Monday, March 26, 2012

"The Death of Literature"

Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature considers some themes that he revisited a few years later in his memoir In Plato's Cave.  Of the two books, I prefer the latter, for Kernan is a wonderful memoirist, whether writing about Great Lakes Naval Station or about Yale and Princeton. Yet I am glad to have read the former, for its treatment of a number of matters.

Copyright is one. It is useful to hear that MPAA and RIAA are not the first groups to try to extend copyright as far as possible, and then some. In the chapter "Literature and the Law", Kernan discusses Cambridge University Press's attempt to establish a definitive edition of D.H. Lawrence--whose works by then were leaving copyright--and to suppress other editions. And
There is nothing new in all this. London booksellers throught the eighteenth century, as we shall see, claimed what they called "perpetual rights," even though the clear wording of the 1709 copyright act limited ownership of a text to twenty-eight years. Only a judgment by the House of Lords brought the matter to a momentary end, but publishers and agents have continued to strive for what they consider justice, and the Lawrence texts are only one of a number of similar attempts in recent years to establish new copyrights on the basis of new editions of works that continue to sell well.
Second, there is his notice of Lionel Trilling's book Beyond Culture (1967), including
In the face of the anger loose on campus, Trilling belatedly and painfully had to recognize what we have seen in chapter 1, that since the last 1700s literature had its face set against the mainline social order. Acknowledging that the classics of modern literature are not politically or socially neutral, he perceived, apparently for the first time, a "bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through modern literature."
Indeed. I find in Jacques Barzun's The House of Intellect (1959), I find
Where have intellectuals learned, together with their anti-intellectualism, these diffident gestures of the spirit? The answer is: in the novel. The novel from its beginnings in Don Quixote and Tom Jones has persistently made war on two things--our culture and the heroic.
Barzun's book did not precede Trilling's essays by much; yet Barzun gives little indication of surprise.

Kernan concludes the book
 The last phase of the old romantic and modern literature rather than ending in the 1960s may have extended to a last apocalyptic period in which the angels of death [e.g. deconstruction] were not visitants from some other world but exaggerated versions of positions which, positive in their earlier forms, became destructive in their extremes. The beginnings of a new literature would then appear, if at all, only when some new way, plausible and positive, is voiced to claim for the traditional literary works a place of some importance or usefulness in individual life and for society as a whole.
I don't know. It is my impression that the lesser English departments of Kernan's generation had something to answer for in turning out newspaper critics who had learned to apply a pound of analysis to an ounce of reading, and to examine the lyrics of Johnny Cash with tools and seriousness suited to John Keats. And the word deconstruction, which was hardly a rumor in the 1970s, has escaped into general use: I've seen requests for bids that used "deconstruction" in place of "demolition"; and a ludicrously fat catalogue from Restoration Hardware arrived today with entries for various deconstructed armchairs--where it seems to involve burlap.

Yet I don't see a large effect on the reading of those who do read. The novels that are advertised and read are not radically different in structure or sentiment from those advertised and read 50 or 75 years ago. The professoriate as justly dislikes many of these novels as the older generation disliked many of the hyped novels of their day, and surely wrongs as large a proportion with undue praise or blame.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Flag Code

I suppose that I was instructed in the U.S. Flag Code through the Boy Scouts, learning among other matters when to display the flag, namely from sunrise to sunset, and never in inclement weather. It is my impression that the exception
However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.
was added, or at least not widely used until about 35 years ago, and that it took me a while to become accustomed to seeing the flag flown at night.

This came to mind the other day when I saw a man in front of the National Geographic Building lowering the flags, the National Geographic Society's first. Certainly I've seen school children on flag details over the years, but by now I imagine the flag as always flying.

There is an exception also on the inclement weather rule, which reads
(c) The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed.
For much of the bicentennial year, 1976, I held a job where my duties included raising and lowering the flag on a very large pole--probably 30 feet--in front of the office. Denver has generally good weather during the summer, but can have violent thunderstorms in the late afternoon. One such afternoon the receptionist pointed out to me that a storm was approaching, and that the flag was still up. I knew that this was so, and I had a good idea of the distance of the storm (close) and the speed of its approach (fast), for I knew the rule of thumb that counts a mile for every six seconds in the interval between flash and bang. I had very little desire to be standing next to a 30-foot steel pole during an electrical storm; but something in the receptionist's expression precluded my explaining this, and I needed the job. Though the code says
(b) The flag should be hoisted briskly and lowered ceremoniously. 
 I must say that that afternoon's lowering was brisker than it was ceremonious. Old Glory and I got a bit damp, but there were no other ill effects.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


A couple of weeks ago found myself on the west side of old St. Patrick's church in lower Manhattan, the Roman Catholic cathedral for 70 years, until the new St. Patrick's was build in Midtown. I had passed it before, but this time noticed a sign to the effect that the entrance was on the east side. I arrived there just as did a crowd of high school students and some nuns. I asked one of the the latter about a famous early bishop of New York, and she pointed me to the markers. John DuBois, third bishop of New York, was French by birth and upbringing. It is said that he did not get along with the laymen, mostly Irish, who controlled the finances of the diocese, and requested that he be buried under the pavements, so that they might walk over him dead as they had walked over him alive. Certainly there is a marker just to the right of the entrance, with a plaque above it at chest height. Yet surely there are men buried under the aisles of cathedrals who were rulers in their sees. In any case, DuBois was succeeded by the Irish-born John Hughes, who seems to have had a better time of it.

Many blocks uptown, I found myself passing Marble Collegiate Church. There one sees a statue of its long-time pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, among many other books. He was pastor of the church for 52 years, almost exactly three times the length of DuBois's episcopacy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

X is the Best Language

Books, Inq. links to a post "Latin is the Best Language". I've seen at least one variation, with Chinese as the best language, and there must be more.

I have two attitudes toward languages:
  1. I wish I knew it.
  2. I wish I knew it better.
Both attitudes have shades of intensity. For the first, my desire to learn Russian is moderate enough that I've never tried, but it is much stronger than my desire to learn Bulgarian. "I wish I knew it better" of course comprehends English.

Few experienced programmers would say that "X is the Best Programming Language" without going on to say what it is best for. I doubt that there are many programmers using Ada to put up web sites, and I very much hope there are none writing avionics software in PHP. In the natural languages one may have to search further to find this level of discrimination. Fortunately, Max Beerbohm gave us the Duke of Dorset:
He wrote mostly in English prose; but other modes were not
infrequent. Whenever he was abroad, it was his courteous habit to 
write in the language of the country where he was residing--French,
when he was in his house on the Champs Elysees; Italian, when he 
was in his villa at Baiae; and so on. When he was in his own 
country he felt himself free to deviate sometimes from the
vernacular into whatever language were aptest to his frame of mind.
In his sterner moods he gravitated to Latin, and wrought the noble
iron of that language to effects that were, if anything, a trifle 
over-impressive. He found for his highest flights of contemplation 
a handy vehicle in Sanscrit. In hours of mere joy it was Greek
poetry that flowed likeliest from his pen; and he had a special
fondness for the metre of Alcaeus.

And now, too, in his darkest hour, it was Greek that surged in
him--iambics of thunderous wrath such as those which are volleyed
by Prometheus. But as he sat down to his writing-table, and
unlocked the dear old album, and dipped his pen in the ink, a great
calm fell on him. The iambics in him began to breathe such 
sweetness as is on the lips of Alcestis going to her doom. But, 
just as he set pen to paper, his hand faltered, and he sprang up,
victim of another and yet more violent fit of sneezing.

Disbuskined, dangerous. The spirit of Juvenal woke in him. He 
would flay. He would make Woman (as he called Zuleika) writhe. 
Latin hexameters, of course. An epistle to his heir 
presumptive... "Vae tibi," he began,

     "Vae tibi, vae misero, nisi circumspexeris artes
     Femineas, nam nulla salus quin femina possit
     Tradere, nulla fides quin"--

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Houses and Holdings

 I disliked looking at houses when we thought we might buy them. There is an element of personal judgment in an open house that made me uncomfortable, with the visitors evaluating the owners' decisions in renovations or expansions, decorating, furnishings, and other possessions, while at the same time the price tag set by owners ruthlessly judges the shoppers' financial status. But like many of our neighbors, I like to look at houses on the market in our area. Without the pressure of wondering whether we can afford it, I do like to see houses--oh, look, that's the same trim they used in our house--what people have done, and how they furnish them. (Which suggests that the discomfort was purely selfish.) A novelist I know very slightly, the friend of friends, said that he enjoyed visiting open houses to see how people lived.

For many years we would set out with the Washington Post real estate ads on a Sunday, and look at houses. We looked mostly within about four square miles of northwest Washington, DC, and a bit of Maryland. In Washington, we looked mostly in the area west of the park to about Reno Road, past which the houses became too expensive, but also in Shepherd Park and Colonial Village. In Maryland our bounds were Dale Drive in the east, Connecticut Avenue on the west, and the train tracks to the north.

Now, she has an excellent eye and strong memory for anything to do with houses. We have conversations now and then that begin

"We looked at that house before it was renovated, remember?"

I remember houses less by their space--unless that space is very large, very small, or oddly laid out--than by the objects in them: the art, good or bad, the exercise equipment, the family pictures, the books. An open house in the neighborhood the other day set me to thinking about objects I had noticed:
  • off Dale Drive in Silver Spring, a Heptateuch on the bookshelves
  • in Northwest Washington, somebody's Silver Star citation from 1967 or so
  • off Pooks Hill Road, the apartment furnished in bachelor--a weight set, a bicycle, and the photograph of a lean female midriff on the wall
  • off Nebraska Avenue, the house furnished largely with crates of LPs and with action figures--divorce or inheritance?
  • not far away, a house with 21 copies of John Lewis's memoirs on the shelves
  • in Hawthorne, a house with a beauty salon in the basement
  • also in Hawthorne, the house that had a gas fireplace and electric stove
  • in Shepherd Park, the neighbors with a score of wind chimes
  • everywhere, family photos, some reaching back nearly a century