Saturday, October 7, 2017


A popular miscalculation in my view is the notion of a first and last in literature. Presumably to enhance their subject’s importance, scholars and critics have made out a writer to be the first or last of a kind. The problem is that no sooner is someone proclaimed the first, someone else comes up with an earlier specimen; and hardly has someone been pronounced a last, than somebody produces a later specimen. But what exactly is the benefit of being proclaimed a first or a last

Of course both can be claimed by groups or coteries such as, for example, the Romantics or the Moderns, in which situation a case may be made out for one or another member. But what if, say in a poet, though someone comes early but harks back to a remote precursor, can he or she be fully first? Could not the Pre-Raphaelites be made out a last or a first?  Where exactly would you fit in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both as poet and as painter? Even harder is picking the last, as nobody knows what the future may bring.

Still, what good precisely is the belonging to either of those categories? Does being an earlier writer make one a better one? Or does being a last achieve that? It may come from dubious analogy with sports, where the fastest runner or the last man or woman standing is winner of a special laurel and plaudits. But to go back to poetry, is Chaucer better than Shakespeare because his “Troilus and Criseyde” comes before Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”? Why should art be comparable to sport? Physical skill or strength is nowise comparable to spiritual and artistic preeminence.

So I think we should forget about making too much of tracking down firsts or predicting lasts. At the utmost, we may designate someone as early or late, but please, no superlatives, as they don’t represent value judgments.

Now onto another subject that we may call exclusivism—making someone’s name notable for departing from the norm. By which I mean a Megan calling herself Meghan or Megyn, as some of them, still not necessarily unique, will do. It catches the attention when read, but matters not a whit in pronunciation. To be different, you must almost be African American—they come up with often ingenious or amusing first names, but these do not automatically make the bearer more interesting, let alone worthier.

But for vanity, nothing seems to register as more prestigious than an unusual spelling. For me, perhaps the worst offender is Rachael for the good, traditional Rachel. It is clearly derived from the second syllable in Hebrew Michael (godlike) whose pronounced diphthong shifted to the first syllable in English, yet retained the spelled difthong, unpronounced as such, in the second syllable. But Rachel (Hebrew for a ewe, i.e. gentle as) never had a diphthong either in Hebrew or in English.

Of course, the peculiarity stems usually from what was chosen by the parents, out of pretension or ignorance, but a sensible daughter ought to legalize and espouse Rachel, the established, traditional spelling. Is a zebra going to subtract a stripe or a cat going to adopt an additional whisker. Even if born with a sixth toe? These things are not like cars or sewing machines, where a newer model is likely to be superior to an older one.

Next, critical overpraise. Why do so many reviews approve of, or even rave about, shows that I find despicable? Is it that they cater to their editors’ stated or unstated wishes, in order to get more lucrative advertising? Or is it simply a matter of bad taste or low expectations? To be sure, positive reviews appeal to hoi polloi, whereas my allegedly elitist discriminations merely exclude and annoy them. Well, I can’t help being a minority voice, but why shouldn’t that minority earn a place among all the other minorities that are welcomed under our multicultural auspices?
What if we blend in with Toms and Dicks, but not with Harrys? Or not even with all the Toms? Somewhere or other lurk our semblables, our frères.

Finally, let us consider “Death and the Maiden,” the popular name of one of Schubert’s quartets, whose second movement is variations on an earlier Schubert song of that title, to a poem by Matthias Claudius? Think of all the versions of “Death and the Maiden” in the theater and on the big screen, most recently the 1990 drama by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, as political as it is psychological.

What I am after is why the maiden? Why not death and the young man or boy or male infant? What is so special about the maiden? Well, something is: her beauty, her fragility, her tenderness, her vulnerability--why should they be doomed? She ought to be the most precious, the most protected form of humankind, and thus in loss the most tragical. Thus also with other dangers, such as that of the damsel in distress, lost, for instance, in the London fog in a Gershwin musical.

Granted all that is changed now, what with feminism and ERA, shattering of glass ceilings, enlistment of women even for combat, same sex marriage and legalization of every form of consensual sex?  If chivalry is no longer, independent of questions of first and last, considered by most women as patronizing or condescending, there will no longer be a seat on a crowded bus or subway offered to a woman, or a door held open for her, we will find we can live not only without it, but also without overwhelming  interest in where and when it began, and none whatever in when and where it may end. We will have yet another example of the rather supererogatory nature of the quest for the first and the last.


  1. Surrounded by family, it's tough to comment on Simon's blog. My kids are asking questions, and so is my mom. Also, I've had six beers which are crowding my mind. In the mean time I'm typing and looking up at them and smiling,

    "yes, I know what you're talking about. i hear you, but I'm commenting on John Simon's blog and it takes a little concentration if you don't mind. this SOB will rip me a new asshole if I make a mistake so please leave me alone for a few minutes. MOM! mom's on crutches because she's got a bad knee. gonna get a knee replacement. 80 years old. love you mom, but gotta comment on Simon's blog. new post here, mom. kids >> shut up, gotta comment on new Simon comment. very interesting stuff."

    Yankees vs. Indians = zero zero. Great game. I'll try back later guys. Great post, Simon!

  2. Artists and sports stars are similar. Both are performers. Both hungry for attention. Both driven to be the best at their craft.

    >>> dad is now concerned. has major itching issues. needs to fix itch. 83 years old. scratching itch doesn't work. ointment doesn't work. itch is bad. real bad. dad, commenting on Simon post. give me a break. itch will get better <<<

  3. Good evening sunshine

    A first implies a last
    A last another first
    Of course there is the best
    Opposed to what is worst

    Then there's love and hate
    And also life and death
    With which we can relate
    With in or outward breath

    If true that truth is beautiful
    Thus false is ugliness
    Throw in the golden rule
    That sums it up I guess

  4. Mr. Simon, I've read your work for years. You are indeed a national treasure. Best, Gregg Zocchi

    First, I saw this neat little John Huston film on television when I was a kid and never forgot it. Last, I bumped into it on YouTube recently. Few American actors can pull off playing a Brit but George C. Scott does so right down to the body language. He also made a decent Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984).

    1. Thanks for mentioning it, my local library has a DVD copy! According to Wikipedia, it's the Huston film right after 'Freud' (1962) and right before 'The Night of the Iguana' (1964). Recently viddied Scott in 'The Hospital' (1971), he carried that one over the line (with some assistance from Diana Rigg and Barnard Hughes).

  6. I've always loved your work, and this finde essay is no exception, sir. I recently bought a copy of "Private Screenings" and actually felt happy and young again, caught up in your deflation of so many pretentious hot-air baloons, so much kitsch masurading as high art, so much gildred trash worshipped in the 1960s.

    As for your final question, why the maiden?

    Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. “To take upon us the mystery of things” — what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia — this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol’s “The Greatcoat”, or more correctly “The Carrick”); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) — so what? There is no rational answer to “so what”. We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity — that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual.
    From “The Metamorphosis”, an essay in Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

    (Full disclosure; years ago, when I was ihn my late teens, I was unhappy about your dismissal of Carlos Claren's AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM, but even then, I couldn't really say you were wrong.))

    1. Try this, John:

    2. Joe Carlson, how'd you find this gem? And directed by the great Peter Medak to boot!