paleo Ideofact

Saturday, November 30, 2002
I found this piece on OpinionJournal about a recent $100 million pledge to Poetry magazine illuminating, both in the question it asks (Can $100 million make poetry matter? -- the answer appears to be negative) and for this passage:
A little more than a decade ago, Dana Gioia, a poet whom President Bush plans to nominate as chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, wrote a much-read essay in Atlantic Monthly called "Can Poetry Matter?"

"American poetry now belongs to a subculture," he wrote. "No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group."

And he went on to describe the central paradox of our poetic life: There have never been so many poets, poems or outlets for poetry, but all this activity takes place within an extremely narrow orbit, mostly universities and creative-writing programs. Thus, "over the past half century, as American poetry's specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined."
I am a general reader of poetry; what few courses I took that touched on poetry mostly dealt with the Romantics, classical authors, and the odd bit on Tennyson here and there. I find most contemporary poetry to be remote, although there are exceptions. Generally though, the quality of the verse doesn't incline me to investigate it further. I don't mean this as a condemnation of modern poetry -- I stick to Borges' idea that if an author doesn't excite you, doesn't make you want to read the next line, then he hasn't written for you, or hasn't written for you at this time. There is no great sin in not appealling to me as a reader.

That said, I worry about a medium that seeks to speak only to its own particular converts, that becomes so hermetic that we think of psychics and pneumatics, with the rest of us as hylics wallowing in the base matter of novels, films, popular and classical music and the black foam of the newspapers (that last image lifted from a poet, albeit a dead Polish one).

Many of the writers I quote here regularly or occasionally -- Borges, Milosz, Herbert, Cocteau -- thought of themselves primarily as poets. To them, that did not mean wrapping onself in a coccoon.

Friday, November 29, 2002
It looks like H.D. Miller may have prematurely retracted this analysis of the recent tape purportedly made by Osama bin Laden that mentioned the Bali attacks and other recent events:
Oh, by the way, after listening to a brief excerpt of this current tape, and reading an Arabic version of the transcript, I'm unconvinced that this is Usama (in case you hadn't already figured this out). Usama strives for a certain level of poeticism and historical allusiveness that this rant lacks. That's all I've got to go on, well that and a pretty firm belief that Usama is already buzzard food.
Personally, I'm agnostic (aosamic?) on the question of bin Laden's pulse, but I thought H.D.'s conclusions based on a reading of the text were worthy of consideration, and this recent story (the first linked) about the Swiss analysis suggests that he may be right. Then there's this gem, from U.S. analysts who've studied the tape:
U.S. experts maintain the tape will likely never be fully authenticated because its poor quality defies complete analysis by even the most sophisticated voice-print technology.
Sometimes it makes more sense to listen to what's being said, and how it's being said.

Thursday, November 28, 2002
From William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647:
I may not here omit how, notwithstand all their great pains and industry, and the great hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them. By a great drought which continued from the third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain and with great heat for the most part, insomuch as the corn began to wither away though it was set with fish, the moisture whereof helped it much. Yet at length it began to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were parched like withered hay, part whereof never recovered. Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, bot to their own and the Indians' admiration that lived amongst them. For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hot, and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen; yet toward evening it began to overcast, and shortly after to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God. It came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in that abundance as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked and therewith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderful to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold. And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.
The passage is footnoted, with the editor suggesting that this particular day of thanksgiving may have been in July (Bradford doesn't say when the convenient time was for setting apart a day).

Tuesday, November 26, 2002
Thanksgiving will soon be upon us, and, as always, Ideofact's library is chock full of useful information. From F. Scott Fitzgerald's notebooks, published as part of The Crack-Up, come these Fitzgerald family recipes for the Thanksgiving bird:
1. Turkey Cocktail: To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.

3. Turkey and Water: Take one turkey and one pan of water. Heat the latter to the boiling point and then put in the refrigerator. When it has jelled, drown the turkey in it. Eat. In preparing this recipe, it is best to have a few ham sandwiches around in case things go wrong.

6. Stolen Turkey: Walk quickly from the market, and, if accosted, remark with a laugh that it had just flown into your arms and you hadn't noticed it. Then drop the turkey with the white of one egg -- well, anyhow, beat it.

9. Feathered Turkey: To prepare this, a turkey is necessary and a one pounder cannon to compel anyone to eat it. Broil the feathers and stuff with sage-brush, old clothes, almost anything you can dig up. Then sit down and simmer. The feathers are to be eaten like artichokes (and this is not to be confused with the old Roman custom of tickling the throat.)

12. Turkey with Whiskey Sauce: This recipe is for a party of four. Obtain a gallon of whiskey, and allow it to age for several hours. Then serve, allowing one quart for each guest. The next day the turkey should be added, little by little, constantly stirring and basting.
That last recipe sounds particularly tempting right now, although I think I'll probably try Turkey and Water just to be on the safe side -- I'm quite adept at making sandwiches, ham or otherwise...

More Fitzgerald
Also from F. Scott Fitzgerald's notebooks in The Crack-Up, I found this entry particularly insightful and poignant:
France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter -- it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

Moderate 2
I couldn't help noticing that, in this fine post, Aziz Poonawalla notes,
The failure of the Western media to avoid being blinded to moderate majorities by the allure of extremist minorities is the reason why normal Muslims like myself and Bin Gregory are routinely challenged to "justify" our religion, or why we have now been labeled "moderate muslims" (to distinguish from muslims, who are understood to be fanatic nutjobs. CW is cruel.).
Actually, I've seen people ask Aziz to justify the interpretations of the fanatical nutjobs, as if they spoke for him. In any case, the whole thing is well worth reading.

Monday, November 25, 2002
No, I haven't forgotten. The next post on Chapter 8 will come when I have a little more time to think -- probably Friday evening...

Now I have pangs of regret about criticizing Milosz, whom I number among my favorite writers. The Land of Ulro, a meditation on the intellectual development of the West from the perspective of one its fringes, still strikes me as being one of the most important books of the last century, and in The Captive Mind Milosz demonstrated with an incredible eloquence the maddening character of Soviet totalitarianism, and not just for intellectuals:
Hardly is one clandestine workshop or store liquidated in one neighborhood or city than another springs up elswhere. Restaurants hide behind a sliding wall of a private house; shoemakers and tailors work at home for their friends. In fact, everything that comes under the heading of speculation sprouts up again and again. And no wonder! State and municipal stores consistently lack even the barest essentials...

All this creates a field for private services. A worker's wife goes to a nearby town, buys needles and thread, brings them back and sells them: the germ of capitalism. The worker himself of a free afternoon mends a broken bathroom pipe for a friend who has waited months for the state to send him a repair man. In return, he gets a little money, enough to buy himself a shirt: a rebirth of capitalism. He hasn't time to wait in line on the day that the state store receives a new shipment of goods, so he buys his shirt from a friend. She has cleverly managed to buy three, let us say, through her friendship with the salesgirl and now she resells them at a small profit. She is speculating. What she earns as a cleaning-woman in a state factory is not enough to support her three children since her husband was arrested by the security police. If these manifestations of human enterprise were not wiped out it is easy to guess where they would lead to. A worker would set up a plumbing repair shop. His neighbor, who secretly sells alcohol to people who want to drink in relative privacy, would open a cafe. The cleaning-woman would become a merchant, peddling her goods. The would gradually expand their businesses, and the lower middle class would reappear. Introduce freedom of the press and of assembly, and publications catering to this clientele would spring up like mushrooms after the rain. And there would be the petty bourgeoisie as a political force.
Cinderella Blogger Feller wrote in response to the above-linked prior post of mine on Milosz,
I get the impression that, unlike for say, Zbigniew Herbert, philosophical abstractions initially had some appeal for Milosz and when he wrote The Captive Mind shortly after his defection in the early 1950s, he was still partly under their influence. Later, if I remember correctly, he said he couldn't stand any of the great German nineteenth century philosophers who preached historicist philosophies like Hegel and Marx; the only one he could tolerate was Schopenhauer who regarded attempts to find a pattern in history as nothing more than finding pictures in the clouds.
Perhaps this explains Milosz' attitude in the passage on the kulaks that comes shortly after the one quoted above. And of course, Milosz wrote those words just after emerging from the twin horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Eastern Europe.

Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings has a post on moderate Muslims (aside -- I'm not sure I like this term; do we speak of moderate Christians? Moderate Buddhists?) in the blogosphere that is well worth reading. He links to some Ideofact favorites, including Unmedia, Bin Gregory Productions, and newcomer (at least to Ideofact's blogroll) Procrastination.

Bin Gregory offers some reflections on Henley's post that are worth reading, as are some of the comments.

Oh, and one other thing -- Cinderella Blogger Feller provides more evidence of Wahhabi proselytizing -- among the Chams of Cambodia.

Sunday, November 24, 2002
Beauty and the Beast
Last night, my wife and I watched Jean Cocteau's classic 1946 film Beauty and the Beast, which starred Josette Day and Jean Marais in the title roles. The film spurred some thoughts connected with this post on Czeslaw Milosz's absurd equation of the hopelessness of those persecuted by the Soviet gulags and those in the West who work hard all day and "swallow the poison of films and television at night." But I'll get to that in a moment. (And I should note that the denigration of popular culture is not limited to Milosz.)

Cocteau began shooting in August 1945 after a year of preparations. He pulled out all his avant garde tricks to produce a film that is absolutely accessible -- my four year old saw the first twenty minutes (and then it was off to bed) and was as engrossed as we were. Cocteau wrote a diary while making the film, and described the struggle, and his reasons for struggling, to make a fairy tale in France so soon after the occupation:
We are all paying now for five terrible years. "To make bad blood" isn't a mere figure of speech. For that is precisely what we all made, and it's this bad blood which now disintegrates us. Five years of hate, fear, a waking nightmare. Five years of shame and slime. We were spattered and smeared with it even to our very souls. We had to survive. Wait. It is this nervous waiting that we are paying for dearly. In spite of all difficulties, we must catch up. Whatever the cost, France must shine again. I dare say America can't begin to understand what we have to overcome, what it's like trying to work a ramshackle machine without oil. Our workmen's skill saves us. It's beyond praise.

My beard's white. I didn't suspect that. Well, there it is, my beard's white. That isn't serious. It would be a serious matter if my soul was just as faded. Thank God my blood's still red. I'll pour it out to the last drop. I'll not spare any.
Cocteau the poet wanted to make a beautiful film, as his part of making France work again, as his contribution to overcoming those five years.
I am not a person who writes to regular hours. I only write when I cannot do otherwise. And as little as possible. Writing dialogue bores me. But to set in motion this giant dream machine, to wrestle with the angel of light, the angel of machines, the angel of space and time, is a job I am cut out for. The result doesn't much matter. I don't say that what I've done is well done. I've done my best to prove that France can still fight against immense odds -- no -- that France can no longer fight except against great odds.
Cocteau still amazes me. Dismissed as a poseur and a dilettante, he nevertheless produced lasting works in more mediums than any of his contemporaries -- films, graphic art, novels, plays, poetry. Somewhere I have an old copy of the Paris Review with an interview Cocteau gave just before his death. He had retired to a house loaded with his works -- manuscripts, film reels, set pieces from ballets, photographs, mementoes of friends. The interviewer asked him, "If this house were burning down, and you could only save one thing in it, what would it be?" Without missing a beat, Cocteau replied, "Oh -- definitely -- the fire."

Cocteau, who sometimes wrote in obscure riddles and indulged in the avant garde's desire to shock its audiences nevertheless understood the importance of accessibility. In Beauty and the Beast, he demonstrated that he could achieve it as well. Which, for modern poetry, is something of a radical idea and an almost unconscionable act.