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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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Early tomorrow morning I'm off to Toronto and the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. I therefore won't be updating this blog until Monday or so.

Until then, you'll just have to amuse yourselves: check out some of the links in my sidebar or watch the new extended DVD of The Two Towers. (It's good--only a couple of the added scenes are gratuitous, and the new scenes with Treebeard more than make up for the scenes in which Eowyn makes a fool of herself in front of Aragorn.)

The history of bricks: more interesting than you think?

The Smithsonian's new aviation museum faces controversy once again: twenty Congressmen have called for the removal of beer logos from a historic plane.

Italy has become Israel's best friend in Western Europe, according to The New York Times.

To this day, I'm afraid to admit, I've never read a book by James C. Scott , the agrarian studies expert from Yale. I've read parts of several of his books, and I'm reasonably familiar with his career as a whole, but I've never read one of his books in its entirety. As of yesterday, however, I own copies of two of his better-known books--Weapons of the Weak and Seeing Like a State. As of this morning, I've read the acknowledgements, introductions, and random passages from each book. I plan to have read both books by the time winter break begins.

I'm not trying to play an online version of the parlor game Humiliations--a game, first appearing in a David Lodge novel, in which participants name books they haven't read and the winner is the player who hasn't read the most famous books. (The book I'm most ashamed of not having read, incidentally, is The Gulag Archipelago. King Lear, War and Peace, and Don Quixote may be the most famous European literary works I've never read--though, charming new translations notwithstanding, most Americans seem ignorant of Cervantes.) Instead, I wanted to draw attention to the acknowledgements in the two books I've mentioned, which are far livelier than the norm in academic books:

The final manuscript was much changed thanks to the detailed criticism of colleagues... Even when I spurned their wisdom, I was often driven to shift my position to make it less vulnerable to a direct hit. Enough is enough, however; if they had their way completely, I would still be at work revising and trying to reconcile the confusion they unwittingly sowed. I cannot wait to return the favor... There are unnamed others who agreed to read the manuscript--or even solicited it--and who, perhaps on seeing its bulk, had second thoughts. They know who they are. Shame!


The relationship between this book and my family life is complex enough to rule out any of the banalities that usually appear in this space. Suffice it to say that, try as I might, I have never remotely persuaded Louise and our children that their function is to help me write books.

I find comments like these quite charming, though I was less impressed that Scott frequently gets the name of my adviser wrong in the footnotes to Seeing Like a State. We can't all be perfect, I suppose.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi discusses the oft-repeated claim that Howard Dean will be another George McGovern. One of her main points is that whatever you think of Dean, McGovern has gotten a bad rap:

Nixon portrayed McGovern as a wimp, McGovern didn't dispute the characterization, and the public bought it. But what if during that long ago presidential campaign McGovern had showcased his own brave service to the country?

The South Dakota preacher's son was inducted into the US Army Air Force in 1943 and sent to Europe as a B-24 pilot. He flew 35 missions and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. The combat experience of this genuine World War II hero is chronicled in "The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany 1944-45," by famed historian and author Stephen Ambrose. (After publication of the best-selling book, Ambrose was criticized for borrowing passages from other works, including McGovern's autobiography, "Grassroots," without using quotation marks.)

Like many World War II veterans, McGovern did not talk about his heroics. In an article written in 2001, syndicated columnist Mark Shields addressed McGovern's war record from a unique vantage point. Shields was involved in the McGovern campaign, serving as political director for McGovern's running mate, Sargent Shriver.

"I urged the McGovern managers to film a couple of members of the flight crew telling how terrified they were the day McGovern, with two of his plane's four engines knocked out, somehow managed through skill and strength an emergency landing of his B-24 . . . on a 2,200 foot runway on an island in the Adriatic," wrote Shields, who viewed in the Ambrose book as "30 years late -- the story of George McGovern, by all evidence a superb pilot and an unflappable leader who always thought first of his crew."

Of course, I think that McGovern should have fought back even if he hadn't been a veteran--"anti-war non-veteran" does not equal "wimp," after all. But emphasizing his veteran status would have been a smart political move.

In mostly unrelated news, Dean believes that the remains of his brother--a civilian killed in Laos in 1974--have been discovered.

A "French art curator with the soul of an entrepreneur" hopes to make a profit with a chain of museums.

A milestone in publishing: the Harry Potter books have sold 250 million copies.

Christopher Hitchens looks at the career of Victor Serge in the current Atlantic, declaring that his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev "is one of the most Marxist novels ever written--as it is also one of the least."

One of these days I'll stop linking to articles by Hitchens. But he keeps writing on topics that interest me, whether or not I like what he has to say.

Wired looks at "the Second Coming of Philip K. Dick," explaining how a once-obscure science fiction writer has become a force in Hollywood movie-making two decades after he died.

Sometimes my movie-going habits make me feel guilty. Doc Films is running a Sunday series on Russian epics this quarter, but I haven't actually gone to see any of the films they're showing; perhaps I'll make it to see Russian Ark on November 30. I did, however, find the time to go watch an advance screening of Gothika.

Random commentary:

  • I still have no idea what the name means.
  • I love ungrammatical tag-lines: "Because someone is dead doesn't mean they're gone"? Couldn't they at least have begun with "Just because someone is dead..." in order to make it idiomatic?
  • Security was amusingly high. Do bootleg copies of movies actually decrease business?
  • I'm very jealous of John Ottman. I won't, however, tell you why.
  • The ghost sounded suspiciously like Darth Vader in one key scene. This amused me.

The bottom line: this movie was hilariously bad, but isn't worth seeing. Not even on a bootleg.

Addendum Elem Klimov, the director of one of the films in the "Russian Epics" series at Doc, recently died. (via The Blog of Death)

Invisible Adjunct has presented a "semi-open thread" about grade inflation. Like IA, I've considered blogging on this topic, but I've never gotten around to it. Maybe I will sometime.

Why are so few translations published in America? Should foreign governments subsidize literary translations? (via Artsjournal)

The Israeli army, it seems, is as divided as the nation it defends.

DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe: will his many legacy be shady fundraising or the reconstruction of the Democratic party organization?

In The New York Times, Jason Epstein discusses the history behind Master and Commander, commenting on the far side of credibility.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Language is fun. Nabokov was cool. Read this Language Log post. Read the Language Log entries on Patrick O'Brian, too.

Does racism tax your brain and "make you stupid"? Researchers at Dartmouth think so.

Update Carl Zimmer looks at this issue in more detail.

Question of the day: was Chaucer murdered? Probably not, but one author seems to think so...

The Guardian often amuses me by posting features that combine the intellectual and the frivolous in an unusual way. Consider today's issue, which includes a top ten list of books on Nazi Germany. Not only is the list itself kind of silly (charming as it might be if more academics published top ten lists), the choices themselves are debatable--does William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich really deserve to be #1?

One fact that interests me: of the seven works of history (or pop history) on the list, five are by British or American writers. This may, in part, be because the list appears in an English-language newspaper, making it tricky to include a book that hasn't been translated into English (and perhaps decreasing the likelihood that a translation would be selected.) I wonder if there's more to it than that, however. (Off the top of my head, I can't think of a recent Hitler biography by a German that's as good as Ian Kershaw's...) I'm very curious what a similar list in a German newspaper would look like...

How do post-war attitudes toward Nazi and Japanese atrocities vary in Japan and Germany? in The London Review of Books, Chalmers Johnson examines this question. Germany, Johnson suggests, has had a far healthier attitude toward the past, and the United States deserves some of the credit:

More significant, however, are differences in US Government policies towards the two countries. From the moment of Germany's defeat, the United States was active in apprehending war criminals, denazifying German society, and collecting and protecting archives of the Nazi regime, all of which have by now been declassified. By contrast, from the moment of Japan's defeat, the US Government sought to exonerate the Emperor and his relatives from any responsibility for the war. By 1948, it was seeking to restore the wartime ruling class to positions of power (Japan's wartime minister of munitions, Nobusuke Kishi, for example, was prime minister from 1957 to 1960). The US keeps many of its archives concerned with postwar Japan highly classified, in violation of its own laws.

Most important, John Foster Dulles, President Truman's special envoy to Japan charged with ending the occupation, wrote the peace treaty of 1951 in such a way that most former POWs and civilian victims of Japan are prevented from obtaining any form of compensation from either the Japanese Government or private Japanese corporations who profited from their slave labor...

Why do these attitudes protecting and excusing Japan persist? Why has the US pursued such divergent policies towards postwar Germany and Japan? Why was the peace treaty written in the way it was? Many reasons have been offered over the years, including that Japan was too poor to pay, that these policies were necessary to keep postwar Japan from 'going Communist', and that the Emperor and Japanese people had been misled into war by a cabal of insane militarists, all of whom the occupation had eliminated from positions of responsibility. The explanation offered in the Seagraves' book is considerably more sinister. It concerns what the United States did with Japan's loot once it discovered how much of it there was, the form it took, and how little influence its original owners had.

The article continues with a fascinating discussion of Japanese war loot.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott McLemee looks at how a new generation of scholars thinks about Jean-Paul Sartre.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discusses the economics of museum gift shops. (via Artsjournal)

One month to go until The Return of the King!

Sunday, November 16, 2003

This Economist profile of Paul Krugman (found via Arts and Letters Daily) isn't a bad read. Krugman, for those of you who don't know, is a well-known Princeton economist who writes a column for The New York Times; conservatives often detest him, in part because he's one of the few journalists to have described the dishonesty of George W. Bush's economic plan in detail and in part because his writing is sometimes shrill and off-putting. He has become a favorite target out of conservatives, whose anger at him is far out or proportion to his influence.

What always fascinates me is this: until recently, Krugman was disliked by the left far more than the right. In 1996, Bob Kuttner--the editor of the magazine where I once worked, The American Prospect--wrote a blistering critique of Krugman and his role in the public debate about economics. Krugman delighted in criticizing liberals like Robert Reich and Laura D'Andrea Tyson (both of whom went on to serve in the Clinton administration); though he has clearly never been a conservative, left-of-center economists may even have had more issues with his work than right-wingers until the Bush administration began.

The rest, of course, is history. If you're still interested in Krugman, read this Washington Monthly profile from last December (written by a former American Prospect colleague of mine.) Both the Prospect article and the Washington Monthly piece touch on the issue of greatest interest to me: what role should academics play in popularizing ideas from their field? The world would be a better place, I believe, if more academics from every discipline sought to bring their expertise to the wider public.

"Get your talking plush Gollum here!" This sentence, part of a Boston Globe Magazine article on the popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien, sends chills down my spine. The Lord of the Rings, the article's author suggests, has been transformed from a masterpiece of imaginative literature into a "literary property" with a "market share" and a "saturation point." Has Tolkien become too popular? Has the commercialization of his work gone too far?

There are lots of fun details in this article:

But it's easy to shout "literary genius" from the rooftops when Houghton grasps the brass, er, gold ring. Rings titles in 2002 claimed four of the five best-selling slots for trade paperbacks. Overall sales of Tolkien titles accounted for a whopping one-third of Houghton's revenue last year. The publisher's strategy is to offer several "high road, nice edition" versions of Tolkien titles, such as seven presentations of The Hobbit to match different market segments: cartoonier covers for kids, leather-bound for collectors. Houghton also diversifies by publishing the "making of" the movie trilogy books -- a move, Harper says, that has "allowed us to have our cake and eat it, too."

But selling a Weapons and Warfare film-companion book with "battle plans" and "fighting styles" of key action scenes hypes the hack-and-slash aspects of Tolkien. Houghton's fall catalog also advertises a $75 "lovingly sculpted" Book/Bookends Gift Set "that no fan should be without." This is no fly-by-night junk producer but Tolkien's own mouthpiece -- the longest continuous publisher of his works in the world -- selling collectible tie-ins.

It's easy to find amazingly silly commercial tie-ins. The DVD of The Two Towers includes, in its packaging, a brochure for all kinds of junky paraphernalia: you can buy Gandalf's staff, Elrond's head-dress, or a life-size version of the Ring of Power itself. All you have to do is shell out some cash--many of these items cost over $100.

Maybe I'm being naive, but I'm not terribly worried about all this. Yes, I find the books' commercialization tacky, stupid, and unpleasant, and I do feel--in a certain sense--that it trivializes Tolkien's work. The phenomenon often seems so silly, so over-the-top, and so decentralized that it's easy to write off, however. I don't get the sense that America's schoolchildren are rushing out to buy Lord of the Rings action figures (as my generation eagerly consumed Star Wars toys.) I don't think that elementary school kids will be distracted from reading Tolkien's books by the opportunity to buy fancy Middle Earth jewelry. In short, I suspect that the current fad of Tolkien-inspired merchandise will soon be a thing of the past, and that the effects of the current PR frenzy will have a smaller impact on the experience of reading Tolkien than many critics now believe.

Update: Chris Mooney comments on the Boston Globe Magazine story.

Update 2: Via Chris Mooney's link to Hit and Run, I came across this A.N. Wilson article on Tolkien from 2001.

For me, November is a month of conferences. This weekend I spent a lot of time at a conference about the history of everyday practices; it was organized by two Chicago professors (one of them my adviser) and held here on campus. On Thursday I'll leave for Toronto, where I'll attend the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. (No, that organization doesn't typically pronounce the name of its acronym.) Finally, I'll also be attending a smaller conference on the history of the emotions. What with all these conferences, Thanksgiving, two workshops, and preparations for my first lecture, I expect November to be a very busy month.

A fascinating article in yesterday's New York Times (found via Languagehat) describes one man's effort to revive Passamaquoddy, an endangered Native American language. The article includes some fascinating passages about the uses of computer technology and the challenges inherent in translation:

Mr. Sockabasin works with the aid of a computer program that reads back written text. He types letters that he believes will translate orally to Passamaquoddy. Then, when the computer speaks them back to him, he tinkers with those that sound awry to his ear, and tries again. Once a rough translation is complete, he takes the printed word, reads it aloud and adds correct inflections. Once an accurate translation is complete, he records it.

He also teaches the language to anyone who is interested in learning it. "If I can teach a computer how to sound out a Passamaquoddy word," he said, "I certainly can teach native children how to sound the words."

Still, translating Passamaquoddy is complicated, because unlike English, it groups sets of ideas into single words. Dr. Robert Leavitt, professor of education at the University of New Brunswick and director of its Mi'kmaq-Maliseet Institute, tells of the difficulty encountered by a group of linguists who tried to translate "thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory" into Passamaquoddy. The word they first used, Dr. Leavitt said, made it "sound like God had been working out at the gym," conveying a vision of physical strength rather than authoritative power.

I'm afraid I'm not optimistic about Alan Sockabasin's efforts, but I hope he's successful!

I've just added two new links to my sidebar. Ralph Luker, a historian from Atlanta who's active with the History New Network, linked to my blog today, bringing lots of new visitors to this site. (Thanks for the link!) Maps and Territories, meanwhile, includes details from maps with interesting commentary. (I found it via Crooked Timber.) Both sites are worth checking out!

More American college students than ever before are learning Arabic. But is the current increase enough? Are college students being taught Arabic well? Will the current trend last? Only time will tell...

Update: Brian Ulrich discusses this question on his blog, connecting it to the debate over Title VI funding.

T.J. Binyon, an Oxford professor best known for his reviews of mystery novels, has just published a biography of Aleksandr Pushkin, the subject of Michael Dirda's column in today's Washington Post. It's well worth reading, even if I'm not as impressed as Dirda by the Pushkin translations that appear in the text of the review.

I'm often oddly intrigued by the psychology of reading Russian poetry in the original. I love the sound and feel of certain Russian poets, like Pushkin and Akhmatova, but I always wonder how my experience of reading them compares to the experience of a native Russian speaker. I was taught to read Russian, in part, through reading Pushkin--so is it any wonder that I love the sound of his writing, if I've been taught that Pushkin is the exemplar of how Russian is "meant" to sound? (I simplify somewhat, of course; at the same time, I wonder what difference it makes that many Russians think that Pushkin's verses are the epitome of poetic Russian.) Akhmatova's poetry often appeals to me--but part of this appeal results from the experience of figuring out what she means. (Often, when I read her work, I find myself reading over some lines of poetry, I kind of like them, and then something clicks and I feel like I understand it better and like it more. Sometimes I wonder if I'd like the Akhmatova poetry that doesn't especially appeal to me if I just gave it more time.) This experience seems very different from that of a native Russian... Or does it? I've been told that a famous critic once likened reading her poetry to watching a movie with some of the individual images taken out, so that readers had to reconstruct its meaning in their own mind. How similar is it to read a poet in your own language and to read it in a language you know fairly well, but far from fluently?

Newt Gingrich isn't the only well-known Georgia politician to have written a historical novel. Jimmy Carter has just published The Hornet's Nest, a fictional account of the American Revolution set in Georgia and Florida.

DVDs are wonderful things. Over the last two days, I've seen two fascinating articles on little-known historical documentaries that are now available on DVD. Yesterday in the Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall described a documentary on the Nazi occupation of France called The Sorrow and The Pity; it's a 260-minute, black-and-white film that looks at the myths of the French Resistance and the realities of French collaboration as they played out in one small town. Meanwhile, today's Boston Globe ideas section describes a pair of documentaries on John F. Kennedy based on the idea that although written works would provide better analysis, film could evoke the drama of real life in a more compelling way. All three films sound fascinating, and now they're available thanks to the advent of the DVD.