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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR JULY 2010

July  31,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

In October the Armstrong band, accompanied by Johnny Collins's wife, pulled into a Memphis bus station and was told by a dispatcher to switch to a smaller, less comfortable vehicle for the next leg of its endless voyage.  When Mary Collins pointed out that her husband had paid for a bigger bus, the Memphis police, who must have been outraged by the fact that Armstrong was traveling with a white woman, responded by throwing the whole band in jail.  "You're in Memphis now, and we need some cotton-pickers," they were told.  Not until Armstrong agreed to play a benefit concert were they released.  The show was broadcast--Mezz Mezzrow heard it in New York--and Armstrong acknowledged the presence of his erstwhile captors by stepping to the mike and saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm now going to dedicate this tune to the Memphis Police Force: 'I'll Be Glad When you're Dead You Rascal You.'"  Preston Jackson tells what happened next: "Now whether Louis meant well by it or meant it as a slur, I don't know.  We did play the song and after the broadcast they all made a dash towards us, 'bout ten or twelve of them.  There was nowhere for us to run or we would have ran, you know.  But they told us, says: 'You're the first band that ever dedicated a tune to the Memphis Police.'  So we got out of that and finished the tour." 

--Pops by Terry Teachout  

July  30,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

The second number written by Waller and Razaf for Hot Chocolates was a minor-key song of social significance called "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue."  It was, amazingly enough, Dutch Schultz who had the idea for the song, telling Razaf that the show needed a comic number in which a "colored girl" sang about how hard it was to be black.  When Razaf balked, Schultz pulled a gun and told him to get to work.

--Pops by Terry Teachout  

July  29,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

While he was anything but cynical, he had no illusions about the world in which he lived.  A friend dropped in on him after a gig and asked what was new.  "Nothin' new," he said.  "White folks still ahead."  He was as clear-headed about his own fame:  "I can't go no place they don't roll up the drum, you have to stand up and take a bow, get up on the stage.  And sitting in an audience, I'm signing programs for hours all through the show.  And you got to sign them to be in good faith.  And afterwards all those hangers-on get you crowded in at the table--and you know you're going to pay the check."

--Pops by Terry Teachout  

July  28,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

I long to paint and paint other things.  Fields, southern houses, landscpaes, vast wide-open things in vast wide-open light.

It's what I've been doing today.  Moods of light recalled from Spain.  Ochre walls burnt white in the sunlight.  The walls of Avila.  Cordoba courtyards.  I don't try to reproduce the place,but the light of the place.

Fiat lux.

I've been playing the Modern Jazz Quartet's records over and over again.  There's no night in their music, no smoky dives.  Bursts and sparkles and little fizzes of light, starlight, and sometimes high noon, tremendous everywhere light, like chandeliers of diamonds floating in the sky.

--The Collector by John Fowles

July  27,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

I met her one day when she was coming out of the hairdresser's and I'd been in to make an appointment for Caroline.  She had on that special queasy-bright look women like her put on for girls of my age.  What Minny calls welcome-to-the-tribe-of-women.  It means they're going to treat you like a grown-up, but they don't really think you are and anyhow they're jealous of you.

--The Collector by John Fowles

July  26,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

In the culture of repudiation, judgments are not subjects of disinterested debate but inviolable orthodoxies.  These orthodoxies are sometimes built into the very structure of the subject to be studied.  Students of "gender studies," for example, are not free to come to any conclusion not endorsed by feminist orthodoxy, and their curriculum is organized by a political agenda, rather than an intellectual discipline.  Without criticism and dispassionate inquiry, no real distinctions can be discovered: all are imposed from outside.  And the censoriousness is in its own way a recognition of the arbitrariness of the subject--a subject that has no mental discipline internal to itself, no fund of knowledge, and nothing to communicate, apart from the foregone conclusions which it was created in order to propagate.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

July  25,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Truth, Foucault tells us, is not an absolute, which can be understood and assessed in some trans-historical way, as though through the eye of God.  Truth is the child of "discourse," and as discourse changes, so does the truth contained in it.  Look at any academic journal in the humanities and you will find this idea at the center of a thousand factitious debates:  "Western phallocentrism and the discourse of gender"; "White supremacist discourse in the novels of Conrad"; "The discourse of exclusion: a queer perspective"; and so on. By describing arguments as "discourse" you go behind them, to the state of mind from which they spring.  You no longer confront the truth or reasonableness of another's opinion, but engage directly with the social force that speaks through it.  The question ceases to be "what are you saying?" and becomes, instead, "where are you speaking from?"  This was Foucault's triumph, to provide a word that would enable us to reattach every thought to its context, and make the context more important than the thought.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

July  24,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Consider now the category of the sentimental.  Sentimentality, like obscenity, is habit-forming.  And those to whom it appeals are frequently unaware of its principal characteristic, which is that it is a pretense.  Sentimental words and gestures are forms of play-acting: pretending to noble emotions while in fact being motivated in another way.  Thus real grief focuses on the object, the person lost and mourned for, while sentimental grief focuses on the subject, the person who grieves, and whose principal concern is to show his fine feelings to the world.  Hence, it is a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealized, observed with no real concern for the truth.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

July  23,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Consider the category of the obscene.  It is less common today that it once was to criticize works of art as obscene.  But we all understand what the criticism means.  Obscenity is involved whenever the human body is placed in front of the human person, so as to eclipse the soul.  This happens in the graphic display of sexual activity, and also in the graphic scenes of violence in which the body, as it were, takes over.  In criticizing a work of art for its obscenity, one is implying that it is wrong to taken an interest in this kind of thing.  Why is it wrong?  Because such an interest expresses a depersonalized attitude to the human body, an attitude that voids the human form of its moral and spiritual meaning.  Of course you may disagree with that statement, and it certainly needs more defense than I can give it here.  But supposing it is true:  Then it implies that there is an intrinsic and not merely instrumental defect in an obscene work of art.  It is an intrinsic defect because obscenity is a quality that invites a morally suspect interest.  No doubt it is an instrumental defect, too:  no doubt obscenity induces bad habits of thought, bad habits of perception, and bad habits of felling, that infect our behaviour towards others in the world of real life.  But that is not what we are referring to when we criticize obscenity in art.  We are referring to a defect in the work of art itself, which would be a defect even if obscenity had no discernible effects on those who were interested in it.  For it is the interest itself that is wrong.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

July  22,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

When you and I laugh together, we reveal to each other that we see the world in the same light, that we understand its shortcomings and find them bearable.  We are jointly "making light of" our burdens by vicariously sharing them.  Comic stories and caricatures are central to traditional cultures precisely because they prompt this response, and a civilization which cannot laugh at itself--like Islamic civilization today--is dangerous, since it lacks the principal way in which people come to terms with their own imperfection.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

July  21,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

If ever we think that we teach skills merely to benefit those who acquire them, skills will rapidly decline to the rudimentary forms that are most easily bestowed on all comers.  If, however, we believe that we teach skills in order to keep those skills alive, then we shall go on stretching ourselves, singling out those best able to acquire the skills in question, encouraging them to build on what they have acquired and to enhance it.  This we do as much in engineering and information technology as in sport, and it is the principal argument for introducing a competitive element into education--that we thereby single out those best fitted to receive it, to enhance it, and to pass it on.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

July  20,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

A relevant curriculum is one from which the difficult core of knowledge has been excised, and while it may be relevant now it will be futile in a few years' time.  Conversely irrelevant-seeming knowledge, when properly acquired, is not merely a discipline that can be adapted and applied; it is likely to be exactly what is needed, in circumstances that nobody foresaw.  The "irrelevant" sciences of Boolean algebra and Fregean logic gave birth, in time, to the digital computer; the "irrelevant" studies of Greek, Latin, and ancient history enabled a tiny number of British graduates to govern an Empire that stretched around the world, while the "irrelevant" paradoxes of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason caused the theory of relativity to dawn in the mind of Albert Einstein.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

July  19,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

True teachers do not provide knowledge as a benefit to their pupils; they treat their pupils as a benefit to knowledge.  Of course they love their pupils, but they love knowledge more.  And their overriding concern is to pass on that knowledge by lodging it in brains that will last longer than their own.  Their methods are not "child-centered" but "knowledge-centered," and the focus of their interest is the subject, rather than the things that might make that subject for the time being "relevant" to matters of no intellectual concern.  Any attempt to make education relevant risks reducing it to those parts that are of relevance to the uneducated--which are invariably the parts with the shortest lifespan.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

July  18,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

If, in defining art, we were attempting to isolate some feature of the natural order, then our definition would certainly have failed if we could set no limits to the concept.  "Art," however, is not the name of a natural kind, but of a functional kind, like "table."  Anything is a table if it can be used as tables are used--to support things at which we sit to work or eat.  A packing case can be a table; an old urinal can be a table; a human slave can be a table.  This does not make the concept arbitrary, nor does it prevent us from distinguishing good tables from bad.

Return now to the example of jokes.  It is as hard to circumscribe the class of jokes as it is the class of artworks.  Anything is a joke if somebody says so.  For "joke" names a functional kind.  A joke is an artifact made to be laughed at.   It may fail to perform its function, in which case it is a joke that "falls flat."  Or it may perform its function, but offensively, in which case it is a joke "in bad taste."  But none of this implies that the category of jokes is arbitrary, or that there is no such thing as a distinction between good jokes and bad.  Nor does it in any way suggest that there is no place for the criticism of jokes, or for the kind of moral education that has a dignified and decorous sense of humor as its goal.  Indeed, the first thing you might learn, in considering jokes, is that Marcel Duchamp's urinal was one--quite a good one the first time around, corny by mid-twentieth century, and downright stupid today.

--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton

[N.B.:  Scruton example of Duchamp's urinal points out a paradox about jokes: the best ones contain the seeds of their own destruction because repetition defeats surprise and breeds familiarity, ending in contempt.  The same, unfortunately, is true of the best works of art--which Duchamp also demonstrated when he drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa.]

July  17,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

It rains.  A mist of rain hangs in the tops of the trees.  Howard lights a fire of the pine logs he has cut, and they sit in front of it with tumblers of neat Irish whisky.  Howard has Paradise Lost open on his knee, Felicity the Faerie Queene.  The children are reading old Chums annuals.

"What did we need a television set for?" demands Howard wonderingly.  "Do you remember the television, children?"

The children laugh.

"There's only one good thing about that society," says Howard, "and that's the opportunity it offers you to reject it."

--Sweet Dreams by Michael Frayn

July  16,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

"Don't be silly," says Felicity.  "This is a completely new departure for you.  You can't go on forever just playing with the children and telling self-deprecating stories about yourself at the Chases' dinner parties.  Just at the moment other men are beginning to wonder if they've come to the end of themselves, and if this is all that life has to offer, you discover a complete new range of abilities in yourself.  You find you can betray your friends, and suffer, and inflict suffering on others.  You've unearthed a completely new range of possibilities in your character."

--Sweet Dreams by Michael Frayn

July  15,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

For Christmas Howard buys his children a complete working model of their family and its life.  There, on the playroom floor on Christmas morning, are their house, the children's school, the great towers of the city. . . . Switch on and move the appropriate levers on the banks of controllers, and the children come running out of the house, little pink-cheeked creatures half an inch high, who turn to wave at Felicity as she comes out on the terrace to see them off to school.  Cars purr back and forth along the expressways, bearing the Bernsteins to dinner with the Chases, the Chases to the Waylands, the Waylands for a Christmas-morning drink with the Bakers.  And there's Howard himself, three-quarters of an inch high, and a little too freshly complexioned to be true, climbing into his car, running upstairs to his office, ushering Felicity through lighted front doors, shaking hands, kissing cheeks. . . .

The children play with it for half an hour, then run outside with their new toboggan instead.  But Howard can't tear himself away from it.  Late that night, after the children have finally gone to bed, Felicity finds him lying full-length on the playroom floor once again, still absorbed.

"Look," he says, "here are the Waylands coming up the Parkway to call on Charles Aught. . . . There you are, taking the children out to tea with Ann Keat. . . ."

He glances up and sees her expression.

"Sorry," he says.  "I'm just coming.  But you can actually see it all!  That's what gets me about it.  You can really get hold of it all.  And it all does work, that's the amazing thing.  It all does in fact make sense."

"I suppose so.  But doesn't it get rather boring after a bit?"

He moves some more levers, thinking about this.  The children come running home from school.  The Kessels pick up the Chases, and drive into town to go to the theatre.

"I think perhaps that's what I like most of all about it," he says.

--Sweet Dreams by Michael Frayn

[N.B.:  Frayn's book was published in 1973, right around the same time the most primitive video games were coming out (Pong, probably the earliest successful video game, was released in 1972).  But Frayn could see the attraction of today's immersive games such as FarmVille where the most mundane chores take on a hypnotic fascination.  And it's the very banality, the boredom, that makes the games so attractive.  Sloth is indeed the signature deadly sin of our era.]

July  14,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Liberty unthreatened is always liberty about to be lost.

--Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy

July  13,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

The virtue of the Socratic method of the Harvard Law School is not that from it you learn what the law is, but that by it you learn how to think.  Whatever ability I may have to reason in a straight line from premise to conclusion derives from the discipline of those three years and especially from Professor Williston and his horse Dobbin.  I lost hours of sleep, pounds of flesh, buckets of cold sweat over Dobbin, the hero of every supposititious contract, the villain of every supposititious sale.  From Professor Williston I also learned that one can be proved a fool so quietly and inexorably that the fool will harbor neither anger nor resentment.

--Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy

July  12,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Manners are essential and are essentially morals.

--Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy

July  11,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

One day as I was walking to the Square Freddie came toward me from it.  It was our first meeting outside of classroom.  He glanced up and recognized me.  As I started to speak he looked me through and cut me dead.  It was the first time I had ever been cut.  I have never been more surprised or more angry.  Inquiring later the reason for this gratuitous rudeness, I was told a Harvard man's prominence was gauged by the number of men he could afford to cut. 

--Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy

July  10,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

I was talking to a Japanese gentleman once after I'd come from weeks of prayerful solitude at Nikko, steeped still in the dream of its vast cryptomerias, its gold and scarlet temples, its terraces rising higher and higher to unexpected torii and tombs, its fantastic bell-towers and stone lanterns, its pools and rivulets, its guardian beasts and writhing gods, its limpid gloom and exalted airiness, and I questioned him concerning the miracle of its creation.  He answered:

"What is most abhorrent to the Japanese soul is obvious plan.  The expected is uninteresting.  Plan, of course, there must be, so subtle it is concealed, so imaginative it appears unplanned.  Axes and balances, geometrical design, formal arrangement--anyone can learn these; they must be avoided if your creation is to appear not man's but the excellent whimsy of the gods.  Nothing is so tedious, so obvious, so boring to the Japanese soul as the garden of Versailles.  It is a problem in mathematics.  Nikko is an inconceivable as a sunset or a moth's wing."

--Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy

July  9,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Siberia was a great university of boredom.  The days huge, identical, empty.  No color, no variety, nearly no motion.  It is only human to hate boredom.  And for that reason I taught myself to love it.  And not only for that reason.  I had already noticed how boring committee work and meetings were, how interminable.  Many people could not take it.  They would succumb, agree, only to get on with it.  The ability to tolerate ever greater doses of boredom is the great secret of my success.  After the Revolution, I assumed all dullest positions, like head of personnel, the Organization Bureau, Orbguro for short.  For people like Trotsky such work was deadening.  Who wants to sit in a cold, brown room sorting through index cards?  I did.  Because I knew that every promotion won me an ally, a vote down the line.  And I made it a point to promote the new people, the crude, ambitious, vengeful young people who could not have been more different from all the bookish, bearded old Bolsheviks.  Trotsky could not bear their uncultured company.  He even admitted it himself.  When asked how it was possible that he, Leon Trotsky, genius, warrior, orator, had lost power to someone like Joseph Stalin, he replied that it was because he could not bear to associate with the new ruling elite:  "I hated to inflict such boredom on myself."

For centuries to come, historians will write write weighty tomes analyzing why Trotsky lost the power struggle to Stalin after Lenin's death.  They will find dozens, hundreds of reasons, but really there was only one--Trotsky hated boredom and Stalin loved it.

--The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin by Richard Lourie

July  8,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Victory can turn the heads of some leaders; it makes them proud, boatful.  But Lenin was not in the least like such leaders.  On the contrary, it was precisely after victory that he became particularly vigilant.  "The first thing," said Lenin, "is not to be carried away by victory; the second thing is to consolidate the victory; the third thing is to crush your opponent, because he is only defeated but far from being crushed yet."

--The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin by Richard Lourie

July  7,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Imagine, in this connection, F. Scott Fitzgerald as a very young man today.  Assume--what is today unlikely, since he was not a very good prep-school student--that he attends Princeton, and there takes creative-writing courses from such teachers on the staff as Joyce Carol Oates and Geoffrey Wolff.  His teachers encourage the young Scott Fitzgerald, and so, before graduation, he applies to and is accepted by the University of Iowa Program in Creative Writing.  At Iowa he is considered among the most promising of students, though during his first year there his teachers talk him out of writing a rather shapeless novel he plans to call This Side of Paradise.  Concentrate, they tell him, on the short stories, for he shall need a full book of them to qualify for his doctorate in creative writing.  (Around this time he meets and falls madly in love with a student in the English department, a Southern girl named Zelda Sayre, but when her fellowship is not renewed she is forced to leave Iowa City, and eventually they fall out of touch.)  Scott's stories, meanwhile, are meeting with some success: one is published in Salmagundi, one in the Virginia Quarterly Review, and two are accepted by TriQuarterly.  He is on his way, or so it seems.  He is offered a job at the University of Michigan, teaching freshman composition and two courses in creative writing.  It is a tenure-track job.  At Michigan, between classes and grading papers and academic committee meetings, he begins a story about a young man who, through illicit means, has made a great deal of money, with which he sets out to recapture the past, chiefly symbolized by a beautiful woman, a lost love who has since married.  The story works out wonderfully, splendid beyond his own expectations.  But it is rather too long for a short story and too brief for a novel, or so a number of editors say.  If he will agree to cut the story radically, one magazine editor tells him, he, the editor, will be glad to look at it again.  A publisher's editor has ideas for expanding the book: flesh out the character Wolfsheim a bit, give Daisy two daughters, etc.  He tries cutting, he tries expanding, but either way it is no go.  The story seems just right to him as it is.  He decides to put it away for now.  It is around this time that he begins to drink.  At age forty-four, exactly ten years after he has been awarded tenure at the University of Michigan, his heart, weakened by a steady consumption of alcohol, gives out.  But then, who ever said that the literary life was easy?

--The Literary Life Today collected in Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing by Joseph Epstein

July  6,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Too often good books are stupidly read by their reviewers, half-heartedly supported by their publishers, ignored by the public, and too soon meet their pulper.  When real talent goes unappreciated it is yet another sign of a weakened literary culture--and we live today in a greatly weakened literary culture, in which foolish books are frequently praised and subtle books are frequently dumped.

--The Literary Life Today collected in Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing by Joseph Epstein

[N.B.:  This book was published in 1985, back before we had solved the problem of bad book reviewers by abolishing book reviews altogether--and soon, the newspapers that used to print them.]

July  5,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Mention of these four names--Orwell, Camus, Silone, and Malraux--is a sad reminder of two further changes in literary culture in our day.  First, there are few figures in Europe today to compare with these men . . . .  Consequently, there no longer seems much reason to look to Europe for any sort of cultural guidance or literary example.  Second, each of these men functioned, for the better part of his career, as an independent literary intellectual: in the United States today the independent literary intellectual, never a flourishing breed to begin with, is all but extinct.

Orwell, Camus, Silone, Malraux, each of them lived in a time of great political passion, each was himself political in the most serious way.  But as literary intellectuals they wrote on political subjects with the authority of literature behind them.  In the United States today things tend to run the other way round.  Such novelists as Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, and Robert Stone create literature with the authority of politics behind them; for them the novel is politics by other means.  Great writers have always had their politics.  Think of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.  Or think of Joseph Conrad.  Conrad obviously detested the revolutionary personality; and yet one doesn't have to agree with Conrad's political views in order to recognize that there is more at stake in, say, The Secret Agent than politics alone.  Reading E. L. Doctorow, on the other hand, is a different experience entirely: if one disagrees with Doctorow's politics, the pleasure is drained from his novels; if, in other words, you do not believe that the Rosenbergs were innocent or that Henry Ford was ridiculous, you are excluded.

--The Literary Life Today collected in Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing by Joseph Epstein

July  4,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Neither inside nor outside the university has contemporary literature been able to produce a towering literary figure.  A figure of the kind I have in mind is usually not strictly an artist, but usually a man of letters.  Voltaire was such a figure for the French Enlightenment.  Dr. Johnson, holding entirely different views, fulfilled a similar function for his age in England.

--The Literary Life Today collected in Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing by Joseph Epstein

July  3,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Sometimes it is better to be wrong together than right apart.

--Death on the Barrens by George James Grinnell

[N.B.:  That epitaph could be carved on the headstone of the WASP's grave.  Death on the Barrens is by no means a great book, but it's the best explanation, even if an unintended one, of why the WASP lost his grip on American society.  It was just a failure of nerve and energy--the WASP slowly froze to death.]

July  2,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Contrary to popular belief, freezing is not a pleasant way to die.  One does not simply "fall asleep."  During waives of consciousness, my mind raced over the possibility of building a fire, of finding food, but I knew it was impossible.  My legs were kicking uncontrollably against the frozen gravel.  To conserve heat around my vital organs, my body seemed to be closing down the extremities, and even if I had been able to move, there was no help on the island but Bruce's wet pack and two other delirious men.

--Death on the Barrens by George James Grinnell

July  1,  2010

Patrick: Lagniappe

Breathing was difficult.  Facing the wind, so much sleet was forced down my throat that I choked.  Turning away from the wind, the vacuum in its wake sucked the air out of my lungs.  I felt I was suffocating.  By protecting my mouth with my hands and turning partially into the wind, I was able to bite off gulps of air from the torrents blowing by me as if I were drinking from a supercharged garden hose.

--Death on the Barrens by George James Grinnell