Chris moves on

I was looking for an edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, which I’ve never read, except in excerpts. I discovered this 1869 edition by Mary Godolphin titled Pilgrim’s Progress in Words of One Syllable. I was fascinated. It sounded like a modernist literary gag, like writing a novel with no E’s. When I had a look, I found the monosyllabicity wasn’t quite as thoroughgoing as I’d hoped. For instance, we are spared the protagonists Chris and Prude, and the City of Destruction has not been renamed to Knock Down Town, or Ruin Burg. There would be a nice alliteration if the Slough of Despond had become the Swamp of Sad.

“Crazy-headed coxcombs” becomes “such fools”, which has a certain pithiness to it. On the other hand, Mme. Godolphin does apologise: “It may be objected that my system involves the use of words which, though short, are difficult to understand.” I am reminded of Alexander Pope’s great self-referential parody, in the Essay on Criticism,

While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary’d Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.

Which, in turn, reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army“:

The tune don’t gotta be clever
And it don’t matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line.
It sound’s more ethnic if it ain’t good English,
And it don’t even gotta rhyme.
Excuse me, rine.

Bert and the Duke

I just read Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington. The most prominent theme of the book — beyond Teachout’s efforts at a clear-eyed appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of Ellington’s music — is an elucidation of Ellington’s, to put it charitably, magpie tendencies. Throughout his career, Ellington compensated for his own deficiencies — little talent for melody, inability to write for strings, extreme procrastination — by poaching the inventions of his sidemen, often with minimal compensation and little or no credit. This tendency reached its acme in Ellington’s wholesale subordination of Billy Strayhorn, who was almost completely subsumed into the Ellington persona.

This reminded me of another fascinating biography that I read many years ago, John Fuegi’s Brecht & Co.  That book portrayed Bertolt Brecht as a kind of literary parasite, who seduced brilliant women and enslaved them to write plays for him. Just to mention one of the most egregious examples, Elisabeth Hauptmann appeared on the original publication as co-author of The Threepenny Opera — even there, only as the “translator” of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, with “German treatment by Bertolt Brecht” — though almost certainly a substantial majority of the text is by her. Brecht later sold off the international rights entirely on his own, under his own name. Similarly, Mother Courage and The Life of Galileo  were cowritten with Margarete Steffin — and again, her contribution is not minimal, the same not being entirely clear for Brecht himself — but are invariably described as works of Brecht.

These sound like clear cases of abuse, they seem to undermine the stature of the great artist — perhaps worse in Brecht’s case, where erotic seduction was being abused as well, and the weak social position of women vis-à-vis intellectual property. And yet… it’s clear that both Ellington and and Brecht produced brilliant, world-changing work with a variety of collaborators, while none of the collaborators produced great work apart from the master. (Billy Strayhorn is an interesting possible counterexample, in part because Ellington’s thefts from him were so extensive — some of the “collaborations” were entirely Strayhorn’s work, or almost so — and in part because the collaboration with Ellington subsumed almost his entire career.) Elisabeth Hauptmann, at least, always denied that she had been ill-used by Brecht.

Part of the problem may be with the romantic image we have of the lone genius. As Fuegi’s title suggests (perhaps ironically), the image of the “workshop” may be more appropriate to some — perhaps most? — artistic creation. There is a special skill required to recognise the flashes of creativity in others and shape them to a whole — as Ellington did (Strayhorn excepted) — or to provide a framework to which creative artists can contribute their own genius wholeheartedly. This was the job of the master of a Renaissance workshop, and it’s not clear that we should think less of “Brecht” or “Ellington” as creative artists, to know that these names are, at least in part, fronts for a collective. While they were alive it would have been good to redirect some of the material rewards — though Ellington, at least, directed everything he had to maintaining his orchestra — but now all that remains is esteem for the work and its creator, however the latter is defined.

Leopold Bloom’s speculations

I was just reading Ulysses for the first time in more than 20 years (actually, listening to the wonderful reading by Donal Donnelly), and among other things I was struck by the extent of Bloom’s scientific interests and speculations. But one other thing that jumped out at me was Bloom’s fantasy, as he is falling asleep, of schemes to raise money to become a country squire. One of those crazy hypnagogic schemes was similar to the scheme that I described as the reductio ad absurdum of financial technology, spending a large part of a billion dollars to reduce the communication time between New York and Chicago or London by several milliseconds:

A private wireless telegraph which would transmit by dot and dash system the result of a national equine handicap (flat or steeplechase) of I or more miles and furlongs won by an outsider at odds of 50 to 1 at 3 hr 8 m p.m. at Ascot (Greenwich time), the message being received and available for betting purposes in Dublin at 2.59 p.m. (Dunsink time).

Of course Bloom, being a sensible chap, puts this on a level with “A prepared scheme based on a study of the laws of probability to break the bank at Monte Carlo” and a plan to obtain riches by finding a lost dynastical ring “in the gizzard of a comestible fowl”. And winning a million pound prize for squaring the circle. And all of this he values primarily as an aid to sound sleep.

James Joyce on demography

I’ve been listening to Donal Donnelly’s wonderful recorded reading of Ulysses, and naturally both the format and my advancing years have highlighted passages that didn’t interest me when I read it in my teens and 20s. In particular, there is the unceasing drumbeat of birth and death: hundreds and hundreds of references, only the most prominent of which are, on the death side, Stephen Dedalus’s mother and Leopold Bloom’s son Rudy, and Paddy Dignam, whose funeral Bloom attends; and on the birth side, Mina Purefoy’s agonising three-day labour. Of course, you can’t miss it, but I didn’t notice the big picture. In particular, I didn’t notice how Bloom keeps circling from the individual death to the population level — what one might call the demographic perspective — and back again. (I also had forgotten how much time Bloom spends reflecting on scientific matters generally.) He has thoughts like

Funerals all over the world everywhere every minute.

Child born every minute somewhere.

and most impressively

Mina Purefoy swollen belly on a bed groaning to have a child tugged out of her. One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket. Other three hundred born, washing the blood off, all are washed in the blood of the lamb, bawling maaaaaa.

Cityful passing away, other cityful coming, passing away too: other coming on, passing on. Houses, lines of houses, streets, miles of pavements, piledup bricks, stones. Changing hands. This owner, that. Landlord never dies they say. Other steps into his shoes when he gets his notice to quit. They buy the place up with gold and still they have all the gold. Swindle in it somewhere. Piled up in cities, worn away age after age. Pyramids in sand. Built on bread and onions.

This sheds some light on the telegram that Stephen recalls early on, with its famous misprint: “Nother dying come home father.” It’s not just a misprint. “Nother” is one letter away from “Mother”, the person he should care about most in the world. But it’s also one letter away from “another”, that is, just another one in an endless sequence of humans dying. And many people are appalled that he seems to have treated his own dying mother as just an instance of a principle.

(The Gabler “corrected edition” appeared in 1984, right around the time I was first reading Ulysses, and so I recall that the press coverage of this publishing event emphasised a few obviously significant emendations, in particular this one, where editors had consistently  corrected the telegram misprint back to “Mother”, thus making a complete hash of the scene since it was impossible to understand why Stephen said that the telegram was a “curiosity to show”. But even then the thematic significance eluded me.)

Four ways of paying the piper

I was thinking about four different expressions, interestingly different, for the platitude that people shape their consciences to their circumstances.

The most straightforward is the English classic

Who pays the piper calls the tune.

This is the most straightforwardly economical. The boss makes the decisions, and the opinions of the underlings are irrelevant. It says nothing about what those underling opinions might be.

A step more cynical is the old-German proverb

Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich Sing. [Whose bread I eat, that’s whose song I sing.]

It has the same general musical theme, suggesting the court jester performing for his master. But the singing, rather than piping, is more intimate, and to my mind suggests a more complete subordination of ones own beliefs to those of the master.

Perhaps the most pessimistic is the saying that Mark Twain claims to have learned as a boy, from a young slave:

You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.

In other words, as Twain explains, no one can afford to have opinions that interfere with his livelihood. It’s not a matter of dissembling — which is what makes this more pessimistic (but maybe less cynical?) — but rather of naturally adopting the opinions that are a comfortable fit to his circumstances. (Twain’s more cynical version was “It is by the fortune of God that, in this country, we have three benefits: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either.”)

And then there was the perfection of the corn pone line, the famous dictum of Upton Sinclair,

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Here we see the complete identification of master and slave. The slave not only gives voice to his master’s views, he not only comes to accept the master’s views, he has deformed his intellect to the point where any other opinion has become completely incomprehensible to him.






Tevye in the City

I recently read Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories (inspired by the wonderful book by Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof — they’re available now free from the Yiddish Book Center), and I was startled by several features. Tevye is a much more forward-looking figure than he appears in Fiddler on the Roof, which chose to emphasise the cultural divide between him and his daughters.

One thing that really caught my attention was that Tevye, before he got to marrying off his daughters, the travails of which are the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, lost all his savings in some vague financial schemes. The description is priceless, how his distant cousin Menachem Mendel

let me understand how he makes three rubles out of one, and from three — ten. First of all, he said, you invest a hundred rubles and then you order ten somethings — I’ve already forgotten what they’re called — to be bought for you; then you wait a few days until its price goes up. Then you send off a telegram somewhere with an order to sell, and with the money, to buy twice as much; then the price goes up again and you dispatch another telegram; this goes on until the hundred becomes two hundred, the two hundred — four hundred — eight, the eight — sixteen hundred, real “miracles and wonders”! There are people, he said, in Yehupetz, who just recently walked around barefoot, they were brokers, messengers, servants, today they live in their own brick houses, their wives complain of stomach ailments and go abroad for treatment. (Trans. Joseph Simon)

(Much of the imagery of the song “If I were a Rich Man” comes from this story.) As ever, finance was an extractive industry, fuelled by a steady stream of gullibility and greed, in varying proportions.

Anyway, this all reminded me, obliquely, that Tevye had an exact contemporary, who has recently been experiencing some great success on the small screen, having been updated and moved into modern London, namely Sherlock Holmes. I don’t mean to draw any comparison between the figures, but it seems to me that Tevye might do equally well in modern London. (Mad magazine moved him into the American suburbs in the 1970s, which was an obvious idea, but in some ways more foreign.) I could see him drudging away in a small hedge fund, trying to do the right thing, never getting to see his family, suffering with computer breakdowns, losing money through honest dealing, accepting the ups and downs of London real estate with his idiosyncratic proverbs, like

All life ends in death. We’ll all be dead some day, Golda. A man is like a carpenter: a carpenter lives and lives and dies, and a man lives and dies.

Jane and Edith and Hunter and Bill

Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and Hunter Thompson and William Burroughs. I presume I am the first person to put those four names on the same page, but it is not in the interest of priority that I mention them.

Rather, I happen to have just read The Age of Innocence right after Pride and Prejudice, and was reminded obliquely of my experience, many years ago, reading Naked Lunch right after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. My thought then was, Hunter Thompson, for all his skill as an entertainer, is just a little boy playing at decadence. Burroughs, for good or ill — and he seems pretty ill — is serious. And it caused me to feel retrospectively revolted at Thompson for playing with horrors, instead of feeling revolted at Burroughs, who describes the perversity of the flesh in a  style that feels more real — hence more disturbing — than any realist chronicle could be. Surreal in the original sense: higher than reality, more intense.

And it is the same with Austen and Wharton. I am not insensible to the charms of Austen’s prose, and I finished P & P with great satisfaction, but next to Wharton, her fellow in the comedy-of-manners genre, she seems terribly unserious. Her characters have motives and passions, but they all seem so superficial. Obviously we can’t blame Austen for not anticipating the psychological revolution in fiction that Wharton was heir to, and her elegantly polished prose has many pleasures that Wharton’s prickly — and sometimes overly analytical — sentences can’t match. But her characters are all such simpletons — particularly the men. There is an occasional mention of the virtue of someone being generous to his servants, but no one has any real project beyond redesigning her garden, and ambition is scoffed at. It all feels so confined and dreary.

Maybe a mathematician has trouble appreciating Pride and Prejudice because it’s too much like our work. It’s like a chess game, or someone working through all the combinatorics of possible relationships with a certain set of people, given some arbitrary but fixed social rules. A friend of mine  likes to compare Jane Austen’s novels to the publications of the RAND corporation.

On a peripheral note, I discovered recently that there is a whole world of Jane Austen reënactors, who meet at the Jane Austen Society of North America to dress up in regency gowns and do… stuff. (Deborah Yaffe has written a whole book on the cult.) It seems pretty bizarre to me. There are authors whose fictional worlds I would less like to inhabit — the aforementioned William Burroughs is one; George Orwell comes to mind — but not many. I’ll have to read Yaffe’s book for insights. I suppose there are all those Civil War reënactors who play at having their legs sawn off in a field hospital, so who can say what motivates people? Continue reading “Jane and Edith and Hunter and Bill”

What we talk about when we talk about what we talk about

It seems that everyone’s favourite hip formula for a title is “What we talk about when we talk about X”. It certainly caught my attention that there were two books by prominent fiction writers with titles of this form, Haruki Marukami’s memoir What I Talk about when I Talk About Running, and Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I take these to be derived from Raymond Carver’s celebrated story What we Talk about When We Talk about Love, though I can’t be sure the phrase didn’t exist in some form before.

But it’s definitely taken on a life of its own. I was inspired to write this post by an article in The Atlantic titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Privacy. A recent book on the future of books included a chapter titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Metadata (which is somewhat ironic, because what we talk about has changed radically in the past few months, as metadata have gone from being a niche concern of bibliographers to a main topic in the discussion of domestic espionage). A quick Google Book search turns up books from the last few years: What We Talk About When We Talk About GodThe Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop, as well as WWTAWWTA  VisionEmotionError, Revolution, and Ralph Sampson.

So, why the swelling concern with talking about what we talk about when we talk about things? Obviously, it’s a great phrase, conveying both intense focus and ironic detachment. It promises to lift the lid on the “real story”, to get behind all the “talk”, while still sounding itself kind of chatty. To move to talking about what we talk about, you must have already mastered all the things people talk about on the relevant topic. Continue reading “What we talk about when we talk about what we talk about”

Exile in the modern world: Can a country deport its own citizens?

One of my favourite novels is B. Traven’s Das Totenschiff (“The Ship of the Dead”). Written in the mid-1920s, this novel tells the story of an American seaman who accidentally gets left behind with no papers when his ship sails from Rotterdam. Suddenly he is a stateless person. He tries to get help from the US consulate, but gets a Catch 22-like sermon, along the lines of, “I would of course help an American citizen who was stranded here without papers, but I am unable to assist you without proof that you are indeed an American citizen.” All the officials he encounters treat him as some sort of ghost, a man without identity papers being a contradiction in terms. (This reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s comments on the imposition of passport requirements for international travel after the First World War, a tyranny that until then had been thought characteristic of Russian despotism.) Since no one wants to deal with a ghost, they find ways to dump him across a border, taking him further and further west, until he lands in Barcelona and ends up being signed on, not entirely willingly, to the Yorick, a ramshackle ship, a floating hell of labour, crewed by other unpersons from all over the world, its hold stuffed with useless cargo that is just being carried around the Seven Seas in the hopes that it will eventually sink and yield an insurance payment.

Anyway, I thought of this surreal novel when I read the recent New Yorker article by William Finnegan, about a US citizen with a minor criminal record and mental disabilities who, for no reason that anyone can reconstruct, was targeted by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for deportation to Mexico. He was born in the US, had never been outside the US, was not Hispanic, but somehow when he was booked into a state prison for a short sentence his birthplace was listed as Mexico, and that was enough to get him deported to Mexico less than a year later. And the Mexican authorities, since he wasn’t Mexican, managed to ship him off to Guatemala. He eventually got returned to the US, though more by accident than design. When he flew into Atlanta, with a passport issued to him by a vice consul in Guatemala City, the immigration officials there noted that he had already been deported and had him arrested, intending to redeport him.

Continue reading “Exile in the modern world: Can a country deport its own citizens?”