paleo Ideofact

Saturday, October 19, 2002
Borges and Eco
I remember a cafe conversation with a friend long ago, in which we discussed the relative merits of two writers who touch on very similar themes, two writers whom we both enjoyed, the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, who went to his final, almost certainly heterodox reward in 1986, and the Italian Umberto Eco, who is still with us. There are vast differences between the two -- Borges passed for an intellectual, but he merely followed the old dictum to write what you know. Borges' life was books; in writing about books, he wrote about his life. His pieces are short and, for the most part, meticulously constructed. Too lazy, perhaps, to write lengthy novels, Borges instead invented fictional books of great length and intellectual complexity that he "reviewed" in a few pages.

Eco, by contrast, is a true intellectual, and a writer of stupendously complex novels (and dense, and long -- my copy of The Name of the Rose comes in at 601 pages). Eco has also produced original scholarship in linguistics and semiotics and esthetics (Borges, in one stab at a philosophical essay with the oxymoronic title, New Refutation of Time, described the piece as "the feeble machination of an Argentine adrift on the sea of metaphysics"). Eco has paid homage of sorts to Borges -- the villain in The Name of the Rose, a blind librarian, was named "Jorge of Borges." (One irony of fate is that when Borges was named head librarian of the National Library in 1955 after the fall of the Peron government, his blindness -- which was not absolute -- was nonetheless advanced enough to prevent him from reading.)

Both writers share an interest in esoteric subjects: Gnostics, heretics, Islamic mysticism, criminals and detectives, language, literature, and ideas.

To recall that long ago conversation (more than a decade has passed since we had it -- it may have been over beer in one of Philadelphia's many friendly neighborhood bars rather than a coffee), I think my friend and I worked out what it was that bothered both of us about Eco as compared to Borges. Because he wrote short pieces, Borges necessarily dealt in abstractions, in ideas. Eco, who writes lengthy novels, develops human characters (and develops them well -- consider only Belbo, my role model as an editor, from Foucault's Pendulum). But for all that, Borges' work is far more human, far more immediate and concrete, than Eco's. Borges approaches his material with, to paraphrase the name of a blog linked to the left, wonder and common sense. Eco plays intellectual games with ideas. Borges is the talented amateur dabbler in metaphysics; Eco speaks with the authority of the academy, but his pronouncements are forgotten once we've passed the final exam.

I'm not sure anything illustrates this as well as the contrast (it is not a precise contrast -- Borges was of a different era, after all) between the first essay in Eco's slim volume, Five Moral Pieces, which has just been released in paperback (and was originally published on Nov. 5, 2001), and a piece Borges wrote in 1944.

Eco's essay, entitled Reflections on War, was written during the run up to the first Gulf War (I have been convinced, since around the time Eco's book was originally published, that there will be a second). To parrot a phrase from Soviet propaganda, it was no accident (probably) that this essay was translated and published less than two months after Sept. 11; I suspect, however, that it was in fact an accident.

Here is how the essay begins:
This article considers War with a capital W, as in "hot" war waged with the explicit consensus of nations, in the form it has assumed in the contemporary world. Since I will be submitting this piece just as Allied troops enter Kuwait City, it is probable -- provided there are no surprises -- that when people read it they will all feel that the Gulf War has led to a satisfactory outcome, because it is in conformity with the goals for which it was begun. In this case any talk of the impossibility or uselessness of war would seem like a contradiction: no one would be prepared to maintain that an undertaking that leads to a desired result is either useless or impossible. Yet the following reflections must hold no matter how things turn out. Indeed, they must hold a fortiori were the war to make it possible to attain "advantageous" results, precisely because this would convince everyone that war is still, in certain cases, a reasonable alternative. While one is always duty-bound to deny this.
Let me make a full disclosure here: Eco is far more intelligent, far better read, far more steeped in the kinds of things I like to write about, than I am. Let me also make this assertion: when it comes to moral questions, Eco is an idiot. (And understand, it pains me greatly to say so. I am an admirer of Eco's writings, both nonfiction and fiction.) In 17 pages written about war in general, he never quite explains what one is to do when one country doesn't follow his moral calculus, and resorts to arms to conquer another country. The only negative consequence of the Gulf War he notes is this one: took us only two weeks to realize that airline companies close when war breaks out.
Thus, because important Italian intellectuals have to change their travel plans, war is "inconceivable."

Compare this to Borges' short essay, A Comment on August 23, 1944:
That crowded day gave me three heterogeneous surprises: the physical happiness I experienced when they told me that Paris had been liberated; the discovery that a collective emotion can be noble; the enigmatic and obvious enthusiasm for many who were supporters of Hitler....
To explain the last surprise, Borges wrote
...for Europeans and Americans, one order -- and only one -- is possible: it used to be called Rome and now is called Western culture. To be a Nazi (to play the game of energetic barbarism, to play at being a Viking, a Tartar, a sixteenth-century conquistador, a gaucho, a redskin) is, after all, a mental and moral impossibility. Nazism suffers from unreality... It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, kill and wound for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph.
I doubt that Borges had any more fondness for war than I do. But unlike Eco, he recognized that war was not inconceivable, and that the victory of evil was unthinkable. Thus the physical -- not merely emotional -- joy he felt as the Allies rolled into Paris, liberating the city.

Borges, far removed from the war, nevertheless immediately experienced it. Eco felt nothing at the moment of the liberation of Kuwait, except the failure of a few airlines, and the inconvenient contradiction that facts posed to his intellectual argument.

Friday, October 18, 2002
Missing link
I'm very saddened to write that it appears that i330, a collaborative blog run by the talented Joshua Trevino, has come to an end.

I'll miss his commentary, his wit, the stories he linked to, and above all his verve.

For those of you who, like me, were regular readers and big fans, well, we've all lost something. For those of you who weren't, well, you missed something.

I don't know his reasons for stopping beyond what he posted. I certainly understand the strain that comes with writing every day, and I respect his decision to stop. Still, I can't help admitting that the selfish part of me wishes he wouldn't.

So three cheers for i330, and I wish Josh and his co-consipirators all the best.

Very rarely but more than once, I've read the word "erudite" used to modify the content I post here on Ideofact -- the word always embarrasses me because erudite people actually read books, and I hardly have any time to do so anymore. To be honest, given a choice between, say, Sayyid Qutb and watching tapes of the classic, original Scooby Doo mysteries with my son, I'll always opt for the latter. (And neither compares with the thrilling game of building the impenetrable fortress with blocks, only to knock it down with the battery powered Humvee -- and I mean this sincerely.)

There's a few more posts I'd like to write tonight, but I figure I have at most an hour of brain power left and a good book waiting for me. I'd recommend it now, but I think it would be intellectually dishonest to do so, given that I've read all of six pages of the preface. More later, I promise...

Thursday, October 17, 2002
A good friend from Philadelphia writes
The theory about the sniper being a contractor of some sort is the exact same theory my husband put forth after the first few hits. It made sense to him for all the reasons it does to you. Plus, he noted that the area they are operating within could easily correspond with the territory covered by a roofer, plumber, and the like. He speaks from experience here, as some years ago he ran his own electrical business in northern Virginia.
In fairness, I suppose I should point out that the electrician we use, who's excellent and is based in northern Virginia, won't do jobs in Maryland because the time spent in traffic cuts into his billable hours. But maybe if he factored travel time into his bills (he doesn't -- did I mention that he's excellent?), he wouldn't mind driving to Maryland.

Where's Joe Friday when you need him?

Guilty pleasures
Meryl Yourish answered some email, including one from yours truly, in which I playfully accused her of watching too many Leave it to Beaver reruns. Meryl admits to watching up to 60 seconds of it at a time before ripping herself away from it (for some reason I imagine her accomplishing this by throwing a heavy, leaden object at the screen -- either a shot put or a paragraph written by Hegel -- but she probably just uses the remote control).

She has more will power than I do. There is a vintage television show that won't let me change the channel, the late Jack Webb's Dragnet. (You'll note, if you click on the link, that Dick Wolf, who produces the Law and Order series, is bringing Dragnet back. This kind of makes sense -- Law and Order always seemed rather Dragnetish to me.)

I'm more familiar with the 60s-70s version of the show, but the methodology was fairly constant throughout. Webb went through Los Angeles Police Department case files, turned the police reports into scripts, and voila, Dragnet. Here's the Webb equivalent of a writer's block:
Webb panicked briefly at the thought that he might be running out of suitable vignettes after having culled the files of the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 300 radio and TV scripts. He asked for official help and was told to branch out into the outlying divisions of Los Angeles' sprawling suburbs and enlist the help of retired as well as active police officers. After a half-dozen hearty dinners with ex-cops and a little digging in police division offices from Venice to the San Fernando Valley, he had enough ideas for two more years' worth of shows.

"I used to think every year was the end," Webb admitted. "Now I'm convinced we can go on indefinitely, it that's what the public wants."
From the same article, he describes the formula of the show:
Over the years, the public's dictates to "Dragnet" have varied little. "The audience wanted less underplaying, so the acting has gotten more exuberant," Webb said. "They wanted the music toned down, so we lowered the sound level. They wanted humor; we added it. Sergeant Friday's romance lasted only about eight or ten weeks, and there are no plans to renew it." In Webb's view, monotony is a definite advantage: "For a regular half-hour show, stylization and a consistent format are desperately needed. Once you get them they should be treasured. In 30 minutes you can't tell a real story. You're lucky if you can stumble through a vignette."
Monotony is a definite advantage with Dragnet. In the television series' second, 1960s-70s incarnation, Webb and co-star Harry Morgan wore the same clothes in every episode -- gray jacket and dark pants for Webb's Joe Friday, gray suit for Morgan's Bill Gannon. (Devout fans will note that in two episodes, Friday donned a red cardigan, once while he was taking night courses at a local college. The red cardigan drove the co-eds crazy, by the way.)

Certain things about the show always struck me as odd -- that dour Joe Friday was often hit on by the attractive women he encountered was the most unusual -- but nevertheless, the show always sucks me in. Perhaps that's because Webb really was a craftsman of sorts, and a pioneer. I won't try to wax poetic about television -- or film for that matter -- because I'm not an expert at all, and generally pay more attention to story than to presentation and technique. Still, Dragnet had an arresting style that actually seems to hold up over the years. The only other vintage show I can think of that draws me in with the same force is the very different detective show, Blake Edwards' Peter Gunn.

A second straight day of quiet. Just an observation, but when we were trying to get our house re-roofed, rain or even the forecast of rain was enough to make the roofers decide not to come out. Today it poured all day in Washington; yesterday (I may be mistaken about this), rain was forecast for early afternoon, although it didn't start until the evening. Still, it suggests to me that the theory that the sniper and his accomplice use their work trucks, and perhaps don't own a suitable personal vehicle, seems more credible to me. I wonder if anyone has checked commercial licenses for companies in the Virginia/DC/Maryland metro area to see how many companies operate both Isuzu box trucks and Chevrolet vans...

Wednesday, October 16, 2002
Journalistic excellence
I still like visiting KurdishMedia News, even though I don't always believe everything I read there. (The old journalistic saw comes to mind: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.) But a story on the site today, about the Iraqi "election," tops quite a few elite media reports (see, for example, James Taranto's excellent summary -- first item -- of what some U.S. outlets wrote about the Iraqi election.) The lede of the Reuters story was perhaps the worst:
Defiant Iraqis lined up to show their support for Saddam Hussein Tuesday as Western powers were deadlocked over how to deal with the veteran leader they say threatens world security.
The third paragraph reads:
"With our blood and our souls we defend Saddam Hussein," supporters chanted at a polling station in central Baghdad as voters lined up to cast their vote.
Contrast that with this report from KurdishMedia News:
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that every citizen shall have the right to vote and be elected in genuine elections and that elections shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors (Article 25),” said Mr. Mohammed AL-Torayhi, a former Iraqi Judge. “In today’s referendum in Iraq, however, Iraqi’s must write their names on the ballots and submit them in plain view of representatives of Saddam’s regime. This is an absolute mockery of the electoral process.”

Saddam Hussein is the sole candidate on the ballot. His regime takes a dim view on those who do not participate in the voting. Failure to vote, particularly in favor of Saddam, could lead to arrest, detention and torture. During the last “referendum”, in 1995, Saddam garnished 99.96% of the vote.

“The only time Iraqis were free to express their political rights occurred in the civil uprising of 1991, just after the Gulf war,” said Mr. Fuad Jawad, another former Iraqi Judge. “At that time, the message was clear: ‘No to Saddam’. Fourteen (14) of eighteen (18) provinces were liberated from Saddam’s regime, as masses of civilians stormed government buildings and freed thousands of political prisoners.”
The KurdishMedia News story is most likely just a press release (not even rewritten) put out by the Working Group on Transitional Justice in Iraq and the Iraqi Jurists’ Association, whose contact information is given at the bottom of the clip. Still, it strikes me as a far more accurate story than those Taranto mentioned.

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but aren't journalists supposed to care about things like democracy and human rights?

I seem to have passed Ismail Royer, like a bad cold, on to Tacitus. It seems to me that the least I could do is add a permalink for him, and recommend his engaging site.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002
Icons 2
Jean Cocteau wrote in his early novel Le Grand Ecart this description of the moment that his young protagonist, a student named Jacques Forrestier, fell in love:
As quickly as a tiny woman in a group on the cinema screen is followed by the woman's face in close-up six times life size, Germaine's face filled the world, concealed the future and hid from Jacques not only his examinations and his friends but his mother, his father, himself. All around, darkness prevailed.
While Cocteau, a confirmed modernist, uses the cinema as simile (I still find it an arresting image, by the way), I think this is an example of iconographic thinking. It pains me to say so, but I'm afraid the recent sniper attacks in my adopted home of the Washington metro area have begun to affect me all out of proportion to the actual dangers posed by these lunatics.

I don't have any statistics at hand, but I or -- of more immediate concern in my imagination -- my loved ones are probably in more danger of being seriously injured or even killed in a highway traffic accident than from the sniper. While I'm concerned, while I exchanged several emails with friends on the subject, while I talked somewhat at length with colleagues about the case (I think they do not attack on weekends because they use a company vehicle or vehicles for their attacks; I think they either clean gutters or repair aluminum siding or some other mundane task), I haven't taken to hiding just yet, and have no intention of doing so.

Still, in my spare moments, I find myself worrying about the killers, and speculating on their motives, their methods, the peculiar pattern of their assassinations. It's raining tonight, although earlier it just drizzled, yet I can't help wondering whether the fact that Drudge has no new report of an attack is somehow related to the weather. But this is just idle speculation on my part. Despite having (or perhaps because I've...) read a fair number of detective novels, I have few insights to offer. And I won't even bother to criticize the officials who make public pronouncements, because I suspect that they are not the ones doing the real work, and I hope, as Poe and later Conan Doyle taught us, that somewhere behind the men at the podium is the keen wit of someone like Dupin or Holmes. (An aside: The high praise Europeans lavish on Poe has always struck me as odd. Not so much the praise, but the fact that Europeans seem to connect almost effortlessly with Poe's singular brilliance, while Americans tend to take him for granted, or even express some slight embarrassment at poems like the Raven -- which seems like it must be read by Vincent Price -- or tales like "The Fall of the House of Usher." For my part, I can always read Poe for the pure pleasure of reading him, to find out what happens next in stories I've read several times before.)

I have raised all this because what interests me, I suppose, is how we perceive the world, which I suspect is far more like an icon -- faces or facts filling the world, concealing the future, and all around, darkness prevailing -- than like a renaissance painting. Or perhaps it's fairer to say that while our reason strives to put things into perspective, our irrationality can prevent that from happening.

I know that I'm not saying what I intended to say, that somehow the point I thought I could make last night and tonight is still eluding me, blocked out by the looming figures of snipers, Poe, and the smaller figures of Cocteau, police officials, and Chagall and Gogol, receding in the distance.

In case anyone was wondering, I think I last heard one around one a.m. All is quiet now, except for the cat, who, like me, wants to finally go to bed.

Update: Just after posting this, I heard one fly by.

Well, back to the usual Ideofact version of navel gazing. I was reminded the other day of a conversation I had in college, when a friend of a friend criticized a publisher for putting a painting by the 20th century painter Marc Chagall (I believe it was I and the Village) on the cover of a collection of short stories by the 19th century writer, Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol. Her point was that the modernist Chagall had little in common with Gogol, who wrote during the formative period of Russian literature; he was a contemporary of Pushkin and Lermontov, two writers heavily steeped in Romanticism (although both of them were subversive Romantics, in their own ways). She argued that, aside from the fact that Chagall and Gogol both hailed from Russia, there was little connection between the two of them.

I thought this an odd critique at the time, and it bothered me off and on, whenever I remembered it, for some years. I think I've finally figured out why.

I'm straining to remember what I learned in my one art history course, but I remember well what I learned in high school of the transition from those dark Middle Ages to the bright sunny Renaissance. Slide one shows a Byzantine-style icon, in which the perspective is all skewed (Christ a giant, St. John a mouse); slide two shows a detail of the Creation from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (God and Adam perfectly proportioned, and roughly the same size). In the course of the lecture we learn all about perspective, representational art, the end of superstition, and so on and so forth. I do not mean to diminish either the value or the meaning of Michelangelo's work, but it seems to me that the painters of icons should not be regarded as idiots; they meant to convey certain information to an illiterate audience through the medium of oil on wood.

Chagall, whose style has always struck me as iconographic, has different concerns than his Byzantine and Russian predecessors. But, looking at the above linked "I and the Village," it's fairly clear that realistic representations give way to a different perspective. And I think that this is what's going on in Gogol's short stories.

In one story, a man's nose disguises itself as a high-ranking government official to escape not only its owner (on whose face it belongs) but also the country. In another, the portrait of a long-dead loan shark haunts a young artist, ultimately destroying his talent. In yet another, an artist describes his romantic dream to a young courtesan, who rejects a life of sewing patiently to support her struggling husband for her own more lucrative career; the rejection, as I recall, is accompanied by the woman's horror at his petite-bourgeois ideals and with derisive laughter.

What Gogol is able to do is to depict certain of his readers' traits -- their vanity, their greed, their lack of imagination -- on a canvas that presents them larger than life -- and twice as ugly. The reader might not identifiy with all of Gogol's characters, but he will recognize them, and he will see how their larger flaws -- blown up ten times the size of the rest of their characters -- humiliate or even destroy them. Alongside them, to give a sense of scale much like Chagall's paintings, are every day characters (the barber in "The Nose" who just wants peace, and perhaps a coffee and some onion bread from his wife) who, like the tiny St. John, provide the skewed perspective necessary to understand the story -- or the intention of the iconographer, if you will.

Monday, October 14, 2002
For the last forty minutes or so, I've heard helicopters circling in the vicinity of my Arlington, Virginia home. At about 10:20, the local ABC affiliate broke into the Monday Night Football game to announce there's been a shooting somewhere in Fairfax County -- I think they said Seven Corners -- in the parking lot of a Home Depot there. The method matched those of the sniper. Interstate 395, the biggest highway nearby, has been shut down (although it appeared it was only the northbound lanes that were closed -- what if the killers actually live somewhere in Virginia, rather than Maryland?).