"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
Saturday, January 24, 2004
In The New Republic, Omer Bartov has written a wide-ranging essay, beginning with a review of Hitler's second book (now available for the first time in an authoritative English translation) and continuing with a discussion of "the new anti-Semitism" and of seemingly insane statements (like Hitler's) in the present day. The title of the article asks one of Bartov's central questions: Did Hitlerism die with Hitler?
I'm still debating how to respond to Bartov's argument, and I may return to his essay in a future post--it touches on interesting questions of historical interpretation and of historical analogy (a favorite subject of this blog of late.) For now, though, check the article out!
David Cannadine discusses how to write about the royal family in The Times Literary Supplement.
Lovely quotation of the week (by Tolstoi, to Chekhov): "you know, I cannot abide Shakespeare, but your plays are worse." (I wonder if he ever actually said that...) I got this quotation from a Guardian article about Janet Malcolm's book on Chekhov, which I plan to read sometime. Other Guardian articles worth reading include this review of a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, and this profile of Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books.
Michael Dirda reviews a historical novel about George Armstrong Custer and comments on the changing American publishing scene in his latest Washington Post column.
Friday, January 23, 2004
The Washington Post's obituary of the writer John Toland is much better than the New York Times obit I linked to earlier. (via the Blog of Death)
I find the following Toland quotation (from a CNN obit) kind of bizarre: "I don't violate history. I just try to follow the mainstream of history, viewing it as it happened rather than showing you something that happened and start criticizing what people did." Then again, it sounds like Toland's history books were kind of bizarre, too. Perhaps if I'd read one of Toland's better-known books I'd have a sense of his view of history and whether it makes more sense than this statement might suggest.
At the Decembrist, Mark Schmitt provides one of the best analyses of the Dean candidacy that I've seen. It's also a nice remembrance of Paul Wellstone. Check it out.
Terry Teachout discusses the film versions of Master and Commander and The Human Stain, while discussing the art of the literary film adaptation, in an article in Crisis magazine.
Want to know the Russian you'll need in arranging for various household repairs? Want to know a "very slangy and rather crude" phrase you should shout at a repairman when he proposes a price 50 times the size of your budget? Want to know why Russian apartments have especially thick wallpaper? Then read Michele Berdy's latest column.
Bruce Jackson has written a fun Counterpunch article on Errol Morris's The Fog of War, discussing everything from the state of McNamara's teeth to the former defense secretary's enthusiasm about discussing his past successes to whether McNamara should be listed as a co-director.
In The Los Angeles Times, David Greenberg compares Howard Dean's post-Iowa scream to Richard Nixon's "last press conference" of 1962 and Edmund Muskie's reaction to an attack by William Loeb's Manchester Union-Leader. (via HNN)
Garance Ruta-Frank, meanwhile, discusses Dean's speech in a Tapped entry that's worth reproducing in full:
You'll have to go to Tapped for the link to the techno tune, I'm afraid. Ruta-Frank's main point is an interesting one. Does it let Dean off the hook? Not exactly, I think, but it certainly makes the picture more complex.
Everyone's favorite Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, discusses the 80th anniversary of Lenin's death in In These Times.
Everyone these days likes to compare George W. Bush's fiscal policies to those of Ronald Reagan. In National Journal, Jonathan Rauch takes a different tack, likening Bush to Richard Nixon. Will Bush, like Nixon, begin a 20-year fiscal crisis? Rauch's conclusion:
Read the article for more details. I kind of like Rauch's argument, which clarifies the fiscal history of the Nixon administration as much as it clarifies current Bush policy. Historical analogies are complicated things.
Should Britain be ruled by taxi drivers? Theodore Dalrymple thinks so:
A driver in Moscow once told me that Russian food was both the best-tasting and the healthiest in the world. The first of these statements is, at best, highly doubtful, though I suppose it's a matter of personal taste. The second statement is blatantly ridiculous. I wonder what it would happen if that driver ruled Russia...
Harold Meyerson has a nice roundup of the Iowa caucuses in LA Weekly.
Christianity Today discusses the new film about Martin Luther.
The Smithsonian is opening a permanent exhibit on military history, according to this Washington Post article.
Thursday, January 22, 2004
The London Review of Books discusses the work of Harry Mathews, the only American member of Oulipo. Languagehat, meanwhile, discusses Mathews's work with translation.
Does pop culture offer lessons for academia? In The Hoover Digest, Diane Ravitch argues that textbook writers have something to learn from the Harry Potter phenomenon: a well-written textbook is better than a book written by a committee (even if it has lots of pictures). Tim Burke, meanwhile, discusses grading in the context of American Idol.
I was very pleased with the results of the Iowa caucuses this week. Dick Gephardt was one of the two serious Democratic candidates I like least (Joe Lieberman being the other), and he was forced out of the race; the two candidates I like most, John Kerry and John Edwards, both got big boosts from Iowa caucus-goers. Even if Howard Dean recovers and goes on to win the nomination, I hope that the early loss in Iowa will force him to improve his message and take care of some of his more glaring weaknesses as a candidate.
Right now, as I indicated above, I'm still undecided: I could support either Kerry or Edwards. Kerry's views may be the closest to mine of any candidate's in the field, and he has the advantage of significant foreign policy experience. (Clark is the only other Democratic candidate with experience in that area, but he's a cipher on domestic policy.) But I've never warmed to him as a senator, I worry about his chances against Bush, and I don't think he's developed a clear and convincing rationale for becoming president (beyond supporting certain moderately liberal policies that any Democrat in office would back.) Edwards sometimes seems more conservative than I'd prefer, and sometimes more populist than I'd like, but he strikes me as the smartest candidate in the field, with the best-thought-out rationale for his campaign and the most interesting ideas. (Even when analysts are unimpressed with elements of his campaign, they often find it unsatisfying in more interesting or appealing ways.) My biggest concern is that he has very little experience in government (he's been in the Senate since 1998, and that's all) and that he hasn't put a lot of thought into foreign policy. If I had to vote today, I'd probably vote for Edwards (assuming that he'll have time to get the hang of foreign policy before the election and that the quality of his advisers will matter as much as his past experience in the area), but I'm still not sure. It doesn't hurt that I think he's the most likeable candidate in the field--on both personal and policy grounds--and the candidate most likely to beat Bush.
Edwards, of course, has gotten his share of attention since Iowa. Josh Marshall's reaction to a recent Edwards rally was mixed, but intriguing. (Everyone seems to agree that he's an impressive speaker and campaigner.) Jacob Weisberg (one of my favorite political writers before he became editor of Slate) has also discussed the Edwards candidacy:
It remains to be seen whether Edwards's political skills will allow him to win the nomination, but I'd love to see him make a real run for it. I'm also impressed that Edwards seems to have made a genuine effort to figure out why he wants to be president--something Bill Clinton never did. I always had the sense that Clinton loved campaigning and loved governing, but had no real rationale for why he wanted to be president. (He just loved the policy details.) My sense is that there's a lot more to Edwards. The next few weeks are going to be interesting.
Slate looks at Lillian Gilbreth, the hero of the original book Cheaper by the Dozen. Another Slate article looks at Fellini's doodles and sketches. Fun stuff!
The Washington Post has published a fascinating article on the controversy begun when government-sponsored Chinese academics claimed that the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo was ethnically Chinese--a dispute that involves everything from cultural bragging rights to Korean nationalism to East Asian border politics. (Goguryeo controlled much of Korea and Manchuria until its A.D. 668 fall; the reaction to this Chinese move in Korea has been swift and negative.)
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
The Common Review presents a decent but uninspired overview of the field of Tolkien studies and the reputation of Tolkien in the academy. (I say this as someone who tends to think that a lot of critical reaction to Tolkien as snobbish, but who doesn't consider The Lord of the Rings great literature.)
A review in The Independent looks at a new book on Rembrandt and the Jews:
Nadler's book seems like a neat look at social history that also raises intriguing questions about Rembrandt and his knowledge of the Talmud.
The Daily Mirror has a story about Winston Churchill's parrot, who's still alive and swearing about Nazis at 104. (via Ralph Luker at Cliopatria)
Update: Or maybe not...(again, via Cliopatria)
In The London Review, Mary Beard discusses the Year of the Four Emperors, the emperor Galba, the works of Tacitus, and the difficulties of translation. An excerpt related to the last of those themes:
Beard's main subject is Tacitus's Histories, and her article is worth checking out.
Should Karl Habsburg, the final emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, be beatified? The pope apparently thinks so...
The Guardian also reports on a "crisis" that doesn't seem terribly important to me. (It involves Russian beer, which--apparently--is "fast becoming Russia's favourite drink.")
Back in November, Nation columnist Eric Alterman harshly criticized Errol Morris for his new film about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War:
Now The Nation has published an exchange between Morris and Alterman on the movie. It's a little nasty (in the way that only academics and wannabe academics can manage), but it touches on some interesting and important issues about McNamara's role in escalating the Vietnam War. (via HNN)
Communism, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page suggests, wasn't all bad for classical music.
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Butterflies and Wheels has linked to a fun Boston Globe article about the portrayal of beauty in fairy tales: not surprisingly, a new study has found that fairy tales are preoccupied with looks and tend to equate ugliness and evil.
The study's findings aren't exactly earth-shattering, but the article was entertaining nonetheless--the main reason I'm linking to it. One particular excerpt from the article both amused and irritated me, however:
Like nearly everyone else who saw it, I was a fan of the movie Shrek. The first half of the movie was a little too pleased with itself for making fun of Disney, but was hilarious nonetheless. The second half of the movie was a disappointment. The makers of the film seemed really proud of themselves for being "subversive": they mocked Walt Disney, modeled the villain after Michael Eisner, filled their movie with subtle jokes that would amuse parents, and--most of all--turned the traditional fairy tale on its head. The title character, as the article above points out, was an ugly hero--an ogre, in fact--and the movie makes a big deal of the idea that it's a tongue-in-cheek look at traditional stories.
The problem was that the movie wasn't nearly as "subversive" as its makers thought: instead of mocking the standard story-line of "boy meets girl and falls in love, but worries that they're too different from each other, until they both figure out that love is what matters and live happily ever after," Shrek's writers wimped out. They decided to reveal that the princess (Shrek's love interest) was secretly a troll too. (She started off as a human, but was the victim of a spell. Or something like that.) Hence, Shrek worried for a long time that he and the princess couldn't get together since he was ugly and different, but once he realized that they were both an unfortunate shade of green, they decided to get married.
I don't want to sound like I'm criticizing the movie for refusing to attack, head on, the idea that looks are what matter--if I were to make that argument, you'd just assume that I'm ugly and self-conscious about my looks. Instead, my concern is that the movie started off as a clever and irreverent look at fairy tales and ended up a sappy and silly romance. Shrek prided itself on being new and different, but its central plot conceit was a reversion to the formulas it was supposedly mocking.
Wouldn't it have been more amusing if Princess Fiona had remained human and had gotten together with Shrek anyway? There's an endless array of hilarious problems that could arise from a romance between an ogre and a woman, after all--and the ending wouldn't have been nearly as sappy. It's true that Shrek and Fiona's relationship might have experienced some... er, physical problems, but I can't see why that should have stopped them. After all, this is a fairy tale we're talking about!
In The American Prospect, Todd Gitlin discusses the debate over H.R. 3077, a bill that would--among other things--create an advisory board "to gather information on international programs that accept federal funds -- so-called Title VI area studies -- and to ensure that funded activities 'reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs.' " Conservatives claim, in justification for this provision, that too many academics in Middle East studies present their students with a left-wing, anti-American bias.
Gitlin, I think, could have gone much further in criticizing the bill, instead of merely describing the gulf between Congress and academia. Supporters of the bill have explicitly said that one of their goals is to decrease criticism of U.S. foreign policy by academics--just check out this recent statement by Daniel Pipes:
There's a difference, of course, between "adult supervision" of federal spending and with ensuring that the beneficiaries of government funding don't espouse views that you dislike. An advisory board might well end up a harmless addition to the Title VI program, but it appears to be motivated by distaste for professors' expression of particular views. I'm sure there are better quotations out there than the one I've linked to above, but in this case, a prominent supporter of change has explicitly linked his bill with the desire to decrease academic criticism of government policy. That's always a bad idea.
The Guardian lays out a strong case that the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece would mean whitewashing Europe's past:
I've always been skeptical of restoring the Elgin Marbles, though I'm not sure anyone can argue that their acquisition was really legitimate. If I had more time, I'd quibble with some of the points in the article I've quoted, but I think its basic point is legitimate.
In The Christian Science Monitor, Stanford historian David Kennedy discusses what history's verdict on George W. Bush might be. This is a thankless (and, on one level, silly) task, but Kennedy makes some interesting points:
Theories of political cycles in history never seem to work, but can be fun nonetheless. The idea that one of the major goals of Bush, Rove, and company is an era of one-party leadership is also the subject of a recent Bob Kuttner article, which places the question in starker terms. (Kuttner, my old boss, puts the issue in starker terms than I would, in fact, though his article is definitely worth reading.)
In The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley discusses A.J. Liebling's book The Earl of Louisiana.
Today's New York Times discusses the controversy in Turkey over the film Ararat, which discusses the Armenian genocide; the article also touches on the theme of history in films.
Monday, January 19, 2004
What should you do if you're a 69-year-old former governor of Illinois who's just been indicted on corruption charges? Go to the Sundance film festival, of course! George Ryan, it seems, is now starring at Sundance.
If you speak Russian, you might well enjoy visiting the new presidential children's website set up by Vladimir Putin. It's loaded with exciting stuff: there's a question-and-answer session with the president, a series of lessons about democracy, and--best of all--a game where you can play the part of past Russian leaders! (That's right, you too can play the role of Riurik, Prince Igor, Olga, or even Sviatoslav the Wise!) Exciting, huh?
Another Chronicle article looks at the history and meaning of Roman gestures:
I can't help but wonder, though: how many Romans actually experienced pain in the uvula?
Carlin Romano describes Hesperus Books, a new publishing imprint specializing in lesser-known books by well-known authors, in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
I'm not really a huge fan of Romano's writing, but I'm often interested in the subjects he chooses to describe. Hesperus sounds like a really interesting publisher.
In The Nation, Brian Klug attacks the idea that a "new" form of anti-Semitism is now on the rise.
English food: more interesting than you think? The Washington Times reviews ""an extraordinary thousand years of history" of British cuisine, discussing the effects on English cooking of everything from the Norman conquest to World War II food rationing.
The Christian Science Monitor describes a website on Victorian robots--a really fascinating website that, unfortunately, started out as an unintentional hoax.
Sunday, January 18, 2004
Via Brian Ulrich, I just found an article about how the U.S. is using a 1918 report on Iraqi tribal politics as a key source of information for the rebuilding of Iraq. Part of me finds this cute (I have an interesting mind), but mostly, it just seems depressing to me. Fascinating, but depressing.
Miss Manners, it seems, didn't like Mona Lisa Smile. (She's a Wellesley grad.) Yet another reason to like her!
The British Museum has opened a new gallery on the Enlightenment, this Financial Times article notes; the result is as if "an entire intellectual era had stepped into a Soho advertising agency demanding to be rebranded for the new millennium," and "is nothing less than a restatement of the British Museum's very raison d'etre."
Political cartoons of the past can be fun to read about: History Today has posted links to some of its old articles on the subject, including this article on German cartoons' portrayal of polarized opinion on Bismarck and this piece about how much the British cartoonist David Low irritated Hitler. (If you're a Chicago student, go check out some of the David Low materials in special collections. They can be a lot of fun.)
Has the Pope endorsed Mel Gibson's movie about the passion? Frank Rich investigates in The New York Times.
Woo! The Dean campaign has a computer game on its website! (Here's the link, if you're curious...) The excitement never dies!
This article in The Walrus begins by looking at the supra--a traditional Georgian feast that goes on for hours and can lead to "hospitality terrorism"--and continues with a fascinating look at Georgian politics.
Scott McLemee has written a fun and interesting review of a new book on military history. It begins:
The body of the review considers Leo Braudy's From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity. The review as a whole interested me, but isn't as easily quotable as the intro; just go read it.
A PBS documentary on Emily Dickinson sounds amazingly bad:
An article in The London Review of Books describes World War I and the breakdown of language":
This is the sort of article that makes me wish I knew more about literary theory and literary criticism. Oh, well.
Another interesting tidbit from The London Review: Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) has written a book about the supposed murder of Geoffrey Chaucer. Sounds, well, interesting:
It sounds like this is a weird little book. Rather than just paraphrase what the review said, here's another quotation:
The review also refers to "Jones's weakness for pursuing hunches on the slenderest of circumstantial evidence" and notes that he made "several absurdly speculative conclusions." I'm kind of intrigued by the way the book was written (see the block quote above.) In fact, I'm weirdly intrigued by the whole thing. I have the feeling that someone with the time to read the book might have some neat stuff to say about it (assuming that, unlike me, that person was in the havit of writing neat stuff), though said "neat stuff" might have more to do with the weird and interesting results that occur when an amateur writes about serious matters than with Chaucer.
In The Philadelophia Inquirer, Carlin Romano reviews a book about the final days of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. The review's style rubs me the wrong way (Romano is a little too pleased with himself for having read some Russian poetry), but the subject matter is interesting.
The Washington Post Magazine describes a post-World War II program to teach German POWs about democracy. It's an interesting read.
The Guardian reviews a new biography of Lord Haw-Haw) and a history of the passage of the reform act of 1832.
An article in the Boston Globe ideas section asks whether people cheat more than they once did.