Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Few More Notes on 'Poirot', a Modern Book Review, and a Telephone Poll

Still going through the Poirot programs; now up to 32 of the 36 episodes seen, including, most recently, "Triangle at Rhodes", which is often named as one of the highlights of the series. I did learn something I had not known before in this episode, which was that Rhodes, along with a number of other islands in the eastern Aegean, was a possession of Italy from 1912 until World War II (prior to that it had belonged to the Turks since 1522), and has only been a territory of Greece since 1947. I don't how I missed this--of all things I thought my knowledge of 20th century European territorial changes was airtight and whole. Had I actually discovered it on the internet I probably would have been annoyed, but once the program was over I pulled down my 1938 atlas, laid it open on the dining room table in the late night stillness and saw that sure enough, marked out by a fair-sized circular crimson blob with the chalklike texture of 1930s colored ink, the islands commonly known as the Dodecanese were outposts of the Italian Empire, and the aesthetic and private aspects of this discovery proved highly satisfying to me in a way that I cannot foresee the computer will ever be able to duplicate.

My favorite episodes tend to be those which pack the most extensive and various examples of my preferred types of persons, events and scenes of life into them, irrespective of the ingenuity of the plot. I like trains and train stations, art galleries, theatres, chop houses, London parties, nightclubs, the seaside, especially Brighton, explorations of high and low representative cuisine; outstandingly pretty girls don't hurt either. I suppose a top 5 to date would be (in no particular order): "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" (Artist who won't sell his coveted paintings murdered, main clue revealed in chop house); "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest" (murder at a posh London house party, jealousy over a beautiful noblewoman at center of case); "The Affair at the Victory Ball" (really awesome Venetian carnival-themed costume party, caustic show business people, and one of the foremost collections of 17th and 18th century continental porcelain in the world); "Yellow Iris" (great looking English tourist babe murdered amidst the chaos of a military coup in Argentina); and "Dead Man's Mirror" (obnoxious art snob murdered at his castle, theosophy, and a secret love-child).

Like all sidekicks, Poirot's Captain Hastings leads a most enviable lifestyle when viewed through the eyes of such as possess a similar lack of cleverness or useful job skills and have to pay for this with lower occupational status and a dull social existence (Hastings does appear to have some mechanical ability, but practices strictly at the amateur level). By tagging along with Poirot Hastings is able to scoot around an England uncrowded by motor traffic in his sports car, travel 1st class by rail, golf, shoot and ride horses while staying at country estates, eat fine dinners for he always has a tuxedo, or more likely several, to hand, lounges around Poirot's apartment reading the papers and listening to cricket matches, travels on ocean liners, visits Egypt--again always with the appropriate attire for every activity and locale. If I weren't married--for it does not appear they can be married--I might be tempted to advertise for a position as a sidekick myself.

Regarding the last bit above, I say tempted because I suppose these men of genius/sidekick of pedestrian ability relationships always suggest a homosexual connection, that, more often than not when they occur in real life anyway, does indeed seem to turn out to be the case. Poirot has an appreciation for well-executed feminine style that he is able to cloak in a Gallic dress, and upon meeting a great diva of the theater or opera he will even succumb to gushing; but his admiration is purely upon artistic grounds; there is clearly nothing recognizable as sexual or romantic interest at work. Hastings at times seems to be more affected by women of overpowering (i.e., unsubtle) physical charms, and will take a more aggressively chivalric attitude than Poirot does; however he has even less real rapport with them, or the nature of the mental world which they inhabit. It is not clear to me how aware Hastings is of the true nature of his friendship with Poirot. He's a pretty unsophisticated guy who tries hard to be agreeable to almost everyone. Acknowledging the sort of thing under consideration here even to oneself would not do.

My latest off-topic reading project, which took me about two and a half months to get through, was a rather clunkily executed work called A Guinea Pig's History of Biology by an Englishman named Jim Endersby. I finished it because I always try to finish books on subjects that I do know not know a good deal about. The premise of the book is to give an outline of the history of genetic studies especially, with each chapter devoted to a particular plant or animal or virus that had has been instrumental in moving these sciences forward--oenothera, drosophila (fruit flies), phage, maize, silverfish, a type of cress whose scientific name I have already forgotten. One cannot help but be impressed with the progression of this work, both the results and thought processes leading to the results of which contain much of great beauty and elegance, which are always the identifying characteristics of perceived truth. Unfortunately the processes of determining which plants or tiny animals might be suitable for experimentation, collecting and breeding various specimens of them, making meticulous records of their traits, isolating certain desired traits and breeding these apart from the rest, making more meticulous records, and so on, while the essential part of the science and doubtless important to work into the narrative, grows rather tedious over the course of a 432 page book to read about.

I have to confess that I greatly appreciated the all too brief interludes when we were given peeks into the more prosaic aspects of the scientific life. As most of the people featured in this book were identified as serious talents early in life, career progression for them was a relatively orderly affair--not everyone was always supportive of their aims, but most were able to procure good university or foundation positions--even if they themselves made the positions better than they at first appeared to be, the opportunity to do so had still been present. There was not a ton of romance--a few guys ended up marrying women who had worked as their lab assistants, but in all of these instances there appears to have been a prolonged relationship strictly relegated to the intellectual realm before evidence of a more animal attraction presented itself. While Cal Tech is not known for its party scene in most of the outside world, if you are a legitimate science genius it is a social as well as intellectual mecca; Nobel Prize winners host spaghetti and wine dinners where lighter but worthy topics such as Shakespeare and serious high level music are often discoursed upon as well as current mathematical and scientific conundrums. Scientists who complete their course of study in Pasadena and depart to take up positions in cultural backwaters where social life resolves around football such as the University of Oregon naturally long for this camaraderie and often have a great struggle to recreate some semblance of civilized intellectual life in their new locale, though, being energetic geniuses, they often succeed. Indeed it is one of the great disappointments of my own life, even moreso in some ways than the lack of having an interesting vocation, though both of these states I suppose are of a piece, that I have been unable to recreate anything like the charged and elevated mental atmosphere one can find, in pockets anyway, at a decent college even in my own home, let alone the wider community where I live. I have enough of the props--books, musical recordings, an antique house and furniture, a decent liquor cabinet--that our life need not be totally devoid of connection to the higher realms of activity and understanding; however I am not capable of transmitting the spirit of these realms in the least degree via my own agency, especially by way of discourse.

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I received an automated phone call the other day that was administering a political poll. I usually go along with these polls until they come upon a question I don't like or for whatever reason don't want to commit myself to an answer for. On this particular poll I was done at the first question, which was "Do you believe marriage should be between one man and one woman?" I did not want to answer yes, because the way the question is framed annoys me--you just know that whoever decided that this was the proper form to present the matter think that they are clever as hell--how about just coming out and asking if you support gay marriage, since that is all this is about? However I could not bring myself to say 'no' either, because, even at the risk of being hateful, I just cannot muster any enthusiasm for gay marriage and the prospect of coming out publicly for it in any way makes me feel ridiculous. If it were to come up as a plebiscite in my state--which I do not believe however that it can--I suppose I would abstain from voting on it. Pretty much everyone I know is virulently pro-gay marriage and talks as though anyone who harbored any reservations about it must be completely deficient both of brains and human decency. I do not agree with this position, but one must recognize that it is how people seem to regard the matter, and to me it is not worth losing friends and family members over. It is already the law in my state as it is, and no, it has not as yet noticeably affected my life, (though neither to this point have the laws regarding abortion, torture, capital gains taxes, eminent domain and many others which we are nonetheless expected to take positions on). Yet I cannot feel any sympathy for it or take it as an institution as seriously as I would doubtless be expected to. I suspect the sense that I am being browbeaten into claiming to hold a viewpoint I would prefer not to hold, or at least am not yet ready to embrace, or risk total ostracism from such respectable society as I know feeds into this resistance a little. It will be suggested that I have not given any reasons for even this emotional opposition I seem to feel, and that therefore the opposition is groundless. I suppose someday, if I cannot come around on this issue, I will have to examine with a finer eye the basis of my attitude on this subject. But right now I am going to leave that examination for a later day.

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