his country; his problem, then, was that he saw politics as the dirty work you just had to do to become president. (Everything--from silly campaign promises to ridiculous claims about Clarence Thomas's legal acumen to idiotic attacks on Michael Dukakis about the pledge of allegiance--becomes more understandable in that context. In this sense, George H.W. Bush was very much like Al Gore: both men were among the better-qualified candidates for president in a generation, but each was a lousy candidate whose campaigns were petty and small-minded.)
  • Given my age, I don't know the Reagan administration as well as its successors. My feeling is that most of his lies were trivial and stupid, that some of the lies listed by the article weren't really lies ("trees cause more pollution that automobiles do" is more likely a sign of Reagan's stupidity than of his mendacity), and that a handful--most of them budget-related--were both dangerous and completely inappropriate. The revelations of David Stockman leap to mind...

So who was the most dishonest president? On an absolute scale, taking into consideration just the sheer number of lies told, I'd probably rank Bill Clinton first. But I think that George H.W. Bush's lies were the most significant, since they've impacted heavily on the making of policy. (In that sense, I don't think The Washington Monthly did an ideal job selecting Bush's lies.) Reagan is probably a strong second among recent presidential liars, because of his claims about the budget; in general, I can't say that Clinton's lies were nearly as damaging, except insofar as they distracted the country from more important matters, gave a boost to the Republican right, and damaged the authority of the president. Given that Reagan's lies succeeded in their immediate goal--implementing foolhardy economic policies--and that the ill effects of Clinton's lies were largely by-products of his mendacity, I think Reagan takes second place among recent presidential liars.

But this whole issue is very muddy. Rating presidential mendacity--like rating presidential greatness--is a really difficult, and often silly, question. Describing a president's attitude toward the truth can be enlightening in describing his administration and its place in history, but it isn't very useful in comparing that administration with it successors and predecessors.