This morning, I walked out our front door and across the street to take a picture:
It reminded me of something Al Gore said a few years back: “the world is changing in such dramatic ways right in front of our eyes because of global warming.”
Then I thought of something Wallace Stevens said:
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I think I’ll stick with Stevens.
Even as the world careens from crisis to crisis—will Iran get (and use) The Bomb? Will the euro finally fail? Will ObamaCare put the nail in the coffin of the U.S. economy and America’s tradition of self-reliance and individual liberty? No one’s crystal ball is sharp enough to say. But even as the world conjures with these and other pending catastrophes, there are still local tempests to conjure with. In the somewhat rarefied world of word-processing software, the corporate giant Apple has precipitated a category five storm in the teapot inhabited by users of its iWork suite of software: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, the Word, Excel, and Powerpoint of the Apple eco-system.
Last week, in the course of a big Apple event in San Francisco, The Corporation announced, to considerable fanfare, new versions of iWork. There were smiles everywhere as a couple of Corporate officials took to the stage and demonstrated that, at long last, users would be able to collaborate on the same document simultaneously over the internet, on their Macs and/or their iPads and iPhones, even on PCs. This is a feature that Google has offered for some time, but Apple’s implementation was supposed to be more elegant (if less robust technically). The software had been rewritten from the ground up, they announced, adding many new features. It was a particularly welcome announcement for those who use the software because the last major update to the iWork software was in 2009, eons ago in the chronology of software. Patience was about to be rewarded. A new Apple triumph was about to be born. The new software, which Apple was offering for free, would make serious inroads into the hegemony of Microsoft’s Office suite, which is a de facto world-wide standard.
The celebratory mood lasted for about 15 minutes. Then a few people downloaded and started using the software. Uh oh. In its effort to make iWork compatible with the version that runs on the iPad and iPhone, Apple decided to neuter the desktop version of its software. “Big deal,” you say. “Use Microsoft Office.” More and more people will do just that, I suspect. But in the meantime, there is high drama at the Apple support site and App store, where the hostile comments about the software vastly outnumber the positive comments. One independent reviewer summed up the verdict: “Pages 5: An unmitigated disaster.”
I’ve been using Pages myself for a couple of years. I’ve never liked Microsoft Office, and I’ve always harbored a particular dislike for Word, which I find bloated and unwieldy. Before using Pages, I wrote using a DOS- and then Windows-based programmer’s editor. It was a bare bones approach, but I liked the simplicity of the software and the control it offered over text manipulation. Together with a DOS-based PostScript layout tool, I was good to go.
A few days ago, The New Criterion and London’s Social Affairs Unit hosted a one-day conference about the future of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, with special reference to the contributions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in maintaining that filiation. It was a jolly and informative convocation. Among the participants were John O’Sullivan, a close advisor to Margaret Thatcher, and Peter Robinson who drafted Reagan’s famous “Mr. Gorbachev-Tear-Down-This-Wall” speech. Other paper-givers included Daniel Hannan, a conservative, euro-sceptic member of the European Parliament for southern England; Douglas Carswell, a eurosceptic MP for Claxton; and Keith Windschuttle, the historian editor of Australia’s best cultural magazine, Quadrant. If I am counting correctly, this was the twelfth such collaboration between these two organizations. Our stated purposed is to enhance and strengthen the transatlantic conversation on such subjects as limited government, individual liberty, and the the constellation of values adumbrated by the word “Anglosphere.”
What is the Anglosphere? I’m not sure who coined the term, but it was James Bennett, another participant, whose book The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century gave the word currency. As the title suggests, it is an optimistic, or at least an upbeat book. (Dr. Pangloss was an optimist, but somehow was always a source of gloom.) If the 19th century was preeminently the British century in world affairs (and it was), the 20th century belonged to the United States. And going forward? “If the English-speaking nations grasp the opportunity,” Bennett wrote at the end of his book, “the twenty-first century will be the Anglosphere century.”
“If.” A tiny word that prompts large questions. What were those opportunities that needed grasping? How sure was our grip? And who, by the way, were “we”? What was this Anglosphere that Bennett apostrophized? Winston Churchill’s opus on the English-speaking peoples, published in four volumes in the mid-1950s, principally included Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. He commenced his story in 55 B.C., when Julius Caesar first “turned his gaze” upon Britain, and concluded as Victoria’s long reign ended at the turn of the 20th century. By the time Andrew Roberts extended Churchill’s work in his magisterial A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (2006), the Anglosphere had expanded to include Commonwealth Caribbean countries and, more to the point, India with its 1.1 billion people and the burgeoning capitalist dynamo that is its economy. The inclusion of India shows, as Roberts argues, that the defining quality of the Anglosphere is not shared race or ethnicity but shared values. It is a unity, as Madhav Das Nalapat put it in his contribution to an earlier TNC-SAU collaboration, a unity of ideas, “the blood of the mind” rather than “the blood of the body.” Its force is more intangible than physical—set forth primarily in arguments rather than armies—but no less powerful for that. The ideas in play are so potent, in fact, that they allow India, exotic India, to emerge as an equal partner with Britain and the United States at “the core of a twenty-first-century Anglosphere.”
‘A Tyranny Sincerely Exercised for the Good of its Victims May Be the Most Oppressive.’ – C.S. Lewis
From C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (1970):
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
I am hoping that one or another of my readers might forward this to our masters in Washington. Any chance that Nancy Pelosi, for example, could absorb the phrase “omnipotent moral busybodies”?
What Books Does Roger Kimball Recommend for 2013?">What Books Does Roger Kimball Recommend for 2013?
“A modern-day lynching.” That was the NAACP about the verdict in the murder trial against George Zimmerman, the man for whom The New York Times invented a new race category, the “white Hispanic.” In a reprise of his Tawana Brawley fiasco, The Allegedly Reverend Al Sharpton is planning protests in 100 cities. Yesterday, a rally protesting the verdict closed a major intersection in Newark, New Jersey. Meanwhile, the parents of Mr. Zimmerman have gone into hiding because of the cataract of death threats they have received.
What’s going on? George Zimmerman ought never to have been tried for the lamentable death of Trayvon Martin. The police in his town in Florida understood that. It was only when the president of the United States said that, if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon Martin that local authorities got with the program. Eric Holder’s amusingly named Department of Justice actually sent people to Florida to stir up sentiment against Mr. Zimmerman (isn’t that racist?). Now that the jury has spoken — NOT GUILTY — the Department of Racial Justice is pondering bringing a civil suit against George Zimmerman. As Mark Steyn observed,
In the Zimmerman trial, the state’s “theory of the case” is that it has no theory of the case: might be murder, might be manslaughter, might be aggravated assault, might be a zillion other things, but it’s something.
Fortunately for George Zimmerman, the jury decided the case on the facts. George Zimmerman acted in self-defense. He wasn’t guilty of any crime.
One of my least favorite occupations is sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for the chap with the stethoscope and prescription pad to appear. Waiting in the reception area is plenty tedious. But it’s somehow more tiresome, not to say more anxiety producing, after you’ve gotten past that first triage to sit alone and slab-like on some uncomfortable medical table staring at artwork a Holiday Inn would have turned up its nose at alongside posters describing all the things that can go wrong with your circulatory/pulmonary/etc., etc., systems. I’ve always hated those posters, not least because I cannot contemplate their descriptions of symptoms without beginning to feel that I, too, may be suffering from whatever grave malady they outline.
There is one other invariable species of decoration festooning the walls of examination rooms: the framed and mounted medical certificates proudly informing you that Dr. Sawbones is a graduate of Expensive University Medical School. I’ve never paid much attention to such advertisements, other than to be slightly, if also irrationally, reassured when the institution named on the document is Yale, Harvard, Columbia, or some such. A recent article in Crain’s Chicago Business, however, will make me scrutinize those declamatory escutcheons more fiercely. “Loyola Med School,” the headline reads, “To Admit Undocumented Students.”
“Undocumented.” That’s big-government bureaucratese for “illegal alien.” So: Loyola Medical School will henceforth admit all those Juans, Ahmeds, and Mohammeds we’ve been reading about. “The university’s Stritch School of Medicine not only intends to waive legal residency as an admissions requirement for applicants but aims to offer a financing plan through a state agency.” Yes, that’s right, not only is Loyola admitting illegal aliens to its medical school, it is also handing you, the Illinois taxpayer, the bill for their education.
How did this happen? If you said “Barack Obama,” go to the head of the class and collect your diversity certificate, which is printed on sustainable paper created in a green, smoke-free, PETA-sanctioned workplace. “Dean Linda Brubaker and Mark Kuczewski, director of the school’s Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics, decided to open the school to undocumented students after President Barack Obama signed an executive order in June 2012 making it possible for young adults brought to the United States as children to temporarily live and work legally in the U.S.”
I just caught up with Charles Murray’s brave and perspicacious column at NRO about Jason Richwine. I know memories are short, but the outrageous story of how Mr. Richwine was hounded out of his job at the Heritage Foundation by a gaggle of PC witch-hunters last month is worth bearing in mind. His own account of his travails is very much worth reading. The bare outline:
- On May 6, Mr. Richwine’s co-authored report on the fiscal cost of immigration amnesty (we’re talking trillions, trillions) is published by Heritage. Many interviews, lots of media attention.
- The next day, The Washington Post reports that Mr. Richwine’s 2009 Harvard dissertation presented data showing that recent Hispanic immigrants “score lower than U.S.-born whites on many different types of IQ tests. Using statistical analysis, it suggests that the test-score differential is due primarily to a real cognitive gap rather than to culture or language bias.”
- Later that day: a media fire-storm. Accusations of racism. The Heritage Foundation lives up to the title of Ralph Buchsbaum’s zoological classic, Animals Without Backbones: An Introduction to the Invertebrates, and Mr. Richwine “resigns.”
Another victory for the forces of “diversity” and “tolerance.” The enforcers in George Orwell’s 1984 would have been proud. Once again, reality caved in to ideology.
I know that this depressing scenario is happening too often to be surprising. While there is still a little space for dissent, however, it is worth publicizing such disgusting events for what they are: the victory of totalitarian imperiousness over a cowardice masquerading as prudence. (I am speaking of the Heritage Foundation, not Mr. Richwine).
Charles Murray, with his usual instinct for the salient, gets it just right:
In resigning, Dr. Richwine joins distinguished company. The most famous biologist in the world, James D. Watson, was forced to retire from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 2007 because of a factually accurate remark to a British journalist about low IQ scores among African blacks. In 2006, Larry Summers, president of Harvard, had to resign after a series of attacks that began with his empirically well-informed remarks about gender differences. These are just the most visible examples of a corruption that has spread throughout American intellectual discourse: If you take certain positions, you will be cast into outer darkness. Whether your statements are empirically accurate is irrelevant.
If you take certain positions, you will be cast into outer darkness. Whether your statements are empirically accurate is irrelevant. Translation: truth doesn’t matter when ideology triumphs. White is black, day is night, there are no IQ differences among ethnic groups.
What is it about the word “art”? Pronounce it, and the IQ of susceptible folk is instantly halved. (I’ve seen cases where it is diminished by 87 percent.) Normally sensible people who do not, as a rule, appreciate being being made fools of stand idly by as someone tells them that a video of some charlatan climbing naked up a scaffolding while applying vaseline to sensitive parts of his body is “the most important American artist of his generation.” Instead of throwing something soft and rotting at such mountebanks, they nod solemnly and reach for their wallets. They are only too eager, when a stiffy arrives from the Museum of Modern Art or some similar establishment, to don the soup and fish and buzz round to the super exclusive evening event where scores of beautiful people line up to sip the shampoo and admire a tank full of formaldehyde and a dead tiger shark.
What is it about the word “art” that endows it with this mind-and-character-wrecking property? Why does it induce incontinent gibbering, not to mention mind-boggling extravagance, among normally hard-headed souls? A full answer would take us deep into the pathology of our time. It has something to do with what I’ve called elsewhere the institutionalization of the avant-garde, the contradictory project whereby the tics and outré attitudes of the avant-garde go mainstream. The half-comic, half-contemptible result is that ordinary bourgeois adults find themselves in the embarrassing position of celebrating the juvenile, anti-bourgeois antics of people who detest them.
Our misuse of the word “art” also has something to do with our age’s tendency to look to art for spiritual satisfactions traditionally afforded by religion. “In the absence of a belief in God,” Wallace Stevens observed, “poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”
That, anyway, is the idea, though exactly what sort of “redemption” may be had from much that goes by the name of “art” today is another question. Consider, to take an example I read about just a couple of days ago, Millie Brown. This 26-year-old deep thinker drinks tinted milk and then regurgitates it over a canvas. That’s her claim to immortality. And good news! The Daily Mail reports that Brown’s “unique vomit-art canvases will be available for purchase.” Act quickly! “Many maintain that now is a great time to invest in this hotly tipped artist.” Who knows? The Mail also reports that one of Millie’s most avid fans is the pop singer Lady Gaga, “who personally chose the artist to feature in her own performance video,” in which “Millie can be seen vomiting shimmering turquoise liquid over the singer.” The paper compares Millie Brown to Jackson Pollock. People — not art people — used to say contemptuously that their child of five could paint something indiscernible from a Jackson Pollock painting. Perhaps so. Millie has gone a step further: her creations are indiscernible from the “creations” of one year olds, whose canvases are the products not of their hands but of other organs.
I am just writing a piece about Maureen Dowd that begins with a quotation from William Hazlitt: “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” La Dowd exemplifies the melancholy truth of Hazlitt’s observations in her girly, gossipy prose that brings the cattiest of sorority nastiness to the august pages of a once-serious newspaper. It’s the disjunction that causes the frisson: you’re expecting some sort of serious analysis or opinionating and what you get instead is this painful smart-ass calling people names and calling attention to herself like a poorly brought-up, pubescent brat who recently discovered that her sex could be deployed as a weapon as well as an excuse.
But let me leave Maureen Dowd for later on. Now I want to remark on the wide application of Hazlitt’s principle: “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” You can, I’m sure, think of plenty of examples. Here’s one. My friend Kevin Williamson, a writer for National Review, author (most recently) of The End is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, and theater critic for the magazine I edit, The New Criterion, got tossed out of a theater last night. Why? Because Hazlitt’s principle was working overtime. Let Kevin explain:
The show was Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was quite good and which I recommend. The audience, on the other hand, was horrible — talking, using their phones, and making a general nuisance of themselves. It was bad enough that I seriously considered leaving during the intermission, something I’ve not done before. The main offenders were two parties of women of a certain age, the sad sort with too much makeup and too-high heels, and insufficient attention span for following a two-hour musical. But my date spoke with the theater management during the intermission, and they apologetically assured us that the situation would be remedied.
The situation was not remedied. On the contrary, “The lady seated to my immediate right (very close quarters on bench seating) was fairly insistent about using her phone. I asked her to turn it off. She answered: “So don’t look.” I asked her whether I had missed something during the very pointed announcements to please turn off your phones, perhaps a special exemption granted for her. She suggested that I should mind my own business.
This is where things got interesting.
So I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage. She slapped me and stormed away to seek managerial succor. Eventually, I was visited by a black-suited agent of order, who asked whether he might have a word.
Kevin wondered, as I would have done, whether management had come over to give him a pat on the back and congratulate him on dealing effectively with a public nuisance. I hope you will be as shocked as I was to learn that instead, he got the boot. There is, Kevin concluded, “talk of criminal charges.” I assume, but do not know, that he means he is contemplating suing the female in question, the theater, or both. It’s been suggested to me that, on the contrary, the possible charges might be directed at Kevin.That, I suppose, is possible, but only because William Hazlitt, with his laser-like insight, saw deeply into the heart of human folly.
Yesterday, a colleague passed along a request for some information about Robert H. Bork’s position on Martinis. Since Bob’s death in December, we have seen many reflections about his opinions regarding the law. Next week, Encounter Books, where I hang a hat, will be publishing Saving Justice: Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Other Adventures of a Solicitor General. This memoir about Bob’s tenure as Solicitor General and Acting Attorney General during the Watergate crisis provides a fascinating glimpse into the engine room of American politics in the tumultuous year of 1973. This period, too, has received its share of commentary.
Rather less ink, however, has been dispensed to explain Bob Bork’s philosophy of the martini. A full disquisition would doubtless be lengthy. Here I will confine myself to sharing with readers the comments I sent on to that journalist who is doing research into what H. L. Mencken called “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” “The first thing to be understood,” I wrote, “is that Bob Bork was an originalist when it came to martinis, just as he was about the law and many other things in life.
There is a recipe, whose exact origins are lost in the mists of time, but whose lineaments have been passed down through the generations. We introduce innovation into this hallowed process at our peril.
I once suggested Bob write a book with the title: Martinis: The Original Understanding. He was partial to The Road to Hell is Paved with Olives. Bob observed that the original martini was a careful mixture of three or four (or five or six) parts gin (preferably Bombay or Tanqueray) to one part vermouth. The whole was shaken (not stirred) over ice in a cocktail shaker, served in a chilled martini glass, and garnished with a twist of lemon. A twist of lemon, mind you. That is what a martini was.
On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, I gave Bob a silver vermouth dispenser in the shape of an tiny old-fashioned oiling can (you can get them at Tiffany’s). He found it amusing, but he regarded the unbridled diminution of vermouth, favored by many asking for a dry martini, as dangerously latitudinarian.
He recognized, however, that the battle to preserve the martini had far more radical enemies than the vermouth minimalists. One large heresy concerned the very foundation of the martini: gin. People might ask for a “vodka martini” (let’s say) but that concoction, though possibly delicious (my concession, not his) was not a martini.
This month in The New Criterion, I have a short note about “Original Sin: Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to Be the Party of White People,” Sam Tanenhaus’s tendentious and interminable article in a recent New Republic about how awful and racist the GOP is and why they will never, ever be able to redeem themselves until they give up on being nasty conservatives and start thinking just like — well, just like Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and therefore a man who has the right (i.e., the approved left-wing) opinions about everything.
As I observe in my note, what makes “Original Sin” so odd is what I call its “historical legerdemain.”
When it comes to racism, the elephant in the room for Democrats is the unhappy historical fact that the Democratic Party was the party of slavery in the nineteenth century, the party of segregation for much of the twentieth century, and the party of multicultural neo-segregation today. Tanenhaus does not put it quite like that, but his essay slyly acknowledges the first two items. When it comes to contemporary realities, however, he argues that conservatives, by opposing identity politics and supporting the ideal of limited government, have slid under the wheels of history. The changing demographic complexion of America, he says, has consigned the GOP to bitter irrelevance. Searching for an intellectual paterfamilias for this drama, he settles on Lincoln’s great antagonist John C. Calhoun. The reasoning goes something like this: Calhoun supported states’ rights and limited government. He worried about the tyranny of the majority. He also supported slavery. Conservatives support states’ rights and limited government, they worry about the tyranny of the majority, ergo they are racists.
Not much of an argument, is it? In many ways, Tanenhaus’s piece is reminiscent of his earlier exercise in ill-informed polemical logorrhea, The Death of Conservatism, which, like “Original Sin,” started life as a bloated article in The New Republic before darkening a few acres of wood pulp in its appearance between covers and on remainder shelves across the country. James Piereson treated that opuscule to at least some of the withering criticism it deserved in The New Criterion. That book disappeared without trace since the 2010 mid-term election did for his thesis what Cato’s denunciation helped do for Carthage.
Back in 2006, I wrote about a conspicuous, if quiet, bright spot on the troubled countenance of contemporary art: The Harlem Studio of Art, which was presided over by the artists Judith Pond Kudlow and Andrea Smith. “The school,” I wrote at the time,
“offers students something almost unheard of today: rigorous training in modeling, one-point perspective, cast drawing, and all the other technical aspects of art that, based in Renaissance practice, one used to assume would be part of an artist’s training but, for at least the last five or six decades, have gone the way of good manners and other accoutrements of civilization.”
In the intervening years, the school has evolved, taking over more of the building it occupies on 117th Street in Spanish Harlem. It has also changed its name to The NYK Academy and has, in a modest way, gone global, with an establishment in Rome called the Atelier Canova. Ms. Kudlow looks after the New York establishment, Ms. Smith the Roman outpost.
I had occasion to think about the efforts of these talented and intrepid artists last night when I visited the NYK Academy for its annual open-house party. It will be a bit of a trek for most New Yorkers, but it’s worth it. Stepping into the studio is like stumbling upon an oasis after a long trek through the desert. Last night was a buzzing hive of conviviality, but it was impossible not to sense the serious artistic pursuits that unfold within. The walls were festooned with paintings large and small, student work cheek-by-jowl with the masterly productions of the school’s teachers.
Everywhere one looked was evidence of painstaking technical labor, of the mastery of technique and absorption of the lessons of traditional practice.
It was a jolly evening enlivened by a constant flow of friends. Even more gratifying, however, was the recognition that institutions like the NYK Academy still exist. If all you read were trendy salon-establishment publications like The New York Times, if the only art you saw was in galleries approved by today’s tastemakers, then you might think that the rootless parody of cultural life represented by today’s pseudo avant garde was all that was left of the once great current of Western artistic practice.
Fortunately, institutions like the NYK Academy exist to remind us that all is not lost, not quite. It’s a cheering realization.
More on art at PJ Lifestyle:
Your right arm, for example. I had arthroscopic surgery on my right shoulder Monday — rotator cuff and labrum repair (I didn’t even know know I had a labrum) — and I’ve been moping about since with my arm in a sling and hooked up to a machine that circulates ice water around the traumatized bit of anatomy for 20 minutes every hour or so. Here’s a fun test: try tying your shoes with only your left hand. Or (assuming you are right-handed, as I am) try signing your name or using a fork. Your incapacity, I suspect, will be almost comical.
The nerve block I had Monday at about 11 a.m. lasted far longer than predicted: until 5 or 6 Tuesday night, which meant that I couldn’t move my arm and my thumb and first two fingers were all pins and needles and, beneath that, numb as a parboiled tenderloin. The upside of that situation was an absence of pain, which only arrived on the scene last night about bed time. (Another thing you take for granted: being able to sleep on your side: if you have shoulder surgery, be prepared to sleep — or try to sleep — on your back, your head and affect arm propped up by a few pillows.)
Pretending you’re Paul Wittgenstein is amusing for about 5 minutes. Then the tedium sets in. I typed a bunch of emails Monday evening and yesterday using only my left hand. Polonius’s observation that “brevity is the soul of wit” never seemed so forcefully pertinent. The sling is basically a 24/7 prescription, except for the morning shower. The surgeon has also given me permission to sit with the sling in my lap while I type, which, now that I can move the fingers of my right hand effectively, makes life with writing deadlines much easier to contemplate.
We’ll see whether the operation was worth it. Right now, of course, my arm feels far worse than when I presented myself to the sawbones’s ministrations. When I sat in the doctor’s office discussing the surgery he spoke airily of a “two to three week recovery.” Turns out that is only phase one. I have similar problems with my left shoulder but I suspect I will wait a good long while before embarking down this road again.
There are, however, salutary side effects of such incapacities, not least that sobering recognition I mentioned of things you take for granted: tying a shoe lace, buttoning your shirt, signing your name: it’s all so effortless when everything works as it should, nearly impossible when something goes wrong. What a stupendous thing it is, though, that most of us are such casual experts dispatching the complex tasks of everyday life. It’s irritating to be incapacitated, but really our chief emotion should be gratitude: gratitude for the quite extraordinary medical interventions we’ve concocted to say nothing of the general competence most of us enjoy in our circumnavigation of life’s little chores and obstacles. Aristotle defined man as “the rational animal.” I know what he meant. We homo sapiens sapiens are unique in our possession of self-conscious reflection. I’ve been struck, though, by the thought that “ungrateful animal” often seems to be a much more widely dispersed human characteristic than reason. I wonder what the old Stagirite would have to say about that.
(Image via Shutterstock.com.)
Er, Hallows: Deathly Hallows. It was more than a decade ago that I heard about the Harry Potter series. My wife, who was the first adult in our neighborhood to become Potter Proud and Rowling Ready, told me about the clever Mrs. Rowling and her school full of witches, wizards, magical creatures, and spells. It sounded like a cross between Tom Brown’s Schooldays and J.R.R. Tolkien. The best thing about the former, I’ve always thought, was that it provided George MacDonald Fraser the inspiration for his hilarious if also troubling “Flashman Series.” As for Tolkien, I think Edmund Wilson had it about right in his 1956 essay “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” (“Certain people,” Wilson observed, “have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy.”)
Anyway, I didn’t pay much attention to Mrs. Rowling’s creations until one evening in 2000 when I wandered into a Borders Bookstore (remember Borders?) in New York. I had just published a book called Experiments Against Reality:The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age and I was a man with a mission. I strode boldly up to customer service and asked the clerk whether they had copies of this indispensable volume. The answer, I am happy to report, was yes: they had a grand total of 3 copies in stock.
Now, 3 is not a very large number of copies, but I have to say that I found even that modest requisition heartwarming. You will find it hard to believe, but there were many bookshops across this great land that had no copies whatsoever. No wonder traditional bookshops are having such a hard time of it. (Commercial alert for PJMedia readers who wish to impress their friends and stymie their enemies: you can still become a proud owner of Experiments Against Reality: Click here and Amazon will do the rest. Go ahead, you owe it to yourself.)
As I say, I at first found it heartwarming that that particular Borders possessed 3 copies of my new book. At first. For as I proceeded around the bookshop I noticed large piles of another book, not my book. And when I say large, I mean stacks and stacks of the things. Nor were these literary obelisks congregated around one table. No, they were spread all over the main floor: veritable Eiffel towers of books — scores, no hundreds of copies of that one title. Not my book, alas, but Ms. Rowling’s. The Prisoner of Azkaban, I believe, the third in the septology. Original sin being what it is, I confess that the experience jaundiced my view of Harry Potter. OK, there are no spells or incantations in Experiments Against Reality (did I mention a copy could be yours in just a day or two by clicking here?), nor are there dragons, impossible potions, a game called Quidditch, or cute English school kids who grow up to model for Lancôme. But there is a fair amount about Good and Evil, the battle between which was (I am told) important to the success of the Harry Potter series. Alas, I did not think to personify Evil in the figure of a disembodied, snake-like creature with a memorably creepy name. Perhaps that’s why there were only 3 copies of Experiments Against Reality at Borders (available right now at Amazon, by the way, if you just click here) while there were 300 or maybe 3000 copies of The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. In any event, about the time our son became potty about Potter, I read through the first installment of the series, which in England is called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (“Philosopher’s stone” was apparently considered too recondite a reference for American readers, so the book appeared here under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, whatever a “sorcerer’s stone” might be.) It’s quite a lot of fun, as all the world knows, even if it would be unlikely to pass muster with Edmund Wilson.
It’s often remarked in The Literature that the Harry Potter books get increasingly dark as the series progress. There’s something to this, though I just saw the last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, (which John Boot reviews elsewhere at PJM) and, though physically dark because of the 3-D glasses, I found it less grim than its predecessor. Maybe it’s because (surely I am not giving anything away?) Good triumphs in the end. Maybe even the cast, after all these years, oozed a sense of relief that, at long last, they could move on to something besides Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Do not bring Edmund Wilson. He wouldn’t like it. But most young teens will, including, I think, the young teens that survive somewhere in most of us older folk.
I see several of my fellow bloggers at PJM are mentioning movies and television shows, so I thought I would mention a series from the sixties that I remember with fondness and which I am now enjoying all over again with our twelve-year-old son. It’s Mission Impossible, which you can find at Amazon in various packagings as well as at Netflix, where you can order the discs or download to your “Instant Queue.”
Many readers will know the recent Mission Impossible movies with Tom Cruise. What I chiefly remember about the first installment was the assurance during the ending credits that “no fish were harmed” during the scene where doughty Ethan Hunt has to detonate an aquarium in order to escape from the evil CIA (or whatever) boss. The movie (at least the first one) has the terrific theme music — the best, possibly, of any television show — by Lalo Schifrin, in the original 5/4 time and it also reprises a few familiar gimmicks from the original television series.
But the tone, and the point, of the television series is antithetical to the souped-up, cynical, politically correct movie franchise in which the real enemy is the U.S. or even other members of the team. The television series now seems like a period piece. Most of the actors smoke, for heavens sake, and the beautiful Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) is a pre-feminist, i.e., a feminine woman who is sassy and smart as well as luscious. The plots tend to involve nefarious Communist tyrants, drug peddlers, or other n’er-do-wells: we, the U.S., are the good guys — imagine that! — and the ingenuity of Mr. Phelps, Barney the engineering whiz, and Roland the “man of a thousand faces” is deftly if also predictably directed to a satisfactory ending in which the bad guys get theirs and our heroes drive or fly off in the nick of time, having once again saved the day. It’s not great theater, but it is, I can confidently report, calculated to engage to unwavering interest of any 12-year-old with the requisite quota of red corpuscles.