Sunday, October 28, 2007

On Cuteness

Between Halloween--a major undertaking requiring many hours of preparation with three little children--staying up late watching the baseball playoffs, and consequently having to catch up on my sleep at any opportunity, as I was falling asleep at work and while driving, it has been a lost week as far as writing goes.

I was writing an interminable essay here but on the eighth day of composition, with the end nowhere in sight I decided to bag it.

What happened was that after I put up my little bit on Uta of Naumberg I remembered that I had been struck some years ago that one rarely encountered German girls who were cute in the perky American sense. Very beautiful women who were almost devastatingly (to the likes of me) sophisticated and polished, or more steely, unapologetic, but still formidably handsome pragmatists, yes. Others whose inclinations to plainness or homeliness were carried out in a rigid linear fashion to almost extremes by a serious cast of mind unsoftened by any humor or willful frivolity, certainly. Vivacious, playful sorts however who have the capacity even to torture or detest or be indifferent to you in a pleasing manner without bludgeoning you with a direct and precise assessment of your worth are not so easily found.

I determined that in German society the barriers to perkiness were a combination of cosmopolitanism, a more thorough and exacting educational program, especially for pupils of good intelligence, and the greater awareness and emphasis on humans' essential darkness that remains pervasive in the worldview of people in that part of the world. Now doubtless any German-bred person reading this they would say this is wrong. I find I am always wrong when taking up any matter with Germans, particularly anything that directly relates to themselves, as though the nature of all the world, or at least everything in it requiring some degree of intelligent perceptiveness, were completely inscrutable to me. Nonetheless I determined to plug away and decided that cuteness as I was thinking of it was an utterly bourgeois phenomenon, albeit one requiring a fairly high level of intelligence and material comfort to develop its full glory, as well however as a general innocence of evil and most of the hardest truths about existence which logic and science have come to, and, perhaps most importantly, a surplus of mild (though not unredeemably woeful) men for whom this kind of beauty and personality are ideal. Women of this type after all do not flourish in all times and places. The men of the Taliban, for example, seem to have little use for them. Indeed, the most impressive thing I have read about this group is that they seem to be utterly unaffected by the prospect of being in the presence of, or even getting personal attention from, the sort of highly desirable babes that cause most American men to wilt on sight. One article I read claimed that the University of Miami cheerleading squad could be sent in their skimpiest costumes into the Taliban camp and the men would express no more arousal than to throw burqas over them and order them into the kitchen. I am cutting out the disclaimer I had originally written distancing myself from this attitude. I don't think it is really necessary.

I then argued that the main strongholds of cuteness in the contemporary world were still the United States and Canada, the middle and upper middle classes of Latin America, increasing the further south one went, and East Asia, particularly Japan and Korea. I posited that like the red squirrels of Britain losing ground to the gray, the classic cutie-pie type in the U.S. was under increasing assault on the lower end from its related but more feral and less intelligent nemesis, the more attractive type of skank, and on the upper end from the increasing reliance the serious professions and academic fields have on clever young women to fill their ranks, which tends to dampen cuteness because, unlike staggering beauty, cuteness is dependent on there being a fairly substantial pool of men who can reasonably expect to compete for the cutie, which is difficult to have when one is also competing with her for worldy honors and positions, and frequently losing. I also argued that, like so much of the modern world, the origins of cuteness could be traced to England.

I then said that in most ancient history, literature, mythology, art, etc, the women that the male characters were interested in were uniformly supposed to be beautiful, with no caveat that anyone's height or breasts or hair or whatever were only 7.5s while otherwise she was a solid 9.6. If a hero likes her, or she is of good birth, you can be sure she is always going to be portrayed as a 10. I noted that to obtain these beautiful women required real exertion too, and that one had to visibly crush, usually violently, one's competitors, all the while demonstrating one's superior nobility and mental refinement. A lot was at stake, and there could be no doubts allowed that the women fought over so brutally were not worth every drop of blood spilled.

I then wanted to point out that human life continually grew more comfortable and soft, and that in time, as trade and the professions developed it became possible for men to live in some style and attract pretty women without having first to put large numbers of potential rivals to the sword. I said that while many of the choicest women continued to demand demonstrations of the aristocratic and martial virtues, even in artificial form, another group, generally satisfied to live in a prosperous manner if a heroic one was to be out of reach, developed the type of attractions that would be irresistable to the pragmatic bourgeois man; unthreatening prettiness, general enthusiasm for the sorts of comforts and mode of life such a man could provide, enough spirit to enjoy and have no mean success in social competition. I had thought that in England this personality evolved as an imitation of the upper class French coquettes of the ages of the King Louises, which however took a much milder form across the channel, the reputation of the French ladies of this period having come down to us as being by comparison thoroughly chilling, heartless and amoral, eager not merely to tease their victims but to humiliate and skin them alive. I suppose this is a form of cuteness, but it is not one that really applies to democratic society.
I then attempted to relate something of the literary history of cuteness, starting with the coquettes of the Spectator papers and Pope, and the appearance of the type in Jane Austen's novels (not approved however), especially the wild and frivolous Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, (the 15-year old sister who ran off with a soldier). As he did with Christmas, Charles Dickens may have largely invented our modern conceptions of cuteness, as his novels are choc-a-bloc with cute girls, whether pampered bourgeois (Dora Spenlow, David Copperfield's child-wife and cutie-pie par excellence), debtor's prison inmate (Little Dorrit), would-be femme fatale (Estella from Great Expectations--she is unattainable the way the cheerleaders in eighth grade suburban schools are to nerds--not so much if you can pull yourself together a little and succeed in something) or even royalty (Queen Victoria). I noted that Tolstoy had several prominent characters who could only be described as bourgeois-style cute (Natasha from W & P, Levin's wife in Anna Karenina) which I thought unusual among the Russians. The closest thing to a cute girl in Dostoevsky is Sonya in Crime & Punishment, who is a prostitute who becomes the girlfriend of a murderer. Then I went on to talk about Coca-Cola advertising, and the Oz books, magazines, co-ed schools and colleges, movies, etc, in America. There wasn't time to find and tie together the grand point.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #13--Uta of Naumburg Cathedral (1200s)One of the central reference volumes in my library is a two volume textbook from 1962 put out by a trio of professors at St Louis University and enigmatically titled A History of Western Civilization. I have had it forever. I think must have been one of my father's textbooks from college (He went to Villanova, which, like St Louis U, is a Catholic university; in those days Catholic schools did not need to look outside the faith any more for reference books than they did for students). This book is pretty good on the general set-up of history, is weaker on maps, and is inspired in its choices of illustrations and quotations with which the book is peppered. Uta appears in Chapter 21 "The Medieval Empire in the West: Failure of the Imperial Dream", which is introduced by a fairly pedestrian quote from Liutprand of Cremona on Otto the Great. Her picture is just kind of stuck in, with the dry caption of "A Margrave of Meissen and His Wife" (She is depicted with her husband as a unit on the actual church) and a general reference to the lifelike realism of Gothic art. I don't read this chapter very much, I admit, so when I was flipping through the book recently and came upon this striking lady, who is what we all imagine the ladies of the middle ages to look like though reason tells us that they were almost certainly all hideous, I knew she had to go on my list. I did not realize that she was actually something of an icon, and that all the heavy hitters and Alpha art lovers and Germans who don't believe anyone who hasn't grown up in the German culture and language can understand the meanings of their art have already long weighed in on this lady's merits and significance. Supposedly even the Nazis had to get involved and declare her one of the embodiments of all that is most exalted in Aryan womanhood and civilization, which seems to have made her a little more dangerous, even given her something of the air of a bad girl in some corners of the art and history establishments.

So in the end it was one of those situations where my hopes got raised when I thought she was kind of my own private discovery but when I realized she had not gone unnoticed and that the big players were all jostling for position near her in hopes of being the one to conquer something in that frigid and beautiful exterior I had to kind of pull back and wonder what I was thinking. Besides, I needed a entry, preferably a short one, before the weekend.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Pop Music/YouTube Digression--(Mostly) 60s Edition

Seeing as my other posts of this nature have been so popular.

My relationship to good music is analogous to that which people with eating issues have to food. As these know they should and even desperately want to eat something chic and elegant and healthy but find themselves as often as not stuffing their faces at McDonald's, I know I ought to be studying the opus of Robert Johnson, or Wagner, but usually end up rocking out to Gilbert O'Sullivan. It's also not like any of the songs or groups I write about need publicity or critical attention either; I am merely trying to establish some idea of my own existence in terms of reference to them.

I will try to make some links to the videos as a matter of courtesy to anyone who might be curious to see them. As everyone must have learned by now, all manner of uncool people prowl the web looking for someone to direct them somewhere else.

Positive and negative energy have been recurring themes on the site lately, and exuding lots of the former was the main catapult of the early career of the Beatles. What was its source? To me that is one of the least-satisfactorily accounted for mysteries of the whole era. They had a tremendous knack for generating trends and beating everyone else in the mainstream to the punch on what was going to be cool, and then pulling up and moving on just at the right instant to some other slightly unusual thing while their hordes of followers a step behind kept growing their body hair, doing drugs, having rampant and completely undisciplined sex, practicing Indian philosophy, etc, until the magic was gone and everything became disgusting, or a joke, or they died, or what have you. I suppose you could say, that they maintained a certain degree of moderation, at least in comparison to the general tenor of their time. They never became really physically repulsive, or violent, or nihilistic on the one hand, or wimpy and snivelling on the other, all of which seem to have been especially marked tendencies of the era. It is also interesting to note that most of the dynamic energy was generated by the collective activity of the group rather than the individual personalities of its members.

Incidentally, I was struck by the similar Stonehenge-like setting of this video to that of the one above. I don't know what it signifies.

Let me try again to link to this opening montage that struck me as having something quintessential about the period in it, which I remarked on at length in a previous post.

I remembered this song from my childhood but hadn't heard in about 30 years. My parents used to leave the radio on beside my bed all night when I was quite small and when this came on it would be a great comfort to me, especially if it followed one of the many somewhat scary hits of the time ("We Will Rock You" by Queen I remember being especially disconcerted by in the darkness of night). This singer is a very sensitive-looking fellow. Indeed, he looks a little like me, except for the hair--I do have hair, just not that hair. By the way, what happened to all the guys like the host of the TV show in this video? The western world was crawling with them in the early 70s and most of them must be still alive.

I don't know what to say about this. One has an image of what such a person, at such an age, and additionally in this instance, in such a time and place, could be like that quite runs away with everything else.

Moving ahead a little in time, this is just a work of pure art that I had never seen the video of until last week. Ireland, of course, just since about 1990 has famously become a regular prosperous country full of responsible people who hold down full time jobs (in cubicles, no less), make real estate deals, holiday in Spain and generally eschew alcoholism as an acceptable lifestyle even for artistic people. I admit I am not as thrilled about these developments as I know I should be. I remember back in the 80s when the Pogues achieved a modest popularity among suburban white boys in the U.S., the Village Voice or one of those other sneering Citypaper-type publications wrote an article ridiculing this American fan base for romanticizing a lifestyle it couldn't survive in for a half-hour, the assumption being that poverty, or at least near-poverty, combined with the threat of IRA terrorism, would reduce a middle class American kid to pants-wetting within thirty minutes. This was not an atypical attitude. Ireland not much more than 20 years ago was widely regarded as being a country where the way of life would be too tough and the political strife too dangerous for the typical soft American to be able to endure. Does it not all seem rather quaint now?

One day, while listening to some no-talent singer preening on the radio, I asked my wife, who is intuitively fairly knowledgeable about such things, who was the last white American male pop singer who had anything resembling an actual good voice. I nominated Andy Williams, whose prime was well before I was born. She said that the guy from the Stray Cats had a good voice. I can't tell. I have always liked the group, though. For one thing, they are one of the few pop music acts to make it that seems to have come from the kind of place and the kind of cultural milieu in which I have lived most of my life (I think they are from upstate New York). There are little tics and details in their songs and videos that strike that faint note of familiarity that just is never there with say, California or southern groups. Even the chicks in their videos have something vaguely New Englandy/upstate N.Y./Penna about them. While we're on the subject the "Real Square Cat circa 1974" actually looks a little like me (and is about as popular with the ladies at dances).

Not to drag the Smiths in here when all was going so well, but this is a really good video someone made of "Hand In Glove" using footage from the 1961 kitchen-sink classic "A Taste of Honey".

Oh, and this. Yes, it was from the movie Ghost World, it is not my secret cool thing (I have no secret cool things) but it is really engrossing nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Shortage of Good People That is Afflicting Various Professions

I don't listen to National Public Radio very much. In the state where I live, the programming on the NPR station, besides the standard shows which everyone gets, is 100% politics, usually of an excruciatingly boring and technical nature. (People in this state, it must be acknowledged, take their civic duties seriously. Something like one out of every 200 adult residents has held some kind of political office at one time or another. The state legislature has 285 seats and is frequently claimed to be the fourth largest legislative body in the world.) This is mixed in with heavy doses of contentious and snotty libertarian-tinged conservatism. Harangues about the necessity of public garbage collection or whether non self-reliant people who require to be rescued by a helicopter at taxpayer expense while hiking in the mountains ought to be billed for the services can carry on for weeks. I actually find it invigorating when I visit my relatives in Philadelphia and see the mayor announce on TV that taxes are being raised and services cut immediately because the city can't pay its bills, and no one seems to be terribly upset about it. Though I live in a small state, I happen to be right in the center of it, so that when I am around home my car radio does not quite pick up the much better public broadcasting that is available in the surrounding states. If I drive a half-hour to the east I can get Maine PR, which has some enjoyable music and documentary programs of the "here are the top 20 songs from August 1937" variety; the same distance to the south I get the Boston station, which has all the objections about them one might expect (i.e. pretentiousness and smugness) but I like their classical music selections, which are perfectly pitched at an audience of Europhiles who don't know really anything about music but like to fantasize that they do (and the ads for the gourmet wine shops almost make the station worth listening to just by themselves); likewise a short drive west and I can pick up the Vermont station, which besides doing a lot of low production cost local and forgotten music shows as well, has programs like the International Workers News Report that are much more enlivening listening than the blow by blow accounts of town hall school budget debates which we get in my state. If I have to listen to someone boiling over with political rage, give me an indignant 25 year old woman railing against the global sex trade and corporate skullduggery than an obnoxious 43 year old white guy who thinks the mininum wage is too high any day. (I confess that unshaven, frequently braless, socialist Vermont girls are like catnip to me). If I drive an hour north I can even pick up some French stations from Quebec, which is also better than listening to libertarians even if I can't really make what they're angry about, and the music selection is different too. And their women... But this is turning into a whole other article. Let it suffice to say that I don't listen to NPR very much.

However, it happened last week that I came upon an interview on one of the national NPR shows that caught my attention for a few minutes. A journalist was talking about the program of fortress-style embassy construction that the United States government has undertaken all over the world, especially the one going up in Baghdad, which is the most notorious and symbolic of these new embassies for myriad reasons that are not difficult to discern. The topic led to a discussion of whether the old 19th and 20th century Game of Nations style diplomacy represented by the maintenance of embassies and their staffs was outdated in the age of the internet, cell phones, hotlines to Indian call centers, cheap international flights, mass immigration, long term employment in distant countries, and so on, especially if the diplomats who are supposed to be our voice in as well as main source of reliable information about these foreign countries have to spend all their time confined in the embassy-fortress. This interesting question was unfortunately not resolved, though the journalist did make the observation that "the foreign service is just not attracting the same high quality of people as it did in the past." As someone who probably could not get a sniff of being ever hired by the foreign service myself, my first instinct of course is to ponder what quality of person that must make me, if the people who are getting hired are not even considered to be as good as we would desire them to be. My second is to note that a decline in the quality of people--by which it is implied that intelligence is the attribute that is in short supply, rather than character or educational credentials, if not actual education--going into a profession has been remarked upon in other areas as well. Teachers and government workers in general are often said to be not of the caliber they once were either (to say nothing of writers). The usual reason given is that smart people have so many lucrative opportunities in the private sector now that no one of any ability can be expected to work for such pathetic salaries as the state offers (though the same salaries are considered exorbitant when the positions fall to mediocrities because there were no worthy people willing to take them). This always sets me to wondering, "Who was, and who is now, this race of high-quality people that the private sector so covets, and the state flails about so wretchedly without the services of? What are their secrets? What is it that they understand that the rest of us do not? Why now, for the first time in recorded history, are there no brilliant people unseduced by the crooning call of money? Were three thousand years of philosophy and religious teaching just lies that we only have managed to kill for good since 1989?"

This set me in mind of another incident, not exactly related, but in the same vein. Recently at the organization where I am an employee, a major figure, director of a department, retired. I inquired of someone upon this event, in my innocent 1950s mode, whether X who had been a prominent underling in the department for a long time was being considered for promotion to the director's job. The person I asked this question of looked at me like I was insane. "Oh, no," he said. "They're flying in people from all over the country to interview for this position." I know I am way behind the times, and that this is a common practice, but something about this struck me as rather excessive. This organization is a small to midsized regional hospital in a thinly populated area. Being an administrator at such a place is not a job a monkey could do, I am sure, but at the same time, it is a job that tens of thousands of people, most of whom are not geniuses or otherwise notably gifted, have and perform capably in this country every day (This position requires no specific medical training as far as I know). I mean ultimately, how hard can it possibly be? How much unique training can it possibly require? I admit I have never really gotten the whole thing about building resumes and advancing careers and promoting oneself and all of that--just based on my experience playing sports I know that people can make themselves look like much more serious athletes than their results would indicate they actually are by getting up at 5 am to train, having private coaches, going to camps, etc--but I can't believe this particular position is so uniquely difficult that one has to go to Oregon and Kansas to find people capable of doing it. I think it is bad for the psyche of a community (as, on a larger scale, it is bad for the psyche of the entire nation) when the message is continually sent that no one on hand in a place is smart/good enough to do work that someone ought reasonably to be able to do. Not one of the administrators in this organization, which is the largest employer in town besides the government, has any connection even to the state dating before they were well into adulthood (well, one guy did go to Dartmouth for college). Yet the minute they arrive they are regarded leaders in the community to a certain extent. The same goes for the editor and most of the writers on the local paper, the radio talk show hosts, and the city council (the last guy on it who grew up in town die last year). I am not from here myself, but I don't like the idea that none of the people who are running things has any idea what the town was like in 1980, let alone 1950; that they didn't go to the local school or church or hang out at the malt shop back when it was open; that they don't have any deep personal connection with anybody or any institution in town that dates back to their formative years. When one arrives in a place for the first time as a fully-formed adult, he can never have the same sense of its character or personality and is forever comparing it, usually inaccurately and unfavorably, with what he does know. People used, I think, to have a better understanding of this, and have some humility when settling in a strange city largely occupied by people who had been there, and whose families had been there, for a long time. But perhaps they didn't.

But to get back to the idea that today's teachers or foreign service workers aren't on the same level of quality as those in the past, as I know I am often guilty of similar insinuations myself. As one gets older, and the imposing authority figures of one's youth, in certain non-scienctific/ technical occupations, with their educations, manners, experiences, etc, peculiar to their own time, fall away and are replaced with one's own contemporaries, or even younger people, it is difficult to imagine that anything has been gained to replace what has been lost, since one feels there is little the contemporary can know that he does know, which was not the relationship he had with the older authorities. It is remarkable how many prominent people, many of them of obvious intelligence (Gore Vidal and Camille Paglia are two examples who come to mind, though many other people--Harold and Allan Bloom, Philip Roth, etc, have similar symptoms) have a blind spot in this area. They write and talk as if they sincerely and unironically believe that the last great flowering of culture, art, intellect, etc, remarkably, was in the very place they happened to be when they were 18-25 years old, and that nothing--nothing--of lasting significance has happened since. With the dreadful baby boomer generation rapidly approaching their dotage, I only expect this kind of attitude to become more prevalent rather than less.

I got to post this and move on to something else. This is not a PhD dissertation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is It Really Necessary to Pick on Brooklyn?

I have noticed a small flurry of articles lately, in the New York Times and elsewhere, whose main purpose is to remind the post-college Bohemian crowd that has settled in Brooklyn in some numbers over the past few years, and inform anyone in the outside world who takes an interest in and was beginning perhaps to be confused by such matters, that they aren't cool, as apparently some of them were beginning to give the impression that they thought they were. The main offenses precipitating this chastisement as far as I can tell were the publication of some books, the opening of a few bars and coffee shops catering to middle income college graduates with modest hipster aspirations, and even some quaint bourgeois coupling and breeding while staying in an urban setting which, judging by some of the artistic works starting to emerge from this crowd, seems to inspire some annoyingly cuddly feelings in people of this type. The truly cool people of the generations now dominating cultural criticism have always been influenced by the idea that cities ought primarily to be edgy and dangerous or if safe at least ruthlessly competitive, preferably to the point of being unliveable for generic middle class people, who are deadly to vitality anyway. Most of the Brooklyn-bashing articles make a great point of insisting that nearly all of those settling in the borough did so out of financial necessity, not being able to afford Manhattan, which, while probably true, is presented almost in itself as a sin against good taste. The point in itself however seems rather stupid, for while these people are attracted to New York City and all that it represents, they are not necessarily attracted to specific parts of Manhattan that in 2007 no one who is remotely like themselves can afford to live in so much as the proximate experience of the atmosphere that has made New York the main wellspring of the country's more elevated imaginations and thoughts, even able to affect those from humble or philistine backgrounds, for 200 years. It is not as if Brooklyn has not been an important source of artistic or other cognitive activity in the past either, though formerly the practitioners tended to make the move across the river when they reached adulthood. It is also not as if the bohemian centers in places like Paris and London did not shift around from one neighborhood to another in different generations as older ones became too expensive or stagnated or otherwise withered in energy. Brooklyn is a legitimate part of New York City, perhaps more legitimate nowadays than Manhattan as far as the texture of the actual day to day lives led by those within it. If Manhattan is to become exclusively the domain of rich cosmopolitans it will hardly be able to sustain itself as the vital organism it prides itself on being.

One might ask, what is this dispute to me, who lives approximately 212 miles from the Empire State Building, and 15 or so more from Coney Island? Well, I feel a certain affinity with the interloping Brooklynites. They are the most sympathetic characters appearing on a regular basis in the pages of the Sunday Times, the writers of which take the attitude that they just don't quite do anything right ($3 Budweisers at the pool hall? On Saturday night?) I could sort of see myself there, albeit just kind of hanging around, not really connecting with anyone. In the kid's book I linked to above, for example, the parents are too groovy for me--even my wife, who usually rolls her eyes when I begin to talk about how cool people who live in great cities are, confessed that the parents are awfully groovy--I imagine that the little groovy Brooklyn girl in the book, with her coffee shops and immigrant grocery and multicultural friends in the park, is going to be the kind of girl that my sons, if they are decent students, will run into when they get to college, and that they'll want, and might not be quite groovy enough to get just on account of me, which would be very bitter for them. I am not actually very whimsical, as the Brooklyn authors are said to be, but I am sympathetic with that attitude, probably because I live in a town full of very serious professionals--insurance, health care, legal, political--who don't seem to have much of an awareness of it, and I think it is a necessary ingredient in the life of any community, to temper the extreme seriousness of serious-minded people if nothing else. Not to go all postmodern but fiction writing is at bottom a game in which the ultimate object is to seem more real and true, as well as much better for being so, than actual life. Whimsy, if executed well, is certainly capable of achieving this, and more I think than expressly dark and disturbing works. (Obviously in some of the examples given in the above article, it was not executed well, or at least not properly).

I have to go to bed now. If I think of a way to conclude this more tidily I will edit it at some later date.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Francis Beaumont--The Knight of the Burning Pestle (ca. 1607-08)

For most of the last 400 years Beaumont's famous collaborator, John Fletcher, received half-credit for the authorship of this play, but modern scholarship has judged it to be the work of Beaumont alone. After some anguish over this discovery, mainly at the cleverness and authority that other people in my own lifetime have managed to attain upon my own pet subjects, I am at peace with it.

There are a number of things going on in this play which make it somewhat interesting to read, and would probably make it interesting, as well as useful, to see a performance of, as a lot of the scenes and actions are difficult to visualize dramatically just in reading. The plot is a takeoff on Don Quixote, satirizing the standard romances of the day, but even bawdier, and without any inhibiting moral counterpoint. The sex jokes never stop. Indeed, the title itself can be understood in a raunchy manner: the word Burning in the argot of the time, according to the Introduction, would have been suggestive of syphilis to contemporary audiences, while Pestle can still be imagined, with a little exertion, as something naughty even with us. There is also a device of having characters who are supposedly from the audience interjecting into and influencing the course of the play, which characters being at a very crass level of culture I gathered to be a satire on theater audiences. I don't doubt but that somebody recognized as avant-garde has employed this exact device within the last fifteen years, and won the admiration of some beautiful art-girl for it.

In Beaumont's hands the English language, which had attained such heights of noble and elegant expression in the period of literary history that was starting to slow to a close when he came on the scene, retains a rougher, not quite fully tamed character:

"Father, it's true in arms I ne'er shall clasp her,
For she is stol'n away by your man Jasper." (Act II 396-7)


"I know the place where he my loins did swaddle.
I'll get six horse, and to each a saddle." (II 410-1)

Testing women's constancy--not necessary in every case, not desirable in any, as disaster will inevitably ensue. This is one of the top 100 lessons of life that the reader of pre-1700 literature will absorb intact just by immersion, for it is a ubiquitous plot device.

Act III, 275: "...but of all the sights that ever were in London since I was married, me thinks the little child that was so fair grown about the members was the prettiest, that and the hermaphrodite." There is a note explaining that, "Like Jonson, Beaumont is satirizing the citizens' taste for freaks". I must admit, that while the idea of actual freaks doesn't hold much fascination for me, that of freak shows always has. I looked up the passage referred to in Jonson, but I didn't think it was worth transcribing as a stand alone quote.

Interlude IV 44-45:
"Now little fish on tender stone begin to cast their bellies,
And sluggish snails, that erst were mute, do creep out of their shellies."

It is hard to imagine Shakespeare or Spenser or Donne stooping quite so low as to use 'shellies' as a rhyme for bellies, but in general Beaumont deserves some credit for doing some unusual, even odd things to try to distinguish his work amidst the rugged and pitiless ('pitilesse?') competition of the time. There is a note on this passage that "the snails were used in love divinations; they were set to crawl on the hearth, and were thought to mark in the ashes the initials of the lover's name." I have noticed some snails hanging about the threshold of my back door. I will have to keep my eyes peeled for this.

Act V, ll.194-7. More gratuitous bawdiness:
"With hey, trixy, terlery-whisking,
The world it runs on wheels,
When the young man's --- ---,
Up goes the maiden's heels."

I put these in just to prove that I am not alone in my depraved instincts.

A frequent accolade that is bestowed on the works of celebrated authors as one of the qualities separating them from those of lesser ones is that they are "ambitious". This quality as a measure of praise remains uniform across the ages but it has always seemed to me that the nature of this "ambition" as a conscious idea either changes dramatically according to the period in which it originates, or means something more expansive, as well as elusive, than the idea that is suggested by the use of the word in our time. Though it is pretty clear that, in what is traditionally called Western civilization at least, poets and singers and makers of pictures have seen themselves as belonging to a distinct class of people for most of recorded history, their idea of the significance that their art holds in a particular society, or even subsociety, as well as projecting far into the future, affects and distorts the vitality of the arts at various times, including the nature of its ambitions. In the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period in England, a time that compared to our own must be considered fairly primitive as far as the flourishing of accurate knowledge and information went, poets and dramatists found that they were able to conceive of themselves as arbiters of truth and figures in and shapers of the continuum of history, which in turn was itself generally considered to be a worthwhile and exciting process, such that their ambitions, rather than being wholly calculated and daring as we are inclined to believe great artistic achievement must be in our own time, were very much the results of an expansiveness of the artistic mind into wider terrain that the unique circumstances of the time allowed. These men, whose entire potential audience, as far as they knew, consisted of perhaps a few thousand people mostly concentrated in the square mile of the City of London, could with absolute confidence compare themselves on an equal basis with the greatest authors of antiquity, or predict immortality for their work into a future world of which I am certain Shakespeare himself could not have wholly fathomed the cross-cultural immensity and technological and scientific advancement, though perhaps he would have been able to overcome it with his strength of will and personality intact. Obviously I am trying to find some excuse for myself not being able to muster this necessary confidence and clearness of worldview to accomplish anything, but it is not working.

Beaumont was 32 when he died, at which age many of the more ambitious would-be authors today are just getting out of writing school, and the less ambitious ones are starting to realize that they have deceived themselves about their life prospects as far as having any kind of meaningful interaction with the worlds of thought and culture goes. He was not the only author of that general time period to die young. Marlowe only lasted to 29, being famously stabbed in a bar brawl after having been involved in numerous secretive government affairs all over Europe and writing 3 or 4 of the more singular works in the language. Sir Phillip Sidney, though a generation older than Beaumont, was also 32 when he met his demise on the battlefield. Like his similiarly exciting contemporary Sir Walter Ralegh, when he was alive people ranked his poetic talent as about fifth or sixth place among his qualities, as it probably should be in any well-developed man, though he was able to fill a whole volume with verse that remains available in mass market editions and anthologies today, and this in spite of leading an extremely active and dynamic non-writing life as well as dying young. Certainly it was a younger, or perhaps more accurately a less old world at that time, and younger men have the gift both of playing up and having their exploits played up to seem as if they were greater and more significant than perhaps objectively they are. If young men can produce passable and lively art, lead dynamic activity, introduce new ideas and inventions, be dashing in large enough numbers as to keep the women of the country vividly interested in them, it is a sign that the society itself is living, and thriving. The inability of young men in recent years to do almost any of these things well, to assume any real leadership role in most western societies, has had a very powerful negative effect on the level on cultural morale and optimism in these lands. In America with our war there has been some effort to play up the greatness of the young men of the armed forces so as to rouse up the spirit of the nation, but this is strained, I think, by several handicaps, the widespread unpopularity of the government, and by extension the war, to begin with, along with a sense, perhaps untrue but pervasive nonetheless, that the young men in the army do not have much mastery of the situation, and consequently their fates, and that this is in a not insignificant way a failure of the collective intellect, not only of the members of the armed forces but of the greater society as well. There is a certain degree of pressure in all militarized nations to idealize soldiers and the military culture, but I cannot do that except when presented with individual cases of wise and inspired deliberation and judgement that would enable me to feel comfortable trusting my life as well as moral self to that person's hands in the most extreme circumstances. At Sidney's death, it is frequently said, all of England mourned. All of England, I am sure, never mourned anyone, but that part of it that did not could be written out of the story for the sake of amplifying its power, which it does beautifully and effectively; unlike most modern historians, I don't want anyone who didn't mourn Sidney acknowledged as having existed while I am reading an account of his life. The technique only works however as long as the people who are written out don't come back and read the story, which they increasingly and infuriatingly do nowadays.

Beaumont was born in the "new" manor house--it was built in the 1500s--at Grace Dieu in Leicestershire, which is not even described as a town but as the "ivy-clad ruin of an Augustinian Priory". It sounds like a pleasant place to pass a few hours. Beaumont is buried in Westminster Abbey, having gotten in early enough so that he seems not quite worthy of the honor now (especially as the churches and cemeteries where other authors of his general caliber were buried are now parking lots and high-rise apartment buildings). He did however write the charming "Ode on the Tombs in Westminster Abbey" which probably helped his cause a great deal:

"Mortality behold and fear
What a change of flesh is here!
Think how many royal bones
Sleep within this heap of stones:
Here they lie had realms and lands,
Who now want strength to stir their hands."

The Abbey is by far the most frequent spot of pilgrimage which my system would require me to visit. Among the superstars and B-listers buried there are Dickens, Hardy, Tennyson, Johnson, Chaucer, Addison, Spenser, Kipling, Newton, Darwin, Faraday, Elizabeth I, and everybody's favorite king, Henry V, who died aged 35 in the height of his greatness and has the best tomb in the building. It is difficult to really take most of this in when one is there though due to the crowds, the quantity of tombs, etc. Nonetheless it is always the first place I go when I arrive in London, though it is usually closed because my habit when I fly overseas is to go to bed when I arrive, get up around 5 or 6, go to the really iconic site in town and wander around for an hour when the crowds have dwindled, have dinner and a couple of drinks, and go back to bed. In Rome I go to the Vatican, in Paris to the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysee, in London to the Abbey. I am still looking for a good orientation point in New York. I like the Battery a lot in the morning, but it isn't really near anything except the financial district, which is not exactly my home turf. Grand Central Station I like too, though one passes through the train stations in the European cities without them really being the destinations themselves. I don't know. When I was a penniless 19 year old sleeping in Central Park and hoping for magic to strike me I spent a few pleasant days--so much time I had then!--just reading in the grand NYPL building on 42nd Street like I was Lenin or somebody. Maybe I'll try that next time.

Something happened last week, which I wish I could figure out, that resulted in 58 people (besides me) viewing my profile. I also got 4 comments, albeit of an inferior quality, on one of my posts. This traffic has slowed down again, however. You cannot accuse me of striking while the iron is hot.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

In Case You Were Wondering
Yes, that is my house on the cover of this month's CountryHome magazine. I'm not kidding, it really is. There is an even better picture of the picket fence my wife built on the table of contents page. It stops there, though, there is no spread on the interior. The photographer happened to be scouting our neighborhood in search of Halloweenish-looking Victorian houses (i.e. not too cutely or sparklingly maintained) and liked what she saw with our house, I guess. The pictures were taken in May, I think. The leaves and pumpkins and so on are all their props. The photoshoot crew were evidently straight from the New York magazine world, or were familiar with its culture. They projected great artistic confidence and authority, which I assume comes from being paid well, or at least consistently, or maybe they just knew they were super good. I don't know. It seems like kind of a silly magazine really. Also I don't exactly live in the country, but on the outskirts of a small city of 40,000 or so people, though I know that especially for purposes of selling books and magazines everything north of Boston is considered to be rural and salty. We did not actually know they had chosen the pictures of our house to be in the magazine until my wife, past whom I am increasingly convinced it is impossible to get anything, spotted it in the checkout aisle at the grocery store.

Nor is this entirely the first instance of our casually finding ourselves connected with a mass market publication. In the edition of the Yale Guide to Baby and Child Care or something like that (it's a big reference book) that came out around 2002, Mrs S and I are depicted in the illustration on page 38 looking in a store window at baby toys (we are supposed to represent the as yet childless but idealistic and dreamy young couple--which I think we still were at the time). I am actually shown as having three hands in this drawing, but that is not the case, it was an error on the part of the artist and the editors that the mistake made it into the book. The illustrator lived in the area, and, like Norman Rockwell, though not quite as memorably, liked to use his neighbors as models.