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. Continue reading “Joking around”

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.

Don Quixote on sampling bias

Continuing my series on modern themes that were already thoroughly treated in Don Quixote, here is the passage where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discuss whether it is better to be a knight errant or a monk:

“Señor, it is better to be an humble little friar of no matter what order, than a valiant knight-errant; with God a couple of dozen of penance lashings are of more avail than two thousand lance-thrusts, be they given to giants, or monsters, or dragons.”

“All that is true,” returned Don Quixote, “but we cannot all be friars, and many are the ways by which God takes his own to heaven; chivalry is a religion, there are sainted knights in glory.”

“Yes,” said Sancho, “but I have heard say that there are more friars in heaven than knights-errant.”

“That,” said Don Quixote, “is because those in religious orders are more numerous than knights.”

Cervantes on objectification of women

For those inclined to be too optimistic about the pace of progress in recognising the validity of female perspectives — the way an objectifying male perspective has been perniciously treated as a default and inherently valid — I note that Cervantes in Don Quixote made this point more than four centuries ago. In satirising the tradition of courtly pickup artists who stalk their fair damsels remorselessly, Cervantes allows a woman to speak at the funeral of a man whose friends furiously attribute his death to her “cruelty” in rejecting his advances:

Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you. By that natural understanding which God has given me I know that everything beautiful attracts love, but I cannot see how, by reason of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it; besides, it may happen that the lover of that which is beautiful may be ugly, and ugliness being detestable, it is very absurd to say, “I love thee because thou art beautiful, thou must love me though I be ugly.” But supposing the beauty equal on both sides, it does not follow that the inclinations must be therefore alike, for it is not every beauty that excites love, some but pleasing the eye without winning the affection; and if every sort of beauty excited love and won the heart, the will would wander vaguely to and fro unable to make choice of any; for as there is an infinity of beautiful objects there must be an infinity of inclinations, and true love, I have heard it said, is indivisible, and must be voluntary and not compelled. If this be so, as I believe it to be, why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me? Nay–tell me–had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me?

I am reminded of the joke about the holy warrior who is struck down at last after many grim battles. He arrives in the afterlife and is ushered into a room where waits a plain woman who proceeds to abuse him verbally and physically. “Lord,” he shouts out, “I expected, for all my service, that I would be rewarded with a beautiful virgin when I was carried off to heaven.” And the woman says, “Heaven? You’re not in Heaven. I’m in Hell.”

The masks come off

I think a lot of people — a lot of foreigners living in Britain — are feeling like this character in Paul Murray’s wonderful satire of the financial crash, The Mark and the Void:

“But if you write the truth about our time? How can the truth ever be obsolete?”

“People don’t want the truth,” he says, waving a hand at the streets around us. “They want better-quality lies. High-definition lies on fifty-inch screens. I wrote the damn truth already, Claude. Maybe I didn’t write it well, but I wrote it. And not only did no one want to see it, they made me feel like a fool for even trying. They laughed out the window at me as they sped away on the gravy train.”

“That was during the boom. Now the gravy train has stopped.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t unsee what I saw. The money poured in, and it was like suddenly everyone in Ireland took off their masks, and they were these horrific, rapacious alien beings who if you fell down in the street would just leave you there to die.”

Jews gone Wilde

I just read The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I last read — not very attentively, I think — in high school, more than 30 years ago. (For the record, it seems to me now an inappropriate choice of reading for high school.) No question that it is a great novel, even if Wilde would have been well served by a more assiduous editor who pointed out just how many times his characters “flung themselves” onto sofas, divans, wicker arm chairs, and “a luxuriously cushioned couch”. (They occasionally “throw themselves” as well. I wonder whether Stephen Leacock had this example in mind in writing his famous line “Lord Ronald… flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”)

The thoroughgoing misogyny of the book was familiar, but I had forgotten, or not noticed, the antisemitism. Early in the book significant attention is devoted to the peripheral figure of the low-rent theatre impresario who employs Dorian’s first idol, the young actress Sibyl Vane. He is first described as

A hideous Jew, in the most amazing waistcoat I ever beheld in my life, was standing at the entrance, smoking a vile cigar. He had greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt.

He is almost never referred to by name. He is always “the Jew”, “the horrid Jew”, “the old Jew” (and there is constant reference to his gaudy “jewelled fingers”). He is ugly, mean, wheedling, slovenly, an “offensive brute”, and even his “extraordinary passion for Shakespeare” is played for laughs, with the Jew blaming “the Bard” for his five bankruptcies, seemingly a parody of the only way a money-grubbing Jew could relate to the sublimities of English culture.

The pianist at the theatre, at his “cracked piano”, is also described as a “young Hebrew”, for no apparent reason other than to intensify the sense of artistic degradation.

Irritating false friends

According to Reuters the German Bundestag member Volker Kaude described the new proposals for the Greek financial crisis from European Commission president Juncker as “irritating”. It’s an odd word choice. It would be quite exceptionally blunt if he had said it. Of course, he didn’t.

Turning to German-language media we see that what he actually said was that he was “einigermaßen überrascht über die irritierenden Aussagen aus Brüssel”. “Fairly surprised by the odd comments from Brussels.” “Irritierend” looks like “irritating”, but its primary meaning — and clearly the one intended here — is something more like “puzzling”. It’s diplomatic for having a range of meanings from neutral to negative. I don’t get it, and I don’t think it’s entirely my fault.

Reuters might need to invest in something more sophisticated than Google for its translations.

Too many orang-utans?

I recently read Pierre Boulle’s Planète des Singes [Planet of the Apes]. I knew about the novel, of course, but hadn’t read it. It is very much of its time and place — though, as I have commented, the origins of the story have been sufficiently obscured by the various film versions, as to make a French version seem to an American cartoonist a plausible punchline. What I had not anticipated was the extent to which the novel is a satire about scientists, the management of science, and science education. The point is well summarised mid-way through the story, when we are finally given an overview — from the chimpanzee perspective — of the social structure of the planet Soror. I say social structure, but the only apes who are of any interest are scientists of some sort or other, and the only social or political organisation we hear about is scientific, though we do hear about a more brutal past, where the gorillas ruled by force. They have maintained the habit of power.

Ils excellent dans l’art de tracer des directives générales et de manoeuvrer les autres singes. Quand un technicien a fait une découverte interéssante, tube lumineux par exemple ou combustible nouveau, c’est presque toujours un gorille qui se charge de l’exploiter et d’en tirer tout le bénéfice possible. Sans être véritablement intelligents, ils sont beaucoup plus malins que les orang-outans. Ils obtiennent tout ce qu’ils veulent de ceux-ci en jouant de leur orgueil. Ainsi, à la tête de notre Institut… il y a un gorille administrateur, que l’on voit très rarement…
[They excel in composing general instructions and in manipulating other apes. When a technician has made an interesting discovery, for example a luminiferous tube, or a new fuel, it is almost always a gorilla who takes charge of the development and extracting the maximum possible benefit. Without being genuinely intelligent, they are much more clever than the orang-utans. The gorillas get everything they want from them by playing on their pride. Thus, our Institute is headed by a gorilla administrator, who is almost never seen.]

The gorillas also produce, when they do occasionally stoop to research, massive tomes that are expertly structured and organised, even if the content is produced by others, each one by a different subaltern chimpanzee.

The orang-utans are referred to as the “official science”, although

certains se poussent parfois dans la politique, les arts et la littérature. Ils apportent les mêmes caractères dans toutes ces activités. Pompeux, solennels, pédants, dépourvus d’originalité et de sens critique, acharnés à maintenir la tradition, aveugles et sourds à toute nouveauté, adorant les clichés et les formules toutes faites, ils forment le substratum de toutes les academies. Doués d’une grande mémoire, ils apprennent énormément de matières par coeur, dans les livres. Ensuite, ils écrivent eux-mêmes d’autres livres, ou ils répètent ce qu’ils ont lu, ce qui leur attire de la considération de la part de leurs frères orang-outans…. Le malheur c’est qu’ils fabriquent ainsi tous les livres d’enseignement, propageant des erreurs grossières dans la jeunesse simienne.
[some of them do occasionally make their way into politics, art, and literature. They display the same characteristics in all their activities. Pompous, solemn, pedantic, lacking in originality and critical sense, obsessed with preserving traditions, blind and deaf to all novelty, adoring clichés and settled formulas, they form a substratum in all the academies. Gifted with excellent memories, they learn enormous amounts of material by heart from books. Then they write it all down in other books, repeating exactly what they read, thus attracting the approbation of their brother orang-utans… The real tragedy is that they write, in this way, all the textbooks, perpetuating gross errors among the simian youth.]

As for the chimpanzees,

Ceux-ci semblent bien représenter l’élément intellectuel de la planète. Ce n’est pas par forfanterie si Zira soutient que toutes les grandes découvertes ont été faites par eux. C’est tout au plus une généralisation un peu poussée, car il y a quelques exceptions. En tout cas, ils écrivent la plupart des livres intéressants, dans les domaines les plus divers. Ils paraissent animés par un puissant esprit de recherche.
[They appear to be the intellectual element of the planet. It is not mere boastfulness when Zira claims that all the great discoveries have been made by chimpanzees. To be sure, it is a bit exaggerated, as there are some exceptions. In any case, they write most of the interesting books on all subjects. They appear to be motivated by a powerful spirit of research.]

There must be important lessons for us here, in the age of the REF. Also for teaching. The government wants us to produce more gorillas, but our education system is optimised for orang-utans. As for the chimpanzees, they’ve recognised that they’ll muddle through anyway, or enough of them anyway, motivated by this “powerful spirit of research”, willing to work for a few bananas on fixed-term contracts.

Technical literature

I just read Charles Yu’s review of Neal Stephenson’s new novel Seveneves (after reading the novel itself), a story that begins with the moon being suddenly disintegrated by a mysterious force, and goes downhill from there. Yu  writes

The skill with which this is all carried out is also a liability. Stephenson is so fluid a writer, so adept at the particular thing he does, that he can get away with very long stretches of what’s frequently referred to as “infodumps” but what I prefer to call “techsposition”: an amalgam of technical geekery and plotty exposition, fused into one substance, a material Stephenson has seemingly perfected… The amount of context required to understand any given passage, its lingo and conceptual background prerequisites, is astounding — resulting, at times, in sentences like this:

“A new niksht had been formed, just at the place where the whip was attached to the hebel, and was beginning to accelerate ‘forward,’ accelerating the flivver to the velocity it would need to accomplish the rest of the mission.”

… The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are rocks is that some of the most important entities are rocks.

This doesn’t look very good. But you might make similar comments about other, more generally esteemed, novels. For instance,

The amount of context required to understand any given passage, its lingo and conceptual background prerequisites, is astounding — resulting, at times, in passages like this:

“The lower subdivided part, called the junk, is one immense honeycomb of oil, formed by the crossing and recrossing, into ten thousand infiltrated cells, of tough elastic white fibres throughout its whole extent. The upper part, known as the Case, may be regarded as the great Heidelburgh Tun of the Sperm Whale.”

The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are whales is that some of the most important entities are whales.

That is, indeed, how many 19th century readers appraised Moby Dick. With greater familiarity, critics came to understand that technical detail is essential to a story of human struggle with nature. Nature doesn’t care about our passions and ambitions, or any of our self-aggrandisement, except as these are manifested physically. So it is with Seveneves, whose characters strut upon a vast stage of human striving, conflict and desire, but their lofty thoughts and speeches can seem ridiculous when put up against the hard facts of orbital mechanics and inertia that brook no persuasion. The very weight of detail communicates the ponderous physical law that the characters need to contend with, a heroic age where Odysseus needs to retire to his tent to spend days calculating,