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.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Names, Again

Here I am again with a blog post on names, names that I find variously interesting. Take, for example, Dove. It is the name of a very good chocolate and a very good soap, and a worthy but not so great American painter, Arthur G. Dove, described by one authority as “a curious and lonely genius.”

The gentle white dove is a symbol of peace, promulgated by both the Russian communists and Picasso, but it has latterly lost much of its currency. It tends to suggest the motley denizens of public places as pigeons, encumbering our progress and known derogatorily as rats with wings. Differently spelled, it served the dependable actor Walter Pidgeon, now mostly  remembered as acting opposite Greer Garson. Can the name  have influenced Pidgeon’s personality?

I’d like to think that the TV cooking show person Rachael Ray owes her annoying personality in part to her parents’ misspelling her given name as Rachael, which is nonsense. It is clearly derived by faulty analogy from Michael, and would make sense only if the name were Richael. Both names derive from the Hebrew, with Michael meaning “godlike” and Rachel “like a ewe,” i.e., gentle, which Ms. Ray certainly isn’t.

In saddling one with a wrong or misspelled given name, parents are manifestly to blame. But if a Rachael knew what is right, she could easily change her name legally, or simply by usage. In any case, my concern here is for what influence, if any, names have on personality.

Take my own name, John Simon, which long ago comprised a John Simon the Bad, which was me, and a John Simon in publishing, who was known as John Simon the Good, although people who worked with him found him otherwise. There were further John Simons: a Yale Law professor, a Cornell Romance Languages professor, and the so-called John Simon the Groovy, in charge of popular music at Columbia Records.

To distinguish me from the others, and because so many people in America have triple names, my father invented John Ivan Simon for me, although Ivan is John in some languages and so, strictly speaking, redundant. Still, Ivan stuck to me in some formal use, making me on my Harvard doctoral diploma Johannes Johannes, and still causing a sassy friend, Dona Vaughn, to call me John John, as if I were a Kennedy. Elsewhere I remain John I. Simon, which I am not fond of.

I am concerned here with names that have a single obvious meaning and thereby conceivably influence their bearer. I am not sure what Good Luck Jonathan does for a certain African potentate, but I wonder how one addresses him. If you are being formal, he is Mr. Jonathan, although that should be familiar, whereas Good Luck, sounds somehow ironic and disrespectful, if not downright condescending. Luckily, I am not likely to meet the gentleman.

Now take the name of Bermuda’s Public Service Superintendant (is that Chief of Police?), which is Sean Field-Lament. Does he lament the duties that come with his field? Maybe so, but does he need to inform us of it? Or is he called this only when things are going badly? On the rarer occasions, when they are going well, does he become Sean Field-Jubilation? Either way, doesn’t one feel ridiculous addressing him so? Better not have police problems when one is in Bermuda.

Consider next the Korean American playwright Young Jean Lee, now middle-aged. But how will one address her when she is, say, eighty? You will be accused of mocking or patronizing her what with that Young. To be sure, the word may have a different meaning in Korean, but here is where she lives and works. Or would she switch to Old Jean. But then to call her Good Old Jean would seem from nonintimates rather presumptuous.

And what about a man recently appointed by Trump to a high office and surnamed Pecker? With pecker a well-known synonym for penis, how did this man fare in school and later? Was he not made galling fun of, yet refuse, out of pride, to change his name to, for instance, Packer. And how about our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions? Every time I see his name in a headline, I first think it about some kind of, perhaps constructive, meetings, or even of Shakespeare’s “sessions of sweet silent thought,”until my mind readjusts itself to Jeff Sessions, who is neither sweet nor silent, though he may have some sort of thoughts when not recusing himself.

To think that there is among politicians today a man named Flake, and a rare good one at that, who must have endured no little razzing for a name synonymous with oddball. Unless voters in his state favor oddballs, provided they are not in the White House.

I come now to the most arrogant assumption of a surname these days by the man who calls himself smugly and smarmily John Legend. It is meant to make him out a living legend who combines the self-serving with the slimily ingratiating. Even his face seems shined with some sort of oil or ointment to enable his slithering into hearts and minds. I would suspect that, not knowing what God might look like, he makes do with the second-best, Christlike.

In that mode. Legend managed to get himself cast in the eponymous lead of NBC’s revival of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” to bask in what has been watched by some 9.4 million viewers establishing him both as a Christ figure and as a superstar. Yet the New York Times review, though on the whole favorable and conceding the ability of Legend to sing, questioned his acting. It is in movies like the dismal Oscar winner“La La Land” that he properly belonged, contributing to his, if not quite heavenly, Hollywood aura. Legend is clearly a case of the proverbial cobbler illicitly ascending beyond footgear, to the delight of his benighted fans.

Sometimes a name works in a bilingual, or if you prefer macaronic, way, as in the case of the Austrian tennis ace Dominic Thiem, pronounced ”team,” which in English endows him with a kind of supernatural plurality. In German, it takes a Mannschaft to make a team, but the implication probably works in Austria too.

Many German Jewish ssurnames are flattering borrowings from nature in their meanings. Thus, for example, Rosenbaum (rose tree), Gruenberg (green mountain), Strauss (bouquet), or just as auspiciously Freund (friend) or Suesskind (sweet child). These names were apparently given mockingly by German border authorities to Jewish immigrants from Eastern European countries with grating foreign names. Some, with more pronounceable monikers like Horowitz, managed to elude this enforced baptism.

At times it is a thing or condition that gets a favorably meaningful name. I think of what the Italian calls admiringly “odor di femina,” scent of a woman. This does not refer to perfume, but flatteringly to some less glamorous emanation from, let’s say, the armpit, that womanizers, however, value and are drawn to. It was the title of a not especially distinguished film starring the great Vittorio Gassman as some sort of Don Juan. A variation of that term was sported by that titan of advertising,, Jerry Della Femina, which, however, may not have anything to do with a womanly odor.

But then many names have a meaning quite irrelevant to their bearer. Thus the lovely French actress Francoise Fabian was surely no bean-grower or member of the Fabian Society And thus too our numerous surnames based on professions, e.g.,  Farmer, Miller, Porter and the like do not designate current occupations. So I too may escape what my name might betoken, a simple Simon. At any rate, that is what Simon sez.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Eeminism etc.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines feminism as "Belief  in or advocacy of women's  social political, and economic rights, especially with regard to equality of the sexes." Also '"the movement organized around this belief." Strictly speaking, that is so. But, not so strictly speaking, it may extend to any woman of great distinction who thus advances the cause of women. Whereby it may be argued that Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Hypatia (the victim of a Christian mob), and Byzantiine empress Theodora were a kind of accidental feminists.

But as the old-time proclaimed feminists knew, the right to vote (i.e., suffrsge) underlies every kind of equality with men. and that is what activists like Susan B.Anthony and Emmeline B. Pankhurst, the so-called suffragettes. primarily aimed at.

Feminism takes on a different aspect according to the era and society in which it is practiced, and, to be sure, like all isms--patriotism, nationalism, certainly populism, but even rationalism--it can be exaggerated into fanaticism. I was surprised by even the worthy Maureen Dowd, in her Times column, claiming it was all right for a boss to compliment  a female employee on 'a short dress, but only if he had already praised the wearer as a human being.

This strikes me as peculiar, as if you could express respect for an elephant's being able to climb on a kettledrum only if you had previously exalted the entire species. The tiny bit of flirtatiousness does not strike me as being culpable as a prelude to attempted abuse.

But I do assent to feminism for having denounced sex for the sake of gaining advancement or keeping a job, as if the victim were always somehow complicit in a dirty business. And I consider it appropriate if people in high positions are fired or induced into resigning for some sort of sexual exploitation in the past. Altogether I have difficulties with the statute of limitations, as if, say, a murder only solved and acted upon twenty years later were less of a crime. The assumption is that the perpetrator has become a repentant, better person. But isn't the very sense of having got away with something thoroughly reprehensible for a long time encouragement enough to depraved others to follow suit?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     The poster boy, so to speak, for male dominance of the most odious sort is HarveyWeinstein, however instrumental he was as producer of deserving, often foreign, movies. A good deed does not justify other bad ones, and physical grossness is not exonerated by professional savvy.
An ugly man can be a good person, and a handsome one a bastard. But somehow I cannot help feeling, as I see Weinstein on television, that something about him was too unappealing not to be avoided. Or is that merely a piece of wisdom attained a posteriori? I have similar feelings about Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Charley Rose, Matt Lauer, and several others, and think that I have disliked them from way back. But, in all honesty I cannot be sure that this is not all after the fact. Moreover, unlikableness is not tantamount to any sort of guilt.And yet, and yet. . .

Particularly divisive, and anti-feminist, is the anti-abortionist stance. It seems to me that any woman wanting an abortion should be accorded one. Wishing not to have a baby and going to considerable lengths not to have one, is almost certainly a guarantee that you would not make a good mother. But note that "almost." It can be assumed, as it is by many, that having that adorable baby in the hands would make the most hardened feminist turn into mush, But a baby is also a lot of work, starting with all that diaper changing, and good many babies end up abandoned or, worse yet, found in the garbage.So I can see both the pro and the con in this issue.

But where the feminists can do the greatest good is in battling the NRA. Whoever had to fight for equal rights can put her fighting spirit to good use in combating the gun lobbyists and the right-to-lifers. And as long as the glass ceiling still obtains in a good many places, we still need feminist warriors embattled. If that makes them, as others would have it, less feminine, so be it: a woman will  remain a woman no matter her politics, and what a wonderful thing that is.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Jokes Etc.

Jokes are our friends that accompany us through life—at least he good ones are. They made us laugh when we first heard or read them, and they make us smile as we summon them up from our memory. That, at any rate, is my experience at age 92. They come in certain groups according to nationality and such, and though they tend to involve others, they may implicitly affect us as much.

 French jokes. Pierre and Maurice, two entrepreneurs (note the French-derived word), meet on a Paris street. Pierre exudes wealth, whereas Maurice reeks of poverty. M.: How did you make it so rich? P.: I knew that Frenchmen go down on their women and read that their favorite fruit is oranges. So I devised a cream for orange-flavored pussies.” They meet again years later and now Maurice looks rich and Pierre poor. How come? M.: I devised pussy-flavored oranges.”

Again. Pierre and Maurice meet on a Paris Street (it’s an old joke with old names, nowadays it might be Yves and Thierry). Impoverished Pierre asks wealthy-looking Maurice how come? M.: I invented nightingale-tongue pate. P. : How is that possible? Nightingales are so small and their tongues even more so. M.: Well, we mix them with horse. But it’s very equitable, fifty-fifty. One nightingale’s tongue to one horse.”

Romanian jokes. In the Ceausescu dictatorship era, Antonescu meets Joanescu on a Bucharest street. A.: How are you doing in these parlous times? J.: I turned spy for the government. A.: Funny, so did I. And what do you think of the government. J. : Exactly what you do. A.: Sorry to hear that. Now I shall have to turn you in.

Again, An American comes to Bucharest and stays with a Romanian friend. He wants to meet one of the fabled Romanian beauties. R. takes him to a nightclub and the women are indeed great. A.: How do I get one of those? R.: Easy. They are just hundred-Lei whores. [Note currency that sounds like “lay.”] A.: Hell! Take me somewhere with better women. R. does, and here the women are gorgeous. A.: I really want one of those. R.: Simple; They are just three-hundred Lei whores. A.: Christ! Take me to a better place. R, takes him to the best nightclub in Bucharest with fabulous women in haute couture dresses. A.: There, it’s one of those that I want. R.: No problem. They are just five-hundred Lei whores. A: Damn! Are there no respectable women in Bucharest? R.: Of course.  But they will cost you a thousand Lei.

Italian joke. Two business friends are vacationing seaside, and when they return to the hotel restaurant late, all that is left are two fishes, one big and one small. First friend takes the big one. Second friend grouses: “Some people are real swine.” “Why?” asks the first. “What would you have done? “ Answers the second, “I would have taken the small one.” “Then why do you grouse? That’s the one you’ve got.”

Greek jokes I have already quoted the Serbian saying, After shaking hands with a Greek, count your fingers. Also the true story told by Frank Harris of a high diplomatic meeting in Athens, where a proud Greek was showing off his gold pocket watch. It was making the rounds of the table when it suddenly disappeared. Said the host: “I will extinguish the light, and whoever pocketed the watch as a joke can discreetly return it next to the clock on the mantel.” When the lights went on. No watch, and the clock too was gone.

Scottish joke. Alleged inscription on a public toilet wall: “Here I’m dying brokenhearted,/ Paid a penny, only farted.” Scots are supposed to be miserly, but actually are, I’m told, extremely generous.

Jewish jokes. Abraham and Sara are in their bed, when a robber breaks in and rapes Sara, then leaves. Abraham slaps his wife hard. Sara, plaintively: “But Abraham, I was forced.” Abraham: “It’s not for being raped. It’s for having so clearly enjoyed it.”

Again. Two Jewish immigrants meet on a New York street. Asks one: “Where have you been all this long time?” Answers the other: “I was at home, polishing my English.” Responds the first: “You should have been Englishing your Polish.”

German jokes. A somewhat butch German woman doesn’t have a private bathroom and so uses a public one. How does she avoid being seen in the total nude? “I just wash my top half down as far as possible. Next, I wash my bottom half up as far as possible.” “Yes,” says her interlocutor. “But how do you wash your possible?”

Again. (I have used this one before.) The new maid is told that the dog’s name is Hercules. Says she: “I’ll just call him Kules. I’ll be damned if I’ll call a dog Herr [Mister].”

Hungarian jokes. From the works of F. Karinthy. An admiral is proud of the admirable names of the Navy’s ships. They are called things like the Unsinkable or the Indomitable. Yes, says the vice admiral, but won’t it delight our enemies to have sunk the Unsinkable? So, says the admiral, let’s call them the Unnecessary and the Disposable. Yes, says the vice admiral, but what will it look like on maneuvers in the Mediterranean when all our ships are called things like the Useless and the You Can Have That One? Admiral Well, we’ll install a device that changes the name from Unsinkable to Useless the moment the ship goes under.

A man has seen Garbo in “Anna Karenina” a hundred times. Why? his friend asks. It’s because she is stripping for her suicide by train as she takes off her clothes, and is in her undies as the train arrives. I keep hoping, says the man, that one day the train will be late.

A different type of joke is the epigram. A serious insight tersely expressed would be a maxim. When a maxim is clever, it becomes an aphorism. When an aphorism is truly witty, even outright funny, it is an epigram. Typical aphorisms are Stevenson’s “The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” Or Mark Twain’s “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of other persons.” An aphorism is Wilde’s “A man cannot be too careful in choosing his enemies.” An epigram is this of Wilde’s about Dickens: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” Or this: “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years.” Or again his: “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” Now here is Dorothy Parker upon the news of the death of taciturn Calvin Coolidge: “How do they know?” Or herewith Sydney Smith on Macaulay: “He has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful.” Or this, from a famous French courtesan, la Belle Otero: “God made women beautiful so that men would love them, and he made them stupid so that they could love men.”

I could go on forever, but let me conclude with one of my own modest contributions. The history of art stretches from Anonymous to Untitled--from when only the work mattered to where only the signature does.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Critics and Criticism

“Are critics necessary?” a good many people ask, not a few of them the butts of some kind of criticism. Certainly if dray horses, victims of he whip, could speak, the answer would be No. Even someone who surely knows better, Samuel Beckett, arrogates to himself the fun of making the supreme insult meted out between his contentious tramps be “Crritic,” with a double R, to make it more explosive. But playwrights, directors and actors of stature would surely answer Yes.

I am inclined to aver that every activity needs its critics, from megalomaniacal narcissists bloviating in the White House to exhibitors of knee holes in their blue jeans byway of following a fad. So, too, tennis players and others wearing their caps bakward. There is, to be sure, only fairly innocuous folly in puncturing pants or reversing caps, but for political or artistic or religious twisting of thought or harboring holes in the head there is rather less excuse.

As my readers will recall, I have always inveighed against the bleary journalism practiced by newspaper reviewers, as opposed to the real criticism performed by, well, critics. The former are barely more often right than stopped watches managing it twice a day, or like that bore trying to justify himself to the great and witty French actor Lucien Guitry, by saying “I speak as I think.” “Yes,” agreed Lucien, “but more often.”

One might also designate differences as a matter of taste. Actually, the better reviewers can write fluent paragraphs and titillating sentences, but where exactly lies their taste? Most likely in the pages of Marvel Comics, the source of so much of our stage and screen fare.

Take our current musical theater, two of whose biggest hits are “Come from Away”and “Dear Evan Hansen,” one cheesier than the other. If newspaper criticism were not almost as lamentable as public taste, more people might read it or even believe it. In any case, theater criticism has seen its purveyors decimated, as more and more publications have dumped it, largely replaced by the Internet. On the other hand, in our time of few good shows and no more cheap seats, it is unlikely that theater could survive if it depended on artistic and journalistic quality.

Already some years ago, when The New York Times was desperately seeking a new drama critic, the most serious candidate they interviewed was Robert Brustein, who declared he would take the job if he could dismiss typical trash with just a few sentences. Whereupon he was no longer considered by the Times. The one minority most neglected and most underpaid in America is the intellectual one. Elitist, which rightfully should be a term of praise, is derogatory in the quasi-democratic U.S.A.

It was claimed by some that I modeled myself on my friend Dwight Macdonald, which I didn’t; we merely happened to agree on many things. Certainly with his self-defense when accused of excessive negative criticism: “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism—literary, political, cinematic, cultural—because I’ve found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’’ without hating myself in the morning.” The only point with which I could not concur is the political, because it lies outside my scope. But there was never any question of mentorship or modeling between us. I can recall only one major disagreement: about Fellini’s  “8 ½,” which Dwight exulted in and I did not. In retrospect, he may have been right.

It was likewise claimed by some that I was the critic on whom my friend Wilfrid Sheed  modeled the protagonist of his novel “Max Jamison.” But as he told me, if Max was modeled on anyone, it was on himself. Two incidents only might be based on me. One was when upon my suggestion that Clive Barnes and Brendan Gill should not come to meetings drunk, Gill was barely restrained from fisticuffs with me. The other was when Manny Farber, a member of the National Critics’ Circle, stood up trembling with rage to deliver a lengthy and barely comprehensible philippic against the rest of us for not including film writers from obscure, hardly known publications. I suggested the desirabiiltiy for election to our group of a sanity test. Whereupon Manny stormed out and never showed up again.

Let me adduce an incident from the Tehran Film Festival in the time of the Shah. At a long table sat a number of attractive debutantes intended for whatever assistance a jury member might need. One of the young ladies asked me what I did for a  living. I said I was a film critic. Said she: “And for that you get paid?” Absurd as the question  was, it elicited my response: “Not a whole lot.” And so it is at the more intellectual weeklies and monthlies, to say nothing of the quarterlies.

But to advert to drama criticism, which, aside from some book reviews, is the only kind I still practice, to start with some typical misunderstandings. ln a context of movies, but applicable also to theater, John W. English, writes in his book “Criticizing the Critics”: “High-brow [sic] critics such as John Simon, are often intrigued by witticisms, puns ad cleverly reworked  phrases a form of intellectual gamesmanship. Simon, for example, has flippantly called ‘2000: A Space Odyssey’  a ‘Shaggy God Story.’ It’s a sign he’s not as serious as he might be.” In other words, wit does not belong in criticism, a notion funny enough in its own right. Long-faced prose seems solely admissible.

In Matt Windman’s book of interviews with theater reviewers, “The Critics Say . . . ,” we read this from John Lahr: “Anyone who talks about standards is a fool. There is no agreed-upon standard. A standard is an aesthetic or a taste that has evolved over time. That is all it is.” Agreed, and that is all that is needed. Lahr continues, “John Simon is always going on about his standards. But if you look at the standards he liked and those he didn’t like, you’ll find that his standards tend to overlook major work and praise a lot of terrible shows.”

Now, standards are what you derive from the criticism of major critics from Aristotle on, advocated and agreed upon. To be sure, it depends on whom you consider major, but certainly among those on my list, and surprisingly among some others too, you find a goodly measure of concord. And from that you get the notion of a standard. And if Lahr argues that there are wrong standards (mine), there must also be right ones (his). Which means that standards exist even for him, only they have to be his..

Furthermore, Lahr is wrong about my alleged always going on about standards. I hardly ever mention them, as they are not there to be pontificated about, but to be displayed and reaffirmed in one’s writing. Moreover, Lahr’s “always” implies that he has read me extensively, which I am inclined to doubt. If he had, he might have learned something from me as I have from him.

In that same book edited by Widman, Elisabeth Vincentelli opines: “I am ambivalent about John Simon. He’s such a great stylist and writer, but his meanness is just too much. It was delicious to read, but sometimes it got in the way of his critical acumen, and that kind of spoiled the pleasure of reading him. I didn’t feel like there was any generosity behind it. He often wrote about very real issues that nobody else would touch—the stuff that is very tricky to deal with, but he wrote about it with such a lack of empathy.”

This raises several questions, some of which my quote from Dwight Macdonald answered. Really though, if something is bad, why empathize? You don’t root for it. you try to uproot if. If, however, it is good, your positive review is all the empathy that is called for. Writing about lack of food in some countries, and lack of freedom in others, that is where empathy is appropriate.

The good critic notes details that might escape a lay viewer, as well as pinpointing implications and providing explications for what is not immediately apparent. He or she shows how a work fits into the history of its art form, and how it reflects and comments on its social context. If it is of performing art, he or she evaluates writers, directors and actors. In theater, there is also set, costume, and lighting design; in musicals, choreography, singing, and dancing, both as concept and execution for the critic to address.

But there is something else, too, and it is supreme. We also read a critic for the writing, as we read for their writing practitioners of other art forms: fiction, poetry, essay, drama. This is scarcely less important than the critic’s yea or nay: Kenneth Tynan, with his wit and elegance, his way with words and paragraphs, is vastly preferable to most of his more plodding colleagues, however dedicated--and, if you will, empathetic--they may be. “The critic is a man who knows the way, but cannot drive the car” Tynan has said. As oversimplifications go, not a bad epigram. Among the many writings about criticism, let me direct you to one essay: Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist.,” exaggerated but witty and brilliant..

If the critic goes beyond information and adjudication, if he or she can add wit to the review or critique, the resultant effect is at least doubled. Even intelligent digression can prove indirectly pertinent. The focus might well be narrow, but the relevance and resonance should be extensive. You might do worse than study “The Great Critics: An Anthology of Literary Criticism,” compiled and edited by James Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks.” Criticism should also be comprehensible, which is to say not written by Frenchmen with esoteric theories and befuddling jargon. And it should not present itself as written on Mosaic tablets by the likes of Harold Bloom. Above all, it should not be the voice of a publisher or editor or anybody else but independently his own.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Same Sex

I have sometimes been called (wrongly) a homophobe. But let’s start with the word “homosexual.” The “homo,” per se, has nothing to do with homosexuality. It comes from the Greek “homos,” the same, as it does in homonym, homogeny, homologous and various others involving sameness. So “homosexual,” means same sex practitioner. It can even refer to dogs or other animals having sex with one of their own kind. It does refer to two men or two women having sex with each other. Until fairly recently, this was considered wrong, but not anymore, hence even same sex marriage is by now almost universally, legally practiced. If you doubt it, just ask the Supreme Court.

This opens the question of what is, or is considered, “normal.” Essentially, normal is what a large number of people practice, and is not considered immoral. In fact, it has nothing to do with morality or immorality, but only with frequency. If it is ever revealed that a large enough number of people have sex with animals (think D. H. Lawrence’s “St. Mawr” and horses), something called zoophilia will then become normal. To be sure, it appears as of now fairly rare compared to homosexuality, but that could change, if only farm boys would speak up. All that it takes is for the onus to become removed, and a thing becomes okay. Consider bikinis or nude beaches or legalized marijuana.

This is where mea culpa comes in. A very famous critic who used to be my friend and I would amuse ourselves by outing famous persons who were widely considered heterosexual. Uncloseting, to coin a word, seemed piquant. But  closetedness in former days was prudent and excusable, practiced by some highly respectable persons. Think of such people as (in some cases I merely surmise) Leonardo da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Thomas Mann, Ravel, Manuel de Falla, Saint-Saens, Henry de Montherlant, Nikolay Myaskovsky, Michael Tippett, Michael Redgrave. Perhaps also the delightful Mompou. Some were married, like Leonard Bernstein, and (I suspect) my admired Lennox Berkeley. And surely others.

This is comparable to ferreting out clandestine Jews, unavowed for similar reasons.
Despite much progress in this area, anti-Semitism won’t quite go away. To no avail does one say “Some of my best friends are . . .” here fill in blacks, gays, Jews--it proves nothing, and it does not exculpate you. I am reminded of that great French writer Jules Renard noting, “We are all anti-Semites. A few of us have the courage or coquetry not to let it show.” Very cannily put, note even the alliteration on C in French as in English.

For whatever it is worth—not much—I have always had gay friends. One of them was the very clever young Donald Lemkuhl, who called me Nina Simone and disappeared into England (more about that anon) and left me wondering what became of him. He did have the makings of a poet, but not enough discipline. Of course, if you are in the arts, believe it or not even as just a drama critic, you must come into contact with many homosexuals, although you don’t end up believing with Gore Vidal that everyone is really bisexual.

But why are so many in the arts gay? There are numerous explanations much debated, though surely in large part because in the arts there is no homophobia, and there is even gay pride. Homosexuality may, for instance, have something to do with excessive love of your mother leading you to emulation. Example: Kevin Spacey used to show up at events with his mother as his date. Growing up without affection for sports, being of a delicate physique and loving theater—dressing up, role playing on and off the school stage--all these may be inducements. Perhaps even reading too much Oscar Wilde. When I briefly taught at a Southern university, the only library copy of the sole available Wilde biography was heavily annotated by my one flagrantly gay student.

Homosexual friendships, whether or not declared as such, are the stuff of myth and literature. Think only of the story of Damon and Pythias, or Schiller’s famous poem, “Die Buergschaft.” Think also of great unrequited loves, such as A. E. Housman’s unreciprocated adoration of the straight friend Moses Jackson. But there are so many enduring homosexual relationships as Auden’s with Chester Kallman and especially Britten’s with Peter Pears. I recall hearing how shocked the great Scottish string player William Primrose was when staying with Britten and spotting Britten’s and Pears’s slippers side by side under the same bed.

At first glance one may be surprised by how many great all-male affairs take place in England. Think E. M. Forster and Maurice and all those complicated relationships in the Bloomsbury group. England, despite the country’s until fairly recently stiff penalties for homosexual incidents, has been a thriving land of homosexuals. As a lovely American former girlfriend of mine remarked about her affair with an English duke, scratch any Englishman and out comes the homosexual. With the duke—Charlie, as she referred to him—when in bed together, she had to do all the work, his heart was not quite in it.

Why all that homosexuality? I think it is because until recently the sexes grew up separately from each other, there being no coeducation in Britain, so that  schoolboys had to be sexually boys with boys. I must admit though that during my one-year stint at a British public school I saw no direct homosexuality, but that may have been because, as a foreigner, I did not become intimate with anyone.

There is also not infrequently a tendency among homosexuals to feel superior to “straights.” The wonderful German writer, Erich Kaestner, admonishes gays in a poem not to feel proud “just because you do it from behind.” Which reminds me of two prominent members of Hungary’s classical music scene who had long been living together suddenly breaking up. After some years, however, they resumed their relationship. As the Budapest wits would have it, the pair must have said not let’s start from the beginning [in Hungarian, from the front] but let’s start from the back.

Interestingly, though I can recall various other kinds of jokes, I can’t come up with a single homosexual one. Have there not been any? Have I repressed some? Have they been inferior? I don’t know; I do know that the two persons I would most have liked to meet, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, both were gay. Coward I came close to one night backstage at “South Pacific” on Broadway. I had gone back to congratulate an acquaintance who, as standby that night, had splendidly played the lead. There I crossed paths with Coward going to make peace with Mary Martin, with whom he had had a falling out in London at his “Pacific 1860.”

Although I don’t collect autographs, I would have made an exception for Coward, but all I had with me was Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” which I considered a little too suitable. When, much later, I met Bea Lilly and told her about this, she said I should have gone ahead: Noel would gladly sign anything famous as if his own.

Once or twice in my life I have been accosted by homosexuals. Once when teaching in Seattle, while gazing at a store window. “You should have slapped him,” someone later told me. “Not at all,” I answered, “I felt rather flattered.” Quite recently, a well-dressed, middle-aged man on a Metro North train chose to sit opposite me although there were plenty of empty seats all around. After a while, he smiled and laid his hand on my knee. I withdrew my 92-year-old leg, but was too old not to feel a bit flattered.