Saturday, May 26, 2012

Songs: The (Mildly) Testosterone Informed Edition

I had forgotten about this for many years. Great video.

Back in 1985, we still thought it was our birthright to have a girlfriend who was not only physically perfect, but extraordinarily friendly and kind as well (The Karate Kid, which I believe came out in the same year, also mined this vein, as did doubtless numerous other examples which I cannot at the moment recall). So this video did not strike a great part of the viewing public as ridiculous or a cruel lie as one might expect, but as the way teenage life properly ought to turn out if you were not incredibly unlucky. I was fifteen in '85. I recall it as a pretty positive time. I was in the end of my freshman year and beginning of my sophomore year in high school, and it was one of the three or four brief windows of time I have had in my life where I can actually say some development occurred. That was the year I first started to read a lot of old literature, or at least 19th century novels, and at the time it seemed to have a significant effect on my mind, enough that the idea that if I were a kid today I would probably be too immersed in trying to make friends on the internet to bother with reading those books disturbs me a little. I also gained about 20 pounds, which only brought me from 145 to around 165, so it's still not like I was terrorizing people at the beach, but things seemed to heading in the right direction (after this unfortunately I didn't gain any more weight at all until about the mid-90s). I also even improved enough in basketball that the other guys on the team allowed me (tentatively) to give them an occasional nod acknowledging social connection when I would pass them, often while they were engaged in talking up some chicks, in the hallway or cafeteria. Unfortunately all this progression came to a sudden halt around the middle of my sophomore year, and improved very little, and correspondingly got very little out of, my remaining years in high school. Even my reading tailed off considerably, and the initial intensity and rush of fulfillment that I had felt during the fall and winter of '85 burned themselves out, though they would at least reappear in a couple of periods of similar duration, one during college up to about the middle of my junior year, at which point I was evidently sated for the time being and ceased to progress any further in that environment, and then one last for about 18 months in '96 and '97 during most of which time I was in Prague. Since then, however, I have not had any similar burst of consciousness of any expansion of my mental powers. I have kind of resigned myself to the idea that it probably will not happen again.

There are legions of people in the world who are adamant that the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock group in the history of the world, and will not truck any discussion to the contrary. I am not one of these advocates, as I only really like about seven or eight of their songs, all of which are among the famous ones (I don't think I can even name a Rolling Stones song that was not a massive hit). I also see, through this video research, that almost all of their best songs were released in the 2 or 3 year period at the very beginning of their careers, off of which brief space of time the group and its individual members have been living large for close to a half-century now. I don't begrudge them this, because they are very cool and these early songs really are amazing to think of in their moment, but I am surprised, and frequently am surprised in the case of artists, by how brief the window was in which their particular genius flourished. The much lamented Brian Jones, who has now been dead so long I don't think he can be referred to as "late" anymore, really hasn't missed a whole lot (apart from what he himself might have contributed), as far as major artistic achievements are concerned, by dying in 1967.

Another great song and video from farther back than I had realized. The atmosphere in this is so intense. The way the girls were just put into a trance back in the day by these rock groups is just incredible. I really think the display of these things on TV contributed to throwing the entire society out of whack. The average (beta or below) man, it suffices to say, in the days before television would have easily passed all the days of his life without having the slightest idea what women under the influence of intense hormonal excitement looked like, unless they happened to walk in on one in the act of being seduced by the great alpha male of both of their circumscribed world, though even in that case it would not have behooved Beta Man to study the scenario more closely given the physical proximity of a superior man. Once the young men of the television age began seeing footage of their female years swooning and having apparently lost all ability to control their presentation, naturally producing a proximate reaction in some such lady or group of ladies through their own exertions overwhelmed all other considerations, especially of a courteous and honorable nature.
All this acknowledged, it has been my experience that the most hardcore Rolling Stones fans have been overwhelmingly male, along with a few females of the type who were generally left unsupervised by any parental figure in high school and took full advantage of that freedom to make themselves the kind of girls that even bad boys hesitate to introduce to mother.

With regard to the comment threads on these videos, which reveal a lot of things that I find interesting, the commenters on the Stones videos are around 80-90% male, and heavily focused on how forkin' cool they are (which is absolutely true, if you're a generic white male, nothing looks cooler than Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, et al 1965-66) while Beatles videos, especially the early ones, even in 2012 are dominated by girls talking about how cute they are. "Nice" girls especially really do seem to uniformly prefer the Beatles, however awesomely cool the Stones are, and I think they are still the majority, albeit a shrinking one, of the women out there, especially in the serious dating and marriage market.

I don't think I had ever seen this. It's beautiful. Probably the most unabashedly and self-consciously 'English' video they ever made, and because it is them, it works perfectly.

I'm not sure why I am fascinated with this one. I'm in a mini phase where I'm suddenly interested in what was going on around '78-'82 in this particular niche of music, because there were a lot of very good, original, and natural sounding songs emanating from this wave, especially in England, but there some from America too, such as, I believe, the one below. By natural sounding I mean they don't sound forced or overly labored over, but as if they arose out of some urgent circumstance of life at the time which carried, or at least suggested, its own form with it already. The Elvis video I guess just reminds me of what a different world it was in the late 70s, especially in England. Old English music shows like Top of the Pops always give me the impression of being like a community television production, where these guys who are famous all over the world are somehow playing at the corner pub in front of a bunch of people who knew them at grammar school and cannot be in awe of them because they know the drummer's grandfather was a cabbie. It just isn't the same vibe I get from similar programs in this country.

This is a truly excellent song. This guy is from Detroit, though the song is very much in the British pop style, and as such has, for me at least, something of that intimate, non-bombastic feel that I like, but with rock music, especially after 1960 or so, mostly identify with British acts. I don't know why that style of music or songwriting is not more common in America (nowadays). I do often think that the consciousness of the "global" market or audience--maybe even the national one--has something to do with it. Hank Williams and Louis Armstrong, if they are not global icons (though they may be), are certainly famous nationally, but I suspect most of their good stuff was written with a very narrow demographic in mind. The same could be said for almost all of the 'Great Books", Shakespeare and certainly the Greeks, included. I really don't think most of our canonical authors were anticipating the day when Leo Strauss and his school would emerge to properly interpret their work. They wrote their works for the flesh and blood people they knew. Obviously in most instances--music perhaps especially--you do have to have a good audience that is going to be receptive to something that is interesting and new. But people who have not achieved a high degree of intimacy with the predilections of their prospective audience, whomever they anticipate that as being, are going to struggle to produce anything that is pleasing to anyone

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Songs: Would-Be Intellectuals and Sophisticates Should Definitely Take a Pass

Reconnecting with some of my old girlfriends.

This is about the farthest foray into cheesecake that any of the Lennon sisters ever attained. Sadly, such explorations of the possibilities of their latent sexiness were pulled back sharply after this enchanted Indian summer of warmth and almost-exuberance. This seems to have been the best opportunity to take a gander at Dianne's legs ever afforded to the public as well. In the episodes after this season (this is another clip from '64) severe restrictions on the girls' movements, such as a total ban on anything hinting at sensuality more explicit than some occasional suggestive eye-batting, appear to have been implemented, and the more constrained, exacting Dianne emerges upon the scene.

While I like her rendition of this song because it is hers, it does not measure up to that of the frequently awesome Eydie Gorme:

If Dianne Lennon is my wife and Judy Garland is the girl I like but who is just too unstable to become emotionally involved with, Eydie Gorme is the girl I see secretly on the side and actually like a lot but don't really want the whole world to know about. She combines Ethel Merman's ability to hit the back wall of the auditorium with Judy Garland's sense of how to deliver a song--not that Ethel Merman is lacking in this regard either but Eydie Gorme's delivery reminds me more of Judy Garland's, patiently drawing it out at a relaxed but purposeful pace, guiding the listener through its inherent character and building up to a rollicking climax without being overdramatic or losing the bond with the audience. I feel like this particular approach is something of a lost art. It isn't that these old singers didn't like to show off and get a lot of attention, but they are able to convey a sense of excitement and being caught up in some dynamic current of real life that is very exhilarating to hear.

Speaking of Judy G, somebody working on her behalf is very assiduous at taking down all her old movie footage almost as soon as it appears. However, there are still any number of generic song postings, such as her version of "Stomping at the Savoy" which was recorded when she was 14. As with most of her renditions of songs, this is the definitive "Stompin'" for me now:

Her voice was expressive of the times in an artistically good way right up through the end of World War II, but those last pre-war years, '36-'41, she was really attuned to something essential in the spirit of the age that was also perhaps its most admirable as well as important characteristic. I admit I have not yet figured out what this might be, at least not so as to present it concisely--I think it has something to with being  unapologetic, unconscious of this unapologetic quality, dissatisfied, restless, eager for life and capable of enjoying it earnestly, for a moment at least, all at the same time. But these are as yet vaguely gathered impressions.

Coming back down to earth with a ridiculous Lennon Sisters video from 1967:

The poor dears had to endure the indignity of growing more and more infantile in their act as they got older, for which their singing suffered tremendously. Indeed, as far as the quality of their songs went, their peak was attained around 1956-59, when they were still children and teenagers. All that said, they still look so good  I just don't care how lame they are, or submit to being. They're probably also pretty staunch Republicans of some kind. If so, at least they are a somewhat appealing advertisement for adhering to that ethos. I doubt they are Nazi Sympathizers or anything really bad. While I genuinely am turned on by girls who are fiery socialists if I shied away from falling in love with Republicanettes in my youth it was secondarily to do with their beliefs; I'm sure I instinctively figured I didn't have enough money or swaggering dominance (at that time, of course; not now) to meet what I perceived to be their exacting requirements.

I could never quite get into Fleetwood Mac, though they sure have a heck of a lot of famous songs. More than Journey even. This one was a radio hit when I was in 11th grade, and it reminds me of the incredible desperation I had to engage in life in those days and the accompanying limited ability to act upon that desperation in any adequate way, and not just with regard to sexual and romantic things, but pretty much everything. I had not been aware until recently that the video was an adaptation of the famous school-poem "The Highwayman".

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Literary Studs, Part Zero

This was intended to be a new, and comparatively exciting, occasional feature. And while it still may be, I was disappointed to find that I had not remembered correctly the passage I was planning to use for my first entry, in which the protagonist of the studly encounter recorded there was not apparently, or at least obviously, the author himself. If this were to prove to be a pattern, I don't think the series would ever take off. However, as the author in question is Theater of the Absurd virtuoso Eugene Ionescu, from his 1968 memoir Past Present Present Past, I suppose one cannot be wholly certain:

"M. has just married a young girl, a very beautiful, very poor one, it would appear. She cheated on him three weeks before the wedding. She told him so. He had noticed that something serious, something mysterious had happened and she finally confessed. She had told him how it had happened. She was simply walking in the street, a man accosted her, and she immediately followed him to a hotel. She experienced pleasure, she said. He is furious and very upset. He is sick over it. He sends her away, takes her back, forgives her. But he does not forget. She has never seen the other man again. But the young husband thinks of this adventure day and night: he cannot contain his jealousy. He is so jealous that he envies the other man. How lucky he was, he says. He would like to be in the other man's place, to experience the happiness, the joy of being followed by his own wife. But that is not enough: in order for it to bring him even greater joy, someone must suffer because of it. Someone else must be mortally jealous. Stealing his wife from someone is his fondest dream."

Who knows, perhaps the entire story is made up. It made a deep impression on me the first time I read it, years ago, in a library, before children, probably before the internet, long before I had abandoned my cherished self-image as the kind of person who might someday, though only God could have known how, be like the people in such a narrative as this, or any people in any narrative worth reading. I had completely forgotten about the aspect of the man being cheated on, even though it makes up about 80% of the story. My entire emotional response was to the seduction in all its Parisian and literary grandeur and thoroughness. It is a beautifully set up and executed little passage. The sentences "How lucky he was..." and He would like to be..." are the most significant though of a piece with the others in their lightness and unstrainedness of construction; nonetheless a considerable accumulated weight from the sentences preceding is balanced upon them...the skill here is most admirable. The sentiments in these sentences are often true even when there is no such dramatic event of which to be jealous. One can be jealous of one's own past self if he senses he was loved more in some desirable way that he no longer is, even if he did not realize it enough to properly enjoy it at the time.  

Skimming over the book as a whole again after so many years I wonder where I got the impressions of it that I did and which I have carried with me during this time, more than many, many other books. It has doubtless always been another reminder to me of some great lost--at least to me--literary and contemplative European world, the Parisian version of which especially being more or less the all-around pinnacle of this particular mode of existence as far as beauty, lifestyle, romance, historical significance, etc, etc, etc. This book especially being the work of a man who had navigated war, political upheaval, exile and the difficulties of attaining literary distinction to find himself in comparatively calm and distinguished circumstances in middle age evoked to a greater extreme than usual perhaps images of reading and writing by the open French doors of a third story apartment very near the center of town, with a view of a park across the street through the gap in the gently fluttering curtains, which street is quiet apart from the occasional Peugot or Citroen which breezes by, occasionally sauntering down to get some bread or a glass of beer, or, of course, to pick up a woman. While the overall effect of the book must call to mind something of this seemingly calm sense of life undistracted by the constant intercession of loud, ugly elements of a grossly inferior nature, reality was of course never experienced like this at the time, or, among other things, they would never have been able to create the kind of literature that they did produce. The bulk of the actual  substance of the book is excerpts from the diary the author kept during World War II, which he passed about half in Romania (his native country) and half in France; comments on the buildup to the Arab-Israeli War of  1967; intellectual politics in communist and western countries; memories of childhood with many literary touches. The writing is often strident, though the effect of it is calm, or at least unburdened by a need to be more or other than it is, which is why is makes such an impression on me, I think. It has some sense of its having a place in a wider stretch of time anyway than those efforts of the current generation, though I don't believe there can be very many readers of Eugene Ionesco's memoirs left either. That doesn't really matter that much though, I don't think. It exists and its effect is still there to be made, that effect being among others the impression that if your mind is well-ordered, and you possess language and you know what you want to say and that what you want to say is very much smarter, or at least different, from what everybody else says, that this puts most of life, even, I think, though this is often disputed by wise people who have endured such catastrophes, the worst situations, on a different footing, because if you have these qualities within you you have an agency to cope with them that constitutes an entirely different order of being from what is accessible to ordinary people; their value is always there, even if largely neglected.

Interview of our author from 1963. Unfortunately my ability to understand spoken French is not very good, as several commenters on this video observed that Ionescu spoke wonderfully in that tongue, such as is not really heard any more.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Movies of the Pontificate of John XXIII (1958-63)

The pictures came up on the new format in the opposite order from that I was planning to write about the movies in. That is my problem, but it is a relevant one. Still getting used to the new Blogger. I know I should change to Tumblr or something more up to date but as yet I don't want to lose the continuity.
It's too soon for another movie post, but I'll forget everything about all of these if I don't put it down now.

The Defiant Ones (1958)

An earnest, liberal-intended, clunky social message films of the 50s and 60s. Stanley Kramer, as far as I can make out, was the chief practitioner of this school of filmmaking, the particular methods of which are very much out of fashion these days, even with me, though certainly our day has its own didactic tendencies where its most treasured causes are concerned. I don't mind watching these movies on occasion as historical artifacts--and this one is at least less wince-inducing to sit through now than the later Kramer-Sidney Poitier collaboration Guess Who's Coming to Dinner--but there is nothing much inspired in them such as I am wont to look for.

I am considering officially adopting the opinion, based still on fairly scant experience and research, that the years 1955-1959, if not certain other ones on the fringes of these dates also frequently proposed as candidates, really were a down period for Hollywood. Going back through my essays here and recalling my previous filmwatching history, I cannot think of anything I have seen from this five year period (from Hollywood) that I either think of as really first-rate, or that made any significant emotional impact on me. I will probably now see two or three such movies in the next couple of months that give the lie to this assessment, but that is what I see at the moment.

Something that always strikes me about the films of this period compared to those of other periods, the pre-1950 era in particular, is how the world in which they take place, the sets and scenes, seems so uncrowded, uncluttered, quiet, devoid of activity and isolated. It is so noticeable to me that I have to attribute it to something affecting the collective psychology of the time, in which the very idea of a city street, a bedroom, a Sunday dinner, a dance hall, a train station, and all that one might expect to encounter there, suddenly became different from what these had been up to the 1950s. This movie completely partakes of this isolated, anomic, Twilight-Zonesque (to reference another characteristic entertainment of the period) atmosphere.
One aspect of the film I thought was good are the intermittent cuts from one of Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis's subdued and overwrought philosophical dialogues, by the end of which I was usually drifting off to sleep, to the comparatively lively (though ultimately still lackadaisical) police manhunt (the two stars are escaped convicts, one black, one white, who are chained together) usually accompanied by some groovy guitar music that one of the searchers was playing on a transistor radio.

The section with the character of the woman played by Cara Williams was ludicrous, but she herself was sturdy, handsome, loquacious, was really working the southern accent, or the imitation of one, and secretly desperate. All of which I was well in the mood for.

Tony Curtis is one of those people, whose number for me is now dwindling, but who are ubiquitous when you are a kid, who has been presented by the media as a big celebrity my entire life though his career was effectively over before I was born. Jerry Lewis is another guy in that category for me, as is George Hamilton, the guy with the tan (seriously though, what money is that cat living off of? Other than acting in a TV series that ended around 1965, what has he ever done? He's the equivalent of Gay Talese maintaining a reputation, an East Side townhouse and the most envied wardrobe in Manhattan on the strength of some magazine articles written in the 1970s). Anyway, this was the first time I had ever seen Tony Curtis, whom I have always known as fat, rather blatantly flaming in spite of having a well known wife and daughter, and prone to droning on ridiculously about his  youthful beauty. He wasn't much of an actor. Sidney Poitier is better, even with the lackluster material--he at least has a presence on the screen, which, yes, besides being the only black star in Hollywood for about 15 years, is probably why he remains a somewhat memorable and symbolic figure in movie history in spite of the dated and mediocre quality of all of his movies that I have seen.

The race relations aspect of this movie, which at the time it was made was both the point and one supposes the most striking thing about it, probably will not make much of an impression among most modern viewers--while I did not forget about it in the course of watching the film, there is little about it that will be novel to most adults in 2012, who will probably find the depiction of white racism too generously understated for a movie from the 1950s.

Look Back in Anger (1959) 

I also read the original John Osborne play sometime within the last year (actually April 18, 2011, to be exact), one of about  fifteen plays I read at that time which I will probably never get around to writing up my notes on here--not that this is any great loss to the public, but I believe that it sometimes provides modest benefits to myself. The dialogue is a little overwritten and awkward in the way it handles some of the scenes with the women but it knows what it is about more than most things I come across nowadays, and Jimmy Porter is really a good character, even admitting this tendency towards his being at times overwritten. I take to the films of this "Kitchen Sink" era very strongly, anyway. I feel as if the characters in them, even a nasty bastard like Jimmy, were missing friends of mine; that the way they dress, the way they drink at the pub, the way they read the newspaper or take a walk on a windy day, the way the girls look when they are sleeping, or kissing, or even the particular nature of their beauty (and the two female leads in this, Mary Ure and Claire Bloom, strike me as especially beautiful as a consequence of this), resemble what I have always perceived to be for me the most realistic, and therefore in some way most beautiful, or most poignant, manifestations of all these things more than I have found elsewhere. What does this say about me? Probably that I have more of a working class, or at least a mid-century working class mindset in me than I usually have the opportunity to fully indulge in. Am I an 'angry young man'? Perhaps in a latent sense. I find I am sympathetic to the attitude. 

The especial brilliance of the Jimmy Porter character (played by Richard Burton in the movie, I thought pretty distinctively, though critical opinion as well as Burton's own apparently consider the matter otherwise) is in the depiction of how relentless the pressure and stress he inflicts on the people around him are, especially the women; he is so overwhelming that whatever they think about him is reduced to irrelevance. He becomes the only plausible sexual option because everyone else is so lifeless by comparison. He is not a suave or especially charming or likable character, but he is a force of nature, a term which in recent times seems to be exclusively applied to women; men used to be forces of nature too however. I have not come across a lot of literary characters where this relentlessness of personality has been so consistently depicted and maintained. It is an accomplishment.

One of the themes of these movies of course is that the young people in them are stuck in these dreary, hopeless lives working in a factory or something and chained for eternity to a spouse they have discovered they don't like all that much. Of course someone entering adulthood in 1960 would just have retired within the last decade or so at the earliest, and things have changed a lot--granted, instead of giving their lives to the assembly line, the pub, and unhappy marriages, the British working classes seemed to have transitioned to the dole, binge drinking, chavism and American style obesity, but still, things must have gotten brighter for some people, perhaps especially the ones who really cared about the unpleasant direction their lives seemed to be heading in.     

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Ingmar Bergman movie centered around the rape and murder of a very young girl in medieval Sweden, based on an indigenous legend of that far off period. Although I am something of a Bergman fan, my instinct, or preference, in the past has been to avoid this kind of blatantly dark and unrelenting subject matter. So I have mainly only seen his comparatively happier films. Bergman was a real artist--as were a great many of the people he worked with, obviously, but his was evidently the dominant vision--and this was an important transitional movie in his progression, the style and look still retaining something of the cleaner, more youthful air of his 50s films, with the very direct confrontation with the grim and dirty realities of existence pointing ahead to the second, and in most serious critics' opinions, greater half of his career. As alluded to earlier, Bergman was always a working artist who had many projects going on in the course of a year, and the script and the way some of the themes and ideas of this movie are explored reflect that. I would not call it a wholly successful work--I certainly cannot say that I enjoyed it, if you believe that pleasure counts for anything--but it has very beautiful, memorable images, and it is frequently smart, or at least feels smart in the late Modernist, mid-century way which is my idea of feeling smart.

Though widely panned in Europe--the French I believe declared that they were finished with Bergman when this film was released--Bergman was still something of a novelty in America among the art house crowd at the time, and Virgin Spring even won the Oscar for best foreign film in its year. I know or have read of several people who were college age or just after at the time who have memories of seeing this and of its being a big deal at the time. Again, enjoying it or even having an opinion on whether it was good or not seems to have been less of a consideration than that it was just so different from what everybody here was used to as to be exciting. I like to think I would have fit in well in that milieu where young people found Bergman movies exciting, but I doubtless would not have gotten them and would have found them threatening and indecent had I actually been young at the time.

One Swedish reviewer at the time chastised Bergman for presenting an image of their country to the world as a "gloomy, introverted culture full of angst and despair." I love that quote.  

The Leopard (1963)   
This is going to be a speed review, as I am determined to finish this tonight. If I sense that there is any public demand for an expansion, I will try to satisfy it.

The book is one of the best books of all time, and is much beloved by serious people, so I think you have to consider the movie as a movie, and separate from the book. The movie does have some worthwhile attributes. It has a major director (Visconti) who does some interesting things. I like the long, leisurely pace of the scenes, and all the usual reminders of the old lost Europe, which was one of Visconti's specialties. I was reminded that I would still like to go to Sicily sometime, and wondered anew if I ever will get there, or will ever see Italy again at all. I thought Burt Lancaster was pretty good as the Prince, Alain Delon...

My time is up. I didn't even get to talk about the bombshell Claudia Cardinale, who however I must confess finishes behind the two British girls and maybe even Cara Williams in my affections out of this group, though I know she is one of the most scintillating, take me on the floor right now babes ever to grace a movie screen.

My writing just is not likable no matter how conscientious I am about it. I hope my children turn out more likable people than I am

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Top Six Mathematicians of All Time

(Note: April 29--I have been on vacation for a week, I was unable to get anything done for two weeks before that, and now the Blogspot site is all changed and I am having difficulty even in moving my cursor up and down the edit page with any of the speed to which we have become accustomed. I was also planning to reinvent myself during the hiatus but I have had to shelve that plan, for the moment anyway).

I was looking for a questionnaire, 'meme' or top whatever list to plug in here, not having done one for a while, when I came across someone's list of the 100 greatest mathematicians. I realized that I could not, without some struggle, name a personal top 10. It's pretty disgraceful, at least for a 42-year old man who is supposed to be interested in the life of the mind. I had meant of course to re-engage with both the history of math and some advanced mathematical studies at some point--once I had become established in my main career, I think--well, we all know how that goes. (Note: I was back at my alma mater last weekend. These visits always produce an odd muddle of sensations, most of which I will not get into here, but the book store there remains highly satisfying, the more so as places anything like it grow increasingly rare. Even the bookstores at colleges like Harvard and Dartmouth are Barnes and Noble-like, and while not bad, contain a lot of topical or practical-oriented material, as well as some total fluff. St John's is still having very little of that even in the general non-fiction categories, and the outsized portion of space given over to books of pure mathematics, Greek literature, musical scores, and philosophy make it quite unlike any other place in the world and maintain a tone of seriousness despite the increasing, though still modest, quotient of T-shirts and other souvenirs, which were almost non-existent in my time. At the same time all of this, as well as the displays of the college's collection of antique scientific instruments the purposes of which I for the most part cannot identify, serve as a sad reminder of all the learning I not only failed to retain, but failed to acquire in the first place. And the stuff they teach in liberal arts schools is supposedly child's play that the typical engineering graduate picks up in his free time over the internet.) (Another note: I am so desperate to finish this post that I am trying to distract my 3-year old with television and junk food. Unfortunately even that is not working). Since I cannot make up my own list, I am going to see what I know about the top 6 on that referred to above before looking up what they actually did (I am doing the top 6 instead of the top 5 because Euclid was ranked #6, and I have actually heard of him).

6. Euclid

Scene from the "School of Athens", of course, one of the central paintings of the western world, and, as I believe I had written elsewhere here, one of the more thrilling moments in tourism to see in person, not least perhaps because what is technically the 'main attraction'--that being the Sistine Chapel, which is however much more difficult to see and concentrate on in real time--still awaits.

We read the Elements, or much of it--all of the first 3 books, the 5th (? the one on proportions), the 10th--in the first year at the old school, and while it was always hinted that everything in its pages was subject to disputation, naturally it was hardly obvious to me where the vulnerability lay, and as such seemed perfectly reasonable and representative of some kind of truth, probably something along the lines of, there is an order to be found in existence that is independent of death and ugliness and stupidity, and the best part of our minds is that which enables us to make out what that is. The greater genius of moving/seeing beyond it, or even imagining that one must desire to do so, I was not to have a portion of, however. I was deeply impressed by the actual squares drawn onto the lines for the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, as were most of the mathematical naifs. That conception had simply never been hinted at anywhere in my previous life.

5. Bernhard Riemann

I don't know anything at all about this guy. I have never even heard of him

3. Carl Gauss

My pictures got out of order, so number 3 comes before number 4.

I have heard of Gauss, though I have very little idea of what he did. The picture of the bell curve on the 10-Deutschmark bill reminds me that his name is associated with that device, but I am assuming that if he is the 3rd greatest mathematician of all time this was not his signature accomplishment, or that there is much more profound import in it than is generally known.


There was an article in the New York Times last week (now a month ago) about a college student who died of alcohol poisoning in a fraternity hazing ritual. There are usually a couple of these a year. The comments were predictably full of indignation and disgust at the continued tolerance of this juvenile, anti-intellectual, and prelapsarian culture at many of our finest universities (the particular incident referenced in the article happened at Cornell). I am no lover of the fraternity scene myself. As a teenager I was so terrified of their reputed social and sexual power at the schools where they predominated that, knowing I could never be one of them, I was very much determined to go somewhere that didn't have them, and I don't regret having avoided them in my day. Nonetheless, it seems hardly to be disputed that, among those not constituting the true academic elite of the nation, which at most colleges is 1 or 2% of the student body if they are lucky, 15-20% at the better ones, and I suppose a little more than that at a few places like Cal Tech, the supposedly widely reviled fraternity boys are about the greatest winners, and greatest men, in our whole society. Have you ever met a member of a winners' fraternity who was stuck in support staff making $40,000 a year, or, God forbid, working retail, 10 years after graduation? Neither have I. It scarcely requires an effort to find examples of frat parties even at highly exclusive schools where the crudest, and by the supposed standards of respectable contemporary society most blatantly offensive displays of racism and misogyny are openly advertised and recorded for all the world to see that are well attended by scores of thin, physically desirable and willing women while legions of men for whom the thought of inadvertently causing offense to a minority or feminist or homosexual is a source of constant mortification enjoy another night of pizza, soft drinks, and dungeons and dragons, followed by a restful sleep unburdened by female company. Yes, the hazing rites sound ridiculous, juvenile, and unnecessarily dangerous, and certainly on the surface would appear to be wisely avoided; however, they evidently serve some important purpose that is essential to male development, since most men who successfully pass through them seem to do quite well in their careers and the social world of adulthood. I don't really understand it, but I suspect it's about demonstrating that you are one of 'us' in whatever milieu you are talking about, that you can be trusted to maintain the culture of success and achievement that you are gaining admission to, that you are worthy. How having to eat grapes that have been jammed up the buttocks of your fellow pledges directly from that place of storage--to give an example related by one of my high school friends--demonstrates this peculiar value is still rather mysterious to me, though again in this intance the gentleman I reference went on to attend Yale Law School and currently works intimately with the highest officials and most powerful interests in his state on matters of substantial and decidedly adult import, so I would have to say that at some level his socialization served him well.    

4. Leonhard Euler.
A complete blank. Nothing at all.

2. Archimedes

When I was in Annapolis last weekend I saw an attractive girl with Archimedes's quotation (in English) about being able to move the earth if he could find a place to stand on displayed across her upper back, in what looked to be a temporary tattoo.

A patriotic Syracusan, the mathematician turns up frequently in the ancient histories. Catapults designed by him provided an effective defense of the city, or at least caused the enemy no little consternation in its assault, on several occasions. The illustration above commemorates his famous bathtub epiphany. What was it again? I don't remember. It was not the lever problem. Was it the formula for cubic measurement? This is atrocious. I don't remember. I do remember that he was killed because he was so immersed in a geometrical problem that he ignored, or did not register, the commands of the encroaching army (were they the Romans? I seem to remember this from Plutarch. Archimedes lived later than the time of the Pelopponesian War I believe), though the overheated meathead who personally slayed him quickly became infamous among his own leaders when the identity of the old man was discovered.

1. Isaac Newton

My store of top Isaac Newton thoughts/knowledge:

I have the impression that Isaac Newton was the child of farmers, and that his mother was wholly illiterate and ignorant about the wider world. One legend about his precocity goes that given the first proposition in Book I of Euclid--perhaps it was even the first definition--at around the age of ten, he deduced the entirety of the remaining 47 propositions of that Book without further reference to its pages and stated that the work was rather obvious. I have no idea if this story has any credibility. I read it in passing once. Somebody, I presume his teacher or local clergyman, coming to the realization that they had a legitimate genius in their midst, got him some proper schooling and to Cambridge, where he doubtless belonged more than anybody else in the kingdom (or the Protectorate--I can't remember his exact date of matriculation) at that time. Author of the Principia, which is a dark horse candidate for the greatest book of all time, and was considered by many scholars at St John's to be the most genuinely difficult volume on the program there-- perhaps legitimately smart and educated people can work up to reading Hegel and Kant and even Einstein with some degree of familiarity, but the singular mind of Newton cannot be prepared for or really taught. Also a perennial candidate for the Most Important Figure in the history of the world, with his only challengers in recent decades usually being the now rapidly fading Jesus Christ, and Muhammed. He was reportedly unable to have satisfying relationships of any kind, personal or professional, his intelligence being so far beyond that of actual individual people that it was impossible for him to find any common ground with anyone on which to form an ordinary human friendship. His books are addressed to the collective knowledge of entire schools of hundreds or even thousands of scholars whose combined brainpower can only in rare instances begin to comprehend their meaning. Alexander Pope had a terrific man-crush on him.

I did look up the claims to fame of the mathematicians I knew nothing about, however I think it would be ridiculous even to copy the record of their achievements without having studied them, for the terms (Differential Geometry, Real Analysis, etc) mean no more to me than the names. I did look up Archimedes's biography, and he did live later than the Peloponesian War period (287-212 B.C.), and did die at the hands of the Romans. The discovery he came upon in the bathtub was of course that of the water being displaced by a mass inserted into it and that this principle could be applied to calculating volume. I definitely knew that, or at least I was familiar with the general parts of the story, at one long lost time.

Hopefully on to further (and better) posts after this dead period...I should do a link at least to the list I am taking these rankings from, but it will take too much time now at 10:52 in the evening. If lots of people complain about it I'll go back and put it in later...