Monday, April 30, 2012

A Metallurgical Metaphor

Today's NY Times has a review of Robert Caro's latest volume, headlined "A Nation's Best and Worst, Forged in a Crucible" (page C1) and "A Nation's Best and Worst, Forged in a Crucible of Presidential Assassination" (C6).

Forging in crucible sounds like a messy business, likely subject to breakage, spills, and splashing. Perhaps, though, the crucible is the only tool of metalworking that the copy editors have heard of. And what a "Crucible of Presidential Assassination" might be, I can't guess; maybe somebody's ear matched "crucible" with "crisis".

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Reader's Tastes

Noticed the other night in The Diary of John Quincy Adams, selections edited by Allan Nevins, entry for
September 24, 1829:
In the evening I read several of Madame du Deffand's letters. It belongs probably to the effect of age upon the taste and judgment that these letters are more interesting to me than any novel. They are records of realities. In youth it was directly the reverse--fairy-tales, the Arabian Nights, fictitious adventures of every kind, delighted me. And the more there was in them of invention, the more pleasing they were. My imagination pictured them all as realities, and I dreamed of enchantments as if there was a world in which they existed. At ten years of age I read Shakspeare's Tempest, As You Like It, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and King Lear. The humors of Falstaff scarcely affected me at all. Bardolph and Pistol and Nym were personages quite unintelligible to me; and the lesson of Sir Hugh Evans to the boy William was too serious an affair. But the incantations of Prospero, the loves of Ferdinand and Miranda, the more than ethereal brightness of Ariel, and the worse than beastly grossness of Caliban, made for me a world of revels, and lapped me in Elysium. With these books, in a closet of my mother's bed-chamber, there was also a small edition, in two volumes, of Milton's Paradise Lost, which, I believe, I attempted ten times to read, and never could get through half a book. I might as well have attempted to read Homer before I had learnt the Greek alphabet. I was mortified, even to the shedding of solitary tears, that I could not even conceive what it was that my father and mother admired so much in that book, and yet I was ashamed to ask them an explanation. I smoked tobacco and read Milton at the same time, and from the same motive--to find out what was the recondite charm in them which gave my father so much pleasure. After making myself four or five times sick with smoking, I mastered that accomplishment, and acquired a habit which, thirty years afterwards, I had much more difficulty in breaking off. But I did not master Milton. I was nearly when I first read the Paradise Lost with delight and astonishment. but of late years I have lost the relish for fiction. I see nothing with sympathy but men, women, and children of flesh and blood.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


I find that it takes me a while to get used to reading two words written as one, usually as part of a business name. I saw women with items of clothing or with bags marked "lululemon", a seller of women's athletic wear, and it took me a long time to read the name as "Lulu Lemon", as I gather it should be read. For some months I was sounding it inwardly as a double iamb: luLUleMON. Fortunately,  I never had to discuss it with anyone.

Then there is the restaurant "levelone" on 17th and S Sts. NW. After about dozenth time I walked by, I read "Level One". Yet I still can't shake the feeling it should rhyme with "provolone".

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Truth in Danger?

James Russell Ament links to an Utne Reader piece on "The Death of Telling the Truth". It seems to me that, on the contrary, the illness is not mortal but chronic.

Do politicians lie more? Maybe. If so, though, it probably because they have more parties to placate. In the days of monarchies the statesman had pretty small constituency to worry about. Yet courtiers were not always known for keeping their words, were they? Ralegh's disdainful "Epitaph on the Earl of Leicester" includes the line
Here lies the noble Courtier, who never kept his word;
Do the rest of us lie more? I'd say the evidence is not clear there. To go way back, Sir Henry Summer Maine write in Ancient Law that
No trustworthy primitive record can be read without perceiving that the habit of mind which induces us to make good a promise is as yet imperfectly developed, and that acts of flagrant perfidy are often mentioned without blame and sometimes described with approbation. In the Homeric literature, for instance, the deceitful cunning of Ulysses appears as a virtue of the same rank with the prudence of Nestor, the constancy of Hector, and the gallantry of Achilles.
More generally, it is probably unwise to expect strict adherence to the truth when the party is speaking is at a disadvantage as against the audience, and particularly when party speaking considers the audience's advantage to be unfairly gained. Trollope thought the Irish of his time there "but little bound by the love of truth"; one could multiply examples.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Would Flashman Say to This?

A visit on Wednesday to Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan turned up a copy of Quartered Safe Out Here, a book I remembered glancing at on the shelves of Olsson's almost 20 years ago. I bought it, and set the book club's May novel aside until I finished it.

Quartered Safe Out Here, George MacDonald Fraser's memoir of his service in the late stages of WW II in Burma, is as good as I supposed it must be back in the 1990s. Fraser served as a private soldier and eventually a lance corporal in the Border Regiment, part of the 17th Division, in the fighting around Meiktila and Pyawbwe, and in smaller actions thereafter. The men of his section ("squad" in American) were mostly from around Carlisle, as he was. He was unusual among them, as coming from a prosperous family, and as being by name and identification Scottish, but seems to have gotten along well enough. By the time Fraser reached the line, the Japanese army had been badly damaged at Imphal, and was nearing collapse; largely it was a war of movement. The memoir lacks the nightmare quality of the later stages of E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed, though no doubt the older hands in his section had seen fighting as awful around Imphal as the American troops saw on Okinawa.

I was amused, however, by a couple of passages I would not have imagined coming from the author of the Flashman books, regarding a leave in Calcutta:
 Maybe sex is more important nowadays than it used to be. Or maybe we were a more restrained, inhibited, pious, and timid generation. But I was interested to note that Nine Section, who for months had been deprived of female society, and had remarked on the fact from time to time showed no tendency to behave like Casanova gone berserk. They eyed what talent there was in the bars of Chowringhee, danced with abandon at the service clubs, and chatted up the Wrens, Waafs, ATS, and nurses, and that was about it, apparently.
Forster was an interesting case. On our first night in Calcutta he spruced himself up with Lifebuoy, flourished the prophylactic kit he had drawn from the M.O.'s office, admired himself in the mirror, sketched out a programme of debauchery which would have frightened Caligula, and strode forth like Ferdinand the Bull. Three hours later back, full of gloating accounts of his sexual heroics, and unaware than in the interval Grandarse and I had been sitting three rows behind him in the Lighthouse cinema, watching Laurel and Hardy.
Well, as Mencken wrote long ago, men are gaudy liars when it comes to their amours.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Mystery Solved

Wednesday's Washington Post explains the curious structure on the JCC steps: it is a model of the Supreme Court Building, made according to plans provided by the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Students at the Corcoran College of Art built it, which helps to explain the quality of the model. They built four, and coated this one in lacquer, which helped it survive a fortnight--a mostly dry one--outside.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Noticed at the JCC

Tuesday I caught the bus at 16th and Q Sts. NW, where I noticed this

namely a cardboard temple on the steps. Somebody put a lot of careful work into this, yet I find no allusion to it on the JCC's web site. It was still there Thursday morning, looking good; we've had a dry week.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"In Plato's Cave"

I first read Alvin Kernan's academic memoir, In Plato's Cave, in a copy borrowed from a friend. The copy I purchased later I lent out, and have not seen since. A visit to The Strand last month yielded a copy, which I have been rereading. I knew that it was good, but had forgotten just how good. I suspect that anyone who studied the humanities (and enjoyed doing so) in an American university during the second half of the 20th Century would find it of interest.

Kernan was of the generation that went through college largely on the GI Bill. One of my better professors had been a radioman in the Navy, another had flown a B-17, so I knew something of that generation as teachers. Kernan offers a picture of his cohort as it moved from college through graduate school, and an academic career. His career was carried on at better universities--the ex-radioman was said to be resentful that a colleague in the department had had an offer from Harvard when he had not--yet something of the picture is recognizable even to one who went to school in the provinces.

As some professors do, he writes wonderfully, and it is a temptation to simply string together quotations. On why some of us became English majors, for example, and some of them went on to teach:
[His stepfather] wanted something more solid, and law school seemed a reasonable thing to try. It still seemed so when I began college, but as time passed, my courses in political science and economics seemed uninteresting and my efforts in them not particularly successful. I
somehow always got the facts right but never assembled or interpreted them with any flair. In literature courses, however, I did nothing except for reading the texts, and still I always seemed to get at once to the core.
On a hard school of instruction now past:
Sullen and unread students challenged to explain why Hamlet disliked his uncle, or just what Keats felt when he looked at the Grecian urn, were likely to reply, "I don't know ... sir." To which the appropriate answer, delivered with an ugly smirk, was thought to be "What d'ya mean, you don't know? Are you stupid, or something?" Later generations regard this instructional method as sadistic, and by the time I retired it would have had me up before the dean on harassment charges; but in universities still for the most part male and with no illusions about how difficult it is to get the attention of a human being long enough to let a new idea slip into his head, it was the normal tone of instruction.
On life as government regulations follow government funds:
Phrased in this way, it difficult to argue against these causes and values, and I will limit myself to pointing out that it is equally obvious that government regulation has been entirely a social, not an educational project. Nowhere along the way was there a single move toward actually stiffening educational requirements or improving teaching. That the the teaching terms should be longer, that foreign-language requirements should be imposed everywhere, that government fellowships or loans should depend on high academic standing, that a writing requirement be made universal, that tenure standards should be raised in departments getting government grants, these were not causes that interested the legislators and the bureaucrats in Washington and the state capitals, or the special-interest groups in the universities that were their constituencies.
On the upshot of the De Man affair:
If there is one basic axiom of deconstruction it is surely il n'y rien hors du texte--"everything is text", everything, that is, is made up and unreal--but far from there being nothing outside of the De Man text, everything was out there, waiting to be called back into reality by the awesome power of words to retain and control meaning.
And there are the lighter bits. On discoveries at the unfashionable Exeter College in Oxford, for example:
Ranking things is the social skill at which the British excel above all others. Americans on a desert island would immediately begin making and selling things; Englishmen would start establishing who was superior to whom and by what symbols status would be made known.
The attentive reader can find the real names to match up plausibly to some of the characters in James Hynes's academic novel The Lecturer's Tale: who was Timothy Coogan, who Penelope O, who Victor Pescacane. There are bits to smirk  at in the painful farces around tenure decisions.

The heart of the book, though, is in Kernan's reflections on the changes brought on three fronts: the effects of electronic media and digitization in bringing into question the notion of literature that had prevailed for nearly two centuries; the increasing democratization of the university; partly coordinate with them, the collapse of an academic consensus not limited to English Departments, where it was largely represented by the "New Criticism", but conspicuous there, under the pressures of what can conveniently be called postmodernism or deconstruction. His picture is largely convincing to me, to the extent that I can judge it. It is argued lucidly throughout.

Early on, Kernan write of his undergraduate days at Williams
I soon found that one encounters only few really great teachers--with luck, maybe a really great one--in the course of an education.
One suspects that he may have been that teacher for quite a few students.

I'll conclude with an inconsequent note: The Strand's copy was evidently a review copy, for inside the book I found the release, dated March 31, 1999. I hope the recipient bothered to review it before he sold it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hearts and Wallets

Sunday's New York Times carries a piece, "Hungry Hearts", by Mark Edmundson, on the value of a college education, for those students who are driven to learn. The central sentence is
There are plenty of young people out there who will end up in jobs that don’t demand college degrees: yet college is still right for them.
The rest of the article is mostly about those students, and surely flattering to the reader--anybody who gets past paragraph one is thinking "Yes, that was me then".

Yet as someone who knew some of these students back then--none from impoverished families that I recall, but few from rich ones--and who knows something about modern-day tuitions, I wonder about the implication in
The implication here is that paying for college is like putting money into a set of stocks or a mutual fund. It’s an investment.
Well, yes. That has been the implication of American colleges for a good hundred years, and I dare say before that. I understand that a professor might regret this mercenary view, and I sympathize. However viewed, though, paying for college emphatically is paying, and these days it is paying at rates few of us can sustain for investing. Some numbers may show why I feel unease here.

Mr. Edmundson has been teaching for 35 years, he writes, which gives us a starting point at the academic year 1978-79. As I calculate it,
  • 1978-1979: U.Va. tuition $525, required fees $324, total $849; U.S. minimum hourly wage $2.65, ergo $106 per 40 hour week; a bit over eight weeks to make the equivalent of tuition and fees.
  • 2011-2012: U.Va. tuition $9,240, required fees $2,344, total $11,584; U.S. minimum hourly wage $7.25, $290 per 40 hour week; a bit over 38 weeks to make the equivalent of tuition and fees.
    So 25 years ago, a U.Va. student could expect to make most of his or her tuition and fees in the course of summer's work. Today that summer's work doesn't make much of a dent. (U.Va. figures--for Virginia residents--courtesy of the University of Virginia; minimum wage figures from the U.S. Department of Labor.)

    With room and board, the university reckons about $24 thousand per year for the Virginia resident. Some of those students Mr. Edmundson wants in his class come from families for whom that is a serious amount of money. Arguing against the notion of investment would be a good deal easier at a lower cost.

    Sunday, April 1, 2012

    The Day's Readings

    I have never considered what Karen Blixen's theological commitments may have been--quite possibly, none at all--but as Isak Dinesen she came up with a couple of curious reflections on Scripture that I don't remember to have seen elsewhere--not that I am learned in Biblical commentary.

    In the story "The Poet", collected in Seven Gothic Tales, one finds
      The Councillor also, in spite of his matrimonial plans, had got stuff for thought from the sermon. He reflected how strange it is that St. Peter, who was the only person who knew of it, and who must have been in a position to suppress it, should ever have allowed the story of the cock to get around.
     And the story "The Night Walk", collected in Last Tales, has its own odd reflection on that night.