Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

Odysseus and the NRA

From Emily Wilson’s lovely new translation of The Odyssey:

I put [the weapons] safe away from all that smoke.
Some spirit also warned me if you drink
too much and argue, you could hurt each other,
dishonoring your banquet and your courtship.
Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight.

This sounds like a classic gun-control position, refuting the classic “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” gun-rights line. Weapons themselves provoke violence. Gun control saves lives.

But! In context, the meaning is exactly the opposite. This is one of Odysseus’s deceits. He is preparing this line as an argument for removing the suitors’ weapons, to leave them defenceless when he chooses to attack them. The lesson: don’t listen to the sword-grabbers who claim that disarming will make you safer.

Odysseus for NRA president!

Dostoevsky on the Dunning-Kruger effect

From The Idiot:

There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own—to be, in fact, “just like everyone else.”
Of such people there are countless numbers in this world—far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can—that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.
To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving… Others have but to read an idea of somebody else’s, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The “impudence of ignorance,” if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases;—unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.
Our friend, Gania, belonged to the other class—to the “much cleverer” persons, though he was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the “clever commonplace” person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair.

(A description of the D-K effect here.)

True friends and False friends

This week’s Spiegel has a headline quote from Emmanuel Macron:

Ich bin nicht arrogant… Ich sage und tue was ich mag.

I don’t know whether everyone does this, but whenever I read a line translated from a language that I know well, I subliminally translate it back. Often you find, particularly in news reports, that lazy translators have used false — or at least dubious -cognates. For example, I vaguely remember a quote from an English source referring to a leader being irritated by protests getting translated into irritiert, which actually means confused.

In this case, my own subliminal process stumbled over the cognate tue, meaning “I do” in German — so Macron said “I say and do what I want”, but “I kill” in French. Which immediately mapped onto another language giving me a momentary flash of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the things he loves

It would have been pretty interesting if Macron had actually quoted Wilde to say “Je tue ce que j’aime”.

As for the other part, it’s probably a pretty good bet that if you find yourself insisting “I’m not arrogant”, you’re probably pretty arrogant. Speaking of which, I recently came across these videos of Donald Trump actually (and apparently unironically) acting out the classic punchline of the guy who boasts about his exceptional humility:

In the second one he manages to innovate beyond the obvious comedy of boasting about humility, by going one step farther and ridiculing the interviewer for being too stupid to be able to appreciate his humility.

Rejecting Voltaire?

Emmanuel Macron’s election speech was reassuring. Intriguing that he took his long walk to the podium with the European anthem playing, rather than the French. One thing that disappointed me: He rejected fear, lies, division, fatalism, all good things to reject, but I just can’t get behind

Nous ne céderons rien à… l’ironie…

I don’t see how he can claim to be defending the values of the Enlightenment.

The word he used at the beginning interested me:

Je sais qu’il ne s’agit pas là d’un blanc-seing.

I’ve never heard the word blanc-seing before. It’s funny that we use a french phrase, carte blanche, for the same thing.

Petard erection

A NY Times report on Trump’s first 100 days quotes senior Obama aide Ronald Klain

If Trump finds himself hoisted on the 100-day test, it is a petard that he erected for himself.

Does one erect a petard? I think not. Really, is it too much to ask, that a flack decorating his political bromides with Shakespeareana actually know what the words mean?

Closing time

Leonard Cohen is dead. Not an untimely or tragic end. But an end.

I never felt like he knew the secret of life. Not even that he knew reasons for hope. But maybe that he was pointing out something head intuited about how to live without hope. (Now may be a good time to go back and read Camus…)

I’ve been listening to his music a lot in the past few weeks. It suited my mood and, I thought, the mood of the times. I first encountered the song Everybody Knows in the soundtrack of the 1990 film Pump up the Volume, and was so impressed by it that I followed the credits to find out who was responsible for the song. Leonard Cohen. Never heard of him.

In those pre-amazonian days it was not an easy matter to find an unknown recording. I went to several record stores before I found a greatest hits CD, which give me my first hearing of Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Who By Fire, and so many more. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. Whereas people argue about whether Bob Dylan’s songs are poetry, with Leonard Cohen it’s not entirely clear whether his songs are really songs. And it’s clear that he was never sure himself, and he always seemed somewhat abashed by the fact, but as long as people thought they were, and wanted to hear him sing them, he’d oblige them.

I eagerly went to share my discovery with a fellow graduate student and folk music enthusiast. I played Suzanne for him. From the first bars he said, “That’s Leonard Cohen. He’s Canadian.” My friend was Canadian. I had no idea that there was such a gap between US and Canadian pop culture experience. I’ve since learned that Cohen has been hugely famous all over Canada and Europe, particularly the UK, since the 1970s.

Leonard Cohen’s words and music have accompanied my life ever since. With my partner of many years we bonded, early on, over noticing that we were sharing a snack of tea and oranges. A few years ago I was amazed that he had started producing albums and performing again. Beautiful new songs — the lyrics all his, the melodies mostly his collaborators, something he’s been doing since the 1980s. An unflinching openhearted reckoning with life and death, with the 20th century in all its horror and beauty. Religion, psychology, and eroticism. Jewish and Buddhist and Christian. Texts like

Show me the place, help me move away this stone.
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone.
Show me the place where the word became a man.
Show me the place where the suffering began.

and

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen,
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their story
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring,
It was almost like the blues.

But I always come back to the Leonard Cohen lines I first heard:

Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows that he fight was fixed
The poor stay poor and the rich get rich
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

Everybody knows the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody’s got this sinking feeling
like their father or their dog just died.
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
and a long-stemmed rose.
Everybody knows.

The NY Times has posted a link to a 1995 profile that includes this quote

I’ve always found theology a certain kind of delightful titillation. Theology or religious speculation bears the same relationship to real experience as pornography does to lovemaking. They’re not entirely unconnected. I mean, you can get turned on. One of the reasons that they’re both powerful is that they ignore a lot of other material and they focus in on something very specific. In these days of overload, it’s very restful to know, at last, what you’re talking about.

And maybe just one more verse of Everybody Knows:

Everybody knows that you love me, baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet
but there’s so many people you just had to meet
without your clothes.
Everybody knows.

And from Closing time:

It’s partner found and it’s partner lost
There’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops
It’s closing time…

I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
But closing time.

What is the rating on this movie?

Looking at the NY Times headline

U.S. Faces a Startling New Political Reality After Donald Trump’s Victory

with some mentions of possible cabinet positions for Chris Christie and Rudolf Giuliani, and I had the powerful sense of having fallen into one of those movies where the protagonist accidentally upsets his time stream — for instance, travels to the past and crushes a butterfly — creating an alternate reality where all kinds of bizarre events start to accumulate in the intermediate past: For instance, instead of the respected former secretary of state who is president in our reality, there is a depraved reality TV star who has become president and then filled his cabinet with criminals and then nuked California. (They were nasty.) There must be a way to fix this…

Joking around

One of the bizarre features of US politics is that, among the many roles that presidents are required to take on — commander in chief of the armed forces, head of the federal bureaucracy, regal head of state — they are also expected to act as stand-up comedians on certain ritual occasions. So naturally candidates are expected to do so as well, to prove they have what it takes. The occasion is the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, an event in honour of the first Catholic major party presidential candidate (in 1928), former NY governor Alfred Smith.

Donald Trump has suffered from the inability of large parts of the public to appreciate — or indeed, to recognise — his idiosyncratic humour, whether he’s been joshing about Barack Obama being the founder of ISIS or not accepting an election loss or encouraging Russian hackers to break into his opponent’s email accounts. So it is hardly surprising that his appearance at the dinner was not well received:

Donald Trump was loudly booed at the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York on Thursday—an evening typically reserved for good-natured humor and a rare opportunity for presidential candidates to demonstrate a capacity for self-deprecation—when he attacked Hillary Clinton with the aggressive language frequently used at his campaign rallies.

What interests me about this is what it says about the nature of humour in general, and political humour in particular. Barbed jokes are naturally easier to enjoy when the target is someone you dislike, though that is somewhat balanced, at least for mature and responsible people, by a discomfort at “punching down”: It is uncomfortable to see the weak being trampled on, even if they are contemptible for other reasons.

I do have the impression that there is an asymmetry between left and right in this respect,  at least in the US. No one likes seeing their sacred cows being gored, but it seems to me that US liberals really enjoy seeing their champions taken down a peg, and are able to find deeper humour in their opponents through greater willingness to imagine their worldview. I think this is why successful political satire in the US has come to be almost exclusively a province of the left. (more…)

Misinformed

After viewing Casablanca with friends recently, we were inspired to try variants on Rick’s famous line about why he had come to Casablanca:

A: And what in heaven’s name brought you to England?

B: I came to England for the tolerant open liberal democracy.

A: The tolerant welcoming liberal society? What tolerant welcoming liberal society? We’re in the middle of a xenophobic backlash.

B: I was misinformed.

Dylan’s Nobel

I was just reading this article by Stephen Metcalf about why Bob Dylan shouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I was surprised at how vehemently I disagreed. Metcalf writes: genius, sure, but not literature.

The distinctive thing about literature is that it involves reading silently to oneself. Silence and solitude are inextricably a part of reading, and reading is the exclusive vehicle for literature.

Ryu Spaeth at The New Republic writes

If the Nobel Prize in Literature wants to recognize a musician, then it should create an award for music.

I’m not sure if the Nobel Prize in Literature has enough of an independent existence that it can create a new award, but I understand the point. I just disagree.

It’s kind of weird the way the Nobel prizes have taken on this aura of pre-eminence, but the Nobel committees havethem have responded to this cultural role by expanding their remit. People win Nobel prizes in medicine for studying worms, in chemistry for things like DNA repair, in physics for solving equations, and in peace for stirring up trouble over human rights (or global warming). If literature is about what people do with words, then it must be about those who have done traditional things exceptionally well (and Winston Churchill must be included in that group) but also those who have expanded the possibilities of literary forms. Jean-Paul Sartre won the prize. So did Elfriede Jelinek and Samuel Beckett.

People complain that he shouldn’t win the prize because his texts aren’t exactly poetry. But maybe that’s the point. He opened up a new way for people to express themselves in language. The fact that the texts work their magic in alliance with music is not a detriment. No one ever said that Harold Pinter didn’t deserve the prize because his texts depend on actors to bring them to life.

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