Saturday, October 30, 2004

Ancient Greeks and the avant-garde

[A]n archaeologist might conclude that ancient Greece was a civilization of sensuous narcissists, antiwar activists and ardent feminists that had little patience for convention and little taste for bourgeois life. It was a culture, in other words, that closely resembled some avant-garde movements in the 20th-century United States.
Another Times article. (See tip below.)

All Greek

Greek: something hard to understand. Greek: a language intricate and rich in its powers of evocation, elegant in its archaic form, viscerally expressive in its modern one. Greek: an ancient culture that seems to have influenced everyone.
From an article in the New York Times, “Artistically Speaking, It’s All Greek to Me.”

Tip: You can read the full article on the Times site by typing “mediajunkie” (without quotation marks) as both user name and password. The magic word “mediajunkie” will get you into many free news sites that require registration.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Wheels of fire

When I told him that I was teaching Dante, my friend Rob Zseleczky mentioned that Wheels of Fire, a double-album by Cream, took its title from Dante’s description of Charon the ferryman.

Sure enough—it’s in the description of Charon in Inferno 3:

che ’ntorno alli occhi avea di fiamme rote
[who around his eyes had wheels of flame]
Cream, as anyone of a certain age will remember, was the original power-trio: Eric Clapton (guitar), Jack Bruce (bass), and Ginger Baker (drums). This poetic touch was apparently provided by sometime-lyricist Peter Brown.

Thanks, Rob!

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Digital Dante

Digital Dante is a terrific site, brought to you by Columbia University. Be sure to browse the images, especially the Doré illustrations.

One Dante simile

2601 students: Here’s what I’ve written for tomorrow—

Reading through today's cantos, I found myself paying more and more attention to Dante’s similes. I was most struck by the extended comparison at the beginning of Canto XXI, in which Dante describes a scene at the Arsenal at Venice to convey to his reader the reality of the “tarry mass” (17) of the fifth pouch of the Malebolge.

This simile sparks my thinking in a number of ways. Like Homer (and Virgil), Dante turns to the simile to make an unfamiliar (and, here, supernatural) reality vivid and intelligible. His simile brings this infernal scene up, not down, to earth by invoking a familiar scene from Italian life. (I’d assume that any contemporary of Dante’s in a position to read the Comedy would likely have seen the Arsenal at Venice.)

Like Homer’s most elaborate similes, Dante’s simile grows into a separate narrative moment within the poem. We’re still in hell, but it’s as if we’ve suddenly been transported to a shipyard, as we survey, camera-like, eight different scenes of labor. Notice how much extra “stuff” there is: the simile could simply read “As in the Arsenal of the Venetians, / all winter long a stew of sticky pitch / boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships / that cannot sail,” “so, not by fire but by the art of God,” and so on (7-10, 16), cutting the simile’s length by almost half.

The extended nature of this simile is even more noticeable in the Italian text: Allen Mandelbaum encloses the description of work in parentheses, but in the Italian, it’s set off by dashes as a more marked interruption. The simile really does take on a life of its own, shifting away from the image of boiling pitch (its ostensible focus) to these varied forms of human labor.

Dante may be doing something else that’s remarkable in this simile: he seems to be commenting on the dangerous way in which the extended simile takes both reader and poet away from what’s immediately present. After the simile concludes, Dante continues to stare and stare at the bubbling tar, until Virgil, his master, says “‘Take care! Take care!’” (23). Perhaps that repeated caution is a reminder to Dante (and the reader) that the simile is, in a sense, a daydream, a moment of imaginative reverie that can take over one’s consciousness. I imagine Dante here looking at the tar and, in these terrifying circumstances, beginning to think of a more congenial scene. A similar nostalgia for the ordinary aboveground world appears in a more powerful way at the beginning of Canto XXIV, with its beautiful scene of a shepherd in winter.

Such moments of poetic reverie might help to explain how it is that Dante can suddenly find himself lost at the beginning of the poem. It’s the voice of reason and conscience, his master’s voice, that makes Dante snap back to his present circumstances. Take care!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Sopranos in hell

A really striking image of the cast of The Sopranos in a hellish setting. Please, no New Jersey jokes.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Disco inferno

A New Yorker cartoon from January 2001. The Cartoon Bank is a dangerously addictive website.

A Fine in the Times

There’s a picture of Burton Fine, my father-in-law, in today’s New York Times. He’s in the upper left corner, playing the viola.

Tip: You can read the full article on the Times site by typing “mediajunkie” (without quotation marks) as both user name and password. The magic word “mediajunkie” will get you into many free news sites that require registration.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

All Day Permanent Red

My review of Christopher Logue’s All Day Permanent Red: The First Battle Scenes of Homer's Iliad Rewritten, published in World Literature Today, can be found here. Click on English and there’s a small .pdf file available to open or save. My review is on pages 100-101.

Christopher Logue is a British poet who refashions Homer’s Iliad into stark and startling contemporary poetry:

Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind.
Add the receding traction of its slats
Of its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up.
Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.

Then of a stadium when many boards are raised
And many faces change to one vast face.
So, where there were so many masks,
Now one Greek mask glittered from strip to ridge.

Trip of a lifetime

2601: Here are three on-line quizzes to determine where, on Dante’s terms, you’re headed. Warning: These quizzes contain questions that some readers might find offensive. Read at your own peril:

Dante’s Inferno Test, the lengthiest and most lurid of the three.

Which Circle of Hell Are You Going To?, a quiz with a heavy dash of pop culture.

The Sin Quiz, the most amusing of the three.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

A cell-free zone

An AP article about a restaurant with a cell-free zone. My hunch is that in another five or ten years, cell-free areas will be as familiar as smoke-free areas are today.


2601 students: There’s a long essay by Tony Judt on the idea of American empire in the November 4 New York Review of Books. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Talk of “empire” makes Americans distinctly uneasy. This is odd. In its westward course the young republic was not embarrassed to suck virgin land and indigenous peoples into the embrace of Thomas Jefferson’s “empire for liberty.” Millions of American immigrants made and still make their first acquaintance with the US through New York, “the Empire State.” From Monroe to Bush, American presidents have not hesitated to pronounce doctrines whose extraterritorial implications define imperial authority and presume it: there is nothing self-effacing about that decidedly imperious bird on the Presidential Seal. And yet, though the rest of the world is under no illusion, in the United States today there is a sort of wishful denial. We don’t want an empire, we aren’t an empire—or else if we are an empire, then it is one of a kind.
Judt never mentions Rome, but for someone who’s been thinking about the Aeneid, this essay is especially interesting to read.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Graphic novels in Booth

Booth Library recently purchased a great many graphic novels and comics-related books. “Graphic novel” is a strange term, as graphic novels are often nowhere near novels in their length and narrative complexity. I like the term “picture book,” because it’s straightforward and accurate, but “picture book” usually refers to children’s books, especially those for younger kids who don’t yet read “chapter books.”

Anyway, here are three books that are now back in the library and that I’d enthusiastically recommend. You can find the library’s stash of graphic novels in the New Books area near the Periodicals desk.

Raymond Briggs, Ethel & Ernest: A True Story: You might know Raymond Briggs as the author-artist of the well-known children’s book The Snowman. This book is the story of his parents’ lives, from the 1920s to their deaths in the 1970s. Beautiful art, great honesty, and the happiness and sadness with which life goes on, generation after generation.
GraFX CT788.B7742 B75 1999

Harvey Pekar and David Collier, Unsung Hero: The Story of Robert McNeill: I love Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical American Splendor series and the movie it inspired. This installment of American Splendor is different, documenting not Pekar’s life but that of Robert McNeill, a Vietnam veteran and co-worker. McNeill’s story is one of bravery, fear, and luck, both good and bad. I’m moved by Pekar’s determination to “sing” the story of this unsung hero—the same impulse to memorialize that runs through Homer’s poetry of war. Several panels show Pekar listening to his friend and writing it all down.
GraFX PN6727.P44 467 2003x

Bryan Talbot, The Tale of One Bad Rat: Helen, a young woman in contemporary England, flees her father’s sexual abuse for life on the streets and, later, in the country. All along, her life-story eerily intersects with that of Beatrix Potter, author of Helen’s favorite books. The Tale of One Bad Rat is the most imaginatively plotted graphic novel that I’ve seen.
GraFX PN6727 .T34 1995x

Monday, October 18, 2004

Spelling in the news

Here’s an article from USA Today concerning a mural created for a public library in California. The artist, who was paid $40,000 for her work, misspelled eleven of the 175 names in the mural. Among the misspellings: “Eistein,” “Michaelangelo,” and “Shakespere.” Another $6,000 will now fly her in to make corrections.

New Gilgamesh translation

3009 students: You can click here to read an excerpt from a new translation by Stephen Mitchell, whom we’ll see later this semester in a PBS series on Genesis.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

A Casablanca trivia bit corrected?

From Anthony Lane’s long essay on Ronald Reagan’s film career, in the October 18 issue of the New Yorker:

The one Reagan story that I always found impossible to accept was the “Casablanca” myth—the rumor that he and Ann Sheridan were slated to appear as Rick and Ilsa. Really? Reagan as Rick, eyes brimming with contempt for his own romantic obsessions? . . . Then, at the back of Edmund Morris’s “Dutch,” I found a footnote explaining that the role supposedly waiting for Reagan was that of Victor Laszlo.
[Silent disbelief as I type that sentence.]

Orson Welles sells

If you want to hear the sad and sorry excerpts from one of Orson Welles’ voiceover sessions for television commercials, you can find them at the 365 Days Project, a year-long anthology of improbable and strange recordings.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Commas and colons, chickens and caulk

Looking at the first lines of the Odyssey in Greek, a student (I’ll call him “Joe”) asked a great question in class: Are there really commas in Greek?

There are four marks of punctuation in Greek:

the comma,
the period,
a point above the line, equivalent to the semicolon and
     colon, and
the question mark, which looks like our semicolon.
So are there really commas in Greek;

Yes, there are· that is my final answer.

I got curious though about what a comma is anyway. The word comes from the Greek, komma, which means “stamp, coinage, clause” and which itself comes from koptein, “to cut off, stamp.” Before comma denoted a mark of punctuation, it denoted “a short phrase or word group smaller than a colon.”

Aha. So I looked up colon, which comes from the Greek kōlon, which means “limb, part of a strophe, clause of a sentence.” Before colon denoted a mark of punctuation, it denoted “a division of an utterance by sense or rhythm that is smaller and less independent than the sentence and less dependent than the phrase.”

I couldn’t leave period a mystery. It too goes back to the Greek, to periodos, which means “way around, circuit, period of time, rhetorical period.” Periodos comes from the Greek peri (to pass through) and hodos (journey). You can see peri- in such words as perimeter and periscope, where it means “all around.” Before the period was the dot in “dot-com,” the word denoted “an utterance from one full stop to another,” in other words, a sentence.

So a sentence is, in a way, a journey. Maybe that’s why Gertrude Stein in How to Write said “A sentence is an interval in which there is a finally forward and back.”

Etymologically, comma and colon have odd relations: koptein also gives us capon, “a castrated male chicken [or] rabbit,” and kōlon gives us calk and caulk.

[My knowledge of Greek punctuation comes from Schoder and Horrigan’s Reading Course in Homeric Greek. All etymologies and definitions are derived from Webster’s Third New International, my trusty unabridged dictionary.]

What it’s all about

From a column in today's Daily Eastern News on behalf of the “Hit-Mix”:

Radio is not about music.
That about sums it up, doesn’t it?

Friday, October 8, 2004

Thank you for not smoking

I smoked my last cigarette on this day in 1989, after fourteen years of smoking. Pall Malls, Camels, Lucky Strikes, Drum cigarette tobacco, Old Holborn cigarette tobacco . . .

What was I thinking?!

A suggestion for any young smoker reading this blog: quit now. You’ll want to do so at some point, and it’ll be easier now than later on. It took me four tries (and many sticks of Wrigley’s Extra peppermint gum) before I could quit.

Fifteen years later, I’m never even tempted to smoke. In fact, I can’t stand the smell. But I still dream at least two or three times a year about cigarettes. I’m usually holding and opening a pack of Camels or Lucky Strikes. But even in my dreams, I’ve never smoked again.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Hit and Miss

Here is the text of a guest column I have written concerning WEIU-FM.


The link has long since expired. But here’s what I wrote:

Reasons to oppose the "Hit-Mix" format are at least as numerous as the varieties of musical expression now missing from WEIU-FM's broadcasting day.

I'll limit myself to four:

1. A college radio station should not attempt to duplicate and compete with the offerings of commercial stations. WEIU-FM's "Hit-Mix," its claim to be "Charleston's radio station," and its countless spots for local "sponsors" threaten to blur the line between commercial and public broadcasting. (Anyone who's listened to WILL-AM or -FM can tell the difference between genuine underwriting and these revved-up mini-commercials.)

2. A college radio station should offer its listeners an alternative to what is available on the commercial airwaves. And it should do so in the name of culture -- whether the alternative is classical music, jazz, folk music, world music, indie rock or hip-hop. It seems necessary to point out, again and again, that WEIU-FM's new format sets it utterly apart from other college radio stations across the state (and, I dare say, across the nation).

3. A college radio station should present an appropriate public face. That face need not be somber and scholarly. But the musical dreck that is the "Hit-Mix" gives us a public presence that is laughable and embarrassing. Can you imagine hearing "My Heart Will Go On" on WILL-FM? Or on the University of Chicago station? Or, for that matter, on any college radio station? Yet I recently heard it on WEIU-FM. Consider what people passing through on I-57 might think when they happen to tune to 88.9. Would they ever guess that it's a university station? And when they find out, will they be able to believe it?

4. A college radio station should serve to challenge students and broaden their horizons. In the olden days, working at WEIU-FM was a genuine learning experience. Students worked out their own playlists and maintained solid relationships with record companies by phone and mail. The wide range of programming required students to get beyond their comfort zones and learn about musical traditions that were new to them. Students announcing classical music had to (and in fact did) develop passable pronunciation of names and words in French, German and Italian. Students playing African pop gained an awareness that "Africa" means a myriad of languages and musical styles. The new WEIU-FM, with music pumped in by satellite (as has been the case for several years), makes the student into little more than the pusher of a very occasional button. It's not even necessary for someone to be at "the board" -- the operation of the station is automated.

For me, the changes at WEIU-FM represent a profound loss. I did a weekly two-hour jazz show for five years (1986-1991), during which time I came to know many of the students who worked at the station. Their energy and range of artistic and musical interests represented everything that is great about college radio. My wife, Elaine Fine, was classical musical director until the first effort to reorganize WEIU-FM (with morning "chapel service" and obituary reading). In recent years, a continued reliance on satellite programming began an ongoing decline.

Which reminds me -- if the "Hit-Mix" is to continue, WEIU-FM can at least do the university community a final kindness by donating the contents of its music library to Booth Library (as Elaine Fine first suggested several years ago), so that people who want to hear other possibilities in music can benefit.
Another WEIU-FM post
WEIU-FM, r.i.p.

“Intercollegiate,” at last

The signs along Fourth Street for the women's rugby field have reappeared with proper spelling. A small thing, sure, but getting the details right is important in countless ways.


In Odyssey 17, Penelope voices her hope for vengeance against the suitors, and her son immediately sneezes. Telemachus’ sneeze is an omen foretelling Odysseus’ triumph over the suitors. (Why? As Ralph Hexter explains in his commentary on Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, the Greeks thought that because a sneeze cannot be produced at will or suppressed, it must be from the gods. Makes sense, right?)

How do the major American translators of Homer bring the sneeze into our language?

Richmond Lattimore:

She spoke, and Telemachos sneezed amain, and
     around him the palace
re-echoed terribly to the sound.
Amain? Re-echoed? Terribly? Lattimore here seems pretty stilted.

Robert Fitzgerald:
                                               The great hall below
at this point rang with a tremendous sneeze--
“kchaou!” from Telémakhos--like an acclamation.
An almost cartoon-like exclamation: Pow! Bam! Boof! But with a Greek look too--ahchoo would look merely silly here. The Greek verb eptaren is onomatopoetic, as Hexter points out, so Fitzgerald’s humor has a solid basis in the original.

Robert Fagles:
At her last words Telemachus shook with a
     lusty sneeze
and the sudden outburst echoed up and down the
Shook? Lusty? Five of the twenty words are clichéd: sudden outburst, up and down. And do sneezes really echo?

Stanley Lombardo:
Just as she finished, Telemachus sneezed,
A loud sneeze that rang through the halls.
Clarity itself, but I miss “kchaou!”

[Postscript: I just noticed that Lombardo’s lines make the sneeze ring by following sneezed with sneeze.]