Monday, April 24, 2017

Proust’s noisy neighbors

At auction this Wednesday, along with many other items related to French literature, a letter from Marcel Proust to his friend Jacques Porel, son of the actress Gabrielle Réjane, Proust’s then-landlady and a model for the actress La Berma in In Search of Lost Time. In the letter Proust complains about the noise he hears in his apartment, or what the auction catalogue calls “bruyants ébats amoreux de ses voisins”:

Les voisins dont me sépare la cloison font d’autre part l’amour tous les 2 jours avec une frénésie dont je suis jaloux.
More or less:
The neighbors on the other side of the partition make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.
Proust wrote to Porel on July 15, 1919. On October 1, 1919, he moved out. You can find the letter, no. 245, in the spectacular illustrated auction catalogue from Pierre Bergé and Associés. Spectacular: see also, for instance, nos. 81, 133, 153, 258.

In August, New Directions will publish Lydia Davis’s translations of Proust’s letters to another set of noisy neighbors.

Related reading
All OCA Proust posts (Pinboard)

[Sometimes I think that the best thing about the PDF is free auction catalogues.]

Review: Walks with Walser


Carl Seelig. Walks with Walser. 1957. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. New York: New Directions, 2017. 200 pages. $15.95 paper.

                        A famous person must not cause one
                        to forget the unfamous.

                        Robert Walser to Carl Seelig

The Swiss editor and writer Carl Seelig is best known today as Robert Walser’s friend, guardian, and literary executor. In the mid-1930s, Seelig began writing to Walser, wanting to do something for the writer and his work. Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (1957) is Seelig’s memoir of what followed: forty-five visits with Walser over nineteen years. Walks with Walser is this book’s first and long-awaited translation into English.

In 1929, after “a few bumbling attempts” at suicide, Robert Walser was admitted to a Swiss psychiatric clinic, where he continued to write in microscript on stray pieces of paper. In 1933 he was transferred against his will to a Swiss sanitarium, where he remained for the rest of his life, and where he appears to have stopped writing. In his conversations with Seelig, Walser is doubtful about those who admire his work: he dismisses Kafka’s interest with a wave; he calls Seelig’s praise nothing more than “society lies” (in the tenth year of their friendship); when told that Christopher Middleton is translating his work into English, Walser replies with what Seelig describes as “a curt ‘Really!’” Walser’s response to any mention of seventy-fifth-birthday newspaper and radio tributes to him: “That’s nothing to me!” Walser insisted to Seelig that he was in the asylum to be mad, not to write: his duties there included folding paper bags, sweeping floors, and sorting and unraveling twine.

And he walked. Walser loved to walk, not in the manner of a flaneur, but energetically, sometimes frantically, on mountain paths, across fields and meadows, in all weathers, for hours on end. (One of his greatest works is the novella The Walk.) Whatever was “wrong” with Walser (even his doctors could not agree), he was well enough to leave the asylum in Seelig’s company for day-long excursions on foot or by train. Seelig gives us a vivid picture of Walser as walker: virtually never wearing an overcoat (“I’ve always had a horror of overcoats”), virtually always carrying an umbrella: “It wants to go for a walk too — and besides, umbrellas attract good weather!” The two men’s outings include the occasional swim, many meals, a fair amount of drinking (“That I can do only with you!”), and considerable good feeling: “En avant: to beer and twilight!” Walser and Seelig are often the only figures in the landscape, even when the landscape is a village square. (Not surprising, given Walser’s penchant for walking in even the worst weather.) The two men talk of architecture, history, the war, writers past and present, and the peregrinations of Walser’s pre-asylum life.

It’s when the conversation turns to writing that we first see what Seelig calls “shadows,” signs that something is not right. Walser explains his confinement by saying that he “lacked a halo,” and he describes Hermann Hesse’s admirers as thinking that they can criticize and order him (Walser) around. Editors are “power-hungry boa constrictors,” squeezing and suffocating writers as they please. Writers must stand in opposition to their culture, Walser says, yet he also says that they must learn to conform, striking the theme of obedience and punishment that so often appears in his work. “Writers without ethics,” he declares, “deserve to be whipped.” The signs of trouble become noticeable elsewhere: “Eh, more of this to-do!” Walser exclaims when his sister Lisa is dying, and his only response to news of his brother Karl’s death is (once again) “Really!” Walser thinks that the Second World War makes space “for the beautiful to grow within us again” and that the bombing of Berlin will lead urbanites to “a more intuitive, more natural life.” Always distrustful of doctors and nurses, Walser is at times distrustful even of Seelig, who is, at all points, a model of kindness and patience. Sixteen years into their friendship, Walser seems to suspect his visitor of some sinister intent behind the day’s outing.

But Walser’s delight in the plainest surroundings and his dazzlingly aphoristic conversation are the dominant elements in this memoir. And they’re here in a beautifully conversational translation. Snowy woods: “It’s like a fairy tale.” A village square: “It’s like something from a dream!” The clatter of cash register, china, and glassware in a train-station restaurant: “It sounds like an orchestra of coziness.” Of a cloister-like building, its use unknown:

“Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely, that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-colored walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is coveted and claimed nowadays.”
After seeing clouds, not blue sky, on his sixty-fifth birthday:
“I don’t care a fig about superb views and backdrops. When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer. What more do we need to be satisfied than a meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses?”
On Friedrich Hölderlin’s life, which must have reminded Walser of his own:
“Dreaming the days away in some modest quarter, without constant demands, is certainly not martyrdom. People just make it one!”
Yes, Robert Walser in conversation sounds like Robert Walser the writer.

The last walk Seelig describes is one without conversation, and one that he can only imagine. It is a walk that Walser made alone, on Christmas Day 1956. Seelig postponed a planned visit with Walser that day to stay at home with a sick dog. Walser went walking by himself, collapsed, and died on a snowy slope. An appropriate exit for a writer who, says Seelig, “delighted in winter, with its light, merry dance of snowflakes.” And who delighted in walking. And yes, it’s like a fairy tale.

Walks with Wasler will be published tomorrow, April 25. Thanks to New Directions for a review copy.

Related reading
A review of Walser’s Looking at Pictures
A review of Walser’s Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories
All OCA Robert Walser posts

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cooper-Moore in Illinois

Gelvin Noel Gallery
Krannert Art Museum
Champaign, Illinois
April 20, 2017

Cooper-Moore, ashimba, balloon, three-string fretless banjo, diddley-bow, mouth bow, horizontal hoe-handle harp, wind chimes, voice

Cooper-Moore’s performance at the Krannert Art Museum was part of the Sonified Sustainability Festival, devoted to ecologically minded music and art. Cooper-Moore (who took his name from his grandmothers’ surnames) is a pianist who also performs on instruments of his making, created from found and repurposed materials (a piece of a sofa frame, say) and inexpensive Radio Shack electronics. His performance on Thursday was part music-making on these instruments, part storytelling, part question-and-answer session.

Cooper-Moore began by singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” while playing wind chimes placed horizontally on his lap, with two more chimes as mallets (adding a note and overtones to every note struck). The words of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” returned briefly as he made music on a balloon as one would play a glass harmonica — with fingers dipped in water). But this instrument (held close to a microphone) sounded like a drum kit, a running crowd, a noise guitar. “Where would they put that in Downbeat?” Cooper-Moore asked. “Under ‘Miscellaneous’?”

Cooper-Moore’s performances on ashimba, banjo, diddley-bow, and mouth bow (the last three amplified) recalled instrumental legacies both African and African-American. The ashimba, an eleven-note xylophone made from found wood, provided a dense accompaniment to the words of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” (The instrument’s name combines Cooper-Moore’s original surname Ashton and marimba.) Cooper-Moore’s banjo playing was rich in blues inflections. (From the spoken-sung story that went with it: “I’m not afraid of death. It just don’t suit me to be lookin’ at it.”) The pieces for diddley-bow — a monochord that figures in the origin stories of many blues guitarists — were especially virtuosic, as Cooper-Moore played the instrument with hands and drumsticks, and sometimes with drumstick on drumstick, sounding at times like a bottleneck guitar, at times like a bass, at times like a rhythm section unto himself. The sound of the mouth bow — a bowstring played with a half-size violin bow — is one that Cooper-Moore associates with the name Yahweh, the mouth opening and closing while producing vowels. His performance on horizontal hoe-handle harp (an instrument he built after hearing the Paraguayan harp and then pricing harps) began and ended in serene lyricism, with funkier and sharply percussive moments in the middle.

Between instrumental performances, Cooper-Moore told stories of finding materials, building instruments, and traveling the world, and he sang a bit of what sounded like an old and slightly risqué song about aging. I remember the line “But it don’t rise.” Through it all was the spirit of what Cooper-Moore says his work as a musician is about: play.

Thanks to Jason Finkelman, who continues to bring the news of the world to east-central Illinois.


[Mouth bow, diddley-bow, ashimba, water and balloon, horizontal hoe-handle harp, wind chimes, three-string fretless banjo. Click for a much larger view.]

Related reading
Cooper-Moore biography and partial discography (AUM Fidelity)

And from YouTube
Cooper-Moore plays fretless banjo, diddley-bow and mouth bow (with Digital Primitives); horizontal hoe-handle harp (with Subway Girl); and solo piano

[Don’t quit on the piano performance.]

Walser on ruins

Robert Walser in conversation:

“Aren’t ruins more beautiful than something that’s been patched up?”

Carl Seelig, Walks with Walser, trans. Anne Posten (New York: New Directions, 2017).
See also Walser on ruins and “former beauty.” And Joseph Joubert on ruins and reconstructions.

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

[A review of Walks with Walser is coming soon.]

Joubert on writing

Joseph Joubert:

One ruins the mind with too much writing. — One rusts it by not writing at all.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Advancing without aging : Another world : “As real as a cannon ball” : Being and nothingness : Brevity : Doing something well : “Everything is new” : Form and content : Irrelevancies and solid objects : Justified enthusiasm : Lives and writings : New books, old books : ’Nuff said (1) : ’Nuff said (2) : Politeness : Resignation and courage : Ruins v. reconstructions : Self-love and truth : Thinking and writing : Wine

Thursday, April 20, 2017

It’s the Office Of Thesecretary

In December 2014, a student asked me whether it was acceptable to end a sentence with the word it. She had been told not to. Here was a zombie rule I’d never heard of, for which I (finally) discovered a source in an influential book of grammar instruction from 1795. Suffice it to say: it’s perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with it. And I was happy that my student believed me about it.

The post I wrote about ending a sentence with it continues to get visits every day, from all over. Even, yesterday, from someone in the Department Of The Interior, Office Of Thesecretary:


[They need to work on capitalization and proofreading.]

My thoughts about this detail in my blog stats:

It’s saddening that someone in a position of authority should be in the dark about it.

It’s reassuring that someone in a position of authority should be willing to look into it.

It’s alarming that someone in a position of authority (a staffer, no doubt) is relying on the Internets in such a free and easy way. (Notice that I’ve blotted out the IP address.) I wonder what else they might be looking up in the Office of Thesecretary.

It’s chilling to imagine the Interior sentences that might be ending with it. “We will eliminate it”? “We will destroy it”?

It’s disturbing to see something I’ve written prove useful to someone in the Trump administration. But public writing is public writing. One never knows, do one?
A related post
Were and was (Visits from the House and Senate)

[The #3 in the stat info makes it clear to me that the Google search had to do with terminal it and not, say, one or more of the proper names in the post. I don’t read stats closely — it’s luck that I happened to spot this visit.]

Nationalism, patriotism,
and possible futures

From the historian Timothy Snyder:

Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today. It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures. A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
Also from this book
“Believe in truth” : Distinguishing truth from falsehood

[Sobering and inspiring. And only $7.99.]

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“The individual who investigates”

From the historian Timothy Snyder, writing about the importance of distinguishing between truth and falsehood:

“What is truth?” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
Also from this book
“Believe in truth”

[Widely available on the Internets: an earlier short list of twenty lessons.]

Willa Cather’s “picture writing”


Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

The image of the plough against the sinking sun has long made me think of a Chinese ideogram conspicuous in Ezra Pound’s poetics: 東 dōng, “east,” made of 木 (tree) and 日 (sun); thus, as Pound explains, “sun tangled in the tree’s branches, as at sunrise, meaning now the East.” Chinese ideograms only rarely function as pictures, but Pound’s wholesale misunderstanding of the language confirmed his sense of poetry as a matter of vivid, sharp, direct presentation of images: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.”

Cather’s “picture writing” suggests so much: painterly selection and arrangement of colors and forms; the ancestral labor of tool-making and agriculture; the human trace, or more than trace, on the landscape, with the plough “heroic in size,” made larger, at least for a moment, by the light; the smallness and impermanence of human traces, all going into the darkness; the preservation of those traces in memory and art. The “forgotten plough” is not, after all, forgotten, or not yet.

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

[The traditional ideogram 東 figures in Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934) and Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1936), edited by Pound from Fenollosa’s notes. Pound shared Fenollosa’s misunderstanding of Chinese. The poem quoted is Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.”]

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

If ever there was a need
for misinflammation . . .

Confidential to Anthony J. Blinken: your opinion piece in today’s New York Times cries out for use of the timely word misinflammation, coined in these pages last year.

“Believe in truth”

From the historian Timothy Snyder, the tenth of twenty lessons on tyranny:

Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
I wish I’d begun reading this book before reading yesterday’s New York Times piece politics and critical theory.

A related post
Politics and theory

Houses, homes, legs, limbs

Lena Lingard and “small-town proprieties”:


Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Domestic comedy

[Upon flipping to the last minute or so of Jeopardy.]

“What’s a good question for that? ‘What is something I’ve never heard of?’”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Politics and theory

In The New York Times, Casey Williams, a graduate student in English, writes about “theory” and Donald Trump:

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.
I’m not sure that there is much difference between the two versions: if making truth is an exercise in power, then “anything goes” — or anything we say goes — would seem to be an exercise in absolute power. It’s what I call postmodernism with a vengeance.

Williams loses me when he argues not for an insistence on fact but for the continuing usefulness of “critique”:
Some liberals have argued that the best way to combat conservative mendacity is to insist on the existence of truth and the reliability of hard facts. But blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone has not proven to be a promising way forward.

Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like “truth,” there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason. Indeed, critique shows us that it’s doubtful that those days, like Trump’s “great” America, ever existed.
Notice how Williams frames the argument: an insistence on fact is turned into mere “blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone.” (With no appeal to values?) And that blind faith, Williams asserts, “has not proven to be a promising way forward.” Not proven how? By whom? By what standards can we agree or disagree about that?

And if I doubt the reality of Donald Trump’s lost “great” America, it’s not because of “critique.” It’s because I’m aware of too many elements in our history — call them facts — that contradict any simple claim to greatness.

A joke in the traditional manner

What was the shepherd doing in the garden?

No spoilers. The punchline is in the comments.

More jokes in the traditional manner
The Autobahn : Did you hear about the cow coloratura? : Did you hear about the mustard-fetching dogs? : Did you hear about the thieving produce clerk? : Elementary school : A Golden Retriever : How did Bela Lugosi know what to expect? : How did Samuel Clemens do all his long-distance traveling? : How do amoebas communicate? : How do worms get to the supermarket? : What did the doctor tell his forgetful patient to do? : What did the plumber do when embarrassed? : What happens when a senior citizen visits a podiatrist? : What is the favorite toy of philosophers’ children? : What kind of dogs do scientists like? : Why did the doctor spend his time helping injured squirrels? : Why did Fred Astaire never drink bottled water? : Why did Oliver Hardy attempt a solo career in movies? : Why did the ophthalmologist and his wife split up? : Why do newspaper editors avoid crossing their legs? : Why does Marie Kondo never win at poker? : Why was Santa Claus wandering the East Side of Manhattan?

[“In the traditional manner”: by or à la my dad. He gets credit for all but the cow coloratura, the mustard-fetching dogs, the produce clerk, the amoebas, the worms, the scientists’ dogs, the toy, the squirrel-doctor, Marie Kondo, Fred Astaire, and Santa Claus.]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

NYT morgue

“I’m about 10 years behind in my refiling”: a visit with the caretaker of The New York Times morgue. Or as the Times calls it, the “morgue.”

Definitions and politics

Kory Stamper, writing in The New York Times about dictionaries, politics, and Merriam-Webster’s tweets:

It made no difference how dispassionately we tried to present the data (“Lookups for ‘wiretapping’ are up 98,000 percent after Spicer told reporters that Trump wasn’t using the term literally”). We were accused of abandoning our job of writing definitions and subtweeting, trolling and owning members of the administration.

“I literally pasted a definition to Twitter,” said my colleague Lauren Naturale, the social media manager at Merriam-Webster, “and somehow that’s political now.”
Well, yes, that’s political now. The surprised tone here seems to me disingenuous, especially because, as Stamper goes on to say, “the writing of dictionaries in the United States has always been political.”

Insisting that a word means something, and not something else (or that one word, and not some other word, describes reality), can be political. Just as insisting that two plus two make four, not five, can be political.

A related post
A review of Kory Stamper’s Word by Word

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lucy, hygge


[Peanuts, April 18, 1970.]

Yesterday’s Peanuts is today’s Peanuts. Nearly forty-seven years ago, Lucy appears to have anticipated the recent North American interest in the Danish idea of hygge.

OMGiraffe

At Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, NY, a giraffe is about to be born. Like, soon.

“Spare the finger-bowls!”

Wycliffe “Wick” Cutter is a member of the “fast set” in Black Hawk, Nebraska: gambler, money-lender, ruiner of hired girls. Mrs. Cutter (no first name) has other interests:


Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Friday, April 14, 2017

“This is the truth”


Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

There’s a similar but much bleaker passage in the third part of Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925). There, Godfrey St. Peter is the voice of the darkest, deepest truth: ”Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths.“ As St. Peter observes the setting sun or a tree root or the changing leaves, he says, “merely,” “That is right” or “That is it” or “That is true; it is time.”

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Plagues

I went to a seder the other night. (I’m a non-believer among friends.) A passage from the Haggadah, listing contemporary plagues, “the plagues that threaten everyone everywhere they are found, beginning in our own hearts,” resonated strongly with me, so strongly that I took out my phone to take a picture so that I could share the words here:

The making of war,
the teaching of hate and violence,
despoliation of the earth,
perversion of justice and of government,
fomenting of vice and crime,
neglect of human needs,
oppression of nations and peoples,
corruption of culture,
subjugation of science, learning, and human
    discourse,
the erosion of freedoms.

From A Passover Haggadah, ed. Herbert Bronstein (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1982).
And now it’s thirty-five years later.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hours of outage

Our cable and wireless were out for many hours today. The outage was widespread. Instead of switching the box back on (again and again), I called the tech-support number (again and again) to check if the problem had been solved. And each time, before I could hear the recorded report that the outage continued: “Please enter the ten-digit telephone number you are calling in reference to.”

So highfalutin. Better: “Please enter the ten-digit telephone number you’re calling about.”

Does anyone else remember when people on the telephone used to ask, “May I ask what this is in reference to?” And “Whom should I say is calling?”

Related reading
All OCA telephone posts (Pinboard)

[Yes, that should be who.]

Aah, incompetence

John Dean, former White House Counsel, talking to The New York Times about the Trump administration: “The incompetence is the only thing giving me comfort at the moment.”

A related post
“If Trump were more rational and more competent”

Nebraska all day long


Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Los Angeles Times on Trump

The Los Angeles Times recently published an extended editorial feature on Donald Trump’s presidency, in six parts, with a explanatory coda: “Our Dishonest President,” “Why Trump Lies,” “Trump’s Authoritarian Vision,” “Trump’s War on Journalism,” “Conspiracy Theorist in Chief,” “California Fights Back,” and “Why We Took a Stand.” It’s all worth reading, as both a reminder of past outrages and a spur to vigilance about what’s to come.

I’ll quote just one passage from “Our Dishonest President” concerning what the Times calls Trump‘s “utter lack of regard for truth”:

Whether it is the easily disprovable boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd or his unsubstantiated assertion that Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, the new president regularly muddies the waters of fact and fiction. It’s difficult to know whether he actually can’t distinguish the real from the unreal — or whether he intentionally conflates the two to befuddle voters, deflect criticism and undermine the very idea of objective truth. Whatever the explanation, he is encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media — and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions. This is a recipe for a divided country in which differences grow deeper and rational compromise becomes impossible.
What I find most dangerous about Trump and those around him, beyond any particular executive order or policy position, is that “utter lack of regard for truth.” See, for instance, Sean Spicer’s most recent performance.

Hallmark is a bleep

It was late. Frasier was on. Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Susanna (Allison Janney) have been arguing the merits of an imaginary painter. And now she is about to storm out. From the episode “Three Blind Dates” (March 5, 2002), her parting shot:

“For your information, Benjamin Locklear is as overrated as your [   ].”
The Hallmark Channel bleeped the word: ass. Hallmark censors its reruns.

It’s Frasier, for Pete’s sake. Grown-Up City. Innuendoville. Sexytown. Let us hear the words.

“мы веселиться еще?”


[Zippy, April 12, 2017.]

More Russian hijinks. “мы веселиться еще?” is the Zippy catchphrase “Are we having fun yet?”

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

PBS, sheesh

From tonight’s PBS News Hour : “There is confusion over conflicting advice about whom should get tested for the disease.” No, who.

Though fading, whom hangs on, ready to step in as a hypercorrection.

Related reading
All OCA sheesh posts (Pinboard)

“Хорошая идея!”


[Zippy, April 11, 2017.]

Agatha has traveled to the White House to meet a mysterious masked stranger (and newly hired low-level White House employee) who is working to subvert the Trump administration.

How could you read Zippy and not want to know what Agatha is saying in Russian? It’s “Хорошая идея!” A good idea!

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

[I don’t know Russian. I used Google Translate and checked against the Internets.]

Review: Word by Word


Kory Stamper. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. New York: Pantheon, 2017. xiv + 302 pp. $26.95 hardcover.

The dictionary is in troubled and exciting times. That is, dictionaries of the English language are in troubled and exciting times, because there is no such thing as “the dictionary.” Funk & Wagnalls, Random House, and other publishers have either closed up shop or stopped making dictionaries. It seems likely that a third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (projected for the 2030s) will be available only online. Fifty-six years after the publication of Webster’s Third New International, a fourth edition is underway — but only online. In the closing pages of Word by Word, Kory Stamper notes that Merriam-Webster, where she works as a lexicographer, had just undertaken large-scale layoffs.

But amid financial difficulties, dictionaries of the English language are having a moment (“a time of excellence or conspicuousness”), due in large part to publishers’ efforts in social media: Word of the Year announcements (e.g., post-truth), lists of newly added words (e.g., twerk), and, most recently, Merriam-Webster’s pointedly political tweets (e.g., a definition of fact, corrections of Trumpian misspellings). Merriam-Webster has also been tracking words most frequently looked up (e.g., fascism). As the lexicographer James Sheidlower suggests, people in stressful times seek out authoritative answers: in alcohol, in the Bible, in a dictionary. But it’s just as plausible to think of the turn to the dictionary as resulting from skepticism about some other versions of authority. Looking up a word like fact might be, in its own quiet way, one form of resistance in the (so-called) post-truth era.

Word by Word is partly an account of a life dedicated to words, partly an introduction to the history of lexicography, partly an explanation of the many kinds of work that go into the making of a dictionary entry, and partly a meditation on the relationship between dictionaries and culture. The title suggests not only the one-word-after-another march of lexicography: Word by Word is elegantly organized by means of individual words. Irregardless, for instance, occasions a discussion of “wrong” words; posh, a discussion of etymologies, true and false. And then there’s Hrafnkell, a name from Icelandic saga: Stamper found her way to lexicography via a major in medieval studies. She describes her work at Merriam-Webster (whose only formal requirements are a college degree and English as a first language) as “less like a job and more like a calling,” “as much a creative process as a scientific one,” a process that relies heavily on sprachgefühl, a feel for language. Lexicography for Stamper is craft, not art, a matter of “care, repetitive work, apprenticeship, and practice.”

Much of that craft involves — shades of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King — sitting in silence, “reading and marking,” applying one’s sprachgefühl to books, popular magazines, scholarly journals, looking for and marking new words, new uses of words, regionalisms, and bits of dialect, all of which find their way into Merriam-Webster’s citation files. A lexicographer is always on the lookout for what might be needed: Stamper recounts photographing a cosmetics display to document a sense of the word nude. Creating a dictionary entry at Merriam-Webster is the work of various people, who define (following a style guide known as “the Black Books,” the work of W3’s editor Philip Gove), trace etymologies (relying on both learnedness and hunches), date first appearances in print, choose example sentences, and puzzle out pronunciations (e.g., “nucular”).

It’s instructive to ponder the difficulty of creating entries for small words, entries that few, if any, dictionary users are likely to consult. (One exception would be the poet Louis Zukofsky, whose Poem beginning “The” and much longer poem “A” are evidence of a lifetime thinking about and looking up small words.) Just one detail of the complications: as Stamper points out, the word a can function as article, adverb, and preposition. And here I begin to realize that despite my love of dictionaries and rabbit holes, I could likely never muster the patience to do this kind of work.

It’s instructive too to ponder what Stamper has to say about dictionaries and culture — that dictionaries reflect rather than foment culture change. How sobering to realize that as recently as 2004, bitch appeared in the Collegiate without a usage label, and that among the definitions of nude was this one: “of the color of a white person’s flesh.” (Both entries have been revised in the online dictionary.) Stamper writes in considerable detail about Merriam-Webster’s relationship with marriage. When some readers discovered that Merriam-Webster had added a subsense to its definition (“the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage”), hate mail and threats followed. More recently, other readers have complained that the word marriage now merits a single, gender-neutral definition. But the dictionary isn’t there yet. “Language,” Stamper writes, “always lags behind life.”

I have two criticisms of this book. One applies to its treatment of Standard English, which Stamper calls “a convenient fiction” or a dialect based on a “mostly fictional” ideal of usage. While Standard English may be a concept with blurred edges, beyond exact definition, it’s relatively easy for anyone at home in it to know it by ear or eye. It is, of course, a dialect in which Stamper and every other lexicographer is at home. I think that what Bryan Garner says holds true: “Standard English: without it, you won’t be taken seriously.” Like Geoffrey Pullum and Steven Pinker before her, Stamper is too quick to catch out prescriptivists (or pedants and peevers, as she sometimes calls them) in imagined errors. Yes, E. B. White cautions against certainly and uses the word himself in an essay. Gotcha? No, because White cautions against the overuse of the word. Here is what The Elements of Style says about certainly:

Used indiscriminately by some speakers, much as others use very, in an attempt to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing.
And yes, David Foster Wallace uses literally to mean figuratively, but it’s not Wallace who makes the mistake; it’s a character in The Pale King. (As for Lynne Truss, whose errors are her own, informed prescriptivist opinion is against her.) I’m not sure what to make of Stamper’s arguments from the authority of past writers, arguments that seem strangely at odds with a recognition that language is always changing. Yes, Shakespeare used double negatives and Austen used ain’t and the possessive it’s. But so what? Try using them in a letter of application to Merriam-Webster and see how far you get.

A second criticism: Word by Word is rich in casual profanity that a reader might begin to find tiresome. (Stamper describes herself as “unrufflable” around taboo words.) Example sentences, Stamper says, are “a pain in the ass.” Words (in a remark from a colleague) are “stubborn little fuckers.” Among the things that are damned or goddamned in Word by Word: a coffeemaker, electrical sockets, a mockingbird, an English poet laureate, and the front matter of the dictionary. The goddamned front matter of the dictionary! (Holden Caulfield, are you listening?) I reached my limit on page 210, where Stamper describes the care with which readers write letters to Merriam-Webster: “This is a question sent to the dictionary, after all. This is serious shit.” Yes, it is, and I’m entirely comfortable reading, speaking, and writing profanities. (Goddamned right!) But there’s no need to loosen or lively up the presentation with so many of them.

No need, because the story Stamper tells is already lively and compelling in itself. Word by Word does for lexicography what Mary Norris’s Between You & Me does for copyediting: it makes visible the work, the worker, and the workplace. For anyone who cares about the evolving English language, Word by Word is necessary reading. And when you get to page 260, or even if you don’t, look up Emily Brewster’s Merriam-Webster entry for built-out. “I worked really, really hard on the definition,” Brewster tells Stamper, “but I’m sure no one has ever really looked at it.” Look at it and honor the lexicographer’s craft.

Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

Related reading
All OCA dictionary posts (Pinboard)
A review of Between You & Me

[The definition of “moment” is Merriam-Webster’s. About being at home in Standard English: it is often a home, not a first or only home. For informed responses to Lynne Truss, see Bryan Garner (in Garner on Language and Writing) and Louis Menand.]

Monday, April 10, 2017

“Hungh?”


[Mark Trail, April 10, 2017. Mark Trail writes for Woods and Wildlife. James Allen is having some fun at Mark’s expense.]

This shiny man represents a new direction in evil: bad guys in Mark Trail used to sport facial hair. (For instance.) But what draws me to this panel is the end of the shiny man’s question: “hungh?”

Urban Dictionary has one (2004) entry for hungh, with three definitions. The entry is the work of one Slackerking, and it is his or her only entry. The definitions (see for yourself) suggest comic intent. The word hungh is nearly non-existent elsewhere online. As a Twitter hashtag accompanying photographs of tasty-looking food, hungh is likely meant to signal enthusiastic approval. You know — the sound people might make when they’re stoked. (Huuhh!) As a hashtag accompanying tweets that register puzzlement or surprise, hungh appears to be a misspelling of the word that James Allen, too, is going for: hunh. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word as an interjection, “used as an intensifier after a question.”

What I didn’t know: the OED identifies hunh as “U.S. dial. (esp. in Black English).” (Or what most people would now call “African American English.”) The first citation for the word comes from Zora Neale Hurston, Of Mules and Men (1935): “You got mo’ poison in yuh than dat snake dat wuz so poison tell he bit de railroad track and killed de train, hunh?”

I wondered whether the disapproving interjection humph, which I recall from Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), might also might originate in African American English. But no. My son Ben made considerable use of humph in his early years, and long after his childhood, it remains part of the fambly lingo. Humph!

This post is an example what can happen when I read the comics.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Tea “in times like these”


[Life, September 25, 1950. Click either image for a much larger view.]

“Stress, strain and worry from morning to night,” says the Tea Council. “People are finding that tea does wonderful things for them in times like these,” says the Tea Council. “It helps relieve your mind of any thought that you won’t sleep well,” says the Tea Council. I’d go further: tea helps relieve your mind of any thought. It is second only to the lotus in its erasing power.

What was I just saying?

Related reading
All OCA tea posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

How to improve writing (no. 71)

From an appreciation of a poet:

[O]f course the codex form was a primary affinity, as all of his work and life indicates.
This partial sentence made me stop and want to improve it. Notice the inflated diction: “the codex form,” “a primary affinity.” I’ve used the word codex when teaching about ancient texts. It’s a fine word. But there’s no question here of preferring codices to scrolls. As for “a primary affinity,” notice that a form of to be precedes the words, removing any strong sense of agency. The form was an affinity? And a primary not secondary affinity?

And now I think of Richard Lanham’s command in Revising Prose (2007): “Find the action.” And I think of Michael Harvey’s explanation of basic sentence structure in The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (2013): “who (or what) does what.” And I realize that “a primary affinity” is not only an instance of inflated diction but a decidedly indirect nominalization. Who did what?

A possible revision:
As his life and work attest, he loved the printed book.
I chose “the printed book” to suggest a love of the object, rather than a love of reading. I think that’s what the writer means to suggest.

Which sentence do you find more convincing?

*

An afterthought: I now realize that it seems odd to think of someone’s life as attesting to that person’s affection for x. I can’t see any difference between, say, “As his life attests, he loved his family” and “He loved his family.” The second sentence clearly implies that the evidence of love is to be found in the content of the person’s life. So a better revision:
As his work attests, he loved the printed book.
Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts (Pinboard)

[This post is no. 71 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

[Your headline here]

The New York Times explains how to write a New York Times headline. For the Times, a bad pun is “a mortal sin”:

Obvious wordplay, such as Rubber Industry Bounces Back, “should be tested on a trusted colleague the way mine shaft air is tested on a canary. When no song bursts forth, start rewriting.”
Related reading
All OCA New York Times posts (Pinboard)

[The passage I’ve quoted quotes from the paper’s Manual of Style and Usage. As for bad puns, consider the cover of today’s New York Post: “Putin on the Pressure.”]

Saturday, April 8, 2017

“Some Other Time”

When On the Town moved from stage to screen, many of Leonard Bernstein’s songs disappeared, including “Some Other Time,” easily the best and most moving song in the show. Oh, well. I guess they wanted to keep things light.

Here is an unembeddable, unforgettable recording of “Some Other Time.” Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Blossom Dearie, piano and vocal; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Ed Thigpen, drumes. From the album Blossom Dearie Sings Comden and Green (Verve, 1960).

Blossom Dearie is a musician I’ve discovered by way of my dad’s CDs. There’s one previous post with her music.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Shittown coda

[No spoilers, unless the post spoils Shittown itself.]

Having listened to the seven-episode podcast Shittown, I feel shitty. John B. McLemore is quite a story: an Ignatius J. Reilly come to life, with a far greater measure of tragedy. Whether McLemore’s life should have become a story is another matter. Shittown, I’ve concluded, is a public-radio version of the more grotesque forms of reality TV, registering compassion for those under examination while nonetheless turning them into spectacle — or the aural equivalent of spectacle.

As Elaine says: next time, we won’t get in line.

Holy war, noble peace

It has been reported that the Kaiser has fled Germany for the Netherlands. Gack, a former student planning on the priesthood, doesn’t believe it:


Hans Herbert Grimm, Schlump. 1928. Trans. Jamie Bullock (New York: New York Review Books, 2016).

Also from this novel
Food fight : “Headed for the Front” : “A few sacks of peas” : “Just poems about spring and that”

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Protasis trouble

From a partial transcript of an interview between Donald Trump and Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush of The New York Times:

Trump: Elijah Cummings [a Democratic representative from Maryland] was in my office and he said, “You will go down as one of the great presidents in the history of our country.”

Haberman: Really.

Trump: And then he went out and I watched him on television yesterday and I said, “Was that the same man?”

[Laughter.]

Trump: But I said, and I liked him, but I said that was really nice. He said, in a group of people, “You will go down as one of the great presidents in the history of our country.” And then I watched him on television and I said, “Is that the same man that said that to me?”
Of course, what Trump claimed that Cummings said is not what Cumming said. Cummings gave The Washington Post an explanation:
During my meeting with the president and on several occasions since then, I have said repeatedly that he could be a great president if . . . if . . . he takes steps to truly represent all Americans rather than continuing on the divisive and harmful path he is currently on.
Donald Trump apparently suffers from protasis trouble. His distortion of Cummings’s remarks puts me in mind of a disgruntled student: “You said I’d get a B!” “No, I said that this could be a B paper — if you improve the third and fourth paragraphs, and if you clear up the documentation problems, and if you add,” &c.

Gleanings from Maira Kalman

Are things normal? I don’t know. Does life go on? Yes.

*

I go home and wash the dishes. Washing dishes is the antidote to confusion. I know that for a fact.

*

On the wall was a dress that I embroidered. It said “Ich habe genug.” Which is a Bach cantata. Which I once thought meant “I’ve had it, I can’t take anymore, give me a break.” But I was wrong.

It means “I have enough.” And that is utterly true. I happen to be alive. End of discussion. But I will go out and buy a hat.

From Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty (New York: Penguin Press, 2007).
Related posts
Maira Kalman on her daily routine : Strunk and White and Kalman

[I’ve ignored line breaks and spacing.]

“Without aging”

Joseph Joubert:

One can advance a long time in life without aging.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Another world : “As real as a cannon ball” : Being and nothingness : Brevity : Doing something well : “Everything is new” : Form and content : Irrelevancies and solid objects : Justified enthusiasm : Lives and writings : New books, old books : ’Nuff said (1) : ’Nuff said (2) : Politeness : Resignation and courage : Ruins v. reconstructions : Self-love and truth : Thinking and writing : Wine

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Duke Ellington,
An Intimate Piano Session


Duke Ellington. An Intimate Piano Session. Storyville Records. 2017.

Storyville’s latest Ellington release includes sixteen recordings from the “stockpile,” music recorded at Ellington’s expense and never released in his lifetime. Ten of the recordings are of the piano player (as he called himself), alone at the keyboard. One is with a mystery drummer (“Loco Madi”); five are with the band’s singers, Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. These sixteen recordings, all made on August 25, 1972, are a considerable addition to the body of Ellington’s work as solo pianist and accompanist. There is gold here, beginning with “The Anticipation,” the previously missing first section of The Uwis Suite, a work Ellington wrote for his 1972 residency at the University of Wisconsin. “The Anticipation” establishes a mood of urbane introspection that runs through many of these performances. We hear Ellington taking liberties with tempo and harmony in his compositions (“The Single Petal of a Rose”) and Billy Strayhorn’s (“Lotus Blossom”). He plays (twice) a relative rarity, Strayhorn’s “A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives.” Most striking to me is “Melancholia,” first recorded in 1953. The deliberate hesitations and silences in this performance recall Thelonious Monk’s 1957 recording of “I Should Care.” It’s the best “Melancholia” I’ve heard.

Ellington never liked arranging for singers, but he excelled as an accompanist, so it’s a treat to hear him as the sole support for Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. Moore is persuasive in her ballad performances (“I’m Afraid” and “I Didn’t Know About You”). Watkins is commanding in “The Blues Ain’t,” but in “Come Sunday” and “My Mother, My Father and Love,” his heavy vibrato is just not to my taste. I’m hardly alone: in 1973, an audience booed Watkins and prompted a disgusted Ellington to cut short a concert.

And speaking of concerts, happier ones: the last four performances on this CD are encores from the November 7, 1969 concert released last year as Rotterdam 1969. Most of the band has left the stage, but Ellington keeps going, with Wild Bill Davis (organ), Victor Gaskin (bass), and Rufus Jones (drums). Here too there is gold. Ellington announces ”The Lake” as a piece this quartet had never before performed. “Satin Doll” has an especially exuberant version of the finger-snapping bit. And in “Just Squeeze Me,” the interplay of the two keyboards goes on for chorus after chorus. “I like that, one more time,” Ellington says, again and again. So much good feeling in that hall.

A recent biography of Ellington trades in cheap suggestions that he was, well, a lazy and irresponsible fellow. At the time of the 1972 recordings on this release, in his seventy-third year, Ellington was nearing the end of a four-week engagement with a small band at New York’s Rainbow Grill, playing two sets a night, with Sundays off. He twice went into the studio during that engagement to record for the stockpile. On a Sunday off, he traveled to Boston for a concert with the full band. On a Saturday, he traveled to Tarrytown, New York, for a benefit concert with a starting time of 6:00 p.m. — early enough to get to the Rainbow Grill for the night’s first set. We should all be so lazy.

The program:

The Anticipation : Le Sucrier Velours (1) : Lotus Blossom (1) : A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives (1) : I’m Afraid (Of Loving You Too Much) : I Didn’t Know About You : Loco Madi : Lotus Blossom (2) : New World A-Comin’ : Le Sucrier Velours (2) : Melancholia: The Single Petal of a Rose : The Blues Ain’t : Come Sunday : My Mother, My Father and Love : A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives (2) : Black Swan : The Lake : Satin Doll : Just Squeeze Me

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)

[Ken Vail’s Duke’s Diary, Part Two (2002) has the details of Ellington’s itinerary, 1950–1974.]

No New York Times ever!

Agatha is worried about Carlos:


[Zippy, April 5, 2017.]

Subscribing to The New York Times is a smart thing to do in these times. I finally started a digital subscription in February, after years of reading online for free. There’s no paper Times delivery here in the sticks.

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

[Post title with apologies to Joan Crawford.]

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Shittown

In case you’ve missed it: Shittown (or more politely, S-Town) is a new seven-episode podcast from Serial and This American Life, hosted by Brian Reed. All episodes are available now. I’m three episodes in. To paraphrase what someone once wrote about James M. Cain’s fiction: No one will ever stop listening in the middle of Shittown.

“Maybellene,” General Tso’s chicken, and “cultural appropriation”

Jonathan Zimmerman, “On ‘Maybellene’ and General Tso’s Chicken” (The Chronicle of Higher Education):

we continue to imagine that every current-day practice descends from some kind of cultural Garden of Eden, where each ethnic or racial group existed in unalloyed form. . . .

Indeed, the mostly left-wing quest for cultural purity bears an eerie echo to the right-wing fantasy of national purity.
Don’t overlook the link to Ralph Linton’s “One Hundered Percent American.”

[As far as I can tell, Linton’s essay was published in 1937, not 1936.]

Imaginary word of the day

I dreamed the word and its definition:

fequid / ˈfe-kwəd / adjective

: of, or characteristic of, a dictator

Sample sentence: His fequid remarks were at odds with democratic principles.
The etymology is unknown, at least to me. The adjectives fetid and liquid may lurk behind fequid.

Other dream words
Alecry : Misinflame : Skeptiphobia

Monday, April 3, 2017

Bristol’s “grammar vigilante”

From BBC News: the “grammar vigilante” of Bristol. More accurately, a punctuation vigilante. Or perhaps more accurately still, a spelling vigilante.

Is “MOTOR S” really an improvement on “MOTOR’S”?

Related reading
All OCA apostrophe posts (Pinboard)

Separated at birth

 
[Henry Daniell, actor. Anthony Weiner, politician.]

Also separated at birth
Nicholson Baker and Lawrence Ferlinghetti : Ted Berrigan and C. Everett Koop : David Bowie and Karl Held : Victor Buono and Dan Seymour : John Davis Chandler and Steve Buscemi : Ray Collins and Mississippi John Hurt : Broderick Crawford and Vladimir Nabokov : Ted Cruz and Joe McCarthy : Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Gough : Jacques Derrida, Peter Falk, and William Hopper : Elaine Hansen (of Davey and Goliath) and Blanche Lincoln : Barbara Hale and Vivien Leigh : Harriet Sansom Harris and Phoebe Nicholls : Ton Koopman and Oliver Sacks : Steve Lacy and Myron McCormick : William H. Macy and Michael A. Monahan : Fredric March and Tobey Maguire : Molly Ringwald and Victoria Zinny

Twelve movies

[No spoilers.]

How to Dance in Ohio (dir. Alexandra Shiva, 2015). This documentary follows the lives of young adults on the autism spectrum as they prepare for a formal dance. “You see someone and you want to talk to them. What would you do?” “I just don’t know.” Fear, uncertainty, courage, risk, kindness, and joy.

*

Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013). Frances (Greta Gerwig) is twenty-seven, a dancer and choreographer, trying to make a go of it in New York, trying to preserve a friendship, trying not to crack up. As in the more mocking Fort Tilden (dir. Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, 2014), there’s the danger of falling back into a previous stage of one’s life. My favorite line: “I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person yet.”

*

Ulmerama (four Edgar D. Ulmer films)

Strange Illusion (1945). Jimmy Lydon, best known for the Henry Aldrich series, in a low-budget, surprisingly thoughtful adaptation of Hamlet. A judge dies in an accident. His son thinks it was murder. And now his mother wants to marry this dashing but creepy fellow (Warren William). No ghosts, but a mighty strange dream sequence.

The Strange Woman (1946). Hedy Lamarr plays a lumber-town bad seed whose ability to destroy lives seems unbounded. The line forms to the right: Gene Lockhart, Louis Hayward, George Sanders. My only dissatisfaction with this film: it’s set in the 1820s. I would like to see these relationships play out in a film-noir setting, with cigarettes and electric lights.

Ruthless (1948). In a story told in flashbacks, Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott) grows up to master the art of the dirty deal, exploiting and destroying every relationship that comes his way. With Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn (in a dual role), and Sydney Greenstreet. Watch for Bobby Anderson (who played the young George Bailey) as young Horace and a barely recognizable Raymond Burr as his no-account father.

Detour (1945). Yes, it’s true: “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” Al Roberts’s (Tom Neal) only mistake is in seeing himself as a singular victim. The film’s other principals are victims too, of accident, assault, illness, or estrangement. Ann Savage as Vera is terrifying. Her association with Al feels like a nightmare of a marriage.

These four films are available at YouTube.

*

Hitchcock/Truffaut (dir. Kent Jones, 2015). Audio excerpts, always brief, from François Truffaut’s conversations with Alfred Hitchcock; excerpts, always unidentified, from Hitchcock’s films; and many directors talking at length about Hitchcock’s work, sometimes with tiny subtitles. Some of what’s said sounds like critical gibberish: “The subtext seems to be bubbling up almost to the point where it’s text.” Much of what’s said runs to the obvious or the hagiographic and makes the movie feel interminable. The most thought-provoking remark comes from Peter Bogdanovich, speaking of Psycho: “It was the first time that going to the movies was dangerous.”

*

The Upturned Glass (dir. Lawrence Huffington, 1947). That James Mason — he always looks like he’s up to no good. Here he plays a brain surgeon and part-time lecturer who looks like he’s up to no good. With Pamela Kellino (married to Mason in real life), who also looks like she’s up to no good. A gripping movie, especially when what appear to be flashbacks prove to be projections of future events.

*

A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2011). An Iranian husband and wife separate, and they and another couple become entangled in a bitter court case. Tradition and modernity, obligations to family and obligations to self are in conflict here, with a strong element of social and economic difference, and perhaps the most intense domestic arguments I’ve seen on screen. By the director of The Salesman, which I want to see as soon as I can.

*

Something Wild (dir. Jack Garfein, 1961). A rape and its aftermath: isolation, fear, despair, and an encounter with a good Samaritan that takes a deeply disturbing turn and turns the story into a variation on “Beauty and the Beast.” If you know Carroll Baker only as a sex symbol, if you know Ralph Meeker only as Mike Hammer, see this film. Rooted in the work of The Actors Studio, with scenes that play as if they’re being worked out in the moment by real people. Music by Aaron Copland. Recently released by the Criterion Collection.

*

Un peu de festival du Jacques Demy

A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973). A farce with Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. The joke never really goes much beyond the title. Most enjoyable: the film’s final thirty-or-so minutes, in which the pregnancy gains media attention and a line of men’s paternity clothing hits the market. But to my mind this film lacks the chicness and charm of earlier Demy films.

Model Shop (1969). Architect manqué George (Gary Lockwood) and his actress girlfriend Gloria (Alexandra Hay) struggle in Los Angeles. The possibility of being drafted hangs over George as he tries to raise the cash to keep his car from being repossessed. The film becomes much more interesting when Anouk Aimée enters the story — she plays a woman working in a “model shop” in Los Angeles, photographed by anyone who can pay for a fifteen- or thirty-minute session. For anyone who has seen Lola and Bay of Angels, Model Shop is a sweetbitter extension of the Demy universe. (George, I think, is another Roland Cassard, a Lola character who goes unmentioned here.) Los Angeles plays a supporting role as a large bleak city.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Fourteen films : Thirteen more : Twelve more : Another thirteen more : Another dozen : Yet another dozen : Another twelve : And another twelve : Still another twelve : Oh wait, twelve more : Twelve or thirteen more : Nine, ten, eleven — and that makes twelve : Another twelve : And twelve more : Is there no end? No, there’s another twelve

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Golden Voice

Pencils, giant handsets, John Milton’s L’Allegro, and “At the fourth stroke it will be four forty-three and forty seconds”:


The Golden Voice, British Pathé, 1935.

From 1936 to 1963, E. W. Cain, or more accurately, Ethel Jane Cain, “The Girl with the Golden Voice,” was the recorded voice of the United Kingdom’s speaking clock. BBC News explains:

Ethel Jane Cain, the first voice of the speaking clock, won the role in a Post Office competition called “Golden Voice” in 1935. For the first time in the UK, callers dialling TIM (846) were greeted by a recording of Ms Cain giving the Greenwich Time — correct to one-tenth of a second.
Here is a clip with Cain and the speaking clock:


Time Please!, British Pathé, 1938.

And one more clip of the speaking clock in action:


Time Please!, British Pathé, 1945.

And here is the same speaking clock still going in retirement.

A related post
Time of Day operator, Chicago 1937

Friday, March 31, 2017

The day after National Pencil Day


[As seen on a walk this morning.]

Yesterday was National Pencil Day. You could hear them going at it, partying hard, deep into the night. This poor guy must have gone a little too hard.

“Another slim volume”

And speaking of slim volumes of poetry:


[Glen Baxter, Atlas (New York: Knopf, 1983).]

A related post
“Just poems about spring and that”

[A friend gave me a xeroxed copy of this drawing years ago, clipped from an advertisement with the heading “Coming Sept 30 from Cape” (that is, from the publisher Jonathan Cape). I thought the publisher was advertising poetry in a funny way. I didn’t realize that the ad was for a book by Glen Baxter himself.]

“Just poems about spring and that”

On guard duty in a trench, Schlump hears “the call of nature.” He cannot desert his post. And all he has for paper is a “slim volume of poetry.” By a sign reading Infantry Regiment X—Infantry Regiment Y, he leaves “a different, far less glorious marker”:


Hans Herbert Grimm, Schlump. 1928. Trans. Jamie Bullock (New York: New York Review Books, 2016).

Also from this novel
Food fight : “Headed for the Front” : “A few sacks of peas”

Ignorant of ignorance

In The New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall writes about what can happen “when the president is ignorant of his own ignorance.” The term missing from this piece: Dunning-Kruger effect.

A related post
Dunning K. Trump

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Recently updated

Which Joe Turner? The Times Chuck Berry feature now has a photograph that is unmistakably of Big Joe Turner.

“A few sacks of peas”

Arriving at the Front:


Hans Herbert Grimm, Schlump. 1928. Trans. Jamie Bullock (New York: New York Review Books, 2016).

Also from this novel
Food fight : “Headed for the Front”

[Dugout: “an area in the side of a trench for quarters, storage, or protection” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).]

John Shimkus and S.J.Res.34

Here, from The Verge, is a list of the members of Congress, all Republicans, who voted in favor of S.J.Res.34, along with the total contributions they received from the telecommunications industry in their most recent electoral campaigns. I am surprised to see my House representative, John Shimkus (R, Illinois-15), doing so well. In his most recent (2016) campaign, he received $104,425 in telecommunications contributions. Only twelve senators and three representatives received more money from telecommunications in their most recent campaigns. Shimkus had no opponent in the general election, only a Republican primary challenger. To paraphrase an old song: they’ve got an awful lot of money in east-central Illinois.

No doubt many Democratic members of Congress received contributions from the telecommunications industry as well. This list has only the names of those members of Congress who voted for S.J.Res.34. Two Republican senators did not vote. Fifteen House Republicans voted no; six House Republicans and three House Democrats did not vote.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Which Joe Turner?

This photograph from an excellent New York Times feature caught my eye:


[From “Before and After Chuck Berry,” New York Times, March 23, 2017. Click for a larger view.]

I called the Times today to suggest a correction. Though I can’t be certain, I’m virtually certain that the photograph above is of the pianist Joe Turner, not the singer Big Joe Turner. Notice especially the shape of the hairline, eyebrow, and mouth. Big Joe Turner, or Joe Turner?

 
[Big Joe Turner and Joe Turner. Click either image for a larger view.]

I differ with the Times in omitting the quotation marks from “Big Joe.” Big Joe Turner was big, not “big.” I sat next to him once in a bar where he was performing. Trust me.

If the Times makes a correction, I suspect that Orange Crate Art readers will be among the first to know.

[That the Times photograph is from Getty Images doesn’t mean that it’s correctly captioned. At least one other photograph from Getty misidentifies Joe Turner as Big Joe Turner.]

*

March 30: The Times replied and let me know that “Before and After Chuck Berry” now has a photograph that is unmistakably of Big Joe Turner. Hurrah!


[Click for a larger view.]

Big Joe Turner is one of my earliest musical memories. I highly recommend The Boss of the Blues, a 1956 album with a stellar cast (Lawrence Brown, Pete Brown, Pete Johnson, et al.) and a memorable catalogue number: Atlantic 1234. “What makes grandma love old grandpa so? He can still do the boogie like he did forty years ago.”

*

Later that same day:

The Getty photograph that the Times first used was taken at the Cannes Jazz Festival, July 12, 1958. Joe Turner the pianist played at that festival. His name appears in a Library of Congress description of a television show about the festival. And Turner appears in this compilation of performances from the festival. I think it's unmistakably Joe Turner the pianist in the first Times photograph.

A description of the 1958 photograph in the book 1950s (Getty Images, 1998) manages to turn the two Turners into one person, pianist and singer: “an expert in the hard-driving ‘stride’ piano style, Turner was also known as the ‘Boss of the Blues.’” Yipes.

Still teaching

I am standing in an enormous classroom, a room that resembles a storefront or pizza parlor, with a plate-glass window looking out to the street. Two students are in the room, and I say to them that I always make a point of saying “Good morning” when I come to class. I say “Good morning” to them, and one replies. I am carrying butter and chocolate, which I take to a nearby room to place in the refrigerator. The refrigerator is a wooden cabinet that the music teacher is using as a lectern as she leads a chorus. The music teacher looks like Jean Stapleton. I can’t put the butter and chocolate away without interfering with her conducting.

I go back to my room, now filled with forty or fifty students. “To build on what we were doing before our lost weekend,” I say — and I go on to explain that we’re going to look at basic punctuation. I explain that words can be put together to form phrases or clauses, and that a clause is a group of words that can stand on its own as a complete sentence. I realize that I’ve already botched my explanation, so I backtrack to explain the difference between independent and dependent clauses.

And now that everyone is here, I say “Good morning” all over again. I look for a blackboard and see only a corkboard with an honors-class presentation and a cracked slate blackboard with a grid of names and grades in ancient handwriting. I realize that I should not erase those names and grades. I notice a table with four hunters. They’re sitting against the far right wall. They grin at me. I ask them, “Are you guys even paying attention? How do you expect to get a foot in the door after you leave here?” No answer, just grins.

And then I go back to thinking about what I can write on. “Does anyone have a whiteboard?” I ask. Someone has one, but it doesn’t erase well. As I’m trying to erase, Jess Mariano from Gilmore Girls brings up a spiral notebook. “I think you dropped your notebook,” he says. He’s trying to be helpful, but it’s not my notebook, and I tell him so. “I think you dropped your notebook,” he says. “Believe me,” I say, “I’d recognize my own notebook.” And then I woke up.

This is the tenth teaching-related dream I’ve had since retiring. None of them have gone well. The others: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

[Possible sources: A Fresh Air interview about for-profit colleges (with a brief reference to Trump U.). The importance of chocolate in Hans Herbert Grimm’s war novel Schlump. A New York Times piece about eating radishes with salt and butter. Seeing Jean Stapleton in the film Something Wild. Seeing militia members in the documentary The Other Side. Gilmore Girls, obviously.]