Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Food is Culture, Part MCCXXII

This is a topical post, in response to the recent Newsweek cover story (* & **) about the increasing class divide as it plays out in the diets of various sets of people loosely identifiable by their incomes and the types of education and jobs that they have. I 'eat up' these kinds of stories because, as in many areas of life, I superficially have some of the characteristics of the most desirable group--here those who put the most thought and effort into putting the best possible food, ethics-wise, health-wise, and taste-wise, into their bodies, on every occasion--but am ever aware that I am lacking some vital quality, which, even if I tried much harder than I do to imitate and make one of the select, will never enable me to do so.

Of all the markers which have sprung up like so many single family housing developments over the last few decades to enable the various tribes of the middle and formerly middle classes to distinguish themselves ever more finely from the sorts of people they don't want to be identified with, food militancy is perhaps the one I was least prepared for, and it has always struck me as one of the cruelest as a basis for social rejection, though I know most people would vehemently deny that they consider the matter in this light at all. Do not imagine that I do not like many developments of the food consciousness revolution. It is one of the modest thrills of my existence to go to Brattleboro or Portsmouth or Cambridge or one of the other oases of enlightenment in my general neighborhood and partake of fresh and palatable versions of familiar foods amongst the kinds of people I do not necessarily want to be identified with but still crave acceptance by. I also still like greasy pizza parlors and diners however (though I accept that others do not), and find most of the people who go to them decent enough as well. It is the evident revulsion the foodies harbor not only towards the food itself that they don't like but the actual people who eat it that saddens me. To me there are enough issues in personal relations that making another barrier out of others' diets, assuming these to be within bounds that would traditionally be considered reasonable, strikes me as ungenerous at the very least.

When I was at college there were a lot of people--especially people from New York--who devoted a great deal of energy to bitching about the poor quality of the food, not only at the school itself, but of that available in the town generally. This always bothered me, not because I was madly in love with the food myself, though I found it perfectly acceptable, but because I came out of an environment, I guess, where the idea of an 18 year old complaining about the food available to him would have been regarded as an ungrateful snot who needed to have some age-appropriate humility knocked into him. No one seems to think this way anymore however. This is an area where my pitiful socialist tendencies really come out strongly too. Because I saw these students, many of whom were highly intelligent, interesting and attractive people whose company I should have liked to have partaken of more often, as abandoning the common table out of exalted notions of diet, I frequently fantasized about a return to rationing or other compulsory controls on extravagance of taste to force them back nearer my orbit, though happily of course no one rational would ever advocate imposing such measures on our better classes of people, and even I deep down would not want them to, for then they should just be very angry and resentful, and not take the thing at all in the spirit intended.

Unlike the generations that will follow me (most likely), I at least had the good fortune in my mid-20s to be able to spend an idyll in a land where people still experienced food the way Americans did circa 1958--heavy, meaty and largely devoid of alternatives even in the imaginations of cool and extremely good-looking people. To culinary sophisticates from the global elite it was a misfortune, a horror even. Some poor souls were reduced so far as to literally weep after a few weeks of deprivation from what they regarded as decent meals. For me--although even I at times grew tired of the limitations of the Bohemian diet, there only being about 5 regular dishes, and 3 or 4 sides--it was practically nirvana. To attend parties and go on excursions where plates heaped with sausages and potatoes are routinely dished out and distributed to everyone, even the prettiest girls, and no one complains or expects anything different, but simply eats and goes on talking about music or communist theory or how to learn languages or whatever that is far more interesting than hearing about their private food fetishes--this was a quite wonderful arrangement. Needless to say I am sure in the 13 intervening years it has completely broken down and the people's diets readjusted to their places in the social hierarchy.

*There is a photo gallery which accompanies the online presentation of this article. I am more than a little dismayed however that of the various contents-of-refrigerator shots shown in this gallery the one that most resembles mine is that of the black single mother whose situation and family the reader is invited to feel the deepest concern about the likely unpleasant future of in the article. I even eat real butter and not Country Crock, which I believe officially makes mine worse, although my wife, who is going to live to be 95 years old at least, is adamant that anything real must be better for you than anything artificial that is trying to imitate it, and I believe her.

**The husband of the locavore-committed Park Slope family is evidently hitting Wendy's on the sly, because he looks to be in even worse shape than I am. When my first thought on seeing your picture is, Christ, I could take out that guy with one hand tied behind my back, you are not a good advertisement for anything. My wife and children look better and more robust than that family's too (Goddammit!)

Some say that nothing good can come of allowing your wife to watch Mad Men (i.e., don't expect her to thank you for being comparatively enlightened--the credit lies elsewhere than with you personally) but mine became inspired to make rib-eye in a pan with butter after one of the episodes, so there is some hope there

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Few Milton--Relevant Pictures

Milton is not much commemorated by public memorials compared to other English poets of comparable fame, to say nothing of lesser stature. There are a number of obvious circumstances that this post should illustrate which will explain this dearth; nonetheless the almost complete absence of any physical reminders of Milton, as well as of the many other great authors of his age and the one preceding it, when their writings remain so grand and vivid and central to the imagination of anyone who has read them to any extent, is still a notable omission to such a visitor upon arriving in modern London especially.

Milton was born on Bread Street in Cheapside, in the old City of London, in 1608. Though only a block long, Bread Street had a distinguished literary history. John Donne was also born on the street in 1572, and the legendary Mermaid Tavern, one of the main hangouts of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson and other luminaries of the rollicking Elizabethan period, was situated on the corner at the bottom of the street. All remnants of this neighborhood of course are long, long gone, having been destroyed in the famous London fire of 1666, within Milton's own lifetime. Whatever was built to replace this seems to have been summarily bombed out during the 2nd World War, and while a Bread Street continues to exist today, it is little more than an alley, non-residential, and such modern office and institutional buildings as do line it showing their backs and sides to the pedestrian, the various ways into them being found on other streets. I walked up and down this ugly and depressing, though mercifully short block three or four times, figuring surely there must be some memorial to the great writers born there on it. However I found nothing, and wanted up to the larger avenue known as "Cheapside" and took a right, headed I forget where. The old church of St Mary-le-Bow--that is the one which one must have been born within hearing distance of its bells if he wanted to claim himself a true Cockney--was right around this corner, so we took a little walk around the outside of it, it being around 6 o'clock in the evening so all of its doors were locked, and we came upon this:

We never did come across any commemoration for poor old John Donne however, though he does at least have a prominent tomb in St Paul's Cathedral, where he was for many years the rector (at the old one which was destroyed in the fire of course).

Milton was buried at the minor church of St Giles Cripplegate at the east end of the old city. Due to his active participation in the Cromwell government--he was its official Latin secretary--and general antagonism to the Stuart monarchy he was decidedly out of favor with the authorities of the Restoration at the time of his death and was thus not a candidate for burial in any of the glamour churches, which position has been more or less upheld to the present day, there not being still I believe any commemoration for him in Poet's Corner, which other once-rejected authors, notably the libertine Romantic poets, though still buried elsewhere, have since been given.

St Giles Cripplegate has been preserved, though the ground around it has been completely bricked up and serves as the courtyard for a modern office park-like complex. Not being very adept at using a camera and crimped for space by the boundaries imposed upon the open space before the church by the office buildings, I could not figure out how to fit the entire church in a single shot, so you will have to visualize the two halves following combining themselves:

There is a small stone in the floor between the first row of pews which reads "John Milton 1608-1674 Author of 'Paradise Lost'". On the day that I visited the only other person in the church was someone who seemed as if he might be the verger, but he did not talk to me and my impression was that he viewed me with a suspicious eye. In truth I had not been in many churches in my life at that point--this was in '96, Milton being one of the very first people whose sites I tried to hunt down--and I probably did not look as if I knew what I was doing in one. There was an area in the rear of the church that was screened off behind which I could discern something that looked like a bust half-covered in a sheet and what looked like possibly a few sign-posts, also covered. I thought this might be a small memorial to the poet when not under renovation, but I am not certain. Being at that time very concerned with not egregiously violating what I imagined to by the etiquette of cultured society in front of anyone who might be connected to it, I did not take any pictures inside the church, opting instead to buy a couple of postcards, one of the interior and one of the Milton grave-tablet, which I was going to scan and post here as well, but I cannot find them now.

I should note that there is one house associated with Milton still standing and open to the public, if you are interested, the cottage in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire to which he repaired when London was struck by the plague in the 1660s. I have not been there however.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Rest of the Paradise Lost NotesOld notes--hell, nobody's looking, why not call them pensees?--from May of 1995, when I had an energy for and touching faith in the deep and life-enhancing importance of such efforts. They make for pretty but illusory reading now, typical of all doomed youth.

--Trouble has its origins in the imagination--

--'Pleasant' in Milton normally indicates (something) bad--

--Each of these truths ("pleasing light", "nature's desire", "all things joy, with ravishment") craftily diverts the mind from the holy, whence springs the font of trouble--

--Why can the innocent not recognize evil?--

--It seems and yet not seems man's place. However God's wishes are much clearer to them than to a modern; yet Satan can overpower them. What chance do we have?--

--I am jealous of Satan's sensuality--

--She is highly confused about her passions, which makes a girl impious--

--It is bizarre that man, who can conceive of music, harmony and order, is the only being capable of destroying them--

--Our hero is being so overwhelmed by immortals how can he have confidence in his free will?

--True goodness and happiness could never be exhausted--

--This is quite a preparation: indicative in so many lines of the work required to lead the good life--

--I find this ('Eve undecked') rather titillating, and I sense the author does too--

--Eve will beget something more numerous than God has done? ('shall fill the world more numerous with thy sons/Than with the various fruits the trees of God/Have heaped this table')--

--Eve is too pleasing and her nudity too sensual for an 'innocent' holy portrait--

--They are pressured from the thoughts I and John (Milton) must have--

--This sums up much of Western Civilization in three lines ('though what if earth/Be but the shadow of heav'n, and things therein/Each to each other like, more than on earth is thought?')--

--Is not every day a holy day in heaven?--

--Idea of music connected to the stars; I marvel that no one brings this to our attention any more (I assume I meant that it was not a commonplace way of thinking about the matter; obviously the connection still pops up often enough if one is paying attention)--

--Satan is unable to adapt to change, as immortals would be--

--Jesus and Satan seem like brothers in Milton--

--Omnipotence is hard to describe but (it is here) done subtly and continually ('Innmerable as the satrs of night/Or stars of morning, dewdrops, which the sun/Impearls on every leaf and every flower")--

--The jealous has to imitate the genuine--

--There is a need to preserve free will, if one has it; clearly this is where grace is os important, in the direction and capacity for any contentment in the will--

--There is a question of whether the angels need Christ if He was not there before--

--This, without divine authority, is probably true ('Flatly unjust, to bind with laws the free/And equal over equals to let reign')--

--Why is God not as real to us as to these men?! (I actually did write this--at age 25!--but I might have done so in the spirit of 'how could these geniuses'--and literary genius is a genuine, and perhaps especially rare, genius--'of the past have felt the powers of these stories so intensely?')--

--The pious always do sound like wimps in Christian books--

--Satan does not see Jesus, obviously, as a guy he needs to respect--

--Dogmatic bullying; it makes sense to us but a 17th century man would immediately see the fallacies and shallowness of the argument (re Satan's repudiation of the angel Abdiel's assertion of the familiar creation story, i.e., that God made everything)--

--Satan is Godlike in his knowledge and he does control the Third part of the angels--

--He shall be humble and let God handle this--

--Faithfulness is a quality that is 'found' or 'discovered'--

What really could ever have been done with me? It is becoming increasingly popular to suggest that people like me who are evidently not cut out for serious academic work should be trained, or re-trained, in the honest trades, as mechanics, electricians, plumbers, and the like, the perception being at present that there is a great shortage of these skills (though like everything else this perception is also the result of a decline in the rigor of such training for these professions as still exists compared to fifty years ago; but this is a whole other argument). I can't see myself having ever become the kind of plumber these advocates seem to be looking for either. The talents and potential of vast swathes of male humanity is either in a state of serious decline, or the standards of adequacy have now been raised to a point that is impossible for at least 50% of men to reach even giving the best that is in them to the effort. Neither of these possibilities seems exactly accurate to me, though the disappointment and disgust the able increasingly express with regard to the unable seems genuinely heartfelt and real, almost even to a boiling point. The issue I think is really one of work ethic. If the failing people were perceived to be working extremely hard and expending nearly all their reserves of energy in the service of their employers/teachers/commanders/societal leaders or in self-improvement with an eye towards pleasing the same I suspect their shortcomings of capacity would be more easily forgiven. But they are not perceived as doing this, and in reality most are not doing this.

At several points in my notes I compared Milton's vision of heaven with that of Dante's Paradiso, which I had evidently also read recently at that time, these being the early days of my reading list when I was clearing most of the super-classics out of the way. I felt that Milton had made a mistake by having God adopt any persona, and that here was where the Florentine most clearly mastered him. Of course I was imagining this mastery, because my reading of Dante was in a prose English translation, albeit one that at least had the original, or those accepted as the authentic, lines on the opposite page and encouraged a strong application of the imagination. But he is rapidly becoming another great lost poet (and a really great one at that), because people like me, who could have actually understood religion and art and poetry and love and beauty and evil and sin, are no longer being developed so as to read him properly.

Of course I am kidding. I know that people like me were never vital, nor anything but a hindrance, to cultural life or its progress. I am exercising my fantastical faculties here, for purposes of my own pleasure. And I know that there are thousands of people alive who appreciate and have absorbed the significance of the genius of Dante in a perfectly adequate degree, and live in consequence that much more beautifully and intelligently than I am able to do. I live to pretend to be a person of this kind of class, which is quite sick really. I should not indulge this urge, though I am getting better at it, I think, as I grow older. Obviously the discussion of Milton and Dante together was too much, and aroused the nostalgia of my former pretensions. I put them away now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Movies 1972-1991

These movie recapitulations may seem a poor use of such little time and energy as I yet retain. However, the Blogger site now offers primitive statistics on visitors to your page, which reveal in my case that the postings which receive the most "views" are by far those about movies and, surprisingly, poems, a lot of people evidently stumbling upon me in the quest for assistance with their English homework (Sorry employers of America. Again). My all-time top 5 most-viewed posts are 1) 10 Best (Movie) Literary Adaptations (reminder to do more top 10 lists); 2) Cleopatra Overview; 3) Planes, Trains & Automobiles; (the ferocious popularity of this movie and nominal Thanksgiving classic never ceases to astound me) 4) A Streetcar Named Desire Part 1 (alas, no one seems to have been induced to examine Part 2) and 5) John Donne, "The Bait". If I had known how many people were cruising the web at all times looking for insights into this poem, I would have...well, I would have done something else with it, though what I am not sure.

Onto the movies, which are being presented in the odd order that their pictures came out in during the setting up of this post.

Sleuth (1972)

Adapted from a play that must have made for an exhausting night at the theater. Great acting--that Larry Olivier fellow is in this--clever, rapid-fire dialogue, a battle of wills and mental gamesmanship that demands some exertion of the intellect on my part anyway, which, not being prepared to do to the extent necessary on the initial viewing, I can't say that I greatly enjoyed the movie, as there does not seem to be much else to it other than this. I don't feel particularly energized to bother watching it again more closely either, at least right now. I'm quite sure it is impossible for every individual person to 'get' every individual clever thing that exists with equal clarity of understanding. This is a problem I have always had with certain critics and scholars about the arts who write as if they are the final authority, or at least the last one most people will ever need, on 90% of the works and artists worthy of anyone's notice. Anybody who declaims with complete assurance in the space of a few pages about the meanings and interior thought processes of say, Dickens, D H Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Henry James and Emily Dickinson I always consider to be immediately suspicious.

There is a little intermission in the middle of the movie where Laurence Olivier eats a sandwich or something while three or four scratchy Cole Porter tunes play on a record player. I liked that part.

Decoration Day (1991)

The picture is of Edna St Vincent Millay and is not from the movie. I couldn't find any pictures I liked from that.

Decoration Day was a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV presentation starring James Garner and a young Lawrence Fishburne, among others. It was recommended with the highest rating by the video guidebook I tend to like the most, that which was formerly written by Mick Martin, who is apparently some kind of well-regarded indie rock musician, and Marsha Porter, but unfortunately was discontinued after the 2006 edition because, according to the publisher, all of the information in it is widely available on the internet. Unlike similar books, which stick mainly to theatrically released feature films, this book reviewed TV programs, music video and short film compilations, moderately obscure documentaries, and the like, and though I haven't found most of the TV stuff they recommend to be any good, I agree with their movie evaluations enough to be willing to give them a try.

I can't believe they liked this. It's a pretty standard fare TV movie, set in the south and centered on the attempt to belatedly award the Congressional Medal of Honor to a highly dignified black World War II veteran who would prefer to be left alone. James Garner is a retired successful judge whose even more imposing father entrusted him and his brother as pre-adolescents and teenagers to the tutelage of the slightly older black future war hero to teach them how to be men--hunting, fishing, repairing things, being as resourceful and forthright and honorable and uncowardly as white boys can reasonably be expected to be--only to establish, in keeping with their times, a chilly distance from his former mentor and friend upon reaching age eighteen or so. There were some tepid subplots centering around various white people who had cancer. I'm not sure whether this was intended to be symbolic of anything or not.

The movie tries very hard both to be and to show itself as respectful towards black people. It's a little too self-conscious and hokey to pull it off convincingly. James Garner's judge character, who is still the main focus of the plot, I suppose begs a comparison with the now widely detested Atticus Finch. There are some surface similarities, though Finch was depicted in his movie (which despite its many flawed and to us offensive presumptions, I cannot bring myself to wholly dislike as a work of cinema) practically as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln, while the Garner character is more of a sharp, crafty old pro at both the legal and social games than any kind of moral symbol.

I don't care about this movie enough to spend any more time on it.

These last two I actually liked.

Let Him Have It (1991)

This was based on a notorious criminal case in 1950s London in which a 16 year old shot and killed a policemen, and the epileptic and the developmentally delayed--and unarmed--19 year old who accompanied him was sentenced to death by hanging, one of the last people to receive the death penalty in Britain. The violent crime rate in Britain was so low during most of the 20th century that cases that would have been fairly pedestrian in the United States became major episodes in the national life there (this one was also the inspiration for the Elvis Costello song "Let Him Dangle", as well as numerous books). The Manson family this crowd is not. Some people are of the opinion that the movie is manipulative and distorts the case too sympathetically on the side of the doomed young man. I can see where that might be plausible, and even likely, though I would excuse it on artistic grounds because that sympathetic identification and conviction of the injustice of the sentence is where the movie's force comes from, and that is presented very effectively.

While not a great era for movies, the early 90s is starting to look better and better to me compared to most of what has come since. This may be because it is the period of my own youth, but the films set in this period seem less artificial, i.e., the imaginative world in which they are set seems more real to my mind/sensibility that that in which most recent films take place. This one of course was set 40 years in the past--in a period for which I have a lot of interest, and some (probably misplaced) fondness, I might add--and while all of it does not feel equally authentic, many of the more focused smaller scenes, especially indoor family ones, are very believable and evoke something of life.

The sister of the condemned man, who was a consultant on the film and consequently one suspects was portrayed in an especially favorable light, was played by an actress named Clare Holman who is possessed, at least in this movie, of a distinctly English variation of the quality which the French call, and celebrate, by the appellation jolie laide. Further research reveals her to be the typical icy, highbrow English theater actress, but I was taken by her circa 1951 smart working class hair and clothes in this picture. Especially the canary yellow slacks she appears in in her entrance on the screen.

Here's a video of scenes from the movie set to the Elvis Costello song.
Das Boot (1981)
Famous World War II submarine movie. I'm not sure what I expected--something drier and more utterly nihilistic, I think. It was a lot better than that, though. It was made with too much care, and had too much care for its main subjects, if not for anything else.

I assume this movie counts as part of the 'German New Wave' of roughly the 1973-82 period. It is very much of the sensibility of that school of filmmaking, paying great attention to the technical and practical details of its environment and allowing its dominant characters to emerge through the activity and forcefulness of their finely developed intellects so as to give the story a particular rather than a general sense of truth. The German New Wave may be the last great wave, that I am familiar with anyway, that I like a lot*. The more I see of these movies and begin to get a sense of their patterns and the mindsets and concerns that animate them, the more I am impressed by their thoroughness, their coherence and their truth. Also to see these movies is to be impressed by how affected all of the arts have been by the internet and the other distracting technology of the last two decades. There is a degree of concentration in all the aspects of successful filmmaking--the control of pace, emotional pitch, distinctive episodes which cohere to the rest of the plot, consistency of character without predictability or irrelevance--in the execution of this movie from beginning to end which I increasingly notice contemporary filmamkers having a hard time managing. One could make the case that I using as my example of the superiority of the past some of the most meticulous movies ever made. This is fair enough--the contrast really stands out in these instances--but even many inane movies from the past, such as my beloved soda fountain and bobby soxer romances from the 1940s, achieve a certain internal consistency with regard to pace and plot development, the purpose of introducing specific characters and skills, dilemmas, etc, that people seem to have a hard time with now. I really believe people's capacity for the sustained concentration necessary to produce art of a certain fulfilling quality has become strained (Note this paragraph as an example of that).

If one is not on the ball, one can at moments find oneself in a certain degree of sympathy with characters who are, after all, in the service of the Nazi regime--at the least one does not care to watch them in the act of suffocating or drowning on the ocean's floor, which situations threaten them at various points in the film. None of the major characters expresses any enthusiasm for Hitler, or the war. This is perhaps too convenient, but was doubtless a necessary device in 1981 and probably would still be now. The film does not glorify the war, and goes out of its way to emphasize this in fact, but it does decidedly appreciate the ingenious grandeur and beauty of the submarine; it is this as much as anything else which makes the movie so compelling.

Sometime in the 90s the theme music from Das Boot got a techno remix; it was not a bad job. here it is with scenes from the movie.

*There was a wave of Chinese movies in the 90s with something of these same qualities of intense concentration, classical density and structure, transcendent humanity; I haven't been able yet to ferret out the relations in their patterns, themes, beliefs about the world, and so on, so as to be able to organize them in my mind as representing a distinct movement that means anything to me. But I think they probably were one.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Weary Appreciation of Paradise Lost

I've read over some parts of this again within the past couple of years, and, seeing as I might not have occasion or motivation to record any of my feelings about it at any later date, I am going to do something of the sort now.

The perception of Milton among even generally well-read or educated people is one of the oddest of any legitimately great poet in any language that I am aware of. He is appreciated and revered by scholars, but outside of that profession, hardly anyone seems to believe it possible that a well-adjusted person could genuinely enjoy reading him. This state of affairs is perhaps of no great moment, other than to demonstrate that Milton is a figure of private rather than communal interest more than almost any other literary figure of his stature that I can think of. His writing has been found by many confident intellects over the years to be boring, sour, pompous, dismissive of women entirely and of all but a few score of men in the entirety of history. He never condescends to approach the typical reader on his accustomed level either intellectually or morally. The famous observation of Samuel Johnson (who, having compiled an English dictionary, one presumes had an unusually high tolerance for tedium), that no one ever wished Paradise Lost a word longer than it was, is often quoted approvingly. Compared to his fellow epic and epic-quality poets, his characters and language do not, without a good deal of preparation in literary reading, it seems, inspire a powerful emotional response. That said, failing to attain the state of realizing how great Milton really is, and coming to some perception of what it is that makes him so, is to be denied a substantial pleasure, if one is susceptible to such things, of such a sort as life offers on but a handful of occasions during its duration.

I think I tried to start Paradise Lost once when I was in high school, mainly because it is always prominent and available (and books, as I have noted previously, often took the place in my early years that women fill in the lives of life's protaganists), but I could get nothing out of it since I understood nothing about either language or thought, and, as noted earlier, the poem does not appeal strongly to sentiment and emotion, which was the entire range of my mind at the time. By the time I read it in college, I knew enough of Christian history and the history of Western poetry and philosophy to be able to get some modest thrills out of the experience. Since then I have read it once more in full and parts of it on various other occasions, and it is one of the few works, and Milton one of the few writers, to consistently impress me as what is said of all great books, that it appears greater, and in a substantial way, on every new reading. I am convinced at this point that he reads more clearly and easily than Pope, to name a recent example, and indeed, most poets, and that the poem is a wondrous work of man. How does it work?

The great force of the poem to me is achieved by a tremendous uniformly accumulating momentum that displays a remarkable array of elasticity in always propelling itself forward. He manages various tiers of plot and character in ways that are appropriate to their circumstances but are clearly delineated in their relations to each other; seeming contradictions of traditional logic or theology (God's power is limited in dealing with the rebellious angels? No!) are calmly and almost immediately addressed ("...since by fate the strength of gods/and this empyreal substance cannot fail..."); even trickier conundrums such as relations of eternal beings in time he handles expertly within the terms of his own poetic world, of which he is the absolute master, this being probably one of the requirements of successful poetry at the highest level. What else is there?...Here is a passage from Book I where he displays a nearly perfect understanding of the materials of life and of words and story, and how to unite them (ll. 423-428):

"...For Spirits when they please
Can either sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompunded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they chose..."

Of the fallen angels he lands upon the simple but ingenious conceit that they can be--and must be--anything our imagination requires to conceive of them as such. I suppose I had better give an example of what I mean (I. 562-7):

"...and now
Advanced in view they stand, a horrid front
Of dreadful length and dazzling arms, in guise (emphasis mine)
Of warriors old with ordered spear and shield,
Awaiting what command their mighty chief
had to impose..."

His renderings of nature are filtered through a thoroughly civilized humanity. The pictures that follow are always refined and dignified and at the same time immediately recognizable, which indicates to me that the high view of our own existence is not necessarily the lie it is sometimes claimed to be, but is crucial to our development as people despite the undeniable ubiquity of unpleasantness and baseness and failure that often demands our unwilling attention. This is a metaphor for the withered glory of the fallen angels as they regroup after the rebellion, and it is strikingly beautiful, and can be clearly seen even though one has likely never seen the precise picture delineated (I. 612-15):

"...as when heaven's fire
Hath scathed the forest oaks, or mountain pines,
With singed top their stately growth though bare
Stands on the blasted heap..."

Given the amount of time and the length of the essay already undertaken, I will stop here and do a short second post later. I am not going to go through the whole book, but there may be a few more points I wanted to make; if not, there will be no second post.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Sports Old-Fogeyism Part I: Is It Time to Retire the Cy Young Award?

The timing of this question is lousy given that the recently concluded playoffs and World Series were dominated by outstanding pitching performances, but the idea for this article occurred to me about a month ago as the regular season was winding down, and I am just getting to it now. It was inspired by the circumstance that Felix Hernandez, with a won-lost record of 13-12, was widely being touted as the best candidate for the award in the American League; and this following upon last years' winners, who had 15 and 16 wins respectively. These victories are the union of the triumph of the revolution in statistical analysis and understanding that has developed over the last 25 years with the changing role of pitchers in the context of an individual game, or a season. It is more the latter than the former that leads me to think that the spirit of the Cy Young Award may have been compromised, though both have contributed to a degree.

By almost any system of statistical comparison you care to use--even the antediluvian pitching categories of the 1969-era Baseball Encyclopedia--Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League this year by a pretty comfortable margin. This both surprised and impressed me. He led the league in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched, and was among the leaders in a couple of other basic measurements (complete games, fewest hits and most strikeouts per 9 innings). Despite this, he only managed to be credited with 13 wins. It is well reported that his run support was very poor--indeed his team was the weakest offensive outfit, in terms of runs scored, over a full season since the 1970s (or at least they were on pace for that distinction with a few weeks left in the season; I'm not sure whether they made it or not). He did throw 6 complete games and 249 2/3 innings, which are a lot for anybody in today's game, and especially for a 24-year old--he was given as much of a chance to earn wins as anybody is likely to get in 2010--and even I understand that things like official wins and complete games are not in themselves especially important indicators of current or future value in evaluating pitchers in today's game. So what argument do I have against his selection, especially in the absence of any other standout candidates by either traditional or new age measures?

Major sporting awards and honors, and the manner in which they were won, especially it seems in baseball but also in other sports such as the Heisman Trophy and all-American teams in basketball, and even the winners of major tournaments in golf and tennis, come over time to be emblematic symbols of their particular years, and park of the ensuing mythology which the various games feed on for generations afterwards. There is often a heroic or awesome aspect to the character of the feats honored (in the context of the game) even beyond the de rigueur outstanding statistics. Sandy Koufax won four 1-0 games in one of his Cy Young seasons, and over a three or four year span had a winning record when getting 0, 1, or 2 runs in support(granted, it was something like 14-13, but still). Steve Carlton in 1972, pitching for a terrible team that won 59 games the whole season, went 27-10 with 30 complete games, and won 15 games in a row at one point. Even within my memory Orel Hershiser in 1988 closed out the season with a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, all complete games except the last, in which he pitched 10 shutout innings to break the old record of 58 2/3. Felix Hernandez's season is perhaps emblematic of where the sport is today, and he is undoubtedly an excellent pitcher, but does he merit being honored as the top pitcher in the league for pitching well but only winning 13 games?

Surely part of having a truly great season as a pitcher is outpitching the guy matched up against you to the point of victory in at least half your starts. While complete games were probably overvalued through most of baseball history, I think they are perhaps undervalued now. The game lasts nine innings, longer if tied. The inability of almost all pitchers to regularly pitch a full game even when the score is close and they are by far the best pitcher on their team is a serious flaw in the modern game. When Three Finger Brown and Christy Mathewson, or Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, or Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal took the hill against each other, nobody said, give us seven innings and we'll turn it over to our situational relievers to decide the game. The emotional investment and interest in most games is simply not the same once the ball is handed off to a parade of nonentities.

That said, the top starters still do enough work and have enough direct impact on pennant races by historical standards to merit a major award given in their name at the end of the year. There are very few pitchers of this caliber remaining in the two leagues combined however.

Political Commentary

I find contemporary politics to be another in the long line of subjects that I am finding it difficult to become "well-informed" about, though I certainly try to expose myself to many opinions and even the occasional fact with regard to it. Though I never vote for Republicans primarily because I find that which strikes me as rotten about them to be more troublesome and destructive than the myriad things that are rotten about Democrats, I am not an unshakable true believer in either of the predominant sides and it causes me a great deal of concern to find various positions of both sides of the fence that strike me as at least reasonable to be so imperiously denounced as evil, or stupid, or malicious in their intent to destroy society. One feels yet again that something is seriously wrong with him not to comprehend what is evidently clear to myriad people of sound intelligence and the capacity for logical thought. How has this state come about, and what can one possibly do about it?

A lot of people on the "blue" side were apparently shocked by the election results. I was under the impression that it had been obvious for months that this was going to happen, and was actually surprised that the Dems managed to hold 53 senate seats. One thing that caught me off guard was the wipeout the Democrats suffered in my own state, losing both seats in Congress and having their senatorial candidate get slaughtered by 61%-36%. Official unemployment is only around 5.5% here, the state finances are in pretty good shape compared to just about everywhere else, immigration is essentially a non-issue, the schools are usually rated in the top 3 or 4 states in the country--not that they are on the level of the German gymnasiums circa 1910, or actually good at all, but they are evidently not the apocalypse-summoning disasters that the majority of our state school systems are. People in New Hampshire hate taxes, and apparently were convinced by the arguments that the Democrats have a master plan to tax them, and all productive economic activity, out of prosperity forever, though unless I have missed something I don't believe there have been any significant tax increases enacted under the Obama regime.

I admit I do not trust business interests, once given the free rein which they are increasingly demanding, to pursue ends which are broadly and substantially beneficial to the mass of the people. One thing that was harped on repeatedly in this election cycle was that business must be unshackled--from taxes, regulations, health care costs, pension commitments, and so on (dictating by the way that the government itself cannot pick up the slack in any of these areas either)--and that enacting such policies is the only hope for any kind of broad recovery. The business element, and to a lesser extent various other high-status professional elements, constitute a troublesome entitled class of their own, the entitlement being the right to a certain level of income when there is no source of money in the broader society to support those incomes. Real estate, health care, banking obviously, higher education, all are still grossly overpriced comparative to the overall societal ability to maintain them financially, and the people at or near the top of these pyramids--rather incredibly to my mind--seem not to realize this and to take the lead in adjusting their own compensation downward. The approach right now seems to be in the direction of telling 90% of the population that such are the going rates for these services, such will always be the going rates for these services, and that if they aren't prepared to pay up, they will have to forego access to them. This attitude will be political suicide within 10 years--I can't believe it isn't already--and new models, probably much more blatantly socialistic than the right's worst nightmares today, as an increasingly old population on the one hand, and a younger one that has endured a decade or more of steadily increasing impoverishment and limited opportunities for economic self-sufficiency as it set out to make its way in life demands political action in these areas.

That is my loose perception of what is going to happen. The right wing models have no chance of working for the mass of the people--a people that is in preciptitous decline on many fronts as a strong and civilized polity, not merely financially--as long as they are beholden first and foremost to corporate greed and the maintenance and enhancement of the already privileged. And yes, the establishment Democratic party is beholden to many of these same interests, but to me there is at least some hope of eventual disattachment from this position because blind worship of capitalism at any cost is not an absolute a priori requirement for membership in its ranks.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Some Old England Pictures Vaguely in Honor of Pope

These are from 1999, randomly chosen with the exception of Pope's birthplace site and the last one. 1. Plough Court, off Lombard Street, City of London. Birthplace of Pope. Plough Court is an alley of which the black wall in the above picture constitutes one side. There is a plaque on this wall commemorating Pope but unfortunately it did not come out in the picture. The sunny street to the right with the old-looking church (many of the old-looking churches in this part of town are actually reconstructions, the originals having been bombed out; I don't know whether this one is a reconstruction or not) is Lombard Street.

The area known as the City, which is now the financial district and has hardly any residents, was until about 1800 pretty much the whole of London, and thereafter constituted the more downmarket but heavily populated Cockney homeland until the bombing wipeout in 1940-41. As a result, it is an area that was home to tons of writers and numerous legendary historic places, including pretty much everyone and everything before the 19th century, most physical reminders of which, however are gone. Nonetheless, a few things are still around, such as St Paul's Cathedral and other churches, Samuel Johnson's house, the Cheshire Cheese Tavern, etc. Many of these are dismissed as tourist traps I guess, though if you have some feel for the 18th century atmosphere these relics can still speak something to you.

2. Rye, Sussex. Plaque Commemorating the Former Position of Henry James's Garden House, Destroyed by Bombs, 1941. Not a flattering portrait, but you can't run from the truth forever. I was 29 here. By 29, or thereabouts--the 30th birthday is not an absolute deadline, but it seems to be pretty close to one--you have either become a genuinely serious, more or less realized person or that destiny has at last become inaccessible to you, and you are effectively marking the hours--thanks to the advances of modern medicine hideously many hours--until you come to your physical end. I am pretty sure I still harbored hope I was going to be able to sneak in under the wire at this point, but now I look at this picture and see it was pretty much...

Despite the unfortunate fate of the garden house, the actual Georgian House where Henry James lived, to the perpendicular right of the wall in the photo here, still stands, and is sometimes open to the public, though it was not when we were there.

3. 39 Cornhill, City of London, With Steeple of St Michael's Church in Background. This building, formerly, and perhaps presently, a bank, was built on the site of the poet Thomas Gray's birthplace (1716). Gray was commemorated on one the lower floors with a nice embossed plaque and a few lines from the "Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard".

We took this little walk around the City on a Sunday morning, when the place was more or less deserted. The plane had landed around 6 or 7 am and we weren't able to check into our hotel until sometime after noon. Very little was open--in the 90s at least, Europe was still effectively closed on Sunday, especially before mid-afternoon/evening--even the ATM machines didn't work for our bank cards until noon--so although we were very tired we passed the time by walking around the old City and yes, crossing a few items off one of my myriad lists, but there is supposed to be a purpose to the lists, they are intended to arouse my curiosity and awareness of more elevated modes of living by placing me among scenes which have spawned or inspired or impressed great cultural and historical figures...Oh well. 4. View From the Bell Tower in the Old Church (St Mary's?) in Rye, Looking Over a Field of Sheep in the Direction of the English Channel, Which May or May Not be Faintly Visible in the Distance. Rye is perhaps a little too perfect of a quaint old English town to be perfectly enjoyable--it's very wealthy, has a preponderance of shops selling jam and teapots and such, has no edge, the whole presentation seems stilted--but it was still pretty.

5. Canterbury Cathedral. Worth the trip. I liked Canterbury town too. More lively and stimulatingly laid out than Rye. I think there might be a university of some kind, or perhaps just the cathedral's tony high school. Anyway, there were a lot of vaguely academic-seeming young people around.

6. In the Penthouse Suite in Portsmouth, England. Not right on the strand, but the Channel was only a few blocks away--Can't you smell it? The room is humble but as you can see it was fairly clean by the standards of a cheap English seaside hotel. Portsmouth is more of a city, population of 200,000 or so, and while there is a long promenade with fish and chip shops and the like and a sort of small rocky beach, I didn't notice much sand, at least near where we were. The holiday crowd tended towards the hooligany side but I didn't encounter any difficulties with them, and I actually enjoyed it there. We did see a few things there and then caught the overnight ferry to Le Havre in France (arriving there on Sunday morning as well, which is even deader than Sunday morning in England, and again with no access to cash until after noon).