What did you expect? Perfection the first time around?
United Smart People
What did you expect? Perfection the first time around?
I found abdiel's review of Schlussel's review of Live Free, Die Hard via Sadly, No! (Just so you know who I blame.) When I clicked over to Schlussel's site, I noticed his favorite solecism ("It's hard to believe this third sequel to 1988's Die Hard is the fourth in a series") wasn't there. I assumed he'd juiced the stupid for effect, not that she'd edited it after he brought it to her attention. Diligent procrastinator that I am, I read some of her other movie reviews and, needless to say, I can state with certainty that she edited it after he brought it to her attention.
Consider her review of SiCKO. She first argues that "HMOs are ... socialized medicine." (I'm no proponent of E-Prime, but her copular slaughter almost convinces me to tack about.) This isn't a good argument, but it has the benefit of being an arguable one. The same can't be said of this:
We already have the unworkable system of bad medicine that Moore wants.
SiCKO is many things, but there's one thing it isn't: a defense of the status quo. HMOs may be (but really aren't) a form of socialized medicine. That's a (debatable, but wildly incorrect) fact. The claim that "Moore wants the unworkable system of bad medicine we already have" leaves me at a loss, so I'll quote Dorothy Parker:
There are times when images blow to fluff, and comparisons stiffen and shrivel. Such an occasion is surely at hand when one is confronted by Dreiser's latest museum piece, Dawn. One can but revise a none-too-hot dialectic of childhood; ask, in rhetorical aggressiveness, "What writes worse than a Theodore Dreiser?"—loudly crow the answer, "Two Theodore Dreisers"; and, according to temperament, rejoice at the merciful absurdity of the conception, or shudder away from the thought.
Sadly, the comments to her review leave no room for rejoicing. Shuddering is another story entirely. Moving on:
The saddest spectacle in contemporary politics is not, as is often argued, to be caught unawares in one's own hypocrisy. No, the saddest spectacle is to be caught unawares in one's hypocrisy immediately after dismissing someone else for theirs. Case in point: Schlussel anecdotally berates Moore for this moment of self-deprecation:
You're right. What can I say? I'm a hypocrite. Who says I'm consistent?
She then notes that "personal anecdotes by [sic] former Michael Moore employees [concerning the] lack of appropriate benefits and healthcare" show that his self-deprecation cuts quicker to the truth than he intended. Those anecdotes bear witness to Moore's great lie. He is a hypocrite who wants Americans to do as he says, not as he does. Anecdotes like the one which opens her essay and the ones related by disgruntled employees speak hard truths to even the most jaded powers. They are completely different from those Moore employs in his coverage of Canadian healthcare:
Moore shows us the short waiting time and zero cost of healthcare for his friends and relatives in Canada, just a quick drive over the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor, Canada. But those stories are anecdotal, not representative of the norm. He doesn't show us what's actually going on with our neighbors to the north.
Those are merely anecdotal. As a genre, anecdotes are not to be trusted, for they are anecdotal and unrepresentative of the norm. Case in point:
My cousin, Myrna, apparently lived in a different Canada than the rosy, glowing Canada where Moore's cousins live. She had diabetes and developed black spots on her eyes. But under Canada's magical health plan, she had to wait so long for a proper operation that she eventually went blind. And it was too late. That's the real story of Canadian healthcare.
Sorry—that's another truth-to-power-speaking anecdote. I meant to copy this one:
When Moore shows us the American expatriates in France and other Frenchmen bragging about their great lives and the amount of time they take off from work, I thought back to the many complaints of former Moore employees—who didn't get much in vacations or overtime and spoke of a slave-driver boss.
Or maybe I didn't. Moore's anecdotes are vicious French slanders, untrue and leveled by the congenitally indolent. I meant to point out the truth-speakers-to-power of those formerly in Moore's employ, as those speakers of truth to power speak powerful truth to truth-deficient powers and deserve commendation. All Canadians live but an ear infection away from drug-resistant leprosy. Just ask Cousin Myrna.
Since Luther sounded the alarm last week, I've been reluctant to even check my site stats for fear of seeming unseemingly solipsistic. However, since I let down my shields on Sunday so that others might have much fun more freely, I've had occasion to ban numerous spam-bots ... which means I've been trawling my site stats for spammers' IP addresses. I wouldn't normally share, but one search worries me. It's not that it's performed hourly—even though it is—so much as its specificity that concerns me.
See, someone desperately wants to know the results of this search, and keeps coming to Acephalous from here. What with all the talk of "Family Jewels," I can't help but be suspicious. Because I am suspicious, for reasons recent and otherwise, and would appreciate if the person who wants tabs on me drops me a line directly. I'm utterly approachable. Point of fact, I'm "the nicest fucking person on the internets." A quick email will sooth my soul, which roils with alarming alacrity in light of recent (and otherwise) events.
(Also, I must still respond to Miriam's tag, lest I feel like some endangered bear on a romp for food too far from home: thought for dead, cubs stolen, pining alone in my den of snow.)
(An update of sorts: You should read Wally's post about Milch, which contains transcriptions of painful exactitude. It records a brilliant display of nonacademic muddling through narrative complexities. Granted, given that Milch was once a Milton scholar, you'd think him better able to articulate his way through these knots; but if you forgive him those peccadillos, you snob, you'll see his talent for narrative was abundantly evident way back in the dark days of 2001.)
When David Milch announced the death of Deadwood, like most fans of the show, I took consolation in the fact that HBO had already greenlit another Milch production, John From Cincinnati. (As to the two Deadwood films purported to be in preproduction, I hold my breath.) Given that it would be on HBO, I knew I needn't fear any diminishment of Milch's signature style: HBO would allow him to let rain spectacular profanity. (The suits might even encourage it.)
Understand, then, that I watched the first episode of John From Cincinnati in mild disbelief: not only do the characters not speak like foul-mouthed miners, one of them begins the episode unable to say anything except "the end is near" and "some things I know and some things I don't." More on that in a moment. The most memorable dialogue emerges from the interaction of Luis Guzman's "Ramon Gaviota," Willie Garson's "Meyer Dickstein," and Matt Winston's "Barry Cunningham." Their connection to the overall story is (currently) tenuous: they are the lottery-winner (Cunningham) who purchases a motel in which one of the main characters lives; the motel's former owner (Dickstein); and its once and future manager (Gaviota). Cunningham is convinced that something is amiss in Room 24. When he first arrives, he explains to Dickstein why he's packing heat:
Cunningham: I am armed in accordance with the State Lottery Commission's pamphlet The Challenge of Sudden Wealth, which urges that winners be cautious in the conduct of their business affairs.
Dickstein: Do you have another gun?
Cunningham: I did not buy a backup, against the advice of Pete's Pistol Hut.
I didn't contract Cunningham's words because the defining characteristic of his speak is a stiltedness meant to betray a deeper reserve of awkwardness. After the main characters suffer (and recover from) an accident, this trio decides to do something nice for his family. Cunningham insists that they close the door to Room 24 (which he had left open when he sprinted from it earlier). Bumping into each other as they approach the door:
Cunningham: Do you hear the dead man singing within, gentlemen?
Gaviota: I'm half deaf from the leaf blower.
Cunningham: Attorney Dickstein?
Dickstein: Surfer's ear. Exostosis of the ear canal.
Cunningham: I alone, then, am favored by that jovially croaking, post-coital falsetto winsomely caricaturing Debby Boone?
Who but Milch would think to pen such a line? Unlike Deadwood, the people who speak like this on John From Cincinnati are clearly unbalanced. There is, for example, Ed O'Neill's "Bill Jacks," who at one point warns the room that
Jacks: Gawkers, press, candle fanatics ... we are on the precipice of a clusterfuck!
Jacks owns the parrot who died, was revived by the surfer kid, then revived the surfer kid when he died. And with that nonsensical sentence, I introduce the show's core. John From Cincinnati revolves around a series of miracles which occur after the arrival of the titular John. As mentioned above, when we first meet him, he knows two sentences: "the end is near" and "some things I know and some things I don't." Most of the show's humor emerges not from Milch's eloquent profanity, but from John as he learns language on the fly, one phrase at a time. Words mean nothing, conceptually, so he repeats what's been said to him. He understands names, however, and knows who they refer to. Here's what happens when he tells Butchie Yost he likes a surfer named Kai:
Butchie: Yeah, you would John, I'm beginning to see that about you. You know, you could probably even fucking bone her if you tried hard enough.
John: I'll bone her.
Then, when he's alone with Kai:
Kai: What does 'bone' mean, John? (to herself) If we did bone, I'd feel like I was getting over on a hot slow guy. (to John) Touch my tits.
John: Tits don't ring a bell.
Kai: Boning John, is when you put your joint in my pussy. That's your joint (points) and here's my pussy (points, then stares at John). We're boning now, aren't we?
John: Now we're boning, Kai.
"Don't ring a bell" he picked up earlier, and you can see how he incorporates it into his speak. He doesn't know what it means, only that if you put a word you don't know before "don't ring a bell" people will explain the unfamiliar term. John currently employs five or six such phraselets, and it's not inconceivable (given the company he keeps) that some of them will eventually incorporate profanity, or that by the seventh or eight episode his language will be so idiosyncratic it'll be indecipherable to uninitiated. To be frank, I find that idea thrilling. It is not, however, what thrills me most about this show.
What thrills me most about this show is that, content-wise, it's likely to be the most profoundly Christian show on television. But strict Christians will deem it unwatchable because of Milch's profanity; and if even Milch tones his language down and it's embraced by mainstream Christianity, talking about will require they adopt an argot that'll make them sound demented. Imagine, if you will, the abstinence movement adopting John and Kai's definition of "boning."
Then multiply by an as-yet-undetermined factor.
My greatest sin as a writer is overusing assonance and alliteration. Not for rhetorical effect, but because my mind inexplicably infatuates itself with certain combinations or clusters of consonants or vowels. A neurologist once told me this tendency is common among those who learned language late like I did, so although I struggle to string a sentence together every day damn, at least I know I'm not alone.
Still, fighting this tide of unmeaningful drift occupies countless hours, and I wonder whether this waste could be combated more successfully. After reading Adam's account of avoiding alliteration, I began wasting countless hours wondering about ways not to waste countless hours. If I follow the flow, my meaning might mingle unproductively with the arbitrary apportioning of letters in words. If I restrict it, I'll wrestle with the wrong words all afternoon, producing paragraphs of laboriously unpurpled prose instead of pounds of purple pages.
The problem with (and appeal of) alliteration and assonance is the interconnectedness it inspires, as if the repeated consonant and vowel sounds benumb the brain into an associative state. I want those connections to seem subtly more sound than they are, because creating an impression of interconnectedness could compel readers to respond favorably to arguments they might otherwise resist. Don't know what I mean? Read this paragraph from Edith Wharton's Summer:
On such an afternoon Charity Royall lay on a ridge above a sunlit hollow, her face pressed to the earth and the warm currents of the grass running through her. Directly in her line of vision a blackberry branch laid its frail white flowers and blue-green leaves against the sky. Just beyond, a tuft of sweet-fern uncurled between the beaded shoots of the grass, and a small yellow butterfly vibrated over them like a fleck of sunshine. This was all she saw; but she felt, above her and about her, the strong growth of the beeches clothing the ridge, the rounding of pale green cones on countless spruce-branches, the push of myriads of sweet-fern fronds in the cracks of the stony slope below the wood, and the crowding shoots of meadowsweet and yellow flags in the pasture beyond. All this bubbling of sap and slipping of sheaths and bursting of calyxes was carried to her on mingled currents of fragrance. Every leaf and bud and blade seemed to contribute its exhalation to the pervading sweetness in which the pungency of pine-sap prevailed over the spice of thyme and the subtle perfume of fern, and all were merged in a moist earth-smell that was like the breath of some huge sun-warmed animal.
The whole paragraph turns on a semicolon: "This was what she saw; but she felt ..." The description of what she felt dramatizes the dilemma described above. Sight connects things gently, such as the "blackberry branch" and "frail white flowers." When Wharton wants to emphasize the emotional interconnection Royall feels, she turns to heavy alliteration: "this bubbling of sap and slipping of sheaths," "the pungency of pine-sap prevailed," &c. The assonance is usually accompanied by internal alliteration, as in "the subtle perfume of fern" and "all were merged in a moist earth-smell." Is the effect of reading what Royall felt not stunningly seductive? Now imagine if it were pressed into argumentative service. Would it not be equally compelling if it could be controlled, deployed not dangerously often but rather for effect?*
*Please answer in the affirmative. Otherwise I might cry.
Walk up to any academic and ask them whether they think Scott Kaufman or Natalie Portman has the better the CV, and I guarantee they'd answer that I do sight unseen. They'd be wrong. Granted, I've never shot babies in the head with lasers, but you do what you can to see your name in print.*
*Not that I wouldn't shoot babies in the head with lasers if it'd get my name in print, mind you.
Copyright (c) 1980, 1982, 1983, 2006 Sekocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
BLOGWARS! is a registered trademark of Sekocom, Inc.
Revision 23 / Serial number 8940726
North of the Moral High Ground.
You are standing near the Moral High Ground. To your South are Theists (or Theorists). To your North are Atheists (or Anti-Theorists). To your East and West are scorched earth, battered egos and hurt feelings.
The land has been salted with the blood of Deleuze. There is nothing for you here.
> w then
(See comments for further instructions.)
My name and email address somehow made it onto one of those lists of gullible publishers desperate writers buy from despicable opportunists. Many of the emails I receive are tragically misguided, like the men unsuccessfully shopping his book on how to get published. Others are plain tragic, like the women who write "I have been writing this novel of my autobiographical experiences with ovarian, breast, brain and left-leg cancer, and I have two daughters who will need its proceeds when I die, &c." I only mock because the two times I've Googled the names and/or email addresses of these folk I found them happy and hale in many a online forum.
Today I received a pitch from someone who took the trouble to prescreen his manuscript through a "Critique Company." I appreciate the effort, as it saves me the trouble of having to submit his manuscript to my own Critique Company before I publish this sure-fire best-seller. How could I distrust this incisive, erudite critique:
This is an amazing manuscript! Many, many readers will benefit from this material! Thank you for writing this manuscript! This will be a huge success! I do wish you luck with this endeavor! However, you will not need luck! You have an awesome manuscript, and a special gift with words!
What with seriousness of thought being directly proportional to the ratio of exclamation points per sentence, only a fool would balk at the opportunity to publish an awesome manuscript written by someone with a special gift with words! They learned to appreciate this ratio sometime since 16 May! (Not that is seems to have helped matters much!) I have contacted the sender of this email and asked him for information about his Critique Company! Mine always scowls! (And without exclamation points! How stupendously unserious!)
Copyright (c) 1980, 1982, 1983, 2006 Sekocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
WHARTON! is a registered trademark of Sekocom, Inc.
Revision 23 / Serial number 8940726
You are standing next to an old house. It has large mansard roofs, big chimneys, and to the east is a formal Italianate garden with a circular courtyard, high hedges and an elaborate eighteenth-century-style trellis.
You are in a formal Italianate garden with a circular courtyard, high hedges and an elaborate eighteenth-century-style trellis. To the north is a pergola filled with statuary. To the south is an old fishpond guarded by solemn-looking stone dogs.
You stand before an old fishpond guarded by solemn-looking stone dogs. To the east is a retaining wall with a gate which opens into a narrow cabinet garden containing playful rococo statues and shells and stones set in the walls, and a fountain.
You are in a narrow cabinet garden containing playful rococo statues and shells and stones set in the walls, and a fountain. To the south is a small flight of steps leading up to a lemon garden with its "limonaia" where lemon and orange trees, camellias and other semi-tender shrubs are stored in winter. To the your left are dark ilex woods. To your right, the "boschetti."
> eat bruschetta
You would be better served eating the holly, although it is mildly toxic and likely to cause vomiting or diarrhea.
> eat bruschetta
You cannot eat "boschetti."
> do anyway
You eat a small garden, bloat terribly, feel death pangs, recover, and find yourself in a narrow cabinet garden containing playful rococo statues and shells and stones set in the walls, and a fountain. To the south is a small flight of steps leading up to a lemon garden with its "limonaia" where lemon and orange trees, camellias and other semi-tender shrubs are stored in winter. To the your left are dark ilex woods. To your right, the "boschetti." Happy?
Like I care.
You climb a small flight of steps leading up to a lemon garden with its "limonaia" where lemon and orange trees, camellias and other semi-tender shrubs are stored in winter. In the distance you hear people talking and the subtle hum of a classical quartet. To the east is a Colonial verandah.
> eat lemon and orange
You are still full from eating a small garden. You look at the lemon, then the orange, with evident disgust.
> e asshole
You are in a verandah. The subtle hum is less subtle and you can almost make out what they say about you in the room to your left.
> what they say
Go south and I'll let you listen in.
> s already
You are standing in the hallway leading to a Louis XV bedroom stuffed with Queen Anne furniture. To your left is a gauche chinoiserie dining room. To your right, a Renaissance ballroom.
> people what they say
They know you've been brooding over something lately, and they must find out what it is, as it's in their interest to do so, since they always tell you what they think. They know that if only you trust them, but as you have been so odd lately, they can't think what you've been plotting, or whether the Lord Trevanna has divined your intentions.
> um what
You have been withdrawn of late, so their concern is no surprise.
> who cares
They evidently do.
> brandish sword
You remove your wit from you heart-pocket and approach the women. They cease to gossip.
> brandish sword
They blush under the force of your compelling wit.
> kill kill kill
You slay them with your tongue. Their guilt for spreading unfounded rumors weighs upon them.
Isabel addresses you—
Isabel. She says that only this morning you were her supreme court of justice, but that there was no appeal from your verdict. That not an hour ago you decided a case for her—against herself! And now—. And now the worst of it is that it's not because you've changed. How does she know if you've changed? You haven't said a hundred words to her. And yet the years must have enriched you—she daresays you've doubled your capital. You've been in the thick of life, and the metal you're made of brightens with use. Success on some men looks like a borrowed coat, she says, but it sits on you as though it had been made to order. She sees all this; she knows this; but she doesn't FEEL it. She doesn't feel anything, anywhere, she is numb.
> brandish sword now
You say to her, why good God, we belonged to each other—that you won't let her go—
> let her go
—that you've fought for things since that weren't worth a crooked sixpence; fought as well as other men. And she—she—you lost her because you couldn't make a scene—you might have survived them, as men have been known to. They're not necessarily fatal.
> yes are kill self
She finds your self-deprecating display charming.
> no with sword
You remove a handkerchief from the breast pocket of your dinner jacket.
> where grue
You walk into a gilt bamboo jardiniere, in which the primulas and cinerarias are punctually renewed, and which blocks access to the bay window, where the old-fashioned would have preferred a bronze reduction of the Venus of Milo. The sofas and arm-chairs of pale brocade are cleverly grouped about little plush tables densely covered with silver toys, porcelain animals and efflorescent photograph frames, and tall rose-shaded lamps shoot up like tropical flowers among the plants. There is no grue here, but to the right is still the Renaissance ballroom.
> fine fine go ballroom
You stand in the doorway, studying the petty manoeuvres of the women and the resigned amenities of their partners. You wonder whether these were your friends, these mincing women, all paint and dye and whalebone, these apathetic men who looked as much alike as the figures that children cut out of a folded sheet of paper. Was it to live amongst such puppets, you ask yourself, that you sold your soul? The bald man with the globular stomach who made his pile in wrecking railroads and the political lawyer who had been mixed up to his own advantage in an ugly lobbying transaction, whose wife was such a good manager that they kept a brougham and victoria and always put in their season at Newport and their spring trip to Europe, whose little ferret-faced youth pretends this is not a domino-party at which the guest are forbidden to unmask—
> kill self kill self kill self
"I'M A JEW!" you yell.
Further rationalizations follow: his colleagues "would see the tongue in his cheek" (318); since the book was already in print, he was "caught ... in the toils of that mysterious engine," such that "if he had had time to think the matter over, his scruples might have dragged him back; but his conscience was eased by the futility of resistance" (318). His personal disavowals matter less, however, in light of the fact that he has promised not to reveal his insincerity to the public. He "descends" from the ranks of the professional scientist into those of the professional fraud, since he willingly peddles in pseudo-scientific nonsense for profit. It is not of the earth-shattering variety Darwin described, but a moral descent to which the title refers. But it resonates socially, too, via the crass advertising campaign Harviss orchestrates:
Weeks in advance the great commander had begun to form his lines of attack. Allusions to the remarkable significance of the coming work had appeared first in the scientific and literary reviews, spreading thence to the supplements of the daily journals. Not a moment passed without a quickening touch to the public consciousness: seventy millions of people were forced to remember at least once a day that Professor Linyard's book was on the verge of appearing. Slips emblazoned with the question: Have you read "The Vital Thing"? fell from the pages of popular novels and whitened the floors of crowded street-cars. The query, in large lettering, assaulted the traveler at the railway bookstall, confronted him on the walls of "elevated" stations, and seemed, in its ascending scale, about to supplant the interrogations as to soap and stove-polish which animate our rural scenery.
Given the title, the language of ascent here is telling: the newly elevated stations as one sign of debased modernity; the billboards destroying the same scenic views which initially inspired Linyard (in the indirectly roundabout way Nature does in American literature) another. To the writer of The Decoration of Houses (1897) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), these intrusions of crass modern and marketing culture into city and country alike suggest that "ascent" carries as much ironic heft as its obverse here. Linyard's descent is enabled by the ascent of an unaesthetic modernity, one more concerned with money than the taste with which is it spent, with moving from one place to another than the landscape traveled over. The cumulative effect of this unthinking is vitiating.
Under the handling of the first reviewer, The Vital Thing's "emancipated fallacies ... [were] made up admirably as truths, and their author began to understand Harviss's regret that they should be used for any less profitable purpose" (319). The first reviewer "set the pace," the others followed, "finding it easier to let their critical man-of-all-work play a variation on the first reviewer's theme than to secure an expert to 'do' the book afresh" (319). In a culture in which thinking what everyone else thinks matters more than the thought itself—a fitting description of both the high culture from which Wharton's heroines flee and the low in which they threaten to (and occasionally do) fall—garish advertising and uninformed reviewing mark the decline (or descent, or devolution) of two important intellectual functions.
Advertising is a more evolved form of taste, the spokesperson playing proxy for those whose tastes could formerly only be known through personal acquaintance. Similarly, the slips placed in popular novels are the materialization of so many whispered did-you-see-what-she-was-wearings and did-you-see-whom-he-arrived-withs. The newspaper reviewers, obviously, are debasements of the intellectuals whose opinions once made or broke a book. In an earlier story, "The Pelican," the same descent is traced, although there it concerns the lecture circuit. The brilliance of Emerson gives way to "the art of transposing second-hand ideas into first-hand emotions" (81). Soon, however, the audiences tire of emotional recitals about familiar subjects, and it becomes
the fashion to be interested in things that one hadn't always known about—natural selection, animal magnetism, sociology, and comparative folk-lore; while, in literature, the demand had become equally difficult to meet, since Matthew Arnold had introduced the habit of studying the "influence" of one author on another. [Mrs. Amyot] had tried lecturing on influences, and had done very well as long as the public was satisfied with the tracing of such obvious influences as that of Turner on Ruskin, of Schiller on Goethe, of Shakespeare on the English drama; but such investigations had soon lost all charm for her too-sophisticated audiences, who now demanded either that the influence or the influenced should be absolutely unknown, or that there should be no perceptible connection between the two. The zest of the performance lay in the measure of ingenuity with which the lecturer established a relation between two people who had probably never heard of each other, much less read each other's works.
It's worth noting that Mrs. Amyot's mother, Irene Astarte Platt, attained fame for writing a poem entitled "The Fall of Man," for the parallel between the Fall imagine thus and the descent depicted in this story share a movement away from knowledge. The knowledge Lindyard acquired in the lab—part of an effort to displace religious authority—is what allows him to write a best-selling work of pseudo-scientific nonsense. The Amyot's audience learned, the more they desired not knowledge, but empty displays of intellection.
(Previous installments: Part I )
Many works of pseudo-scientific synthesis were popular. As Linyard thinks to himself: "Every one now read scientific books and expressed an opinion on them ... the inaccessible goddess whom the Professor had served in his youth now offered her charm to the market-place" (314). And yet, he counters, "it was not the same goddess after all, but a pseudo-science masquerading in the garb of the real divinity." Wharton undercuts Linyard here: science is the goddess most worthy of worship transforms science into a religion, at least in the mind of Linyard. His perspective on scientific inquiry is skewed, which may be why his idea is mistaken for the very pseudo-science it mocks; namely, works in which "ancient dogma and modern discovery were depicted in a close embrace under the lime-lights of a hazy transcendentalism" (315). As to his idea,
the divine, incomparable idea was simply that he should avenge his goddess by satirizing her false interpreters. He would write a skit on the "popular" scientific book; he would so heap platitude on platitude, fallacy on fallacy, false analogy on false analogy, so use his superior knowledge to abound in the sense of the ignorant, that even the gross crowd would join in the laugh against its augurs. And the laugh should be something more than the distension of mental muscles; it should be the trumpet-blast bringing down the walls of ignorance, or at least the little stone striking the giant between the eyes. (315)
Wharton may be suggesting that his ability to pull this off is marred by the pseudo-scientific quality of his "superior knowledge." At this time, the disciplines had yet to coalesce into the neat units interdisciplinarians now smash: biology, psychology, sociology, literature, philosophy, botany, you name a department and William James taught the exact same course on Herbert Spencer in it. When Linyard pitches his manuscript to an old college friend in publishing, Harviss initially considers even reading the manuscript a favor. When he reads it and mistakenly believes Linyard to "have come round a little—have fallen in line" (316), he immediately orders the publication of The Vital Thing. Linyard returns a fortnight later, and upon learning that it will be published as the very thing it mocks, he laughs himself into a whirl, recovers, then "succomb[s] to a fresh access, from the vortex of which he managed to fling out" (317).
Once Harviss recovers from his flushes of embarrassment, he proposes that Linyard not "insist on an ironical interpretation [addressed] to a very small class of readers," that "if you'll let me handle this book as a genuine thing I'll guarantee to make it go" (317). Linyard accedes, charmed by "the enlarged circumference of the joke" (317). Here, then, is another possible gloss on the title: it could document the descent of Linyard, as he puts aside his scientific qualms for monetary gains. Harviss offers him a $1,000 advance, no small reward for setting aside his scruples. That he begins to rationalize his decision the moment he leaves Harviss' office evidences his discomfort: "after all, nothing was changed in the situation; not a word of the book was to be altered ... The change was merely in the publisher's point of view" (317).
Indicative of my current juvenile acuity: while reading a discussion of male homosexuality in Victorian culture I laughed aloud when I encountered the name of the person whose work had been cited: Dr. Harry Cocks. I initially thought it a prank of some sort, but as you can see from the link, that's the man's name. His work seems high quality, but when I read his name, I snorted like a seventh grader. (For which I apologize.) Needless to say, I'm not in an intellectual place today. So, I'm borrowing a page from my friend Wally's book and begin this post by saying:
No idea where this is going.
(Edited because it was supposed to be a draft, as you can tell, what with it not making much sense.)
I try to avoid writing about my unintellectual passions here. They're mine, and passionate, but they're not why you read me. That said, since uniquely engaging prose stylings falls well within my ken of expertise, I feel justified in making the following recommendation:
If you're at all interested in béisbol, read Joe Posnanski's blog.
This recommendation falls into the same category as the one I'd offer in defense of A.J. Liebling's A Neutral Corner: the man can write. He can create and sustain interest in subjects you might not otherwise care about. This is the defining characteristic of literary journalism: orchids weren't my thing before Orlean, and although I had fond thoughts of my undergraduate work in geology, I never yearned to return to before McPhee. Posnanski possesses the same talent: read his column on Bo Jackson and tell me that you, béisbol fans, don't flash back. Non-béisbol fans, read it and tell me that some part of you doesn't want to know what it is us fans flash back to.
Writing with impassioned humility, Posnanski's able to riff like this:
So here's the deal: I can't be important unless I have a whole lot more traffic. People keep telling me this. It must be true. So I beg of you, please immediately forward the following email to everyone in your address book:
Dear My Dear Friends,
You must understand that I would not send this email unless I had good reason, and as you have known me for a very long time you know I am not someone who sends emails like this without good reason. My good reason today is my friend I met over The Internet who has a name and it is Acephalous. He is a nice boy who had cancer and got hit by a car but now he has no head and it is very serious and it does not look like he will make it without YOUR HELP.
Bill Gates who is a GREAT MAN sent him an email and in it he wrote that if ONE MILLION people clicked on the site of Acephalous that he would buy him a new head made of computers and parts so he can live a good life again. So please click on THIS LINK as hard as you can and pray all the time every day and then forward this email to everyone in your address book and maybe you can help a suffering young little child to have a new computer parts head to replace the one he lost to cancer and being hit by the car and pain.
The recent surge in articles bemoaning the "death of privacy" is neither recent nor a surge. Every technological advance has been accompanied by vehement complaints to the effect that "the world has been let in."
Television, you remember, was once an intrusion of the world rather than an escape from it. The telephone? Can't have those switchboard operators working the night through. What if some stranger rang at 3 a.m.?
Those houses without hallways? Clearly a sign of "the indifference to privacy which has sprung up in modern times." A house should be constructed as a series of suites, each connected to the main hallway by another hallway. Better yet, that second hallway shouldn't connect to the main, but to an antechamber branching off it, so as to assure "greater privacy."
You know, I've seen Edith Wharton's dream home. I'm quite sure I wouldn't want to live there.
There must be a better online version of Wharton's The Decoration of Houses than the one I just linked to. I have a difficult time dealing with interfaces seemingly designed to frustrate both the subject doing the interfacing and the object being interfaced. I can barely read it, and half the time I turn a page, the next one never loads. It seems both Scott and the Server are unhappy.
I'm this close to moving on entirely, despite the fact that the discussions of "conditions" and "conditioning" in the book seem perfectly geared to my topic. Does the book not know I only have nine days to finish this chapter? Does it not realize that I'm only futzing with it because the copy I interlibrary-loaned four weeks ago still hasn't arrived? Does it not care?
Bill says "No onion rings?" and Hillary responds "I'm looking out for ya." Now, the script says onion rings, because that's what the Sopranos were eating in that final scene, but I doubt if any blogger will disagree with my assertion that, coming from Bill Clinton, the "O" of an onion ring is a vagina symbol. Hillary says no to that, driving the symbolism home. She's "looking out" all right, vigilant over her husband, denying him the sustenance he craves. What does she have for him? Carrot sticks! The one closest to the camera has a rather disgusting greasy sheen to it. Here, Bill, in retaliation for all of your excessive "O" consumption, you may have a large bowl of phallic symbols! When we hear him say "No onion rings?," the camera is on her, and Bill is off-screen, but at the bottom of the screen we see the carrot/phallus he's holding toward her. Oh, yes, I know that Hillary supplying carrots is supposed to remind that Hillary will provide us with health care, that she's "looking out for" us, but come on, they're carrots! Everyone knows carrots are phallic symbols. But they're cut up into little carrot sticks, you say? Just listen to yourself! I'm not going to point out everything.
She later claims to be joking about something or other, but that's beside the point. (Which, I'll add, has been hashed out by others.) That she believes the above a "little casual Freudian interpretation" speaks to the vacuousness of a certain mode of psychoanalytic thinking. To wit:
If so, aren't you the good little voter, accepting the message Senator Clinton hoped to insert in your receptacle of a brain? The famously controlled former First Lady is pleased there are people like you. Me, I'm not so obedient. Even though I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and may very well vote for Hillary, I don't accept these things at face value. What's more I love a ripe opportunity for interpretation, including comic interpretation with sexual, Freudian content. What are you going to say: "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"? You simply cannot say that when Bill Clinton is in the picture. In the whole history of the world, if there is one person for whom a cigar was not just a cigar, it's Bill Clinton ... Here the context was Bill Clinton and the wife he has notoriously cheated on for years. He's saying he wants onion rings, and she's imposing carrots on him. That cries out for psycho-sexual interpretation. It's not the intent of the film's auteurâunless he's a traitor to Clinton but it's imagery that they should have noticed as they were writing the script.
She honestly believes herself engaged in some sort of "psycho-sexual interpretation" here. As someone purported to be a scholar of some sort, she should know better than to pander in the anything-longer-than-it-is-wide mode of psychoanalytic criticism. Properly speaking, it's less a mode of psychoanalytic thought than the punchline to a self-parodic Woody Allen joke from 1965. For Althouse, however, this qualifies as insight, the sort of thing paid professionals should consider before scripting a commercial. Why harp on Althouse for trafficking in vapidities?
On page 69, we learn:
[Egerton Winthrop] was the third wheel of the Wharton marriage for many years, and one of her most important intellectual advisers.
Edith married Teddy Wharton in 1885. How to explain this, then, from page 127:
For a few years in the early 1890s ... [Ogden Codman] was a third wheel to the marriage.
That's four wheels, people. That car/carriage/car is raring to roll. So much for Lee's damn near-perfect work of scholarship. But blooped or smoked, a hit's a hit.
Scott! I was a PA on Bowling and 911 and forwarded this to Mike. Here's his response: "you mean people who agree w/ me will talk about sicko more? terrible! re: pirates tell the kid under no circumstances should he throw parties and invite everyone he knows over or host community screenings or leave copies in the stalls at the nixon museum. were up to me i'd sell two tickets at $100m each and destroy the masters. can't have people see the movie! terrible!"
She left an anti-spam email, so I can't write her back, and as I've never corresponded with Moore myself, I can't vouch the style, but it sounds like Moore, so I've no choice but to assume it's authentic. (pulls gold monocle from frock coat and secures it) I have famous readers. Do you have famous readers? No? (adjusts top hat) How dreadful. (reflects on life of three long minutes ago) I remember what it was like to be inconsequential, my tiny voice unread by the best people. (sighs)
Dark days, my friends, dark days.
I should be working, but I can't stop thinking about Sicko, Michael Moore's new film, which (last night, but not this morning) could be viewed in its entirety here. (I link because it says that the video may become available again. I doubt it. I did download it, however, and will share it, so long as you have some server space to spare.) Why can't I stop thinking about it? Because it embodies everything that infuriates me about Moore. Before I say why, let me outline what it does well. It is devastating as propaganda. Only someone who's been denied coverage because doctors and lawyers quibble over the difference between "cured" and "in remission" can believe in this cause as I strongly as I do. Which cause is that?
We already have socialist programs in America: police and fire departments, public schools, libraries, &c. Moore points out that just because they're not called socialist doesn't mean they're not socialist in spirit. They are. With the exception of talk surrounding home-schooling and vouchers, no one is calling for a return to the days of private armies. (Not that they don't exist, only that there's no outcry that our military is too inefficient to get the job done, and that it'd be better if privatized.)
Long Lines, Poor Care
Moore does a fantastic job debunking the central myth of socialized medicine: that it leads interminable waits for routine procedures, and that even when performed, they are not up to American standards. As anyone who's ever known a Canadian or British citizen living in the US has long known, they find the quality of care in the United States abominable. They complain about the long waits for simple procedures—not in the hospitals themselves, but for insurance authorization, statements of coverage, and then the interminable ex post facto wrangling about the procedures covered. That all takes time, which Americans conveniently forget when convincing themselves of the superiority of our system. As for the quality of care, while there's an argument to be made that advances in medical care require profit incentive, there's no argument that for 99 percent of all problems, adequate treatments exist. Better is better, you'll get no argument from me there, but I doubt medical researchers will stop their work if it suddenly becomes only extremely as opposed to obscenely profitable. (As Moore documents in the case of a British M.D. who only drives one fancy car, lives in a house which only costs one million dollars, and only has one high definition television.)
Treatment of 9/11 Survivors and First-Responders
Most outside of New York are unaware that many private individuals rushed to the Twin Towers on 9/11. They were not N.Y.P.D. or F.D.N.Y., they were medical professionals, or from police and firefighters from New Jersey, who answered the dispatchers' calls for any and all trained personnel to respond. And they did. As you may or may not know, almost everyone who worked on the pile in the hours, days and months after 9/11 now suffers from a host of lung and mental illness. Federal, state, and city officials have been slow to acknowledge the fact—as recently as September of last year, Mayor Bloomberg said "I don't believe that you can say specifically a particular problem came from this particular event"—and slower to act upon it. If you think the N.Y.P.D. and F.D.N.Y. have had difficulty finding and paying for the treatment of their own, you can imagine how difficult it is for the unaffiliated first-responders to do so. That he then takes them to Cuba is propagandistic gold: the whole sequence of military officials assuring Congress that the prisoners at Gitmo have access to the best care money can buy, that they are treated humanely, positively stings when juxtaposed against the plight of first-responders (official and unofficial alike). They would receive better treatment if they'd been captured trying to kill enlisted men and women in Afghanistan. Some crucial differences are downplayed, but the point plays beautifully.
Nixon: Still Evil
Not sure elaboration's necessary, but I will say this: Nixon was thinking man's evil. Moore's juxtaposition of Ehrlichman and Nixon's conversation about how an HMO works ("all the incentives are toward less medical care, because ... the less care they give them, the more money they make") and Nixon's description of it the next day is powerful. It hammers home the difference in the incentive systems between the US and England, in which, apparently, the pay rate for doctors increases based on the health of their patients. (I'm not sure this is true, and it seems oversimplified and likely to create its own set of malicious disincentives, but that's how it's presented, and it's quite effective.) To reiterate, however: Nixon's still evil.
No matter what you think of Moore, you know there is a national health-care crisis. You know the system is broken, and you know the current group of health-care providers wants it remain broken. You know they hire people to sift through applications to deny coverage, and that even once covered, people must fight to receive the treatments they need (oftentimes even after they've been approved). The needless deaths of the working-class Americans portrayed in the film are consequences of the health-care industry's bottom-line mentality. The man who died of kidney cancer after finding a bone-marrow match and the man whose job it was to scour applications for unreported illnesses so that his company might void coverage for an undocumented yeast infection from 1991 are symptomatic. No matter what you think of Moore, you know the problems he points to are valid and endemic. That said:
I don't mind cheap (but effective) showmanship. Anonymously paying the founder of Moore Watch $12,000 so he can pay to keep the site up and his wife insured is both classy and opportunistic. Such is the life of the showman. Bringing victims of 9/11 to Gitmo so that they might retrieve the same quality health-care as the terrorists works. Bringing them to a Havana hospital for treatment? Not so much. It has long been known that foreigners paying in hard currencies receive preferential treatment in Cuban hospitals. Despite the benefits brought about the emphasis on preventative medicine, one of the highest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world, and the availability of cheap generic drugs, Moore neglects to mention that he was taking advantage of the system, that the people with him only received the treatment they did because they weren't Cuban. Just as I was furious when I learned that he had met Roger while filming Roger & Me, I'm pre-incensed at his future revelation that he knew all about Cuba's medical tourism industry. In both films, he overreaches, providing his detractors with ammunition against him. He undermines the valid points he raises about the outsourcing of American jobs and the crisis in American health-care for what can only be seen as narrative goals. He wants the perfect ending, the perfect finish, the perfect irony. He doesn't need it. When I taught literary journalism, I convinced my students, and myself, that the most human story is human by virtue of its imperfections, by the way its mundane realities defy the simplistic narrative conventions of the Hollywood hack. Would that Moore could learn this.
UPDATE: Gerry Canavan notes that if this encounter is the foundation of my criticism of Roger & Me, my criticism may be unfair. He says that because I lacked a little clarity. It's not that Moore met Roger Smith while filming the movie—the film was in preproduction at the time—it is that he never offers his ambushing of Smith at the GM shareholders meeting because doing so would provide Smith with an understandable reason for refusing to meet with him. It is not because Moore is a man of the people, but because a few months previous Moore had publicly hectored him, so Smith knew what was coming, i.e. he was smart enough not to decline an invitation to his own lynching. This is different from what Moore did in The Awful Truth—those corporate executives didn't know what was coming, and avoided him on (poor) principle—so the series hammers home the impression that the same thing was done in Roger & Me. (Again, this may be the former journalism teacher in my quibbling over minor details. Having twice taught a journalistic ethics class will do that to you.)