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.

Friday, February 28, 2014


Will we ever be able to communicate with our friends—hold that—our kinfolk, the animals? It seems highly unlikely, but that does not mean that they don’t have some sort of language among their own kind. Meanwhile it is of interest to note our attempts to capture their language in our language, if for no other reason out of respect for their individuality.

It is clearly difficult to reproduce those animal sounds, which strike different nationalities differently. That may not be surprising; what is surprising is how peculiar some nations’ perceptions are, but also how many similarities there exist after all.

One of my professors once spent some time eliciting and examining these renderings from his students, and covering the blackboard with them. I can’t go that far, but do wish to speculate about those that I do know, the degree of plausibility attesting to different degrees of sensitivity to language of any kind from nation to nation. And that is a matter of indisputable interest.

Animal sounds can be rendered as a verb or a noun, or a mere exclamation, as in the Anglo-American version of a pig’s alleged oink-oink. This seems to me particularly misguided, its persistence a proof of, dare I say it, pigheadedness. No pig would be caught dead saying oink, an arbitrary coinage by tone-deaf observers.

What do pigs (highly intelligent animals, by the way) really sound like? Germans hear it as “quieken” or “quieksen,” which may be apt, although it makes a creature built like an Italian tenor sound like a soprano. I prefer the Hungarian verb, “roffogni,” with its masculine roughness, although based on an admittedly unscientific assumption, even if I did once, as a boy, briefly enjoy a piglet as pet. I am ultimately partial to the Russian version, which is “hryu-hryu,” with the vowel sound as in foot, not boot.

Almost unique agreement, or near-agreement, prevails about the cat sound: meow to us, “miau” in German, and “miaou” the Franch noun, although French also has the more Racinian—or is it Molieresque?--sounding verb form “miauler.” Italian offers the noun “miagolo” and the verb “miagolare,” which gives the sound a Tuscan, not to say Dantesque, quality.

Serbian, if I recollect correctly, calls it “mrnjao,” with the j pronounced as our y. (More about that r anon.) Only Hungarian wants to be different with its verb “nyavogni,” although a remote resemblance remains. What matters, however, is the universal similarity, attesting to our close attention to this beloved pet. Of interest too is the earlier English rendering of the cat verb as “mew,” from the Middle English “meuen,” as in Hamlet’s “The cat will mew.”

There is no such agreement about the other cat sound, which English renders not unpersuasively as purr. Here the French too does nicely with the verb “ronronner,”  the repeated “ron” syllable conveying the monotony of the purr. Notable is the presence of the apt r-sound, also in the German “schnurren,” although that “sch” is clearly more Teutonic than feline.

Interestingly, there is no such near-unanimity when it comes to our other domestic pet, the dog, onomatopoetically the bowwow. What there is, however, in most languages is the plosive b, as in bark, “bellen “ (German), and “aboyer,” (French). But not so in the Serbian “lajati” or the Hungarian “ugatni,” which strike me as off target. Here too the Spanish departs, what with the verb “ladrar” and the noun “ladrido.” Only the two a’s in the verb seem moderately apt.

Moving out of the house into the yard, we find some correspondences again. Thus the rooster’s crowing is “krahen” in German; the French roosters actually sing, “chantent,” with a droll lyric, “cocorico,” which becomes in German “kukuriku,” and in English, rather too fancifully, cock-a-doodle-do. There is also some agreement about the donkey’s braying, heehaw in English, “ia” (pronounced ee-ah) in German.

Regardless of differences, though, it is nice that there are words in all these languages for animal sounds. This is not so obvious when you consider that every language has certain words for which there are no equivalents in other ones.

Take the verb frown, for which you would expect every major language to have  its one-word term. Not so. In both French and German it takes three words to convey that, translatable literally as wrinkle the brow. Can anything be concluded from such a phenomenon—say, that frowning comes more readily, more naturally to English speakers? I rather doubt it. Well, maybe to the British, but not to us happy Americans.

What it seems to mean is that different nations have latched on to different things to focus their atention on and coin a word for. Indeed there are words for which there is not even a three-word equivalent. I think of the wonderful Hungarian term for an irresistible melody, “fulbemaszo,” literally crawling into the ear, four words.

Or what about the German “zum knochenkotzen,” something not just vomitory, but so awful it makes you vomit solid bones? Or take a word that is so germane to a language, so perfect in it, that another language just takes it over as is. Thus the French “gaffe” and “faux pas,” both of which synonyms have become adopted by English, which did not have their equivalent, though misstep would do. Yet it was appropriate to go for those French words, French people being such an elegant, formal, ceremonious sort, as to be especially sensitive to breaches of good behavior.

Amusingly, sometimes a borrowing from another language results in a mistake. Thus the Hungarian took over “smoking” from the British, thinking misguidedly that it meant tuxedo, or what we prefer to call dinner jacket. It also took over, with the correct meaning, the dish called ham and eggs, but turned it into “hemendeks.” Similarly, it adopted football (i.e., soccer) with the Magyarization “futbal,” informally “ foci.” Serbian came up with “fudbal,” while German made it truly Germanic as “Fussball.”

But let us get back to animals. Here the letter r tends to sound especially ferocious, hence the roar of the lion becomes a “rugissement” in French. But the English is not that specific: roars can come from all kinds of nonleonine sources  And the German verb, “brullen” is a sound emitted by an unhappy infant as readily as by a lion’s maw.

Now for something very curious. While other German songbirds sing, “singen,” the nightingales do something else, “schlagen.” But that verb primarily means to beat, yet why on earth would that delicate, most musical song of the nightingale be a beating? Nightingale, by the way, is a comely word, as is the German “Nachtigall,” similarly based on the fact that nightingales sing at night. Some parallel obtains in Romance languages, too, where the French nightingale is a “rossignol,” and the Spanish one a “ruisenor,” with a tilda on the n, which may subsume “ruido” (sound) and “senor” (gentleman) implying that this bird and its sound are aristocratic.

English has two very good, onomatopoetic words for bird language: chirp and twitter, the latter even better in German: “zwietschen.”  And the horned owl, in German, is the “Uhu,” a real hoot. But other owls, in any language I can think of, have no onomatopoetic names, unless you make something of the “ou” in the French “hibou.”

Most birds in many languages simply cry, which is very human of them. I can think, however, of one amusing divergence, what the thrush does in Hungarian: he whistles: “fucsul,” with umlauts on both u’s. That conveys a whistle sovereignly, but does a thrush really whistle? In Hungarian, he apparently does, and so does the canary, for which the term surely fits.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


What could be more pointless at this late date than protesting against abstract art? As soon complain about the ballpoint for dislodging the fine fountain pen. Not, by the way, that earlier protests would have landed on less deaf ears. Abstract art is in, and figurative art is seriously imperiled.

There is some hope to be gleaned from the state of music, where the twelve-tone kind seemed to be taking over, only to be nowadays pretty much abandoned. But then music is music and fine arts are fine arts, and it is dangerous trying to find analogies between them. Especially since a great composer like Alban Berg managed to transcend categories almost imperceptibly. Whereas abstract art cannot pretend to be anything else, perhaps not even art.

I can well understand the rise of abstraction: the feeling that painting had already done it all, and what it couldn’t, photography did. Of course, originality remains open to major talent, and no one would mistake a Renoir nude for a Rubens, even though both painters favored chubby women. It is the plethora of lesser artists that has muddied the stream, leaving still other lesser artists wondering what is left.

 A sense of being latecomers prevails for both the artists and their followers, and drives them into something different, however desperate. So a Kandinsky or Mondrian, who could do other things, jump into abstraction. And the same holds for the sculptors. Consider the trajectory from Rodin to David Smith. But there were painters who, bless them, worked between reality and abstraction, and managed to be Nicolas de Stael or Maria Vieira da Silva, and even the kind of abstractionists that still were able to keep a toe in reality, like Pierre Soulages.

But when we come to full-fledged abstraction, I bridle. Several problems present themselves. Anyone genuinely cherishing a work of abstraction and not merely responding to some hype, must find in it something ineffable to respond to. But what if he can’t? Must he take someone else’s word for it? And what if two viewers like the same thing for vastly different reasons? Doesn’t that cast some doubt about
it? Or is art meant to be some kind of Rorschach test, make from it what ever your id wishes?

Another problem is: why should I consider something art if I, a non-artist, could do it just as well? Or if a small child or chimpanzee could do it too?  Any drip can dribble paint, and whether you call it in fancy French tachisme, or in plain Amurrican action painting, why can’t I say it’s spinach and to hell with it?

Thus in the January 10th New York Times there was a color reproduction of a painting by Ellsworth Kelly called “Black Red-Orange,” part of a many-million-dollar request promised to the Philadelphia Art Museum. It is a rectangle whose top third is solid black, and the other thirds something between plain red and orange. Anyone could have daubed it if he lacked the good sense not to bother, or perhaps if he had the good sense to bother, since this pitiful artifact was clearly worth millions.

To me, some of the archenemies are Pollock and Rothko, though of course there are countless others of their persuasion. Nor am I impressed by the usual defense: “Ah, but Pollock knew how to dribble: how many colors, how much of each, how big a canvas.” I would wager that even if he had dribbled entirely differently, or indeed blindfoldedly, the thing would have drawn the same adulation, the same claims for its perfection, as long as the same great name was attached to the work.

I keep repeating something I wrote long ago: the history of art stretches from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered and the maker not at all, to when only the signature matters and the work not at all. Hordes of contemporary artists spew out Untitleds, usually appending numbers to them, otherwise not even they would know whether this was Untitled 147 or Untitled 191. This is not the same as when Whistler calls a specific portrait or townscape “Arrangement in Grey and Black” or “Symphony in White,” wishing to call attention to color harmonies, although that too is pretty show-offy.

I personally have some respect for an abstraction by Wols as opposed to one by Franz Kline, but how can I prove to someone with the opposite taste that he is wrong and I am right? And, in any case, I would gladly trade my Wols, if I had one, for a figurative Magritte, Delvaux or Ensor to name only some Belgians. To anyone who says one can no longer be figurative and great. I submit such names as counterproof.

There are in fact any number of ways one can still be figurative and great. Take the alternative universe of Klee that still has recognizable figures and features often comic, irrelevant titles; or the world of impossible juxtapositions, fragmentations, and rearrangements of realities as in Magritte. Or the subtle perversion of Balthus’s provocative Lolitas, langorously effete youths, and demoniac cats—or even the bizarre Balthus cityscapes and off-kilter landscapes that are just real enough.

What I am finally asking here comes down to this: to what standard is a piece of abstract art answerable? By what authority is it proclaimed art? With figurative art, no problem. Even though it may have needed the endorsement of the court, the church, the rich citizens, it had, has, something bigger than that: pleasing the onlookers, whoever they be.

Whether a painting had the delicacy of Raphael, the forcefulness of Michelangelo, the faint mystery of Leonardo, one recognized in it something beyond mere representation of life, though certainly also that. This Lehmbruck or Giacometti may be thinner than life, this Barlach or Lachaise thicker than life, this obese Botero or pockmarked Kokoschka a comment on life, but somewhere behind all these works lurks humanity, however much some aspect of it is over- or underplayed.

There is also originality: no one else has done it quite like this before. There is a temerity behind these works: this Schiele is significantly more tormented than ordinary reality; this assemblage of imaginary beasts and triangular humans in Wilfredo Lam is a comment on the human jungle.

But what does a piece of abstract art have to do with, to say about life; at best I’d have it be a piece of wallpaper, or, stretching it, the blur with which the newborn perceives the world. Or could it be an unreliable view of subatomic particles? Or, more likely, none of the above. But let it be signed Philip Guston or Helen Frankenthaler, and it becomes a respected commodity, like a car signed Cadillac, or a computer signed Mac.

But no matter how signed they are, I refuse a Rothko or Pollock the status of art. I will even reject some phases of Picasso, which I would gladly trade for a Hopper, a Burchfield or a John Singer Sargent. Or, to show how far to the left I will go, I proclaim a fondness for Andre Beaudin (1895-1979). The influence of his master, Juan Gris, that most lyrical cubist, is evident, but this is a cubism lighter, more fluid, with an almost breathable airiness.

As Jacques Lascagne has written, “Beaudin is a painter of pure light as it appears  emerging from the night. His art, in its limpidity never escapes from honest reasoning. It is full of subtle poetry. Whether it takes as its model horses fighting, a horse race, or the varied faces of Paris, or the flight of a bird before an open window, he liberates the universal quality while at the same time adorning the image with the subtlest nuances of the passing moment. With a few simple lines, harmonizing with cold, vivid colors, he depicts the birth of day or its various hours.”

Or here is another source: “Whatever his subject, Beaudin decomposes and recomposes it to suit himself, stripping the world of its external characteristics, its inertia and weight. And replacing them with a subtle, coherent ensemble of line and color. His work also includes tapestries [I have seen and admired them], etchings, lithographs, sculptures, and illustrations for the works of a number of poets.”

I do wish to emphasize that airiness that somehow seems to lift the painting off the canvas, and convey its feeling like that of a cool fruit juice to the parched throat. As Reynold Arnould has written, “These are colors rather murmuring the way a spring emerges from the earth. And they are, also naturally, used sparingly in each work.” Beaudin has become a major, duly rewarded artist, earning the Grand Prix National des Arts in 1962.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Monday, December 23, 2013


There are in my view both real sequels and quasi sequels. A real sequel is when the author of a book, say, Margaret Mitchell, or someone else writes a novel about what happened to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler after Gone With the Wind. A quasi sequel is really a repeat appearance, as when Conan Doyle or J. K. Rowling writes another Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter fiction, about the hero’s further, new adventures.

Both phenomena come about when a beloved protagonist elicits a repeat performance of some kind. Personally, I am no great fan of these procedures. But sequels of either kind have been wildly successful, and are in fact a tried old stratagem, as the careers of, for example, Balzac and Alexandre Dumas pere compellingly illustrate.

All very understandable, given the hard world in which fiction writers operate, although the same phenomenon prevails in spades at the movies and, to some extent, even in the theater, just ask Neil Simon. And now there is a stage version of Harry Potter in the planning. But isn’t a novel, say, a complete entity, self-sufficiently featuring a beginning, middle and end, and in no need of further elaboration any more than a lyric poem does. Although there is such a thing as a sonnet sequence—just ask William Shakespeare.

What is it exactly that hates endings and gives rise to sequels?  First of all, it is popularity. Why wouldn’t the cherished scoundrel Vautrin figure in several Balzac novels? Why shouldn’t beloved Harry Potter make more millions for J. K. Rowling? Why shouldn’t there have been a series of ever longer novels about the three beloved musketeers—really four, counting d’Artagnan—and their descendants?

Popularity, i.e., sales, have much to answer for, as well as the fact that it is safer to bring back a well-regarded fictional hero than to invent a new one. But something else also plays a part here: human inquisitiveness. Just as we are curious to know more about friends, enemies, celebrities, we are curious about what happened to fictitious characters after, say, they married and “lived happily ever after.” Tolstoy to the contrary, happy families are not all alike, if for no other reason than that, in real life, they seldom remain blissful forever. If, God forbid, there were a sequel to War and Peace, would everything be hunky-dory for Pierre and Natasha?

And to think that even Goethe saw fit to write a sequel to the so very satisfactorily completed Faust part one with a Faust part two. And, as we all know, Shakespeare brought back the rogue Falstaff in a sequel, The Merry Wives of Windsor, whether or not, as reputed, at Queen Elizabeth’s request, hardly matters. (The groundlings’ request, more likely.) Success plus curiosity begets sequels.

But there is a further trigger for sequels: our fear of mortality, our conscious or unconscious wish to live forever. Somehow or other, the persistence through sequels of a fictitious character translates into a sense of our own not coming to an end. I fully believe that young persons reading about Huck Finn’s striking out for the Western Territories suggests to them that he is immortal, and that they themselves will be around reading about his further adventures someday, somewhere.

To be sure, there are readers who don’t want sequels of contemporary novels. They are the ones aware of the backlog of great classics they haven’t read yet and want to catch up with more Dickens or Dostoevsky or D. H. Lawrence. They are very happy that, for instance, Robert Graves stopped at two Emperor Claudius novels: one sequel was quite enough.  But young readers especially crave sequels, and thus for example Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking novels have had sequels upon sequels in print, film and television series. For young German readers, there were (are?) the Wild West novels of Karl May that kept bringing back the great white hunter Old Shatterhand and his Indian chief friend, Winnetu. They can be thought of as very persistent, very numerous sequels.

And sequels persist. They may have not much more in common than an imaginary town or region, as the audiences of Horton Foote or readers of William Faulkner well know. It could be argued that a Steinbeck locale is at least as real as his characters, and that geography itself can provide sequels. In any case, continuum is a great human desideratum, and sequels of whatever kind cater to it.

Speaking for myself, I’d be perfectly happy if there were no more sequels, though I can also live with them. Among sequels I now include also revised second editions of previously published books. Scholarly works, dictionaries, encyclopedias keep coming out in new, more up-to-date, or merely expanded, improved editions, and such reissues can be infuriating.

What am I to do if I spent a tidy sum on, say, a history of the printed book, or of Shakespeare stagings, or of the Paris underworld through the ages, and out comes a new, presumably improved edition a few years later? Throw out the previous version, even though it was a first edition, and maybe had a finer binding, wider margins, better paper and larger print? Do I simply ignore the revised version and merely scowl at the one on my shelf as a sort of intellectual coitus interruptus?

I count myself lucky for not being a completist, and can ignore such sequels as the complete Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott. Yet I cannot but admire anyone who  has read them all. Then again, there was the fellow who, seeking employment in a college English department, spouted excerpts from the least known ones among them, thereby conveying the impression that he knew the whole lot intimately from alpha to omega--without even having glanced at the rest.

And then there is that most pernicious kind of sequel, as when a major author revises a lengthy fiction of his own and both versions are considered important enough for us, if we are serious academics, to have to read hundreds of pages in quasi duplicate. This is very much the case of Moerike’s Maler Nolten. Or what about Great Expectations, for which Dickens first had a less happy ending, but at Bulwer-Lytton’s urging came up with a happy one? We have here a work that is its own sequel, and are we now, as teachers, responsible for both versions?

Nor let us forget that late nineteenth-century novels tended to come out on the installment plan, several chapters at a time over a long period, earning payment for each segment, and so prompting the author to make his novels doorstoppers. Robert Graves memorably came up with a considerably shortened version of one of the Dickens novels (David Copperfield, as I recall)) just by cutting the word “little” each time it occurred.

The matter of sequels makes one wonder: Is shorter better? Would Proust’s magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, be better if it were less literally magnum? It is really a series of novels, each a sequel of the preceding and sizable in itself, with quite a parade of more or less ancillary characters. Yet these sequels with their large casts are in order, for we thus get a panorama of how personalities evolve and relationships change, and how memory in pursuit of the past rounds out our brief term on earth. Better than perhaps anyone else, Proust has validated the sequel.

But this does not mean that we want sequels from lesser writers. Do we need a tetralogy from Jeffrey Eugenides? Do we want Erica Jong to dredge up her checkered past for us in ever more novelistic searches? How many times do we wish Margaret Attwood to reinvent herself? Isn’t even late Hemingway an unnecessary sequel to  earlier Hemingway? To say nothing of Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels, of which even one may be de trop. How many epigones will grind out posthumous James Bond tomes? How often did Updike have to go Rabbiting without a strong case of sequelitis?  But at least his are bona fide, thought-through sequels. We have too many writers nowadays who don’t even know that they are writing sequels. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013


If we are going to deal with epigrams, we must first distinguish between wit and humor. Humor makes you laugh, as with every good joke that someone tells you. Like the loony in the bin telling the other loony who is painting the wall, “Hold on to your brush, I am about to move the ladder.” Or James Thurber writing, “Poe . . . was perhaps the first great nonstop literary drinker in the American nineteenth century. He made the indulgences of Coleridge and De Quincy seem like a bit of mischief in the kitchen with the cooking sherry.” Humor’s most renowned achievement may be the slip on the banana peel.

Wit is something else—something, if you will, much more serious while still funny. Unlike humor, which at most makes you slap your thigh, it pierces to the quick, wherever your quick may be, and elicits laughter almost as a byproduct. The epigram, witty rather than humorous, needs an object to skewer.

To be sure, that is a slight oversimplification. Not all humor is a thigh-slapper or a roller in the aisle. And not all wit must wound. Take Oscar Wilde’s “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going now for three hundred years.” This is a good-natured spoof that does not really hurt. Or take this, again from Wilde, “Truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Very often it is the inversion of a truism, as in his “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” Sometimes an epigram is downright melancholy, as in Shaw’s “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Or in Rochefoucauld’s “We have all enough strength to bear other people’s troubles,” and in his even stronger “In the misfortunes of our best friends, we find something that’s not unpleasing.”

The epigram, when it’s truly great, is the shortest, snappiest work of art or philosophy, and a burr to the memory. Take Stendhal’s “The only excuse for God is that he doesn’t exist.” Thus the epigram tends to be the funny way of insulting  someone, in this case God. When it doesn’t offend, it is rather a mere aphorism, i.e., pregnant saying, than a witty epigram, as, for instance, in Lichtenberg’s “Nothing contributes more to peace of soul than having no opinion at all.”

Let us first look at the straight insult, usually merited, which embodies some kind of truth. Take this, to an overeager actor being directed by either Noel Coward or George S. Kaufman (multiple attribution is quite frequent): “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Even more succinctly, W.S. Gilbert commented on he Hamlet of Henry Irving or some other stage star (alternative targets are also frequent): “Funny, but never vulgar.” Manifestly, terseness adds impact to the epigram. Take this by Beachcomber, the nom de plume of a British humorist, “Wagner was the Puccini of music.” A double-edged sword that cuts brilliantly in two directions.

Such double duty we get also from Wilde’s “Poor Danton, to have come to such grief for having once in his life taken a bath.” That hits not only the victim of Charlotte Corday, but also the French in general, not known for their regular use of the bathtub as opposed to that of the bidet. Two for one we get, also from Wilde, in “[George] Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.” A whole profession can be skewered, as in Christopher Hampton’s “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.”

But back to the double whammy: Ava Gardner, about her ex, Sinatra, upon his marrying Mia Farrow, “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a little boy.” Or take Noel Coward, about Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the movie version of his “Bitter Sweet”: “Like watching an affair between a mad rocking-horse and a rawhide suitcase,” with the only problem trying to figure out which is which. Sometimes the wit and his target are both made fun of, as in Charles Widor about a dissonant work of Milhaud’s: “The worst of it is that one gets used to it.” Or take Heine: “There is nothing on earth more horrible than English music, unless it is English painting.”

Music has yielded some memorable epigrams. Thus Shaw, early on as music critic: “There are some sacrifices that should not be demanded twice from any man, and one of them is listening to Brahms’s Requiem.” Such things elicit amusement even without our agreement. Or take this, from Ravel: “Berlioz is France’s greatest composer, alas. A musician of great genius, and little talent.” (Reminiscent of Gide on who is the greatest French poet, “Victor Hugo, alas.” Which, in turn, suggests Cocteau’s “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”) After playing a violin piece, Albert Einstein asked the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky “How well did I play?” Answer: “You played relatively well.” Some epigrams are answers to a question.

Here is Stravinsky: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” Or Sir Thomas Beecham, asked if he ever conducted any Stockhausen. “No,” he said, “but I have trodden in some.” And Stravinsky again, “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece I don’t like, it’s always Villa Lobos?”

Sometimes an epigram comes in duplicate. Take this dialogue: “Shostakovich: What do you think of Puccini? Britten: I think his operas are dreadful. Shostakovich: No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvelous operas, but dreadful music.” Now take Britten talking to W. H. Auden about Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”: “I liked the opera very much. Everything but the music.” Who plagiarized whom? I suspect the rather humorless Britten. And here is one to enshrine in music history, Oscar Levant about Leonard Bernstein: “He uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.”

Literature, expectably, also offers some of the wittiest epigrams. Take this rather poetic one by Edith Sitwell about F.R. Leavis: “It is sad to see Milton’s great lines bobbing up and down in the sandy desert of Dr. Leavis’s mind with the grace of a fleet of weary camels.” Here the subtractable epithets “sandy” and “weary” contribute the necessary cadence. Or this from Philip Larkin, “’The Wreck of the Deutschland’ would have been markedly inferior if Hopkins had been a survivor from the passenger list.” Or Evelyn Waugh, somewhat less funny about himself than about others: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.”

Here again is Waugh on Stephen Spender: “To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.” Or consider Gore Vidal on Hemingway, “What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?’ Or, more succinctly, about the death of Truman Capote, “Good career move.” An effective device is starting out as if in praise, and then sticking in the knife, as in Wilde’s “Shaw has not an enemy in the world; and none of his friends like him.”

About actors and actresses, theater and movies, there is such a wealth of epigrams as to merit a separate blog post to begin doing them justice. I confine myself to repeating a couple of my favorites. Thus Kenneth Tynan about Vivien Leigh in “Titus Andronicus”: “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.” And Margot Asquith at lunch with Jean Harlow, who keeps sounding the T in Margot, “My dear, the T in Margot is silent, as in Harlow.”

Finally, I come to my own modest contribution to the epigram, which comes down to a single entry in the anthologies, always misquoted, even by Diana Rigg herself, as follows: “Diana Rigg is built as a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” What I wrote was “Diana Rigg . . . is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This concerning a scene in Ronald Millar’s “Abelard & Heloise,” where Ms. Rigg knelt nude in profile. Now “basilica” is obviously not something with which the misquoters are familiar, hence “mausoleum,” which, however, has nothing to do with anything. But neither, I confess, has basilica, a type of church that never had any buttresses. “Inadequate,” though, does make sense for what the actress herself has described as “I was only ever a B-cup,” referring to size; whereas “insufficient” refers to quantity, as if two were not enough. What I should have written is “cathedral,” an edifice that does have flying buttresses.

Isolated quotations of another Simon epigram do crop up now and then, but for an epigram to count, I firmly believe that it has to appear in several anthologies. So I find a couple exclusively in “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations,” and even there one misquoted and another cut to shreds. And I certainly haven’t made it to Bartlett’s even once. Something to look forward to.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


One of the great gifts of mankind is our memory. Without it, we could be greatly impoverished, though, as gifts go, it is a double-edged sword: a donor as well as a tormentor—sometimes a pot of gold, sometimes a Trojan horse.

I see memory as tripartite: good, bad, and whimsical. By this I would mean memories of good things, bad things, and surprising things. But that is a slight oversimplification. Memory of good things is mostly a good thing, but not entirely; memory of bad things is mostly bad, but not entirely; whimsical memory is neither good nor bad, but unexpected and puzzling. Let’s look more closely.

Good memory reflects on good things that happened to us: a lovely lover, a picturesque place, a happy experience in theater, opera, concert, museum or cinema. Or just plain luck, as when I found in the street two twenty-dollar bills. It is basically a good thing, on the principle of Tennyson’s, “’Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.”

But there is the obverse of the coin, Dante’s “Nessun magior dolore/ Che ricordarsi del tempo felice/ Nella miseria.” Or “There is no greater hurt than remembering happy times in times of wretchedness.” And it needn’t even been misery; suffice for it to be daily drudgery and beastly boredom.

For this, there is solace in that great eraser, oblivion. Take Swinburne’s, “And the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.” (If there is any blame at all, it is for that “most,” where “more” would, strictly speaking, be better grammar. Yet a perfectly plausible argument can be made for “most.”) But of course the benefit of oblivion cannot be guaranteed as long as there is thought, as the Serbian poet Milan Rakich (I transcribe the name phonetically) wrote, “When the heart cries out, thought is to blame,” thought that, often, is precisely unhappy remembrance.

The problem is that happiness, like perfume, is not duplicated by happy memory, just as the scent from a bottle of perfume is not tantamount to that which emanated from a beloved person.  A superb landscape is not fully replicated by a photograph, and even a CD can only approximate the experience of great music hard at a concert.

The place where memory is blessed is in poetry remembered. There memorization is an undoubted boon. But nowadays, when the schools no longer prescribe it, memorization is becoming rarer and rarer. To be sure, do the younger generations even care for poetry? Unless, that is, it comes from a dubious surrogate, such as, say, Maya Angelou. The late Ernest Van Den Haag used to threaten me with a collection of her poetry, which he never enacted, and which, in any case, could be discarded before it became a clinging memory.

What does hurt is, for instance, memory of a Paris never to be revisited in my lifetime, or of the irreplaceable giant turtles of Galapagos, or of childhood Easter vacations in Dubrovnik or Abbazia (now Opatija). Or of a boyhood sweetheart. Or of my beloved dog Bari and cat Bibi. Or of marzipan potatoes, my favorite dessert, essentially unavailable in America, and by now as much conceivably even in their native Austria. And, apropos Austria, edelweiss, for which the Rodgers & Hammerstein song , however well remembered, is not quite a substitute.

Now what about bad memories, memories of unhappy things? Are they all bad? Like telling a female British journalist how I couldn’t grasp her collaboration with a certain lousy male journalist—who turned out to be her husband. This makes me, unrepentant, smile to this day.

Or the memory of having once hit my loving mother? Or of having, with my air gun, killed innocent sparrows. (Anouilh has a play dealing with that trauma.) Or having, as a Belgrade schoolboy, impressed by the son of the German Ambassador, given him on a class excursion my orange, pretending that I loved the rind as much, and eliciting his gloating comment, “Good, in future you can always give me your orange and keep the rind.” His father became a notorious Nazi.

Still, bad memories have their good aspect: one can derive from them what not to repeat. Think of Santayana’s famous dictum that whoever fails to learn from history is forced to repeat it, where history is tantamount to collective memory and can even stand in for the individual one.

I shudder to think of when my classmate Branko and I were looking out the window of my parents’ Lake Bled villa at the neighbor girls sunbathing. We were kneeling on a sofa, and I waited for the moment when Branko’s face was smack behind my posterior to break wind.

Or the time when a bunch of us schoolboys were on winter vacation skiing on Mount Kopaonik, and the winner of the slalom, I, was awarded a cake, which one shared that night with one’s dorm mates. There was one boy disliked by all of us for whatever footling reason, and I denied him a slice of the cake. Origin, perhaps, of my growing up a severe critic.

Funny how such childhood contretemps or peccadilloes can haunt the adult I seem to have become. How about the time during Latin class in my year at a British public school (the Leys, at Cambridge), when the chap next to me was asked to translate “husband” into Latin and was stuck for an answer. I whispered to him “Think of the English,” foolishly hoping that he would think of “marital” to lead him to “maritus.” Instead, he blurted out “husbandus.”

Venial offenses, these. Surely I must have committed much graver ones that I have conveniently forgotten. Which is a good thing about bad memories: that they lessen in time. As if the good things one remembers excused them. Thus, when I received in the mail the dollar bill owed to another John Simon, I dutifully forwarded it to the correct one. (Would I have done as much for a hundred-dollar bill?) But why did I not visit at the hospital my loving and beloved German prof, Karl Vietor, who, as he lay dying, sent me a supremely kind message through a fellow student who did visit him?

Or why did I not take to a film screening the woman who fast and flawlessly typed my very long doctoral thesis (in time for a prize that it, after all, did not win), only because I considered her too unattractive for a date where she could have been viewed as my girlfriend?

Well, enough of that. What about involuntary, whimsical memories? Day in, day out, there spring into my memory, totally unsolicited, proper nouns, titles, cognomens of characters in fiction or history, from sources that I may barely recall. Or mere common nouns, puzzling in their randomness, their lack of relation to anything concurrent? Sometimes I cannot even understand them, let alone associate them with anything of recent, or even remote, interest. It is as if all these things were rolling around in my unconscious, until, like a roulette ball on a random number, they came to rest at a small window into my consciousness. Or is this merely the beginning of Alzheimer’s?

I wish I could recall the exact word that came up seemingly from a literary work’s earlier version that I cannot even recall having read. The chance of this happening was perhaps one in a trillion, if that. O thou mischievous memory, what time I have wasted trying to comprehend thee!

In his lovely poem, “I Remember, I Remember,” Thomas Hood paints enchanting pictures of things and states remembered, and contrasts them with his dreary reality. Four lines from it run. “My spirit flew in feathers then,/ That is so heavy now,/ And summer pools could hardly cool/ The fever on my brow.”

I doubt whether any memories—good, bad or whimsical—can cool the fever on my brow. Yet such as they are, the whole lot of them, they can ignite the fever in my heart, which helps me be a more sentient human being, and that, surely, is a good thing.