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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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:

It's been played on all the cable shows and already has been re-mixed into a techno tune, but one thing about Howard Dean's full-throated cry during his concession/fight speech that hasn't been much discussed was that it was really loud in there at the Val Air Ballroom when he made his speech, which is something the TV mics -- and hence film footage -- did not pick up.

So it's worth noting for the historical record that I -- and others -- could scarcely hear what Dean was saying on the stage from the press section in the back of the room because several thousand Deaniacs were making so much noise (Dean wasn't the only one screaming) and the acoustics in the room weren't very good. From inside the room, it seemed that he was feeding off the energy of a crowd that was cheering him on, and that they got louder and louder in concert with each other. Anyway, none of that will matter in the end. Richard Nixon was sick during his 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy, too, but there are no excuses in politics.

Still, when the final story of the Dean campaign is written, the difference between what was going on inside that room and what it looked like on television will make an instructive chapter.

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:

Reagan is generally blamed for the deficit crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s. He certainly made a bad situation worse, running a deficit that reached a recessionary peak of 6 percent of GDP. Remember, though, that the deficit was already 2.6 percent of GDP when Reagan took office, and it was 2.8 percent when he left. He and Congress revoked a substantial share of the 1981 tax cut, and by 1987 the defense budget was coming down almost as fast as it had gone up.

In other words, Reagan doubled the deficit as a share of GDP, but only briefly. The underlying fiscal dislocation was largely the work of Nixon, who let -- no, helped -- federal spending run away from federal revenues, not just for a while but for good. Resolving Reagan's fiscal rupture -- that is, reducing the deficit to pre-Reagan levels, as a share of GDP -- took only four years (from 1983 to 1987); resolving Nixon's took 20.


In 1972, Nixon faced a choice between political one-upmanship and fiscal grown-upmanship, and we all know which he chose. But Nixon was as crass an opportunist as ever entered American politics. Bush is a better sort of man. Isn't he?

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:

What, then, are the lessons to be drawn from the success of taxi-drivers and the equal and opposite failure of our public servants? How have the former succeeded when people supposedly much better educated than they have failed? The first lesson, of course, is that the country should be run exclusively by retired taxi-drivers. The second is that nine out of ten institutions of tertiary education should be closed down forthwith, the number of students reduced by the same proportion, and the staff set upon humble but nonetheless socially useful tasks, such as sweeping the streets. Let us put an end to their corruption of youth; let us reflect deeply upon the efficiency of our taxi-drivers and the incompetence of our public servants.

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:

Simply put, Edwards is one of the most talented political speakers I've ever seen—on nights like last night, Clinton-level. He has a way of turning a hall into a courtroom, completely engaging with the audience as if they were members of a jury. He uses his hands to express himself so vividly that it looks like he's doing his own simultaneous translation into American Sign Language. Edwards may not have the foreign policy background of a Kerry or a Clark (and his speech was notably thin on that subject), but he has something that may be much more valuable: a genuine affinity for ordinary people.

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:

Received opinion divides on Rembrandt's attitude to the Jews. There are those who detect an unprecedented empathy with Jewish subjects. On the other hand, Gary Schwarz has argued that "to move from these scattered and infrequent projects to an active engagement with Amsterdam's Jews and a deeply philo-Semitic mindset requires a wild leap of the biographical imagination." Nadler proceeds cautiously. He acknowledges missing connections. He puzzles over architectural details, inscriptions and costume, assessing how far Jewish material is present in key works. While others try to identify Menasseh with a half-length portrait etching by Rembrandt, Nadler concedes there is insufficient resemblance to justify this claim.

So Rembrandt's exchange with his Jewish neighbours remains shadowy. What is illuminated by this book, owing to a remarkable feat of historical imagination, is Amsterdam's Jewish society. Nadler is a sympathetic guide to its development, as it takes root and becomes woven into the city's cultural life and material boom. He explains the feuding between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews; looks at key rabbis; tracks the politics behind the building of synagogues. Finally, Nadler considers the Jewish attitude to death in connection with the Ouderkerk cemetery, on which Jacob van Ruisdael based two fine oils.

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:

Some of the pleasures of Tacitean history, however, are not always easily accessible. The violently radical use of Latin - particularly, but not only, in the Annals - defeats almost all translators. They usually wring their hands and lament the impossibility of their task in a preface. Kenneth Wellesley, for example, in his introduction to the Penguin Histories, talks of his 'guilt and remorse', and fears - not unreasonably - that he may 'prove to have butchered his victim'. But, apologies over, they get down to business, smoothing out the Latin into something approaching standard English. It is a daunting assignment. To take just one very straightforward example, I have never seen any translation capture the subversive ambiguity of the very first line of the Annals: 'The city of Rome has been/was the possession of kings a principio'. A principio can mean both 'in the beginning' and 'from the beginning', and the double meaning is significant. Is Tacitus' meaning simply that 'in the beginning' Rome was ruled by kings (Romulus and Co)? Or is he also encouraging us to wonder if autocracy and the city of Rome have actually gone hand in hand 'from the start'? It is hard to see what a good and readable (and saleable) English translation of this or much else of the Annals might look like. But something must be better than the ever popular Penguin by Michael Grant ('When Rome was first a city, its rulers were kings'), which over its fifty years of publication has probably launched more misapprehensions of the character of Tacitus and his historical rhetoric than any other single book.

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:

[Morris argues] that the popular view of a "vacillatory Johnson and advisers like McNamara breathing down his neck" for war was false. Well, Morris is a brilliant filmmaker, but he is not a historian. Having spent eleven years working on a doctoral dissertation and forthcoming book devoted to these matters--When Presidents Lie: Deception and Its Consequences--I'd say the old man has sold him the same bill of goods he was handing out at Georgetown dinner parties thirty-five years ago, when he would break down in tears over the agony his sensitive soul endured at the thought of all that useless death and destruction in Southeast Asia.

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:

Grauerholz hopes the fairy tales will continue to evolve to include ordinary-looking or ugly characters as the heroines or heros, as in the 2001 animated film "Shrek," whose happy ending has a beautiful princess turning back into an ogre and leaving the prince at the altar.

"What I think is so interesting about 'Shrek' is that it's the opposite of that ugly duckling story. The princess becomes the ogre in the end. But that whole movie was about twisting the fairy tales around," Grauerholz says.

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:

And, finally, we have supported House Resolution 3077, which calls for an advisory board to oversee the spending of U.S. federal money on area studies, what's called Title VI. Right now, the government hands out the money and then doesn't look at what's happening with it. We're saying, someone should see what's going on. This too has generated a furious reaction. What we sometimes call adult supervision gets our friends at the universities very annoyed and understandably so.

So we've got the attention of our colleagues in the universities, and I think it's a healthy development. They now are aware that students might turn to us with their stories, are aware that we're watching the student newspapers to see what inanities they might have spoken. We are looking at their research, we are watching, and we might post it, and we might make fun of it, and we might bring into public attention, and we might write about it. We might even go on television about it.

And I think there has been a discernible effect. I flatter myself perhaps in thinking that the rather subdued academic response to the war in Iraq in March and April may have been, in part, due to our work. Thank you.

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:

Let us try to address the problem from two often neglected perspectives. First, what is the "real" Acropolis? The Parthenon only survived thanks to successive changes of use: it was a church, then a mosque during the Turkish occupation, and then was "returned" to a purely Greek identity through a process by which anything that was not classically Greek, like the minaret, was destroyed. The Acropolis is therefore the result of an operation that eliminated its Christian and Ottoman past. In order to reconstruct what is only one of the various possible forms of the Acropolis, all other forms are negated; this process would be crowned and legitimised by the return of the marbles. It would sanction the idea that of all the history that has flowed through the Acropolis (in fact, the history of Europe), only one moment matters and all others must be suppressed.

Second, tens of thousands of Greek sculptures, painted vases, bronzes and archaeological finds fill the world's museums. Why is this controversy limited to the return of the marbles? This tendency to select totem-like works, which in themselves synthesise an entire culture, unfortunately implies a devaluation not only of all other works but of the contextual nexus that links such works to one another. Such a process of reductio ad unum is directly opposed to the most advanced ideas of cultural conservation, and unintentionally risks legitimising the divorce of a few "high" works from all others.

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:

Historians identify four "key" elections that turned on unusually impassioned political confrontations, deeply disrupting and redirecting the political loyalties of large numbers of voters. All four produced seismic shifts in the American political landscape, defining the salient issues for a long generation thereafter: westward expansion, slavery, and abolition following Andrew Jackson's election in 1828; civil war, reconstruction, and rapid industrialization after Abraham Lincoln's in 1860; immigration and economic regulation after William McKinley's in 1896; the welfare state and internationalism after Franklin Roosevelt's in 1932. Intriguingly, each of those political eras had a life span of about 3-1/2 decades.

Those precedents inspired political commentator Kevin Phillips to predict in 1968 that Richard Nixon's election would be the segue to the next, Republican-dominated, phase in this uncannily regular cycle. The uproar of the Watergate scandals aborted that development, the theory goes, permitting the anomalies of the Carter interlude and the Clinton "interregnum."

Mr. Rove and others now believe that the long-thwarted arrival of a durable Republican ascendancy is at last imminent, and that Bush's historic mission is to make it happen.

In that view, dividing the house by exploiting hot-button social issues is a political virtue, not a vice. Deficits, in turn, are simply the necessary cost of securing a permanently reduced tax base and thereby taming the monster of big government. Reagan initiated this strategy, and Bush appears to be perfecting it. History may therefore identify a shrewdly calculated and notably disciplined method in the seeming fiscal recklessness of the Bush domestic agenda.

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:

For the scholar, Roman gesture, showy or otherwise, offers entry "to a system of thought and prejudice otherwise not accessible to us." He explores gesture in select realms over centuries, emphasizing in each how Romans sought to act in and on nature and mediate between the human and the "more than human."

In medicine, for example, gesture extended an odd kind of verbal parallelism in folk belief. In the latter, a pain in one's uvula might be cured by eating a dried uva, or grape. Similarly, through gesture, mending a twig could cure a fractured leg. Or if a woman had difficulty giving birth, labor was eased if the impregnating man first bound and then loosened her garments. Romans wrote too of using the "medicinal fingers," ring and thumb, when harvesting curative plants.

Today, the latter digit is something of an icon of Rome. But disputing sword-and-sandal movies, Mr. Corbeill uses linguistic, art-historical, and other evidence to argue that "thumbs up" was not the sign of mercy for a defeated gladiator, nor "thumbs down" the mark of death. Mercy, he says, was signaled via the thumb pressing upon a closed fist and death by the phallic, aggressive vision of an erect upward thumb.

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:

Hesperus, then, challenges regimented canon thinking in regard to "major" authors not with a jobs program for other writers waiting on the bench, but with slighted literary achievements that complicate our sense of a noted author's slam-dunks and missed jumpers. Of course, one could complain that Hesperus avoids the true risk in major-minorland -- the classification of writers, not texts. Hesperus's all-stars, if not always household names (in educated households) a la Chekhov and Swift, almost always rank as anointed names in the wider world of literature.

Wouldn't a truly brave rover series, meant to bring the distant near, display not just the critical bite of James when he judged Our Mutual Friend the "poorest" of Dickens's works (for its "poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion"), but that of Conrad when he opined that Melville "knows nothing of the sea"? Wouldn't it need the courage before established reputation shown by Nietzsche in labeling Dante "a hyena," or Sean O'Casey, in immortally taking down P.G. Wodehouse as "English literature's performing flea"?

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:

Google permits the most unlikely people to display sudden bursts of erudition. Not long ago, I came across the blog kept by a generic urban hipster - one containing the familiar catalog of new CDs purchased, smirking remarks on public affairs and essentially meaningless references to "irony." (Memo to the clueless: Irony does not mean repeating cliches in a sarcastic manner. It just doesn't.) Reading a few entries, I got the strong sense of someone whose powers of concentration were utterly focused on the Next Big Thing.

Then, erupting strangely into this mix of au courant gesturing and posturing, the blogger somehow contrived to deliver a (suspiciously detailed) lecture on an episode from ancient Greek military history. The recitation of battle manuevers looked odd mixed in there with the Britney Spears references. And then I realized what probably had happened: In an effort to add a hint of sophistication, the blogger cribbed from an online encyclopedia, thereby sounding encyclopedic. It was a reminder that all of culture now exists in byte-sized pieces - pre-chewed by search engines, serving as instant nourishment for the hungry ego.

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:

I love the idea of breaking the standard documentary form. But for all its jump-cuts and free associations, ''Loaded Gun'' is like one of those narcissistic essays in which a writer chronicles his difficulties with his subject to show how creative he is. So we get a rock group setting Dickinson's words to music (not well) and a comic riffing on her life (not well). The director consults psychologists (all male) and sets up a Chris Matthews-like exchange between two professors (one male, one female). He casts an imaginary film about her life. (Charlton Heston as her Puritan father? Not a good choice if he means it; not a good joke if he doesn't.) And he stages a casting call for actresses, asking questions like ''Miss Dickinson, do you have a problem with God?,'' which they are supposed to answer in character. There is even a coy film-school homage to John Ford: a desert shootout between the good girl, spinster Emily (in white) and the killer poet Emily (in black).


For more than a century editors tried to tame Dickinson's syntax and writers tried to tame her psyche. The popular narrative saw her as a woman spurned or neglected. Now men are lining up for her. Her genius makes her a prize, a conquest, a proof of artistic manhood. In the documentary the former poet laureate Billy Collins dismisses talk about whether she was asexual or bisexual as backstairs gossip: ''I wanted to just blow that off the table by saying, 'I'm going to take off her clothes and make love to her.' '' Then he reads a smarmy poem called ''Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes'' and the camera (standing in for both poet and director) chases an Emily impersonator through the Amherst graveyard.

No wonder she never left her house. It still isn't safe.


An article in The London Review of Books describes World War I and the breakdown of language":

The Great War and the Language of Modernism is a deeply pondered and (Vincent Sherry approves of serious puns) ponderous book. Nevertheless its thesis, a fascinating one, is not difficult. In Gladstone's day and for decades afterwards, the language of English Liberalism was firmly rational and committed to civilized values. It took no account of Freud or new studies of crowd psychology and the power of unreason. In 1914, a Liberal Government and its supporters found themselves – through their own fault, Sherry believes – having to present the Great War as a war for civilization. They continued to write and speak in their usual measured, elegant way, with the result that their words became divorced from meaning. Fine arguments that bore no relation to actual events were rehearsed with sonorous reasonableness. Sherry quotes some striking examples, such as Havelock Ellis defending the war in 1917 because it was "the triumphant affirmation . . . of all that the Pacifists have ever asserted". This wartime separation between rational statement and reality gave Modernist writers their opportunity: they could use it to reach into the currents of feeling and attitude that lie hidden beneath logical discourse.

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:

Stylistically, Jones's enthusiasm can at times be less infectious than wearying. Exclamation marks cap too many sentences, and in the course of three pages, John Wyclif is called the "Demon Doctor of Divinity", "The Evil Rector of Lutterworth" and "the Dreadful Doctor". In places, Jones lapses into Pythonism: "One can almost hear Philippa Chaucer scolding her husband: 'You come back from work! You sit down in front of yet another book! Dumb as any stone! What do I get? Eh? Geoffrey! Are you listening?'". And does any reader really need to be informed that "leisure time" in medieval England "didn't mean surf-boarding and D-I-Y"?

It sounds like this is a weird little book. Rather than just paraphrase what the review said, here's another quotation:

Light-hearted, intelligent, panoramic and defiantly unbeholden to conventional interpretations, the new book is based on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, though this time Jones has been aided by four scholars who "produced individual essays, which I then worked into a whole". There is a particularly interesting chapter on how the Ellesmere's illustrations were "censored" for political reasons. Although his claim that the figure of the Knight is based on the original Agnolo Gaddi–Juliano Arrighi memorial to Sir John Hawkwood (a portrayal later reproduced in the Duomo in Florence by Uccello) is not altogether convincing, Jones's dissection of the Monk and the Friar is more persuasive.

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.

An article in the Boston Globe ideas section asks whether people cheat more than they once did.