Saturday, July 19, 2014


One of the worst things a person can be is stupid. Stupidity is one of the greatest conceivable evils. Yet it isn’t a sin at all. It is something no-one, with the exception of  novelist Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk, deliberately chooses to be. What is inflicted on you at birth, which you couldn’t help, did nothing to provoke, can hardly qualify as sin. And yet. . . .

Right next to it, as far as I’m concerned, is obesity—right up there with thievery, mendacity, cruelty to people and animals, rudeness and dirtiness. It may even head the list, along with stupidity.

Yet it too may (repeat: may) be something glandular that you cannot help. Of course stigmatizing it predicates belief in the beauty and goodness of its opposite, slenderness. I confess that I, as a lover of women—more specifically beautiful ones—consider slimness a sine qua non. This has to do with obesity being tantamount to ugliness. And surely such overweight is ugly.

The obese person is unsightly, and therefore shunned and unhappy. Consider the attention devoted by the ABC network to tracing missing children. Most of them are girls, which in itself is noteworthy, and almost all of them are overweight. One recently was five feet tall and weighed 200 pounds.

We cannot dispute the fact that for the vast majority of people the standard of beauty is set by Hollywood. Female stars have to be slender. I recall one movie magazine long ago naming the two most beautiful actresses: Hedy Lamarr and Ann Sheridan. They were both 5’6” and both weighed 118 pounds. I agreed that they were, each in her own way, true beauties. There may be something quaint about that 118, definitely not a rounded (in both senses) figure (again in both senses). But it surely worked for both those alluring actresses.

We may well ask what is so beautiful about slimness? There have been ages and societies whose standard of feminine beauty was much more ample. Never mind the Hottentot Venus or the paintings of Rubens and, worse yet, Botero; but think of our own Gibson girls, ideals not so long ago.

The beauty of slimness has something to do with proportions, symmetry, pleasing ratios, which remain steady even if details change. Already 5’6” may seem a bit ordinary nowadays, perhaps even short; we tend to admire a woman like the tennis star Maria Sharapova, who at 6’2” might not so very long ago been considered a giantess and not particularly desirable. But she is, today, a beauty.

Too much height in a woman, however, is a bit intimidating, especially to men who are shorter than that. But too little height is considered childish, cute, like kittens, puppies, or six-year-old girls. Only one thing definitely scorned in our time is obesity.

I don’t recall reading anywhere the weight of Angelina Jolie, widely held to be one of our greatest beauties, with or without breasts. But one thing she certainly, even remotely, is not: she is anything but obese. Now if you wonder why I concentrate on a particular kind of beauty, namely feminine, it is for the same reason that painters through the ages painted beautiful, often nude, women as the high point of beauty.

I realize that this is foolishly derided by many as sexist; but others will agree that it is a good place to look for beauty. To be sure, one hears about fatty lovers (or should it be one word, fattylovers?), but they are relatively rare. The rest of us value delicacy even in a vase and champagne glass and, particularly, flower; then why not in a woman? I don’t mean undernourishment, frangibility, flimsiness; but I do mean gracefulness, the sort of thing we get in a ballerina.

Something there is that loves slenderness. Think of the women of, say, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Modigliani, and so many other artists, almost all gazelles. And the same in sculpture: there is a Venus de Milo, but a Venus de Gaston Lachaise is inconceivable.

Reflect now on the causes of obesity. It is very frequent, for example, in black women? Why? Because many of them are poor. If you can’t afford other good things, there is one that you must: food. But food isn’t just for survival; it is also for pleasure. And what food is cheapest? Junk food, which is notoriously fattening. Now what makes poverty a bit more bearable?  Munching away on junk food. Consequence? Obesity.

Obesity, moreover, is comic. The comic is not beautiful. How many comediennes have been slender? A few; but many more have been—are--to put it politely, big. And funny is not sexy either, which is first cousin to beautiful. But funny can actually be obese, which is the reverse of beautiful. So obesity ends up being the opposite of beautiful, i.e., ugly.

Take the word porcine, which applied to a human is hugely insulting. Why? Because pigs are fat. They are, however, far from stupid, and, contrary to popular belief, would as soon not wallow in mud. But swinish, or piglike, i.e., obese, is what an unappealing person is deprecatingly called. Not equine, canine or feline. Porcine, i.e., ugly.

Americans rate very high on the obesity scale. But why are so many Americans flagrantly obese? Can you ride a bus without spotting at least one such? Or, more likely, several. This is because, compared to those in the rest of the world,
America’s poor are less indigent. At any rate, they can afford more candy and other fattening junk food. And don’t forget the proliferation and persuasiveness of American advertising plugging dubious comestibles. Result? Obesity.

Bear in mind the derivation and definition of the word obesity. In Britain, the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the word “obese” was first recorded in 1651; “obesity,” in 1612. They come from the Latin, perhaps via French, the adjective meaning, according to the OED, very fat or fleshy, or exceedingly corpulent; the noun, excessive fatness or corpulence. Note the signified more than mere fatness. Conversely, as rich a language as German, which of course has words for fat and thick, has no word for obese. This surely does not mean that Germans are less obese than Brits, but it does mean that the Anglo-Saxon, and hence also American, sensibility is more offended by vast overweight than that of some other nations. And rightly so.

We hate a walking tub of lard more than some other nationals do. We could be satisfied with fat and thick, with plump and pudgy, chubby and overweight, but no; we also want, for the greatest repulsiveness, the greatest shock, obese. Or is it that we have more fatties, greater unappetizingness (or bigger appetites) than other peoples? “Obese” is a word that exudes stricter disapproval, elicits stronger repulsion than any of those other synonyms or near-synonyms.

It does not help that we now know how unhealthful such superfatness is. Even the similarity in sound to the word “obscene” should give warning. Or the rhyming with “grease.” Or the negativity of most words beginning in “ob”: obscure, obscurantist, obstacle, objectionable, obsolete, obnoxious, obstructionist, perhaps even obligatory, which is at best indeterminate: some obligations are worthy, many restrictive and tedious. An irredeemably damning word then for an irredeemably damnable phenomenon.

Observe also how unwilling “obese” is to join up with something remotely positive as “fat” and “thick” can do, as in “fat and sassy” and “thickskinned,” which in today’s brutal world stands for something rather handy. Obese, however, stands alone and is bad business however you slice it, and, given its adiposity, is very appropriate for slicing.



Sunday, June 29, 2014

Whither the Arts?

Repeatedly I have written and spoken about exhaustion in the arts. Think how easy it was for the possibly pseudonymous Longus to write the immortal pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe in the third or fourth century, when there was relatively little competition in fiction writing. Think also of how easy it was for the early composers to write not especially original music at a time when originality was not much called for. In the fine arts, even before representation yielded to abstraction, it has been easier to be original all along, what with the variety of faces, landscapes and possible still lifes. Yet even there a certain sense of déjà vu is now making things more difficult.

For artists with words—poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists—it is, despite seemingly infinite possibilities, getting harder and harder to be original, given the prevailing glut. Forays into the absurd have become more and more frequent, what with true newness ever more difficult to achieve. As for dance, the beauty of the human body in motion guarantees a putative inexhaustibility, yet even so there is no superabundance nowadays of outstanding choreographers.

Where mass production is by way of becoming deleterious is in the cinema, where it would appear that the great innovators have been dying out, and the newcomers are having the devil of a time trying not to look like the epigones they are. And there is a big increase in remakes, mostly inferior to the makes.

But where the desperate quest to be new is most pronounced, or most demented, is in the hard-to-classify realms of conceptual and body art, in which the frantic pursuit of elusive novelty has wreaked the greatest havoc. Here let us accost one of the major practitioners of the typical quest for originality—or just difference— yielding the most pitiful examples.  I name that salient practitioner of non-art posturing as art: Marina Abramovic.

A couple of years ago her so-called retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was entitled “The Artist Is Present.” It consisted of having persons sit in a chair opposite her and gazing at her admiringly. And would you believe it? People stood in line for the privilege of sitting and staring at her. So what could she do now to top this? Well, now she has London’s Serpentine Gallery showing nothing except the colored empty panels of its walls. It is called “512 Hours” after the total time she will spend there doing nothing. And folks have stood in line to see Abramovic’s nothing, presumably superior to the nothing of lesser mortals.

It is written up in an article of the June 14 New York Times, which can be read as either laudatory or ironic, or possibly neither. It goes into some detail about how Marina is spending the 512 hours of the duration of this exhibition. She says, “There is just me and the public. It is insane what I try to do.” Note that here “insane” is a term of praise.

There is no limit to Abramovic’s superior insanity. She is “widely known in the art world,” the Times states, “as a pioneer in her field who had not just created performances of physical intensity—carving a star into her stomach with a razor, lying on a block of ice for hours, screaming until her voice gave out—but had also re-enacted grueling performance pieces by other artists.” For, alas, she is not alone in her art. “A number of Americans and curators have written . . . accusing Ms. Abramovic and the gallery of failing to acknowledge the work of Mary Ellen Carroll, a New York based conceptual artist. Ms. Carroll said in an email that she had been working on a project called ‘Nothing’ since 1984, describing it as ‘an engagement with the public’ without documentation.” Thirty years of working on creating nothing is indeed impressive.

One of the gallery’s co-curators with Julia Taylor Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist, told the Times in a telephone interview that “Ms. Carroll was one of numerous artists before Ms. Abramovic who had explored the relationship between art and nothingness.” And Abramovic herself confirms that “now we are getting letters every day from people who did nothing first.” Truly a situation worthy of the pen of Jonathan Swift or Lewis Carroll (no relation to Mary Ellen).

But did they receive the same sort of recognition as the one for “512 Hours”? No. Lady Gaga did not come to them for instruction, and Time magazine did not put them on this year’s list of the 100 most influential people. I have no doubt that at this very moment doctoral theses are being written on the art of nothing. Indeed, Marina informs us, “relishing her fame,” that her public “are super young, and I become for them some kind of example of things they want to know.” And we read that on a given Wednesday attendance at “52 Hours” consisted of hundreds of knowledge seekers, and not only young ones, but that on the following Thursday there was no such crowd. We are not told what happened on Friday.

“There is an enormous need for young people to have contact with the artist,” Ms. A. avers. And how does that play out at the Serpentine Galleries? For example, Ms. A. hands a small mirror to a visitor and tells her to walk backward, using the mirror as a guide. “Reality is behind you,” she whispers.

This was, presumably, a young contact needer. But how about older ones? “You look suspicious,” Ms. A. said to an older couple. They looked “well, suspicious, as around them people contemplated those panels in bright primary colors [not painted by Ms. A.]  or lay on he floor eyes closed.  Ms. A. took the couple by the hand, “gently asked them to close their eyes, and led them away walking with a slow measured tread.” She explains: “The public are my material, and I am theirs. “ To this end, our material girl opens the gallery with her private key at 6 A.M. and presumably tarries there till closing time.

Now you may fear that this art is too ephemeral, too conditioned on the artist’s living presence. Not to worry. In Hudson, New York, there is a Marina Abramovic Institute, a center for long-durational work, that “she hopes will bring together figures from the worlds or art, science and spirituality.” I wonder who these figures might be? For art, we already have Lady Gaga—or is she there for spirituality?—but who might attend from the world of science? Scientologists, perhaps; I can’t see Mary Ellen Carroll making the pilgrimage.

So there you have it. “A Gallery Filled with Emptiness,” as one Times headline has it. The follow-up one, more explicitly, reads “Now She Fills Her Gallery With Emptiness.” But, of course, she won’t stop there. There are still many heads to be filled with emptiness, albeit not so the fillers’ pockets. It is all highly symptomatic. And this, and similar manifestations, are where modern art has progressed to. How much really separates those primary-colored gallery panels from the masterworks of Mark Rothko and his likes, say Yves Klein, the Monochrome?

Simultaneously in music, we get John Cage’s measured silence and the not much better Minimalists. In literature, where it all began, we had Gertrude Stein, the surrealists and Oulipo. The floodgates were open to a French writer who wrote a whole book with the letter E removed from his typewriter. But why stop at one letter? How about a book with no letters at all? 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Academic Matters

Students have become arrogant of late. I noticed that during my last years of professorship, and I find it confirmed by what I hear and read these days. When I say that in my days we were not like that, I am not being a laudator temporis acti—a bit of Latin that shouldn’t stump anyone, except perhaps some of today’s students.

The problem has nothing to do with human nature, only with the temper of the times. My student days were before political correctness, before affirmative action, before not being allowed to call someone stupid, least of all if he or she actually was. It was certainly before a teacher was not supposed (allowed?) to flunk anyone. The whole purpose of education has changed: then it was about learning; now it is about getting a degree as a means to a better job and more money.

To be sure, I was a student at Harvard, whereas I was a teacher at much less distinguished schools, although for all I know, even Harvard may no longer be Harvard. Still, the country was respectful of the kind of knowledge a decent liberal arts program bestowed on you. This is no longer the case. On the day I write this (May 19), I was watching Jeopardy! with one young woman a multiple six-figure winner, and two other contestants who too were on the ball.                                                                    

As usual, they did well enough in various areas, but were unimpressive in literature. They did not know what Conrad novel featured a Jim whom respectful natives deemed a lord. Nor did they know the name of the evil hypnotist who enslaved a lovely, innocent young woman. In my day, even people who had not read Trilby knew what was meant by a Svengali.

But back to current students. In today’s Times, an article appears under the headline “Warning: The Literary Canon Could make Students Squirm.” (This, by the way, was not the case of a subliterate headline, such as we got from the Times of May 10, which began: “Obama, Aggravated by Gridlock” etc.) Now we got responsible reportage about what was happening on a good many campuses, concentrating on the University of California, Santa Barbara and Oberlin College, but with references also to Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools where there were student requests for what are known as trigger warnings.

The term, like other unfortunate things, originated on the Internet, specifically on feminist blogs and subsequent forums. But I am concerned with its academic life and what it tells us about student demands and certain professors’ and administrators’ taking them seriously, in some cases even deferring to them.

What it comes down to is the idea that students in certain literature and film courses should be forewarned  about disturbing elements that could upset the poor darlings if they were unprepared for them. Which means, in effect, that the element of surprise and wonder should be denied some great works of literature and cinema, lest they cause moments of discomfiture.

Who are these students anyway? Are they four-year-olds who need to be warned by their nannies about the dangers of crossing a street? Must they, as it were, be taken by the hand and led to safety? “Careful about oncoming cars.” “Careful about painful deaths or a horrid rape in this novel, which may upset you.”

But reading or seeing a great work should precisely put you at the creator’s mercy—how else would you learn from him or her? If authors want to surprise you, starkly and startlingly, they should be allowed to do so without warning. Any student who needs that kind of help has something seriously wrong with him, and may need psychological assistance; the work of art needs no such help.

I am especially struck by the attitude of Bailey Loverin, who in her picture looks perfectly normal. A sophomore at Santa Barbara, she said “the idea came to her . . .  after a professor showed a graphic film depicting rape. She said that she herself had been the victim of sexual abuse, and that although she had not felt threatened by the film, she had approached the professor to suggest that students should have been warned.”

What makes her reaction reprehensible? First of all, the arrogance of assuming such superiority to other students. If she, despite good reason, wasn’t upset by the film, maybe there wasn’t anything in it that could upset any normal person, even given past incidents. So why complain to the professor, unless perhaps to show off.

The real issue here is the nature of this being upset. Does it mean anything more than feeling intensely sorry for the victim, although it was only a movie or a novel? Such empathy is by no means amiss. It may prove, if anything, therapeutic. If it produces anything more drastic than that, look not to mollycoddling but to therapy.

A student who has a violent reaction strikes me as sick. Moreover, I don’t see how being warned can make much a difference. A predicted hurt is ultimately just as hurtful as an unpredicted one. Tell me I am about to get a beating and forthwith the beating becomes painless? And what way is there to prepare after such a  warning? With stringent physical exercise? With a specially invigorating meal? With clutching a pet dog or cat you brought along to the screening? With taking some sort of anti-anxiety medication? In the case of a book, must you skip pages 154 to 163? Or, safest of all, not read such a dangerous book as “The Great Gatsby” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” cited in the article as trauma-inducing.

At Oberlin College, a draft guide was circulated “asking professors to put trigger warning in their syllabuses” concerning the following, which “might cause trauma.” They are: racism, classism. heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and “other issues of privilege and oppression.” Because even the adult reader might need some warning, the Times explained cissexism as “anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender [sic[ This neologism, may need explication. But anyone can figure out the equally clumsy “ableism.”

I particularly savor the horror of “classism.” Visualize a movie in which a glamorous hostess refuses to invite her hairdresser to a party, and then imagine the convulsions and nausea afflicting the more sensitive spectators.

What arrogance—or stupidity—from these Oberlin petitioners. If professors put such a warning in the course catalogue, there would be no shortage of students avoiding that course altogether to their eventual impoverishment. After a while, the school would drop such a course, to the disadvantage of all potential students.

But whereas student benightedness may come as no surprise, faculty pusillanimity does. TheTimes article quotes Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of  the College of Arts and Sciences, as declaring that “providing students with warnings would simply be responsible pedagogical practice.’” She explains that “We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”

Allow me an obiter dictum on the use of “issues.” People nowadays no longer have problems or difficulties, they have ”issues.” I myself have problems with this use of “issues,” unless I am mishearing, and what is said “is shoes.” Too tight, too high-heeled, too expensive. But back to the students.

If it were up to me, it would be compulsory to take courses that might upset them. We may have reached the point where students can be taught only by shock treatment. Profoundly upset students would be immediately recognizable as needful of psychological help, which could accordingly be administered. Such trigger warning to the faculty and administration might prevent later, more serious student breakdowns.

But if the students are merely displaying fake altruism as a form of self-importance, (like, I suspect, Bailey Loverin), let them not benefit from someone like Associate Dean Raimondo, who says, “I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up.’ That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with.” I share the objection. Kids, for the most part, are tough enough. It’s the professors and administrators who need toughening.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Valuable Is Rarity?

A good many people are content to be part of the ordinary multitude. A good many others are not thus content. There is the not infrequent desire to be special, outstanding, even unique. This translates into becoming powerful or, more modestly, interestingly different. But how is that difference, let alone power, achievable?

It isn’t easy. One way is to be, or become, very rich. Yet that registers as special mostly to the degree one is envied by everyone else. This can require great zeal or great indolence as well as money; we read about millionaires, men or women, for whom wealth brought only misery.

Such people were unhappily or multiply married, with usually highly publicized divorces, perhaps as a kind of serial rather than simultaneous polygamy. This means a media-begotten celebrity, though not of the kind that most seekers would welcome. So what are other, better ways of achieving fame?

It could be by the youth and beauty of an elderly nabob’s trophy wife. The downside of that is that most of such celebrity goes to the wife rather than to the nabob. Reflected glory is, after all, a second-rate sort of distinction. But there are other kinds of extraordinariness more greatly prized. One of them is an impressive art collection.

That would require an appreciable amount of Rembrandts, Picassos or Van Goghs. (Pathetic, by the way, when you think how unsold and impoverished Vincent was during his lifetime. And how many millions even his lesser works go for nowadays.) The good thing about a major art collection is the number of ways you can score with it.

One, of course, is just by reveling in it. Then there is promising it posthumously to some major museum. Another way is to offer it up for sale, and collecting big money thereby. Still another is to start your own museum, with your name attached to it. Moreover, it devolves to your glory just that you collected such a lofty thing as art, rather than, say, vintage automobiles, which requires much more space and is less readily displayable.

Now, speaking of space, what demands less of it than postage stamps? Of all types of collection, stamps may be the most convenient, but also the most questionable. There are, to be sure, some desperate souls who claim practical benefits from philately. They allege that you learn things about geography or, better yet, history from stamps. These can display historic figures, historic locations, historic events, familiarity with which enriches the lives of collectors.

Alas, when it comes to learning history, history books are preferable by far to stamps. What good is it, for instance, to learn that there was a major exhibition in such and such a year in Chicago? And does it profit us greatly to possess in miniature the face of, say, the inventor of the sewing machine or the last czar of Russia? Why, even Madame Curie can be duly revered without owning her countenance on a postage stamp. But, you say, what if a stamp is a miniature work of art?

This, I regret to say, happens more often in Europe than in America. And whereas art on your wall does something for you, your kinfolk, and your visiting friends, what good is a tiny artwork buried in an album, and not to be steadily viewed? It is about as good as a fine painting hung face to the wall.

This is where rarity comes in. I read in the Times of May 2 about what may be the rarest postage stamp of all, the One-Cent Magenta from British Guiana, of which there is only one surviving specimen in the entire world. The newspaper refers to it as the Mona Lisa of stamps, and observes that it should fetch, at the forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s, somewhere between ten and twenty million dollars.

Yet it is not even as famous, or as upside–down, as the Inverted Jenny, a stamp of which there exist a hundred. A rather blurred picture of the One-Cent Magenta appears in the Times, which does not even clearly reveal what it depicts, namely “a workmanlike image of a schooner and a Latin motto that translates as ‘we give and we take in return.’” All that is clear in this newspaper illustration is the stamp’s octagonal shape, unusual enough, but probably not quite worth ten million, let alone twenty.

But yes, there is that rarity, that stamp’s uniqueness. Still, why should rarity, or even uniqueness, be worth that much? Let’s say you have a gorgeous girlfriend of Hollywood caliber or, better yet, as beautiful as a Botticelli Venus. Let us even assume that, should you be able to sell her, she’d bring in, being a rare specimen, a hefty sum. But ten or twenty million? I suspect not.

The rarity business strikes me as altogether spurious. Why should rare be synonymous with precious? If everyone owned a Maserati, Lomberghini or Rolls-Royce, would that make it less satisfying to own? If your girlfriend were the last remaining woman on earth to look like Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, would that make her better company at the breakfast table, to say nothing of between the sheets?

I think rarity is vastly overrated, in stamps or anything else. But there it is. So gold is worth more than copper, even though it wouldn’t, in my esteem, look appreciably better than copper in a frying pan. Whatever beauty gold possesses need not in itself justify its enormous price. It is the rarity that does it. There was a Gold Rush; there could never be an Aluminum Rush. And then consider platinum, which, if you ask me, doesn’t even look as good as chrome.

Which brings me back to envy and to one of its provokers, the boast. Face it: most if not all of us enjoy being able to boast about something. Whether it’s your son getting straight A’s in his senior year in high school, your wife’s fabulous beef Stroganoff, your ancestors’ trip on the Mayflower, or the impermeability of your trench coat (or perhaps just its brand: Burberry); all those are things to boast about.  And yet they are not all that rare—think how many people must own Burberry trench coats. But it’s a brand, and not inexpensive, hence less ordinary, more prestigious, than the one you picked up out of desperation when you were caught in the rain in Podunk.

Granted that either garment will keep you dry, the British one is more rare; it alone is not only proof against the rain but also proof of your affluence, and of your rare good taste.

Still, rarity may in some cases be an actual disadvantage. Say you have a rare disease, or are a rare visitor to a watering place long since gone out of fashion.
What no one wants may easily be as rare as what everyone wants. Hula-Hoops, a year after they ceased to be (briefly) in fashion, have become hard to find, but does their unstylish rarity confer prestige on their tacky possessors?

Let us, however, beware of the opposite error and assume that all rarity is meaningless and absurd when overvalued. It is very rare to live to be a hundred, but is the rarity of being that old a privilege or a drag for its possessor and the caretakers? Like so much else, rarity is what you make of it.

Which reminds me of a tale by Anatole France, which I read as a youth. I recall it somewhat dimly, but no less approvingly. A mighty but troubled ruler is told by a seer that he will be happy only when he wears the shirt of a truly happy man. He orders his flunkies to find him such a shirt. Needless to say, they head for the abodes of the rich.

Yet all the wealthy turn out to be variously unhappy. One rich man, for example, takes these seekers onto his terrace, affording a magnificent view of his vast lands. But, as he points out, way out there is a barely visible, thin column of smoke rising from a chimney, which ruins the view for him. And so on, with mogul after mogul.

Finally, however, the searchers come across a shepherd who sings merrily while contentedly tending to his flock, and is of manifest good cheer. They fall upon him, tear off his jacket and lo, poor as he is, he doesn’t even own a shirt.

The moral of the story is that happiness is a wonderful thing but has nothing to do with rareness. It depends not on disposables but on disposition. Neither rarity nor frequency is of itself a good thing

So there is something very arbitrary about automatically valuing things for how rare they are. Or how not rare they are. What comes closest to real value is quite independent of quantity, whether profuse or scanty. But neither is it a nonsensical concept. If you love mashed potatoes, you love them equally whether you get them once a month or once a week.

Yet what a different world this would be if value were universally recognized as totally independent of rarity. If imitation leather were considered no worse than the genuine, provided it looked as good and functioned as dependably. How many of us moderately well off would then be as contented as the rich.

A better world, one likes to think. But then again, is that rare thing, excellence—or, better yet, perfection, if such a thing is possible—not to be sought? Of course it is. So I would say that a talent for surgery, is an admirable thing, however rare or not; whereas a gift for solving crossword puzzles, however rare or not, is of no great consequence.

Then to acquire the One-Cent Magenta, except for the purpose of selling it, would hardly be worth the effort. On the other hand, the opportunity and ability to enjoy the great arts, any and all of them, is well worth any number of One-Cent Magentas. But hold on: if any number existed, they wouldn’t be Mona Lisas in the first place. No better, in fact, than what you could purchase at your neighborhood Post Office.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Concision

Concreteness, compactness, concision--put it any way you like--is something that good writing is based on. Or you may call it, as Jacques Barzun did in the title and content of an important book, “Simple and Direct,” which comes pretty much to the same thing. I myself have always been astonished at an overstuffed sentence and inscrutable paragraph, wondering about how many respectable authors can lack clarity and require poring over a certain piece of their writing, sometimes in vain..

There are of course subjects that are beyond the comprehension of the general reader (though not as many as one might think), but I am concerned with matters that could be made perfectly clear, but egregiously aren’t.

To be sure, there have been great writers to whom long and complicated sentences came naturally—one thinks of Proust and Henry James, for example—and who could get away with it. Yet that is mostly in fiction, whereas I am thinking chiefly of exposition.

But not exclusively.  Even in verse, for instance, how powerful through its brevity is William Norman Ewer’s poem running thus in its entirety: “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/The Jews.” I am, of course, not advocating that all poems should be four lines of monometer, but merely instancing a salient example of what concision can do.

Everyone concedes that concision is mandatory in the witty retort. Famously, when the Earl of Sandwich said to John Wilkes, “’Pon my honor, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox,” Wilkes replied, “That must depend, my Lord, upon whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.” This could be even more compact without the “must” or the plural “mistresses,” but much depends precisely on a mere two extra syllables to make the answer that much stronger.

 That kind of economy--mandatory in the retort, aphorism or epigram--can be just as effective in various kinds of writing. While we are at it, isn’t it interesting that under he entry “Concision,” the Heritage Dictionary offers a bit from, of all people, Henry James: “the quick, direct discrimination of this eye, which explains the vivid concision of his descriptions.”

Even the fact that we have such synonyms or near-synonyms as concise, terse, pregnant, testifies to the importance of the matter. Here let me recall the most famous historic instance of concision, Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vinci,” which echoes down the centuries undiminished in stature. And it behooves us to remember that Caesar was, among other things, quite a writer. By the way, in that verbal triangulation, while “I came” and “I conquered” are potent enough, it is the “I saw” that is the most unexpected, most striking, and most suggestive of all.

The next most famous piece of historic concision is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, whose terseness stood out even more powerfully coming after Everett’s lengthy oration. Granted, concision is not easy. Recall Woodrow Wilson’s “If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

The opposite of “concise” is, of course, “verbose,” and we know, or ought to know, how insulting that is when judiciously applied. It was of David Copperield that Robert Graves pointed out that, just by cutting every “little,” it could be made, I forget exactly how many pages shorter. That was a reflection mostly on Dickens’s sentimentality, but, indirectly, also on his wordiness. And for lack of concision in speech, we have terms like garrulity, loquacity, talkativeness and, if you look up the last-named in the dictionary, a bunch of other synonyms. Needless to say, what is offensive in speech is just as culpable in writing, probably even more so.

Admittedly, there are some specious excuses, such as your writing being paid by the word inducing you to become wordier. But that is surely a shabby excuse, even granting that in our culture, or lack thereof, writing can be shamelessly underpaid. The sound of one’s own voice, whether in talk or in writing, makes for a poor love object, as even unsophisticated hearers or readers will readily concede. Absolved only is dramatic effect, as when in “King Lear” the word “kill” or the word “never” is repeated several times; extreme rage and extreme grief are accorded the privilege of such iteration, on the stage as in life.

In any case, repetition is not the same as prolixity. The former will make you boring, but it is the latter that makes you inept. There are further possible reasons for verbosity. Greed, flattery, evasiveness, mendacity and other undesirables come to mind. To return to “King Lear,” it is the unloving daughters that are wordmongers; the loving daughter is wonderfully concise.

 I forget who it was that summarized the play as “a man has three daughters, which proves sufficient to drive him insane.” That kind of concisions—except when, as here, as a joke—is manifestly undesirable. And for comic purposes, verbosity can be immensely effective. Think of Polonius or, better yet, of Cyrano in the monologue of the nose. Conversely, though, there is the line in a play that—quite undeservedly—always gets a laugh. It is when, after some long, rambling speech by one character, another replies with “No shit?” Although the terseness there is reinforced by scatology, I consider it no laughing matter.

But there is also love. Lovers are traditionally allowed, or even expected, to give vent to their emotions in a flow, even torrent, of impassioned words. Here eloquence, rhetoric, hyperbole, and all kinds of high-flown comparisons tend to be pardoned, whether in writing, utterance, or artful susurration. All this, however, only for the beloved person’s eye or ear; everyone else’s stomach might be justified in turning.

But I must stop before readers of this blog post accuse me of lack if concision.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why Religion?

What is religion really about, and do we truly need it? An atheist wonders and asks these fundamental questions.

Obviously, a thinking person has to wonder why the universe exists, and, concomitantly, why does mankind? Also, why here on earth and, apparently, nowhere else? Which, of course, raises the consequent question: Is there a God? That may be where questioning must begin.

First of all, why should there be monotheism rather than polytheism, which satisfied humanity for so many centuries? And why has religion taken, as it still does, so many different, contradictory forms? And why has this diversity begotten so many atrocities, from the Inquisition to suicide bombing, from wars to more wars?

Furthermore, why does the Judeo-Christian Bible (there are others) state that God created Man in his image, which, among other consequences, has given rise to much laughter among the many who have sneered at the representation of God as a fatherly, white-bearded gentleman seated on a throne and exuding either severity or benevolence. Yet this would be the image in which we are created.

I have tended to concentrate my astonishment, for need of focus, on T. S. Eliot, a man of talent and intelligence, perhaps even genius, who went from making fun of the Church to becoming a good Anglican, ostensibly believing in such things as heaven and hell.

Now, heaven and hell may have had some credibility before astronomy and geology, not to mention space travel, became what they now are. Search the heavens, as we now can, for a place called Paradise; the earth, for a place called Hell. Nothing bib- lical anywhere.

Nietzsche and his likes came up with the idea that God was dead. Where then is his grave? On the highly questionable notion that the Almighty could die, some trace of his tomb must exist somewhere. But where?

I know well enough what religious belief is for. We all want to belong to a community, or fraternity, or club, to counteract isolation, loneliness, dejection. That is what, undeservedly, makes a Church so attractive. Yet just because I pray and sing hymns with a bunch of others, are they really my kin? Do they give a rap about me and I about them? Anyway, how much do we really share with Muslims, Buddhists and so many diverse religions differing from ours? And does either sharing or not sharing make us right?

Clearly, religion has its uses. Chiefly because without it, humans would be even less well-behaved, law-abiding. governable; have less of a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and lack a moral directive. But then why does so much evil exist nonetheless, how could a civilized nation have perpetrated the Holocaust, and how can to this day so many deny that it ever existed? Persons who are not manifest idiots.

To be sure, there is all that stuff about free will with which God allegedly endowed us. But how free is free? Free to declare something white black or vice versa? Free to dispute that one plus one make two? To believe in the resurrection of the body after it has been cremated or rotted underground? Has there not always been a great contradiction between going to heaven upon death or not until Judgment Day?

That clever cuss, Tertullian, came up with the notion of faith as belief in the unprovable, of “credo quia absurdum,” which is why it is called faith, because it takes absurd things to be true—on faith. Nice enough, but that means that we can throw logic out the window, doesn’t it?

Granted religion, especially Roman Catholicism, is a kind of free spectacle for the poor, who cannot afford the real theater. Well, if it is really that sort of art for art’s sake, how can it have anything to do with God?

Still and all, why does the world exist? Why do we exist? How can we have developed so much knowledge and knowhow, so much philosophy and science? How come there are no motorcars on Mars?

There is no incontrovertible explanation for these things, despite the many millennia of time to come up with indisputable answers, which would seem like an argument for agnosticism rather than atheism. That, however, means ignorance about basic matters, and is ignorance really bliss? The very least God could have done for us is instill in us belief in his existence. Yet just to think of the multitude who still capitalize the noun and pronoun pertaining to him. How absurd!

Let me cite one significant example. A man as smart as William Buckley responded to my letter of condolence at the decease of his wife with the declaration that he could not go on living without his belief in an otherworldly reunion with her. This from a highly educated, extremely intellectual human being! Was one to pity him? Envy him? Ignore him?

What can certainly be said for religion is that it has inspired some very great music, painting, sculpture, and literature. That is, even if not necessarily voluntary, a huge gift bestowed on us. But are we to carry gratitude to the point of irrationality? Or do you really believe that God sees the sins—even the tiniest peccadilloes—of billions of human beings and lets them get away with it? Out of the candy box with your hand, Sonny, when it isn’t even your box and can do such harm to your health. To say nothing about your ineligibility for salvation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Losers and Laughers

I admire champions of lost causes: the beautiful losers, to borrow the title of an early Leonard Cohen opus, by far his best. The Japanese, apparently, have great respect for them; the Japanologist Ivan Morris wrote a whole book about it. Yet the kamikaze pilots don’t entirely qualify—any more than do Muslim suicide bombers--because their sacrifice did not entail what they thought of as a lost cause.

My feeling for lost causes began with an early boyhood French primer, one of whose anecdotes indelibly impressed me. It seems that on a rainy day Voltaire set forth for abroad when he noticed his boots still covered with yesterday’s mud. When he questioned his valet, the fellow replied, “What would be the use cleaning them when today is just as rainy and they would gather just as much mud?” “Very well,” said Voltaire and went out, muddy boots and all. Forthwith the valet came running after him, “Sir, sir! You forgot to leave me the key to the pantry for my lunch!” “What’s the use,” Voltaire answered, “when in no time you will be just as hungry as before?”

There it is: those boots are a notable lost cause. And perhaps, after all, so are the kamikaze pilots, who could not be sure that they were dying for a winning cause, but not the Muslim suicide bombers, who can look forward to gaining paradisiac bliss from 72, or is it 73, virgins servicing them? (When it comes to virgins, one or two more or less makes no major difference.)

When I write in favor of fighters for lost causes, it is, to be sure, somewhat pro domo. For is not criticism of my kind, like so many intellectual endeavors nowadays, a lost cause? How many intellectuals earn a millionth part of what some fellows who can hit a ball with a bat or sink it into a basket make? I don’t deny that those skills come at some sacrifice, but lost causes they most certainly aren’t.

Now just try, as a teacher in the humanities in most colleges, to grade a student with a D, to say nothing of an F, however well deserved, and get away with it. Or try, as a drama critic, to rate plays as they truly deserve and—except in some remote, minor publications—not get fired. In America, you can attack a politician of one party as long as there is a two-party system. But try to question every conceivable prize and award being lavished on some minority playwright of questionable talent (I refrain from naming names) and, bingo, you are a racist, sexist, elitist and whatever other piece of “non-pc-ism” they can accuse you of.

And then, apropos lost causes, there are our theater audiences. Those people will laugh at just about anything: feeble jokes or no jokes at all that they conceive as jokes. As a result, the rest of us lose some needlessly drowned-out stage dialogue.

The customary explanation is that people who spent a lot of money for a good time will imagine they are having fun no matter what. There may even be a more depressing reason though: that because they themselves have no conversation and wit to speak of, they are impressed by whatever seems like cleverness to them. And compared to their ineptitude, it may even be witty. And so they laugh at almost anything. But because the actors expect no laughter there, they rightly do not pause for any, and so lines get lost, which justifiably annoys those who know better.  It is the sort of thing that can make one despair of the human race.

Is there any cure for it? Probably not. Things like sophistication cannot be taught. Neither can honesty, i.e., not pretending that you have understood something that isn’t there. Nor is there a cure for the notion that a good time can be had only from lots of jokes, or nonstop suspense and all kinds of surprises. This clearly overlooks  the appeal of ideas (not understood) or insights (not appreciated).

 Eventually, even a benighted audience may become tired of pretending, whereupon boredom sets in as does bad behavior. Legitimate wit becomes even more ignored, as an insult to unintelligence is even more fateful than an insult to intelligence, and almost guarantees failure of the show.

There is a book out now by Scott Weems entitled Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, which I haven’t read as yet. But from a review of it I gather that it does not concern itself with dumb laughter in the theater. It does, however, tell us things like men wanting women to smile much to the chagrin of feminists, and that women laugh less as they age, whereas men do not.

Well, my wife certainly laughs less and less at my jokes, even though I find them just as funny as ever. So about that, at any rate, Dr. Weems seems to be on target.