Monday, October 1, 2018


The text today is irony, from the Greek for dissimulation, as I learn from J. R. Cuddon’s marvelous book (more about that anon), from which I quote the following, enough for an initial definition. “For the Roman theoreticians (in particular Cicero and Quintilian) ‘ironic’ denoted a rhetorical figure and a manner of discourse in which . . . the meaning was contrary to the words, the double-edgedness appearing to be a diachronic feature of irony.”

Please don’t ask me to explain “diachronic,” which would lead me to one of my bêtes noires, the Swiss pundit Ferdinand de Saussure, father of semiology. What was good enough for Cicero and Quintilian will be sufficient for me for the nonce. To recapitulate, saying one thing and meaning its opposite is a sophisticated device unknown to or uncomprehended by hoi polloi. Let me cite as example the beginning of a note from the subtle and sophisticated novelist James Salter, in response to a communication from me: “Dear John, What beautiful handwriting. If I didn’t know you, I would say it shows an orderly mind of great intelligence.” Here the irony was as it were announced by that “If I didn’t know you.” Ordinarily, no such warning that an irony is intended is deemed necessary.

Of course irony should, more or less discreetly, reveal itself as such, as if, for instance, we were to say or write “As the great Stephen King would have it.” To be sure, it may be missed by unsophisticated Americans, the ones whom Hermann Hesse qualified as “blithe and easily satisfied half human.” It can be inferred also by such a remark as Oscar Wilde’s, “Anybody can write a three-volumed novel. It merely requires complete ignorance of both life and literature.” Or, by way of a more salient example, take the following from Fran Leibowitz: ”Your responsibility as a parent is not as great as you might imagine. You need not supply the world with the next conqueror of disease or major motion picture star. If your child simply grows up to be someone who does not use the word ‘collectible’ as a noun, you may consider yourself an unqualified success.” Collectible as a substantive may not be your paradigmatic lapse, like, say, “Greetings from my wife and I,” but it will do. The subtle irony is clear enough.

Or how about this from the great aphorist Georg C. Lichtenberg: “Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede—not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people can’t count above fourteen.” What a wonderfully ironic way of saying that most people are stupid. I would go so far as to claim that certain people invite irony by their very look or name. Take an article in the Times of September 5: “National Chief for Gymnastics Is Forced Out After Turmoil.” The chief in question, whose accompanying picture makes her look like a dimwitted blond kewpie doll, is named  Kerry Perry, which a right-minded daughter would have legally changed. Perry was forced out for championing the nefarious doctor Larry Nasser. She had succeeded a gymnastic president named Steve Penny, close enough, though I would have preferred Benny Penny, but you can’t have everything. Still, the article reads like ironic sympathy for Perry.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 I  myself have practiced conspicuous irony, describing Liza Minnelli as a potential winner of a beauty contest--for beagles. At least I picked the seemingly right canine breed: not too pretty, like Afghan or Briard, nor too homely, like bulldog or chihuahua. I regret even more a remark about Diana Rigg in profile in a play’s nude scene as “a basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This is always misquoted, even by Ms. Rigg, as a mausoleum etc. The building in question cannot be faulted, as basilicas do not have flying buttresses, any more than do mausoleums, which in this context would have downright sinister implications. At least a basilica is holy.

I am  inclined not to regret my reply to someone’s question about what good things I thought of Adrienne Rich after a poetry reading. I answered that to do justice to it one would need the attributes of a Homer and a Beethoven, namely blindness and deafness. This is a classic irony, as, without requiring elucidation, where what augurs well really disparages.

One of my favorite ironies stems from the wonderful critic Kenneth Tynan. In a review of “Titus Andronicus,”  he referred to Vivien Leigh as a Lavinia who “received the news that she is about to be ravished on the corpse of her husband as one who would have preferred foam rubber.” Thus in the American version; in the British, Tynan used the name of a popular rubber bed brand, which is even funnier, but would not have traction in America.

Another favorite irony is Hilaire Belloc’s epigram about a British lord: “I heard today Godolphin say/ He never gave himself away./ Come, come, Godolphin, scion of kings,/ Be generous in little things.” This is perfect in its switch from evoked nobility to actual mockery without any warning.

Now how about the great Viennese writer and wit Peter Altenberg , a consummate lover of women (especially girls), who allowed: “Coquetry is the immense decency of a desirable woman, thereby, for the moment at least, to hold off the disappointment she is bound to bring you.” This irony is permitted Altenberg (1859-1919), who wrote some of the most affectionate and lyrical prose in praise of women as well as sarcasm. Be it recalled, however, that this often eloquent advocate was, unfortunately for him, a homely man.

Let me point out some obvious everyday ironies. “What a wonderful day” we exclaim as we look out on another gray morning. “How clever you are,” we comment on a dear one’s folly. “We will always be together” we tell a lover whom we no longer love. “I will never do that again” we say after a clumsiness we damn well know we’ll commit again. And so on.

But the really great ironies are in literature as in Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal,” about the poor selling their unwanted babies to England for food. Even the full title is redolent of irony: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Publick.” This piece of a few pages may be the greatest example of irony in the English language; altogether some of irony’s most distinguished practitioners lived in the eighteenth century. It is there also in “Gulliver’s Travels,” and much of the verse and prose of Alexander Pope. Take only this from one of Pope’s letters: “I never knew any man in my life who could not bear another’s misfortunes perfectly like a Christian.” This manages to make fun of people in general as well as Christians in particular.

J. A. Cuddon’s magnificent “Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory,” is most easily available in America in the Penguin version of its fourth edition, edited by C. E. Preston. It covers six pages with its entry on irony. Delightful to readers and indispensable to writers, it contains, for example, the earliest reference to irony in English, dated 1502: “yronie . . . of  grammare, by the whiche a man sayth one & gyveth to understande the contrary. “ I am amused by the reference to a “splendid essay” on irony  of 1970 by one D. C. Muecke, the name in German meaning mosquito, and being perfect for the subject. Of the many ironists Cuddon cites, from Aeschylus to Iris Murdoch, his favorites are Voltaire, Gibbon, Swift, Henry James and Thomas Mann. He is an expert in writings in the obscurest languages the world over.

There are various forms of irony, including the situational, whereby, for instance, Lear endows his hypocritical, worthless daughters but excoriates and expels his truly worthy, loving one. Similarly, Othello trusts the villain Iago, but rejects and eventually strangles the virtuous Desdemona. Dissimulation, i.e., irony, thrives as dramatic irony, whereby the audience knows things the characters don’t.

In conclusion, I would suggest, utopian as my plea may be, that teachers instruct their students in irony, perhaps even offer a course in it. It would provide an emotional outlet vastly preferable to guns and knives.

Saturday, September 1, 2018


Some questions may be hard to answer, yet they must be asked. And answering is not enough: they must , when answered, also be acted upon. They are like potholes on the roads, so numerous that it would take a lot of effort to correct them, but we must at least try. This may be quixotic, but then isn’t Don Quixote a lovable figure? Isn’t his maladroit meliorism as touching as it is misguided?

So here are some of my urgent questions—urgent seeming at least to me--yet highly unlikely to be acted upon, given the effort that would require. But let it not be said of me that I never asked.

How many more intolerables are we to tolerate from Donald Trump before we take some kind of punitive action? As my friend Kevin Filipski remarked, just one of them from Obama would have landed him in serious trouble; from Trump, they may not go unimpugned, but they clearly remain unacted upon. Why?

The answer is: because the Republicans, even when they disapprove--rarely enough—have nobody better to put forward as a surefire replacement. There are some perfectly good Republicans, but they lack the kind of following to surely beat the Democrats with. (Please note the split infinitive, which, like the sentence-ending preposition, is perfectly all right, yet constantly put forward as pedantry by ignorant foes unaware of what linguists are really about.) In this case, too, as in so many others, it is the ignoramuses who prevail in society,

What could make an intellectual candidate succeed? Better education, i.e., better schools.
But how are we going to get those? It would require more respect and better salaries for teachers on all levels. Teachers, even most professors, are unlikely beneficiaries. Why is that?

There are several reasons. There is, first of all envy: because teachers get longer vacations than most, teaching is assumed to be a cushy job, being its own reward. Teaching the numerous dunderheads, however, is no easy job; rather one demanding indefatigable effort and the patience of saints. Qualifiers for all that may well have a preference for easier, better paid and more prestigious jobs, such as writing potboilers for television or hugging microphones as singers or rappers.
Which is not to say that most pop singers and rappers are really slumming talents.

To be sure, there are sufficient millionaires and billionaires who could spend some of their munificence on education, but, as far as I can tell, that is not a favorite endowment, though, granted, not quite the least favored either. But the problem is that, let us say, if this or that college or university gets a grant, it is more likely to be put to uses other than better teaching. And, sure enough, money for cancer research or victorious football teams, even with pedophile coaches, have to be prioritized.

This said, it must be reckoned with that the United States is a country in which intellectuals are less respected than in many others. Minorities may be favored, as are radicals. Just think who gets to be a MacArthur fellow. In the arts, anyway, it is radicals first. Now I have nothing against women, blacks or lesbians, especially all three together, getting their fair share, but need they be so obviously preferred? George Soros may be more evenhanded, but of how many others can this be even suspected?
                                                                                                                                                             Now, however, to a different, major question. Why are here so few female tennis champions? Actually, more than one, Serena Williams? In male singles, there are a major four—just as there used to be in Chinese politics, a very different field.

In male singles, it was a possible for Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, and somewhat less even Andy Murray, to be steadily, unswervingly at the top of the game. You could count on one of them to win and be for a good while number one in the world. The others might not even bother to compete—they might as well not be there, although very occasionally an anomalous Cilic, Wawrinka, Kyrgios, or Del Potro could horn in.

You may ask what’s so good about that, why shouldn’t some others get a fair chance? The Zwerews, Thiems, Dimitrovs, or Fogninis? Well, because for us spectators it was very comforting to be rooting for a winner, to have our boy be a champion. There was enough variety among those four, and a relaxing sense that even if one of them lost, there was a good chance he might recoup the next time. Only on clay was there a monotony of Rafa Nadal winning over and over again, a real surfeit. If none of them won, one was at a loss about whom to vote for, even if a Raonic or Goffin might be a temporary winner. The Americans especially were a disappointing lot.

But now look at the women: almost every other month there was a different number one. That is when Serena chose to be a devoted mother to a newborn, and perhaps not even then. There was no getting around the fact that Serena could beat them all without being especially likable. Likable? What does that have to do with it? Quite a bit. Without wishing to take away from his glory, a Federer owes at least some of his successes to his charm, to the love of his numerous international supporters. All the more remarkable that the egregiously charmless Nadal should still so consistently excel. To be sure, he too has the most devoted fans in Hispanics, of whom there seems to be no end whenever and wherever he is playing. Let us look at him for a moment.

Nadal seems to be the only crazy champion. Whenever he serves and almost equally when he receives, he exhibits traits that are at best extremely eccentric, if not totally non compos menti. He performs a serving and also receiving ritual that consists  of touching—or tweaking—one ear, then the nose, then the other ear and back again and sometimes even, unsavorily, the back of his pants, which elicits curious interpretations from his ill wishers, of whom there are not a few. Even the containers of the liquids he consumes have to be lined up in a certain order, and he is inclined to take more time than allowed between points. He also has an unappealingly cutthroat look when playing, as if he liked nothing better than cut his opponents’ throats. On the other hand, he seems to be reasonably normal the rest of the time, and is said to be quite charming. Indeed he has a nice smile and a bald patch on the back of his head that humanize him.

Federer, Djokovic and Murray come across perfectly normal, and even at what is in tennis an advanced age, steadily at or near the top. There are, however, newcomers who occasionally win out. But with women players, it is otherwise: there is a new number one every few months, and with the exception of Serena Williams, no steady champion. In a typical match, the temporary favorite will win one set rather easily, then lose the next set just as easily. The third set then becomes the real battle, and can sometimes be very long. This is what makes women’s tennis so frustrating: you really don’t know whom to root for, and even Serena Williams, the only longtime number one, can be dramatically off her game. Her powerful serve can sometimes be missing, which is how a lesser player can—rarely—beat her.

I myself like women players whom I find both talented and attractive, like Julia Goerges  and Garbine Muguruza, and dislike the unsightly ones, like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Carla Suarez Navarro, Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and a few others in both categories. Many women players have an innate elegance that makes watching them a kind of balletic experience. Among the men, only Federer has that quality, though Djokovic dazzles us with the ability to retrieve seemingly unanswerable shots, turning defense into offence. Also his sense of humor.

I spend many hours watching tennis on TV. My question is will I ever get bored with it? I hope not, even if among the upcoming players there seems to be no one as interesting as the elite four. Along with reading and classical music, it is one of my chief pleasures. I only wish I could share it with my good wife, who, however, does not care for sports.

P.S.: I realize full well that matches are not won on looks, but that does not prevent a fan from watching with greater pleasure a point won by the appealing Camila Giorgi than by the unappealing Madison Keys. However, if I were an umpire or referee (whatever the difference is), I would not allow myself to be swayed by looks.

Monday, August 20, 2018


Under the rubric “Lapses,” let me start with two flagrantly poor specimens of usage, which I find particularly painful. Both are exemplars of redundancy: excess verbiage that can and should be jettisoned. It comes in two forms: both as pleonasm, which involves two adjacent, duplicating words of which abuse television is particularly fond, though it crops up everywhere, as in “old crone” (as if there were such a thing as a young crone), and more extendedly  as in a couple of tautologies I will cite.

Consider the abject “the reason is because,” where a simple “because” would do, although “the reason is (that)” is also possible. Take “if young men stutter confronted with a gorgeous woman, the reason is that they can’t control their libido” or “it is because they can’t control their libido,” but not, redundantly, both, as in “the reason is because they can’t” etc. Yet you get this obvious tautology surrounding you like the Cheyennes George Custer.

Now take an even more common and equally egregious tautology of which television is especially culpable, though you get it all over the place, spoken and written by perhaps even you (Et tu Brute): “cannot help but.” Thus “I cannot help but think otherwise” etc. or “we cannot help but commit the sins of our fathers.” Correct would be “I cannot but think” or “I cannot help thinking,” but not both. Yet even in the most prestigious publications you will find this solecism pullulating.

Now you may say, “What does it matter? People will understand you either way.” But it does matter. People will understand it if after a meal of beans you should fart in public—perhaps even overlook it—but that does not make it all right. Correct speech, like correct dress, may be a dying nicety, but people of taste will cling to it and reward you with their esteem if you practice it. Correct speech is an integral part of correct behavior.

However, people nowadays (please not “in this day and age”) can’t help it: they don’t know any better; our education, if it exists at all, has failed them, as even their parents, already undereducated, failed them. I have taught in some very good—well, pretty good—institutions and encountered consistent ignorance. I wonder what goes on at my alma mater, Harvard, these days: are they upholding the standards even there? But just try to correct people, however gently and uncondescendingly, as I suggested in my book Paradigms Lost, and see how they would resent it. As well might you suggest that they use deodorant or zip up their flies. And heaven help you if the person you ever so politely corrected is black or Latino—the most indignant opprobrium would fall upon you with the dead weight of political correctness, which rather outweighs the proverbial ton of bricks.

But hardly anyone would even think of correcting your “old crone” or the horribly pleonastic “free gift,” with which any number of businesses try to lure you into their clutches. It never occurs to them that “gift” is quite enough, yet, sad to say, they may have a point: “free” is a magic word, hard to resist. And as far as upbringing goes, do not expect to see many mouths covered during a yawn. There are inconsistencies, though: “old geezer“ appears to be less frequent than “old crone.” This has to do with geezer being a less well known word than crone, less often heard (partly because it lacks that seductive assonance) and thus considered less guilty of pleonasm.

Which brings me to euphony.  A good deal of redundancy has to do with the appeal of the sound. I wonder whether the pleonastic “telltale evidence” would have escaped, aside from legalistic bombast, without those alliterative Ts. As English is a rather monosyllabic language, a polysyllable has its converse charm. So “today’s youth,” as it were a single word, rolls off the tongue more sonorously than mere “youth” to the listening ear. And then there is repetition, such as “When, oh when?”
which sounds too good for objection. Ditto “Live and let live!” despite its triple alliteration. Rhetoric and oratory thrive on all kinds of redundancy. At other times, redundancy is based on simple ignorance. Thus “from whence” thrives because speakers are not sufficiently familiar with “whence” to realize that it is a synonym for “from where.”

Ignorance can be gross and inexcusable as in the ubiquitous “parameters,” which sprouts everywhere like the weed it is. It is a term in computer science or mathematics, where it makes an esoteric sense unknown to most of us. But having a prestigious scientific aura, it comes across as sophisticated or learned, and thrives however inappropriate. “Limits,” “boundaries,” or “guidelines,” as Bryan Garner points out, would obviate it very nicely.

“Vogue words,” is the term for a fashionable word or phrase, which might be all right in moderation, but grates through often mindless repetition. These words may fade out of existence, but not before their overuse has become offensive. Take, today, “resonate.” This has a certain euphoniousness but a very few years ago things like  “sounds persuasive” or “are widely credited or credible,” or “elicit consent” did the job. Now the air redounds with “resonate” and “resonant” in suffocating proliferation. Or so it would seem. The end is a catchphrase or cliché. To be sure there is no way of measuring quantity of usage or determining exactly when much is overmuch. But a consensus among the intelligentsia may tacitly exist. Aren’t you tired of  “gamechanging” and “lifechanging” experiences, when in fact nothing changes very much?

Let me point out a couple of useful books, as well as anything by Bryan Garner, notably Garner’s Modern English Usage. They are a Dictionary of Cliches by Nigel Rees and  A Dictionary of Catch Phrases by Eric Partridge. To our shame, both authors are British, even though the latter book was published in America. The former comprises some thousand entries, the latter some three thousand. Let me adduce one of the shorter ones from each.

From Rees: “Happy couple. General use, referring to a pair about to be or just joined in matrimony. Known by 1753. A cliché by 1900.’There were cards and good luck messages for the happy couple’ said the insider. But now they don’t look so good, we’re getting phone calls blaming Des for everything again. Daily Mirror (14 January 1995} About 40 friends and family joined the happy couple at the church. Daily Record (28 January 1995). Similarly, Happy Pair. The phrase was known by 1633. And in the specifically marital sense by 1697. Also cliche by 1900.”
From Partridge: “ ‘at this moment in time’ was being used to a nauseating extent in 1974—as indeed it is still—and Verner Noble, writing on 11 September 1974, remarks  ‘As you know, it’s become a cliché. But I now find that its use is considered so ridiculous by the more sensitive kind of people that it is coming into their conversation sarcastically as a catch phrase. It is one of those American importations that had a use for emphasis but has outstayed its welcome. John W. Clark has noted that the cliché ‘at that point in time’ was very frequently used during the Watergate hearings.”

So there you have it. I would like to think that if you are not already one of “the more sensitive kind of people,” this blog post might help induce you to endeavor to become one. I would very much like to welcome you into the club.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Cultured Person

This is about what qualifies an individual as a cultured person. It is perforce so from my particular point of view; from someone else’s, it may well differ. According to Bryan Garner’s important “Garner’s Modern English Usage,” a cultured person has a “cultivated mind, well trained and highly developed.” But just who is that? Here are my views and touchstones, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s term.

To begin with, we must recognize that “cultured” is not quite synonymous with “civilized.” A civilized person spits not on the sidewalk but in the gutter, and lets a lady off the elevator ahead of himself. But he may very well not know who Pasteur or LaRochefoucauld was. I have my own, highly subjective criteria of what makes a cultured person, one who avoids the common mistakes I am about to discuss. It constitutes my notion of someone well-educated, well-spoken, and presumably also well-behaved, except where wit or irony is called for.

Take the illiterate pronunciation of “groceries” as “grosheries,” which some unfortunates consider genteel rather than crassly ignorant. It displays ignorant spelling, if the ignoramus were spelling at all, as of “glacier,” with a “ci” rather than a simple “c” as in “groceries” which is without an “i” after the “c.” You hear it all over television, and just about anywhere else.

Or take the problem of “lie” and “lay,” with the former ineptly dropped from the majority of people’s vocabularies. Few persons now understand that “lay” means movement, as in “I lay the book on the table” or “I lay me down to sleep.” Yet no such locomotion is involved in “the book is lying or lies on the table.” At  a leading hospital, I heard all the nurses and even some younger doctors say “Now lay on your side” or “You should lay asleep by now.” It turns my stomach to hear this from anyone, but especially from someone who should know better. But “lie”—possibly  as an unfortunate homophone for mendacity—has pretty much gone the way of the dodo and the hoop-skirt.

What now about the difference between number and quantity, a frequent pitfall? One should say I now have fewer bad dreams, or its better to have fewer than three children. Where a number of separable items is concerned, it is fewer, as in fewer wrong answers on a quiz. But when measuring is inappropriate or impossible, as in the grains of sand on a beach or in how much you care about a vote in Turkey, it is a matter of less rather than fewer. But the ignorant tendency favors “less” incorrectly, as in less theatergoers on Mondays, or there should be less stations on this train. So it is also less hair on my head, but the fewer hairs in the soup, the better. The former is still not readily measurable, hence less (amount); whereas the number of spoonfuls of a medicine at bedtime is fewer than in the morning. “More” is an exception that goes either way; hence more cups of coffee with more sugar in it.

Now for a business that affects me more than it does others: the name of the great writer Bernard Shaw. He dropped the George, and made amply clear that he did not want to be George Bernard Shaw, as all semiliterates, have it to this day. But the scholars and fans who know his explicit wishes, know that every responsible text of his, such as the seven-volume “Definitive Edition of the Collected Plays with their Prefaces” is by Bernard Shaw, not George Bernard Shaw. Thus it is that the astute Germans, who loved and steadily translated, published, and performed him,  referred to him, without exception, as Bernard Shaw. But show me a printed reference, especially in America, that does not saddle him with a hypertrophic frontal George, to say nothing about this aberrant form even from literati who should know better,

While we are on improper usage, how about wanting to “have one’s cake and eat it too.” This, though Bryan Garner in the aforementioned work accepts it on the basis of current frequency, is absurd. What you cannot achieve is eating your cake and having it too, as Garner admits that earlier writers and speakers (less benighted than the current crop), did invariably get it right. Just think (as most people don’t): you can both jolly well have your cake on Monday, and eat it too on Saturday. But if you have eaten it, no magic or fridge or emetic will have it thereafter. So clearly,
both having and eating does not compute. But all it takes is the one unfortunate who says grosheries or errs about that cake, and before long the lemmings will follow.

What people say—wrongly—is, alas, catching. This is particularly blatant in matters of pronunciation. It used to be always that something was exquisite; slowly but surely it has become accepted also as exquizite, as the dictionaries, rightly or wrongly have it, going by the vox populi. My perhaps oversensitive stomach turns each time I hear it, which is often enough to make my stomach emulate a whirling dervish.

Next we have what the great linguist H.W. Fowler called genteelism. It occurs when the ignorant speaker says “Between you and I,” or “Thank you for inviting my wife and I,” thinking that “I” is more refined than “me,” “less soiled by the lips of the common herd,” as Fowler puts it. Contributing to this misuse is that English is a noninflected language, a trap no German with his declensions distinguishing between an objective and a nominative case would fall into.

Equally repulsive are verbal trends, choices of words and phrases that have become popular in a given period, from whose constant hearing no discriminating speaker is immune. It comes in large measure as one of many blessings showered upon us by television. For some time now the chief offender has been “amazing,” which, leach-like, attaches itself to just about anyone and everything. One gathers that verbally deprived persons are amazed by people and things right and left, whereas one amazing, about human crassness, would quite suffice. This has grated on my well being, which brings me to something similarly appalling if done to the word “well.”

It used to be that if someone asked how you are, and you were, or thought you were, all right (always two words, please), you said “I am well, thank you.” Now you hear from just about everyone “I am good.” But this is nonsense, unless you were trying to say you were a good person, which most people have the sense to avoid. Who knows what would justify calling oneself good, but this much is certain: if you were manifestly good, you would avoid the need and boastfulness of proclaiming it.

Another trendy word these days is “conversation.” Formerly it had one specific meaning: talk between two or among more persons. Nowadays, however, a seemingly endless number of things, some not in the least positive, is called conversation, most of which having nothing to do with exchanged utterances. If you believed what you heard or read, you would think you were living in a world of ceaseless dialogue—which, come to think, as chatter and you actually and regrettably are.

A deplorable loss is that of the sweet, harmless word “as,” which has been pretty much devoured by the omnivorous “like.” No one anymore says “as I think”; it is always “like I think,” even if you don’t particularly practice or like thinking. And I am not even thinking of that other  “like,” which now infests, like a horrible disease, almost every conversation. This may stem from insecurity: if things are introduced with a “like,” it may not be considered as committing, as binding, as they would be without it. It is making a dreadful virtue out of imprecision, and out of evasion of responsibility.

I will not go into the problem of “who” and “whom," to which Garner devotes a goodly amount of print, but I do want to register my displeasure  with one mistake that occurs fairly often in my morning New York Times, and which may also qualify as a genteelism. It is what I would call the mistaken predicate, and it goes like this, to make up an example: “He is one of those poets who is better read aloud.” What is wrong with this? The subject here is not “He,” which would take a singular “is,” but “poets,” which requires a plural “are.” Hence the correct form is “He is one of those poets who are better read aloud.” Tell that to some reasonably cultured but errant writers one reads.

Let me conclude with two ubiquitous mistakes so common in past, present, and doubtless future times. They are the nauseating “I mean” and “you know,” scattered all over speech and hopelessly redundant and useless. Presumably you mean what you are saying, so there is no need to affirm it. And if you have reasonable doubt that some knowledge is needed in your hearer; you simply have to acknowledge that a hopeful “you know” will not generate understanding; you simply have to be clearer to begin with. Peppering your talk with those clichés, however, will only annoy a cultured hearer. But if he or she is uncultured, why bother in the first place?

The trouble with being a cultured person in today’s America is that you end up underpaid if not unemployed. It helps enormously to be practical rather than cultured. In my own experience, I was practical only once in my lifetime, shortly after World War Two in the Air Force, for which I was useless, having neither the inner ear for flying nor the gift for a grease monkey. So I ended up in tasks like KP (kitchen police), in this instance chopping onions for a huge soldiery. As I and my fellow choppers started shedding tears, I came up with a grand idea: Why in hell were we issued gas masks if we don’t use them? Well, they were perfect for chopping onions, and forthwith there were no more tears for me and my fellow choppers. We must have been some sight, but, by golly, it worked: we were as dry-eyed as at those 40s comedies we saw at the movies.

Sunday, June 24, 2018


This little essay was composed before the wonderful news from Roman Catholic Ireland: a thunderous yes to legitimizing abortion. Now if only other Catholic countries would share the pluck of the Irish.

Because if only the alt right were against abortion, as well as only the NRA were against gun control, such a piece as follows were not needed. But unfortunately abortion is opposed even by less extremist persons, so here goes. Because only a woman’s body, a woman’s safety, is involved in abortion, it is she and not a man who should have the last word about it. But when is something actually so merely because ideally it would be?

It seems to me that when a woman wants an abortion it is because she sees herself unable or unwilling to cope with parenting. Surely a lot of persons make for bad parents, often because they themselves have had bad ones, or simply because of the difficulty of the task.. It is just barely possible that a would-have-been aborter falls in love with her baby, but that would seem to be too good to count on. How good a driver would a person suffering from carsickness make? How good a couturier would a nudist make? Many people think that where there is already a heartbeat, it is too late in the game for abortion. Maybe so, but it is hard to determine what is absolute life or absolute death. What about a corpse still growing hair and fingernails? Does that make it alive? Even leaving a an unwanted newborn on the doorstep of a hospital or police station is poor guarantee for its prospects.

Assuming that an unwilling mother is pregnant in a country where abortion is illegal, what else can the woman do? If she has enough money, she can travel to another country where abortion is legal. If not, all sorts of horrors await. There is abortion by some quack or other, which can have serious consequences, or, worse yet, there is the notorious attempt by a woman at self-administered abortion, most often with knitting needles, from which no good can come.

Suppose, however, that an illegitimate birth succeeds, and the infant grows up into manhood or womanhood, is there not often enough whispered hostility in many a community against so-called bastards? This also because of the problems in an unenlightened society of fighting off the onus of being different in any way. There the effort can cause much misery for the guiltless bastard. Granted the existence of the popular euphemism “love child,” and some people’s belief that such children grow up more passionate, there is the opposite belief that they will remain forever outsiders. Famously, Edmund, the villain in “King Lear,” invokes the gods to stand up for bastards, but, at least as far as that great play goes, they don’t.

Te most obvious example of the argument against illegitimate motherhood is in the child murders in Klinger’s and Goethe’s dramas, even if the deed is viewed with deep compassion. It is always the story of an innocent maiden being beguiled by a ruthless male, and then being severely punished for something she cannot help. But for such infanticide to be taken as a serious consequence of illegitimacy by the broad audience is like hoping that, because bees sting, we should give up on apiculpture altogether and miss out on honey.

It is interesting to note the comment of the famous lawyer, Florynce Kennedy that “if men would get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Well, abortion will never be a sacrament, but neither should it be a crime. It is, rather like euthanasia, also considered criminal by many, even if in the case of intense, incurable suffering it is rather a blessing. And what about a teenager becoming pregnant? From such a one successful parenting is, I repeat , unlikely, and could have been avoided with a little bit of prophylaxis. How much space in your wallet or pocket does a condom require?
Yet from people not capable of such minimal precaution, how can we expect the intelligence required for making good parents--not the easiest thing in the world.

Let us consider for a moment how in Roman times the equivalent of abortion was handled. If a newborn proved defective in any way, the baby was allegedly tossed off Mount Taigetus for riddance. This may be merely a legend, but it sounds disquietingly convincing enough.

As for my opinion on the matter, as this blog entry I hope makes clear, I am very much in favor of abortion. And I can name quite a few people whom the world would be a better off without, had they been aborted--starting with persons very high up. In such cases, one yearns for more, much more abortion. It is conceivable, however, that even with only as much abortion as there is, things are at least that much better than would have been the case without it.


Friday, May 25, 2018


Titles do matter, at the very least in garnering desirable tables in restaurants, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. By this I mean titles both of people and of literary works, among other things. Neither kind makes the average person more purblind than a resonant title, hence even such fictional titles of import as muck-a-muck and Pooh Bah. Hence also the obsession of classless Americans with their British “cousins,” whether aristocrats or royals, to say nothing if it all devolves on a biracial American divorcee marrying into the Windsors.

Here my concern is with fictional or nonfictional works of literature on the marketplace, and by the interest generated by their titles. Still, I am not saying that Margaret Mitchell’s best seller would not have enjoyed its popularity had it been called, say, “Gone with the Old South” or “The Greys and the Blues.” But surely “Gone with the Wind,” deriving its title from a famous British poem, is a titular success. Most of us have had to fight off a literal or symbolic headwind, and lost precious things or loved persons to a windswept past.

I can think of any number of fictions and memoirs  that sold themselves to me on their titles, whether or not I went as far as to actually read them. Take “As I Lay  Dying.” “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” “How Green Was My Valley,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “The Sun Also Rises,” and so on and on. Even “Paradise Lost,” may profit from not being “Paradise Regained.”  We lose our Paradises far more often than we regain them.

Europeans may even be better at this title thing. Think, for example, of a French jazzman’s “I’ll Go Spit on Your Graves,” about a young  black’s vengeance on Southern whites. Or the German Hans Fallada’ s “Wer einmal aus dem Blechnapf frisst,” hard to translate but approximated by “Who Once Chows Down on the Tin Bowl,” about a man released from, but forced back into, prison.  Even more effective is the title of the Great German poet–playwright Carl Zuckmayer’s memoir, “Als waer’s ein Stueck von mir,” with a pun on “Stueck,” which is German for both piece and play, and thus can be both “As if it were a piece of me “ or “a play of mine.” Guillaume Apollinaire has a comic-pornographic novel entitled both “The 10,000
Virgins” (vierges) and “The 10,000 Rods” or Penises (verges), with something for both lechers and pedophiles. The great Hungarian satirist, Frigyes Karinthy, has parodies entitled “Igy irtok ti,” which sounds better than “That’s How You Write.”

I myself often have fun coming up with titles of works I’ll never write. Thus “The Angel of Accidence,” would play on the curiosity of readers not knowing the difference between accidence and accidents. But why this section of grammar should have an angel at all only Tony Kushner might know.

I might also have edited an anthology of modern poetry, emphasizing four of my favorites: Cummings, Ransom, MacNeice and Graves, whose poems I have recited in public, and which might make wholly new readers for poetry. At the very least I might have published a study of my beloved Robert Graves, who at a street corner meeting asked me whether I was a Welsh or a Jewish Simon, there being no other kind, what with Graves not allowing for converts. I wonder how many fans even know “Horses,” his charming children’s play about a three-legged horse that beats out an arrogant champion.

I remain a champion of memoirs, even of such little-known figures as the English poets John Pudney, Humbert Wolfe, and A.S. J. Tessimond. I love memoirs with bizarre titles; thus I might call mine “Learning to Suffer Fools More Gladly,” or “Pencil Sharpeners”—explanation follows.

At one point in New York I decided to try for a low-level job at the United Nations, that of tourist guide. It required only a few foreign languages, but featured an elaborate questionnaire I found absurd. Under “Office Machinery,” for example, it questioned one’s use with office tools, such as typewriter or memo pad. Also “Others,” under which I listed pencil sharpener. When I reentered the room in which the examiner had scrutinized my submission, I could see from afar an entry furiously encicrcled in heavy blue pencil. It was, of course, pencil sharpener. My rejection came along with a homily on why I should refrain from such cheekiness in future if I ever wanted a job.

Or take the time when I applied for a teaching job at the University of Chicago. The professor interviewing me at the elegant Palm Court of New York’s Plaza Hotel, asked what I had learned from my previous teaching jobs. I replied, with reference to colleagues, “to suffer fools more gladly.” Whether or not he felt personally affected, I could smell No in the air. Why do such interviewers feel obliged to be humorless, I wonder.

But now for a real favorite title. It comes from  a scion of an ancient aristocracy, Countess Franziska zu Reventlow (1871-1913), who escaped to Munich’s bohemian quarter of Schwabing for her craved liberty, consisting largely of merrily sleeping around. As she tells it in a chapter of her autobiographical novel “Ellen Olestjerne” (1903), there was a period when all her lovers were called Paul, Das Zeitalter der Paeule” (The Era of Pauls).

Apropos Countesses, I wonder about the famous romance between the troubadour Jaufre Rudel and the Countess of Tripoli. He is said to have seen a portrait of her with which he fell in love, finally making the arduous and perilous journey to Tripoli, only to die in her loving arms. It is about this that the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho wrote her opera “L’Amour de loin” (Love from Afar, recently at the Met), and I wrote a long story for Robert Hillier’s advanced Harvard writing course in which a class mate was Norman Mailer. There is also a play about it by Edmond Rostand, the author of “Cyrano,” who upgraded the Countess to “La Princesse lointaine,” but downgraded the play to one of Sarah Bernhardt’s  mere personal successes.

I myself was never involved with a titled lady, although one girlfriend complained to me about how having been involved with a British duke meant that she had to do most of the erotic work in bed. Though it may also be that compared to their Titanias, most men between the sheets are Bottom the Weavers.

Saturday, April 21, 2018


My time as a graduate student in Comparative Literature was as good as can be, and a pleasure to recall. Who would have thought that it would be this enjoyable?

Since I could no longer stay in one of the undergraduate houses, I had to look for an off-campus domicile. That is how I lucked out by letting a room from the Streeters. He taught history of astronomy at Harvard; I can’t remember what her profession was if she had one. They were both delightful persons, and I hope I was as congenial to them as they were to me.

Mr. Streeter, though agreeable, was somewhat distant; the wife was a perfect charmer. They also had two dogs of which I became quite fond; both were named for famous astronomers. The brown, medium-sized poodle was called Tycho (pronounced like Ti Cobb without the Bs) for the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. An amiable dog but surpassed in appeal by the basset hound Reggie, named  for Regiomontanus, the nickname of the fifteenth-century German mathematician and astronomer Johann Mueller. I very much doubt that his introduction of algebra and trigonometry to Germany could have made him as much fun as Reggie,

Reggie had a will of his own, but wasn’t too obstinate and a joy to watch as he waddled across the landscape. I have always liked animals, especially cats, but none more than this varicolored, sausage-shaped creature, amusing in ways that I cannot individually recall.

Mrs. Streeter was a prototypical New England lady, tall, blond, winning, with a face not quite beautiful but somehow open and welcoming. On top of which, she possessed a large collection of Noel Coward recordings, rare at that time, which I played with inexhaustible relish. I can’t recall if I previously had much of a sense of Coward, but these enabled me to conduct a Coward program, “Tonight at 9:30,” over Radio Harvard and Radcliffe.

Already as an undergrad I had had two excellent tutors. One was Albert Guerard, who was wonderfully permissive. He taught a course in Conrad, Gide, and one other novelist (I forget who), which, however, I did not take. Initially, he said I didn’t need his tutorial, having proved myself with one on Edmund Spenser. But, being a Francophile, I wanted Gide, saying I’ve had “The Faerie Queen,” and now wanted the Queen of the Fairies.

But Guerard left Harvard, and I needed a new tutor, for which I chose Hyder Rollins, the editor of several anonymous Renaissance song collections. He protested that nobody before had wanted a tutorial with him, that he did not know how to administer it, and that I seemed capable enough to tutor myself.  He ramained one of my favorite professors.

Licing with the Streeters, I was allowed to have girlfriends stay with me overnight. I had two of them. One was Marietta, born in Austria, and a fellow grad student in Comp Lit. She had already been the favorite student of my great German professor, Karl Vietor, who liked me and approved my involvement with her. During my relatively brief but depressing stint in the Post-World-War-Two Air  Force. Professor Vietor wrote me encouraging letters and sent me German books I asked for, notably the poems of Max Dauthendey. When I got out of uniform and back to Harvard, he was on his deathbed in hospital, but still sent me messages to get down to writing my doctoral thesis without further delay. That I did not visit him during his final illnessi still saddens me.

My other girlfriend, for alternate weekends, was Jane: Floridian, government student, and thoroghly American. Whereas Marietta had a slightly too short nose. which she explained as a car door once slammed on it. Jane had a curvature of the spine, which she managed to minimize with admirable posture. Mrs. Streeter liked both girls, but preferred Marietta because of her European background,

Two other profs were important to me. One was the head of the French Department, Jean Seznec, admirable and famous, but rather cold. In his seminar on Flaubert, he was somehow distant, but when I read aloud my term paper in which I compared something (I can’t remember what) to ham sandwiches sold on trains that were a thin slice of meat surrounded by thick, boring bread, he sat up and stopped playing with his key chain. We had one embarrassing moment when I came to the door of his on-campus suite, and, upon knocking, misheard his request to wait and came upon him changing his trousers. Momentarily very annoyed, he forgave me.

I recall his standing before the blackboard and trying to remember how to spell the name of the great French actress Valentine Tessier. He wrote out both Tessier and Teissier, and for a while couldn’t decide. I figured that if the great had such problems I could have them too. When the Flaubert seminar was over, he offered me a stay at  Emory University, where some newly discovered Flaubert letters needed to be edited for a prestigious academic publication. I declined, preferring to write an essay on Flaubert’s women. Seznec felt rebuffed, but forgave that as well..

Most important to me, by his being the head of the Comp Lit Department, was Harry Levin, a brilliant but touchy teacher and writer. I was the sectionman in his popular course on Proust, Mann and Joyce, and all was well until Lillian Hellman, visiting lecturer, made trouble, She had asked for some graduate student to translate for her  passages of Anouilh’s play on Joan of Arc, headed for Broadway,so as to get a sense of how various characters talked. She was paying a measly hundred dollars, but one was to be allowed to sit in on rehearsals.

When I handed in fifty double-spaced pages, she would pay only fifty bucks, because she had expected that many pages in single-space. When I protested in a phone call, she complained to Harry Levin. He threatened to throw me out of Comp Lit, but we finally settled on my writing a letter of apology. I did, but in a double-edged way, which Levin vetted but let pass, although he must have recognized the irony.
                                                                                                                                                          Eventually I got my Masters’ and PhD, and so landed a job with the Mid-Century Book Society and its editors, Auden, Barzun and Trilling. But that is another story, about which I have written elsewhere.