Category Archives: Literature

Relevant to Washington, D.C.

From Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose”:


“Then we are living in a place abandoned by God,” I said, disheartened.
“Have you found any places where God would have felt at home?” William asked me, looking down from his great height.

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Roethke on Faulkner

In a letter to Kenneth Burke, dated Feb. 8, 1949, Ted Roethke notes:

…Hope you like the kid’s piece. Off-hand, I don’t know anyone who’s tried this before, with any success. Joeyce is something else. (Yearh, yeah, and a slackened tension, often). Also Faulkner in As I Lay Dying isn’t the same, and doesn’t hold up so well on re-reading.

The “kid’s piece” is in reference to a poem Roethke had out for submission at the time, written from the perspective of a small child. The poem is titled “Where Knock is Open Wide”; the only place I can find it is on JSTOR, here.

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Margaret Atwood on Twitter

From The Guardian:

So what’s it all about, this Twitter? Is it signalling, like telegraphs? Is it Zen poetry? Is it jokes scribbled on the washroom wall? Is it John Hearts Mary carved on a tree? Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do.

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Keynes on Clemenceau on Germans

From The Economic Consequences of the Peace:

He felt about France what Pericles felt of Athens–unique value in her, nothing else mattering; but his theory of politics was Bismarck’s. He had one illusion–France; and one disillusion–mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least. His principles for the peace can be expressed simply. In the first place, he was a foremost believer in the view of German psychology that the German understands and can understand nothing but intimidation, that he is without generosity or remorse in negotiation, that there is no advantage he will not take of you, and no extent to which he will not demean himself for profity, that he is wihout honor, pride, or mercy. Therefore you must never negotiate with a German or conciliate him; you must dictate to him. On no other terms will he respect you, or will prevent him from cheating you.

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The Invisible Weight of Whiteness: The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in Contemporary America

I attended a lecture where Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (Duke) spoke on his concept of racial grammar. The following are my rough notes:

Racial grammar

  • sets the logic and rules of proper composition of ‘racial statements’ (and I add of what can be seen and ‘felt’)
  • grammar is mostly acquired through social interaction and communication
  • no grammar dominates completely any linguistic field as there are always breaks and challenges as well as alternative grammars

Discusses ‘Beauty and the Beast’ style misrepresentations and omissions of the media in terms of racial grammar. Specifically mentions cases where media shuns missing black girls and ccreates media circuses around missing white girls:

  • stories about whites as ‘universal’
  • casts white ‘beauty’ as all beauty
  • underrepresentation of minorities on TV and movies
  • minorities appear mostly in stereotypical fashion (cites Republicans who use the phrase ‘magic negros’, an apparent reference to Chip Saltsman’s infamous run for RNC Chairman)

Many of our cultural storylines:

  • Reinforce racial boundaries
  • bolster a ‘racial order of things’
  • present felicitous view of racial affairs

Cites CDC data from Tim Wise citing statistics that say white high schools students are seven times more likely than blacks to have used cocaine, twice as likely to binge drink and drive drunk, among other things. Claim: racial grammar is a tool to scapegoat blacks for the involvement and complicity of white people in these systems of crime.

Talks about oppressively white environments at colleges and universities, where the narrative of whiteness is so overwhelming that the culture and atmosphere remains unwelcoming and harsh. Talks about specific instances of racism towards black students on campuses.

Bonilla-Silva closed with some fragments from Langston Hughes’s poem, “Democracy“.

From Eric Hoffer, an Insight Into Tea Partying

From the seminal “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements“:

They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. Actually their innermost desire is for an end to the “free for all”. They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected to in a free society.

I find in this insight a clue to the nature of the Tea Party movement and the Republican fringe (which is now the Republican mainstream). Tea Partiers, by and large, are angry white people intimidated by the prospect of a post-racial, multi-cultural America where Christianity is no longer a dominant part of the American narrative. This is why you don’t find black, hispanic, American Indian, or any other non-white group represented in the Tea Party movement. Nor do you find people who practice a non-Christian religion. This part of the conservative movement has become a group of people who virulently condemn intellectualism and do not grant that intellectual or ideological competition in the public discourse is good or desirable.

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Emanuel Lasker on Leonard Euler on Chess Valuation

The famed chessmaster Emanuel Lasker writes:

A table of simplest values in chess–that of the men themselves–was devised long ago. Leonard Euler, the mathematician, showed the way to  calculate these values mathematically by the principle that the average utility of a man is proportionate to its average mobility. This assumption is correct, because accordingto the rules of chess the effect of a man on a point is 0 when the man cannot move to the point, and is 1 for any man who can move to the point. This reasoning does not apply to the promotion of a Pawn. The Pawn therefore gains in value at the End Game stage. Apart from this factor, Leonard Euler’s method is sound, and the values he thus found agreed with those based on experience…

From Lasker’s “How to Play Chess”.

That’s the Euler, of course. The Leonard Euler who is responsible for so much of mathematics, including the prime number theorem. I had no clue that he also developed the simple valuation system for chess as well.

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Markets in Everything, Mark Twain Edition

And no, I won’t apologize to people who think this is an inappropriate subject to blog about. And yes, this is (theoretically) safe for work (no pics). But there is a book on Amazon titled How to Live with a Huge Penis: Advice, Meditations, and Wisdom for Men Who Have Too Much by Jacob and Owens. An excerpt:

When a young Samuel Clemens was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, his shipmates used to joke that his penis would reach a depth of “mark twain” (12 feet) if he threw it overboard. The name stuck, though most of his readers never had a clue to its origins. In Twain’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, scholars believe that Huck’s friend Jim (the runaway slave) represents the imprisonment Twain felt because of his huge penis.

The conflation of the narratives of slavery and Reconstruction as a priapic metaphor strike me as extremely funny satire, especially since the authors extend the subsuming conceit of the penis narrative throughout the entire book.

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On Deodands and JFK Arcana

I came across this word ‘deodand’ in Leonard W. Levy’s License to Steal: The Forfeiture of Property (1996). I’m attaching the passage, which I found to be interesting and well written:

…The term”deodand” derives from the Latin phrase “deo dandum” and means “given to God”. A deodand is a thing forfeited, presumably to God for the good of the community, but in reality to the English crown. Deodands are commonly attributed, especially by courts, to a passage in the Bible: “If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, the ox shall be surely stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten” (Exodus 21:28).

The case in which this statement appears has the silly byt revealing name of United States v. One 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville Two Door. That is, the government sued the automobile as if it were personally guilty of a crime. In an especially strange case, United States v. One 6.5 mm. Mannlicher-Carcano Military Rifle, the government sued the rifle that was used to assassinate President John F. Kennedy, on the theory that it was “a species of Deodands”….

Here is the wiki for deodands. Here is a poem from Pulitizer laureate Anthony Hecht titled “The Deodand“. Here is Sir William Blackstone explaining the concept in Volume 1 of the Commentaries on the Laws of England. A google search for the word provides 126,000 results.

Movies I’d Really Like To See

From the AFP:

VENICE (AFP) – “Lebanon” by Israeli Samuel Maoz, the story of the first Lebanon war told from inside an Israeli tank, won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival Saturday.

Colin Firth, star of Tom Ford‘s “A Single Man,” picked up the Volpi Cup for best actor, while Russian actress Ksenia Rappoport won best actress for her role in “La Doppia Ora.”

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On Inglorious Basterds

Highly enjoyed this Tarantino flick, particularly the pop culture references that Americans wouldn’t get (and I’m not sure I’ve got them all). Close to my heart is the tribute to Francoise Villon’s famed Ballade (of the Ladies of Ancient Times) that reads in part:

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Ou elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu’a ce reffrain ne vous remaine:
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

Prince, don’t ask me in a week
or in a year what place they are;
I can only give you this refrain:
Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Villon does not typically translate well but this one does better than most.

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Existential Questions

Why are there so many bad movie/television interpretations of the Authurian legend? I can list at least 5. I am also positive there are more.

On the other side of the media divide, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King remains one of the gems of 20th century English literature. Also recommended: Le Morte d’Arthur.

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Words from Nabokov

Some words I found in Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: fubsy, joggle, glebe, harridan, lavabo, crepitated, oriflamme.

Next week: love words.

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Nabokov on Time

I was writing about Harold Bloom’s “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds“, specifically first about Virginia Woolf, and then about Octavio Paz. There is a really good excerpt from Paz’s Conjunctions and Disjunctions on page 538, and wonderfully enough, it is Paz the poet-prophet speaking about time…and then I thought that I should drop everything and post possibly my favorite lines from Nabokov on the same topic. I’m posting them because I have grown to be terribly appreciative of Nabokov; I don’t think that there’s another English-language author who quite captures the scope of his vision or has the gift of his language, which is at times is exuberant, inquisitive, self-absorbed in a universal sort of way, and intimidatingly diverse.  There is this subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lyric eroticism that tinges almost every sentence.

To give you my measurement of the scope of his language and the breadth of his knowledge, my family is very literary. My parents both have multiple graduate degrees, and the family reads what I can only describe as an insane, breakneck pace. My brother dissected Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary to win the National Spelling Bee; my vocabulary, while not as extensive as his, is formidable. It is rare in reading that I require recourse to a dictionary (and that holds true even for most of my academic reading. But when I read Nabokov, alone amongst all authors I read, I need to have ready access to a dictionary, and sometimes for more than one language, for he is a master of language, reckless and improbably fluid with words.

Below the fold, here is part of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, book 4 (non-gated): Continue reading