Friday, December 24, 2010

The Season

Four decades ago, as I was about to leave the English Department office late on the last day before the winter break, I noticed out of the corner of my eye one of the few remaining persons on the premises, our sweet, diminutive work-study student, a native of Sierra Leone. “Merry Christmas, Mohammed,” I called over to him.

As I walked in the gathering darkness towards the parking lot to retrieve my car, I thought: How weird was that! A Jew wishing a Muslim a Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fancy That!

"The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

A despiser of “this weak piping time of peace . . . these fair well-spoken days,” our first speaker, A, is a distinguished warrior, a nobleman of royal blood, unlike every noble and courtier in the room he has just entered:

Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?


Speaker B is another man renowned for his military prowess. Though not of royal blood, he is the heir to a substantial earldom. Here he relates his version of an interruption on the field of battle by a courtly messenger from the king:

I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress'd,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap'd
Show'd like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took't away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talk'd,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He call'd them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He question'd me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty's behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
To be so pester'd with a popinjay,
Out of my grief and my impatience,
Answer'd neglectingly I know not what,
He should or he should not; for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns and drums and wounds,--God save the mark!


Speaker C is very high up the hierarchal ladder. The previous speaker was “pester'd with a popinjay”; when speaker C is approached by a young courtier, he asks his companion, “Dost know this waterfly?” and then deliberately mimics the “holiday and lady terms” of his interrupter:

Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you; though,
know, to divide him inventorially would dozy th'
arithmetic of
memory, and yet but yaw neither in
respect of his quick sail.
But, in the verity of
extolment, I take him to be a soul of great
and his infusion of such dearth and rareness as, to
true diction of him, his semblable is his mirror,
and who else would trace him, his umbrage, nothing more.

Another military man is speaker D, but he is the equivalent of a modern non-commissioned officer, while the person whose manners offend him is the equivalent of a graduate from Officers Training School:

He takes her by the palm .
. . . Ay, smile upon
her, do; I will gyve thee in thine own courtship.
. . . it had
been better you had not kissed your three fingers so
oft, which now again you are most apt to play the
sir in. Very good; well kissed! an excellent
courtesy! 'tis so, indeed. Yet again your fingers
to your lips? would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!


Speaker E, a relation of the ruling family of the area, despises a certain member of a noted town family:

The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting
fantasticoes; these new tuners of accents! 'By Jesu,
a very good blade! a very tall man! a very good
whore!' Why, is not this a lamentable thing,
grandsire, that we should be thus afflicted with
these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these
perdona-mi's, who stand so much on the new form,
that they cannot at ease on the old bench? O, their
bones, their bones!

Speaker F loyally serves his master, the King; he hates the arrogance and airs of those (noble and otherwise) who abuse the trust of his lord:

Sir, 'tis my occupation to be plain:
I have seen better faces in my time
Than stands on any shoulder that I see
Before me at this instant.
And like speaker C is quick to mock a fanciful mouther of words:

Sir, in good sooth, in sincere verity,
Under the allowance of your great aspect,
Whose influence, like the wreath of radiant fire
On flickering Phoebus' front . . . .


The identity of the speakers:
A—Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later, King Richard III);
B—Henry Percy (Hotspur) in I Henry IV;
C—Hamlet (speaking about, then addressing Osric);
D—Iago (speaking about Michael Cassio) in Othello;
E—Mercutio (speaking about Tybalt) in Romeo and Juliet:
F—Kent in King Lear, speaking to the Duke of Cornwall.


The plain speakers versus the fancy. The blunt, straightforwardness of the former set against the rhetorical flights (indeed excessiveness) of the later. And shown also in the plainness of dress and manners opposed to the peacockery and mannerisms of the fashionable courtiers.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this opposition is the fact that it does not break down into an easy dichotomy of good guys versus bad guys. Look at the plain speakers: Richard III, a usurping, murderous villain; Hotspur, a gallant warrior, but a rebel against the crown; Hamlet, a good guy; “honest” Iago, a treacherous deceiver; Mercutio, a lively, fun-loving good guy; and Kent, an honorable servant of Lear, even when banished by the foolish king.

In a competition between “plain, honest speaking” and affected rhetorical flourishes, we would probably all back the former. But, as we see from Shakespeare’s examples, plainness does not guarantee honesty or honor.

In fact, we need not go back over 400 years for examples of this. Compare two “plain speakers” of about a half-century ago: the honorable “Give ‘em hell” Harry Truman and Richard (“I am not a crook”) Nixon, who resorted to plainness in the “Checkers” speech, which saved his political career (“Well, that's about it. That's what we have and that's what we owe. It isn't very much but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we've got is honestly ours. I should say this—that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat”).

Patriotism, as Dr. Johnson so famously proclaimed, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Perhaps the first refuge of a scoundrel (or of many of them) is plainspokenness. It is, of course, the perfect camouflage. And we don’t even have to duck back into the last century for a perfect example of this. The pretense of being “natural,” “real,” “honest” is easy to adopt: drag yourself out of the northern tundra, wink a lot at “people like us” and lie through your teeth (“Death Panels, anyone?).


It may very well be that the most over-the-top, campy, and affected person in the room could just be the most trustworthy.

Friday, November 19, 2010


A few evenings ago, the great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel gave a recital at Carnegie Hall. He opened the second half of the program with a presentation of several songs from the plays of Shakespeare set to music by the twentieth-century British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). These songs contain such brilliant lines as:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun;

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers come to dust;

Journeys end in lovers’ meeting;

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;

Sweet lovers love the spring;

Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness;
And, being helped, inhabits there.
After a set of songs (Chansons de Don Quichotte) by Jacques Ibert, Terfel devoted the rest of the program to a dedication to another great singer of Welsh ancestry. (Who said, “Charlotte Church”? Go stand in the corner!). John Charles Thomas (1891-1960), American-born son of a Methodist minister of Welsh descent, was a renowned musical stage, operatic, and radio star for almost four decades. Many composers arranged poems and texts for Thomas to perform, and the first of them that Terfel sang received a more rapturous welcome than the Shakespeare cycle. It was an arrangement of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”

Like most people, I guess, before Terfel’s rendition I knew only the first (“I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree”) and last (“Poems are written by fools like me,/ But only God can make a tree”) couplets—and I always thought that “Trees” is crap. After hearing the full text, I know the poem is crap.


So I got to thinking: What is the crappiest famous poem?

Among the crappiest lines of poetry are these attributed to (but perhaps not written by) Alfred Austin, a future British Poet Laureate, upon the serious illness in 1871 of the then Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII):

Along the wires, the electric message came,
"He is no better, he is much the same."
Awful, but merely a single couplet, so it can’t compete for the title of crappiest famous poem.

For a corpus of awful poetry no-one can beat the oeuvre of Scotsman William McGonagall. His most famous work, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” was occasioned by the collapse of that railway bridge in 1879. It begins:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which shall be remembered for a very long time.

And ends:

Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv'ry Tay
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way
At least many sensible men do say
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses
At least many sensible men confesses
For the stronger we our houses build
The less chance we have of being killed.

Still, chauvinistically, I am going to hold out for the American, Kilmer. Because of McGonagall’s erratic meter, eccentrically-varying lengths of lines, and forced rhymes, undoubtedly even the Carnegie Hall audience would recognize “The Tay Bridge Disaster” as indeed a disaster. But while that poem is famous as a crappy poem, how many people can actually quote from memory any of its lines? “Trees,” on the other hand, has a celebrityship about it. It is famous for being famous; it is easily remembered and widely quoted, and instantly recognizable. It has the attributes that now-grown-ups thought verse should have when they tried to write “Poetry” in high school; such as, the strait-jacket of a strict iambic tetrameter (contrast the variations in stress in Shakespeare’s verse above), and end-stopped couplets with trite rhymes.

Beyond those flaws, “Trees” does not even sustain a coherent analogy. Here are the lines that fall in the middle of the poem (and probably no-one can quote):

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
A tree, then, is like a babe at the breast of Mother Earth. OK—but what orifice does the tree have that is analogous to the child’s mouth? The tree gets its nutrition through its roots, which are totally un-mouth-like. Besides, a tree is implanted in soil not the liquid implied in “flowing breast.” So, the lips are pressed to the ground, but a nest rests hat-like on the top of the tree (the “hair”). Er, how even the greatest contortionist could manage that is beyond me. But wait! What’s between the “hungry lips” on the ground and the nest on the hair? The “bosom” (i.e., the trunk).

But even if we ignore the clip-clop meter and the beyond-Cubist anatomy lesson, there is the vapid religiosity of the poem, culminating (after the false humility of “fools like me”) in the childishness of the well-known last line (“But only God can make a tree”).

It is only fitting that New Jersey has memorialized Kilmer by naming a rest area on the Turnpike after him. The idling tractor-trailers in the parking lot, belching diesel fumes into the atmosphere, are just an alternate form of pollution.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Screen Burned

After more than a decade of writing “Screen Burn,” his generally searing review of British television programming, Charlie Brooker announced recently that he was giving up the column, which appeared Saturdays in the Guardian. While I am a devotee of Charlie’s eccentric Monday columns in that same newspaper, I have seldom read any of the “Screen Burn” articles—firstly, because for most of the decade I didn’t know they existed and secondly, because when I found out about them, I really didn’t see any profit in reading about shows that I probably would never see or want to see.

Alas, in reading Charlie’s farewell “Screen Burn,” (available at I discovered what I had missed. For example, these descriptions of celebrities (hilarious, whether you’ve heard of them before or not):

“Not that I'm saying [Jeremy] Kyle himself is an agent of Satan, you understand. I'm just saying you could easily cast him as one. Especially if you wanted to save money on special effects”;

Nigel Lythgoe was "Eric Idle watching a dog drown";

Alan Sugar reminded Charlie of "a water buffalo straining to shit in a lake";

Ann Widdecombe had "a face like a haunted cave in Poland";

Cilla Black was "starting to resemble the result of an unholy union between Ronald McDonald and a blow-dried guinea pig";

Anthony Maxell was "a man so profoundly thick you could sell him a pair of his own socks for £500, even if he was already wearing them," while his girlfriend Saskia “had a face that could advertise war.”
While not all the persons savaged above by Charlie are content-free celebrities--as discussed in my previous blog entry, “Do You Know Me?”--(Sugar, for instance, made a name for himself as a successful businessman, and Widdecombe is a Conservative Member of Parliament), all of them fall into the category of “television star”—that is, famous (or most famous in some cases) for being on television.


As it turned out, after several years of writing such harsh judgments, Charlie began to run into some of his targets, with an unexpected result:
Once or twice I found myself in conversation with someone I'd been awful about in print, and discovered to my horror that the ruder I'd been, the warmer and more pleasant they appeared to be in the flesh.
Indeed, Charlie found that the above-mentioned Saskia was “lovely.”

Charlie’s discovery about the contrast between the public mask and the private face of the celebrities he met is revelatory, in that it is the opposite of what a satirist deals with (that is, a good mask covering the true evil or foolish face). Apparently, our modern celebrities, in order to promote themselves, feel the need to put on public displays of crassness, insipidity, dimwittedness, and so forth, while underneath it all, they’re nice (at least some of them). Which, perhaps, renders the modern celebrity unsatirizable, because the is is better than the seems.

Or maybe not. Aren’t those privately sweet and nice people deserving of Brookerian invective for lusting so much after fame that they will corrupt their public personae?

And what does that tell us about our modern world, which offers stardom and celebrityship to those who willingly degrade themselves in order to offer us vapidity, crudity, and nastiness?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Do You Know Me?

The New York Mets are almost a half-century old (would you believe it?). In their early years, one of the major sponsors of their broadcasts was Rheingold Beer. Aside from their inane jingle (“My beer is Rheingold the dry beer/Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer,” it began), the staple of the beer’s advertising campaign was the Miss Rheingold contest. Beer guzzlers (and anyone else) were encouraged to vote for their favorite contestant (out of six) at bars and liquor stores. The face of the winner of the contest (which at one point had the second-largest vote count in the country) would adorn Rheingold’s advertising for the rest of the year.

It was during the first or second year of the Mets’ existence that the contestants visited the broadcast booth during games to do a little electioneering and to do things worthy of a Miss Rheingold—whistling themes from Wagner, for example—err, scratch that . . . to answer the usual powder puff questions, like what is your goal in life? I remember being stunned when one of the beauties didn’t answer, “I want to save mankind from the scourge of war,” but averred that she wanted to be “a television star.” “Wait a minute,” I almost shouted out loud (almost, because I’m quite mannerly even by myself), “you become a star on television by singing well, dancing elegantly, or acting superbly.”

Of course, I was wrong. The world had changed. “Television star” was now its own category, and one achieved television stardom by being on television. Welcome to the modern world of celebrityship*, where one is famous for being famous**. Consider Vanna White, whose talent was what? Knowing which panels to display on Wheel of Fortune? Not even that—the panels lighted up to guide her. Yet, at one point ABC’s advertising for the show teased viewers to tune in to see what Vanna would be wearing. Not to see Vanna singing, dancing, or acting.


Today, in the world of the remote control, at the merest hint of a television commercial I turn the sound off (which means, of course, that I don’t have a modern jingle equivalent of Rhiengold’s assaulting my waking hours). It also means that, with only a half glance at the tube to see when the programming is resuming, I have only the slightest idea of what is going on during the commercials. Recently during one of my half glances I recognized on a jeans commercial a guy I had seen before. “That’s that same actor with the baseball cap from last year’s Ford commercials,” I again didn’t shout out loud. But then suddenly at the lower left corner of the screen there appeared the name of the becapped one. “Wait a minute,” I didn’t shout out loud, “if they’re showing us his name, they want us to be impressed that he isn’t just an anonymous actor in a commercial, but a Somebody.” But if he is a Somebody, I thought, why do they have to tell us who he is? He’s in these commercials because he and/or his baseball cap are famous (in the celebrity sense***) or he wouldn’t be there. But if I don’t know who he is, then what the hell good does it do to tell me who he is? That’s not going to make me run to my local Ford dealer or jeans supplier and open my wallet.

Which raises the question: If I refuse to recognize modern-day content-free celebrityship, can I, in my solipsistic insistence, deny the fame of the famous-for-being-famous?

To me, the truly famous should be like the Lone Ranger; he cleaned up the town, left behind only a silver bullet, and didn’t do talk shows.


*There have been several recent books on celebrity, tracing its roots back in time. But while the content-free celebrity did exist in the past (e.g., Beau Brummell being famous for what exactly?—wearing certain clothes?), most other great celebrities, such as Lord Byron (“mad, bad, and dangerous to know”) did something, like write great poetry.

**Modern content-free celebrityship was anticipated a decade before our Miss Rheingold contestant in the movie It Should Happen to You. Out-of-work model Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) spends the last of her money to rent a billboard at Columbus Circle. Soon she is mobbed at a department store by people who recognize her as the face on the billboard.

***I Googled the name of the becapped one and found that he could be called a “television star,” assuming anyone bothers to watch the Discovery Channel. For the rest of us, he isn’t famous for being famous.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Be Quiet

In my post of August 19, 2010 entitled “True Believers” I wrote about serial changers of belief who with each change insist loudly that their newly-born-again self has found the one real truth. And, of course, they are proclaiming this to us because they want us to recognize their sincerity and, most of all, to join them in their new belief.

A recent article at Miller-Mccune ( reports on findings by researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker. While they didn’t set out to study those I call “serial believers,” their conclusions are perhaps even more relevant to those multiple “born-againers.” In a paper entitled “When in Doubt, Shout!” they conclude that “advocacy on behalf of one’s beliefs helps banish any uncomfortable lack of certainty’”; those participants in the study who were most in doubt “expressed a greater likelihood to attempt to persuade other people of their beliefs.” As the Miller-Mccune article puts it:

“Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence,” [Gal and Rucker] write in the journal Psychological Science, “the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.”

The Miller-Mccune article notes that “In a logic-driven world, [one would think] the shattering of long-held assumptions . . . would lead to a thoughtful period of reflection and re-evaluation.” However, just the opposite happens: “In our world, it leads one to actively advocate one’s pre-existing beliefs all the more passionately.”

While it might seem that the serial “True Believers” might be the exceptions that prove the rule, in fact, by their strong advocacy of their latest belief they demonstrate that their desire to have others join them is a need for confirmation of the validity of their new (and shaky) faith.

How unlike Hamlet and Nora Helmer (discussed in another of my blog posts, “The Act of Living,” September 14, 2010), who, having had their “long-held assumptions” shattered, face the new existential void in their lives without either blanking out the reality in front of them and retreating deeper into their shaky previous beliefs or turning to a new pre-packaged belief system and, proclaiming their sincerity in their new doubtful faith, attempt to induce others to join them.


I recall an article I read many years ago in the N
ew York Times Magazine, which told of a paper left behind by an African diplomat after having given a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. At one place in the margin of this paper was written: “Weak Point. Raise Voice.”

As I concluded in the “True Believers” post, I ask those shouters of their beliefs:

"Why should I believe what you believe today, which you didn't believe yesterday--and will not believe tomorrow?"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Crystal Balls

I am not a channel surfer. I’m what I might call a “program destinationer.” That is, when I turn on the television I head directly to a particular channel to see a particular show. If the show is not on by some chance (think of pre-emption by a PBS begathon), I don’t go looking for something else to watch. Thus, my knowledge of the world of television programming is distinctly limited. It is only when I am unfortunately cornered in a waiting room, say, or the Laundromat that—like a passenger being subjected to a wayward journey by a clueless cabbie—I get to view things that exist outside my everyday world.

It so happened the other day that I was facing a television set tuned to the History Channel. The program was one of those future-disaster shows—much beloved by the Weather Channel—that informed its audience, through interviews with scientists and engineers, that because of deteriorating infrastructure (the roads, the dams, the bridges, the electrical grid) our country faces calamitous events and a return to Nineteenth-century living conditions. Among other possible disasters, Nashville might end up under twenty feet of water, Southern California might have its fresh water supply cut off, and we might all be subjected—if not to blackouts—to regular electrical brownouts. The scary case the program made for the need for immediate funding for repairs to our deteriorating infrastructure would, it seemed to me, make even the stingiest “small government” politician demand that Uncle Sam get out his checkbook immediately.

When the program ended, I took a deep breath and kept my wallet in my pocket through a long line of commercials, while I awaited the next presentation. Which turned out to be a program on Nostradamus and other alleged prognosticators of future events. We were told of supposed foretellings of the deaths of Popes and emperors and of natural and man-made disasters. The scientists and engineers of the previous show were replaced by astrologers and their ilk. The voiceover announced portentously that “experts believe . . .” without telling us who these “experts” are or what they are expert in. The show was a pandering to mindless loonies and credulous ninnies. As soon as the other person in the room left, I grabbed the remote and switched to the noon news. (Speaking of being confronted by “mindless loonies and credulous ninnies.”)

So this is America in the Twenty-first century: Presented as equally valid, scientific and engineering investigation and bozo prognostication. Something like Fox News plus science.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

You Don't Gotta Have Friends

While we’re on the subject . . .


What was more natural for a recently-retired English professor than to wish to further foster reason, logic, and rationality by volunteering to help the Friends of the local library? Thus, I sped off a check to the Friends, becoming for my fifty-dollar donation a member at the “High Exalted Benefactor” level (or whatever it was called) and received, in return, something magnetic and a copy of the Friends' newsletter.

After sticking the magnetic thingy on the fridge, I opened the newsletter only to discover that the Friends’ next lecture would be a presentation by a personage who helps one discover who one was in one’s past life.

I immediately became un-Friendly.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Chance of a Ghost; Ghost of a Chance

I read a lot of detective fiction and mysteries. And, as I imagine most fans of the genre do, I follow my favorite authors and their detectives from book to book. However, over the years I have from time to time waved farewell to authors and their detectives, abandoning series, not caring a hoot about what new mischief may be afoot in subsequent books. There were several reasons why I gave up on them, but I wish to discuss only one.

Last year I bid farewell to two police procedural series—both featuring detectives in contemporary England. In the last book I read of each series, the author wanted the reader to accept supernatural occurrences—ESP, stigmata, spirit channeling—as real events. Because the mystery genre demands reason and logic, and thus cannot countenance superstition and obscurantism, I could not tolerate such nonsense—and so ditched the authors and their works. Twenty-first-century rationalism was not to be flouted.

But why, if I am unable to accept ghosts and such in modern-era detective fiction, am I tolerant of the ghosts, for example, of Hamlet’s father and Banquo? The reason is the same as that for my acceptance of the intervention of the god Herakles in Sophocles’ Philoctetes or of the oracles whose prophecies cause so much trouble for Oedipus, Laius, and Jocasta. I accept, for Shakespeare, his work in the context of the belief system of Elizabethan/Jacobean England, and for Sophocles, his work in the context of the belief system of 5th-century B.C. Greece. In context, our “supernatural” was their “natural,” and part of the warp and woof of their belief systems. However, what is most important isn’t their intellectual, philosophical, religious differences from us, but the similarity of their concerns about the conundrums of human existence: chance, evil, honor, greed, love, lust, etc.

So, I am willing to allow an Elizabethan ghost to walk the battlements of Elsinore and move his son to revenge or a Greek god at the last moment to reconcile the irreconcilable.

But if Herakles appears in the mystery I am now reading and solves the detective’s case, that book is straight for the dumpster.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Did it ever occur to you that God’s name isn’t “God”? (I will assume here that God does exist, but only for the sake of argument, mind you.)

“God” is a native English word. But English, as a distinct language, has only been on the scene for about one-and-a-half millennia. Now, even if we dismiss (for the sake of argument) the Big Bang Theory and the existence of the universe for some twelve billion years or so (who’s counting?) and accept the contention (again for the sake of argument only) of those loopy creationists who believe that T-Rex and missus had outside cabins on Noah’s Ark and that the universe is only about six-and-a-half millennia old, that means that God either went around anonymously for five thousand years before deciding to latch on to an English name or had a real, non-English name from way back. We’re not buying the former possibility, are we?

So, if God had a real name prior to English, then what I mentioned in the first sentence is true: God’s name is not “God.”

Now here’s the point I’m leading up to: Why, if God’s name isn’t “God,” do some people feel it is necessary to write “G-d” instead of “God”? Even if there were an interdiction against writing the true name of God (is there?), surely there can’t be an interdiction against writing the non-name of God.

(Now, for my French translation, which vowel do I leave out of “Dieu”?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Act of Living

We all act better than we know how.

Erving Goffman

Each of our days consists of a series of performances. At some moments it’s an individual star turn; at others it’s standing to the side holding a spear. Sometimes we are forced by events of the moment to improvise our roles; at other times we play out parts that we have been able to practice (at least in our minds) at leisure.

Consider the blind date, for example: who has not, in anticipation of the event, envisioned, as a mini-drama, the forthcoming meeting? We plotted the story line and scripted the dialogue (I’ll say this; she/he will say that) as we prepared our costume and makeup.

All the little playlets and mini-dramas of daily life are part of a bigger drama—the drama of one’s own life. And here too, we have in our minds (even if not always in the forefront of our consciousness) a scenario to be enacted. But what happens when the Hollywood screenplay of our mind breaks down? When the anticipated lines are not recited by other actors? Without our cues, the words we were so certain of stick in our throat. And without words to speak, we no longer have a role, a persona. We are cast into an existential void.

(I am not concerned here with those “True Believers” I wrote about in my previous post. They shed one certainty and clothe themselves quickly in another. They are the owners of a factitious seriousness, and, therefore, not to be bothered with.)


We are in nineteenth-century Norway, a bastion of Lutheran propriety. Nora Helmer, years before Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House opens, forged her father’s signature to obtain a loan, the money of which was used to allow her ailing (and unaware) husband to travel to a healthy clime to recuperate. But now the truth has been revealed to him, and he reacts—not as Nora expected him to (or perhaps we should say, as the script in her mind fostered by the patriarchal society expected him to) react.

I have waited so patiently for eight years; for, goodness knows, I knew very well that wonderful things don't happen every day. Then this horrible misfortune came upon me; and then I felt quite certain that the wonderful thing was going to happen at last. When Krogstad's letter was lying out there, never for a moment did I imagine that you would consent to accept this man's conditions. I was so absolutely certain that you would say to him: Publish the thing to the whole world. And when that was done—
. . .

When that was done, I was so absolutely certain, you would come forward and take everything upon yourself, and say: I am the guilty one.
. . .

You mean that I would never have accepted such a sacrifice on your part? No, of course not. But what would my assurances have been worth against yours? That was the wonderful thing which I hoped for and feared; and it was to prevent that, that I wanted to kill myself.

Because her husband, Torvald, does not play his part as Nora rehearsed it in her mind, her role as heroine in the melodrama has to be abandoned, and she has to face the erasure of all meaning of her previous life.


it dawned upon me that for eight years I had been
living here with a
strange man, and had borne him
three children—

With no life script in her mind any more, Nora walks out the door on her former life. “I have no idea what is going to become of me,” she declares, but her actions will not be scripted by the conventions and beliefs of other people.


For Hamlet, too, the scenario no longer holds together. It is like an artifact whose parts have loosened, compromising its integrity.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
If he can no longer trust the scenario, who—or what—is there to trust? It is no wonder, then, that he tests the honesty and loyalty of those around him.

To Horatio:

And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?
. . .
But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?
. . .
But what is your affair in Elsinore?

To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune that she sends you to prison hither?
. . .
But in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?
. . .
Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a
visitation? Come, deal justly with me. Come, come! Nay, speak.

To Ophelia [in a letter]:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to
reckon my groans; but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe

But what exactly caused Hamlet to see his life script fall to pieces?

My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.


I prithee do not mock me, fellow student.
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.


Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.
The sudden death of his father and the hasty re-marriage of his mother to his uncle were the events that undermined the scenario. Hamlet’s “O that this too too solid flesh would melt“ soliloquy is occasioned by his torment over his mother’s action. Notice how his thoughts do not run smoothly but are broken up by by pained outbursts:
That it should come to this!
But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month-
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!-
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears- why she, even she
(O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer) married with my uncle;
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
The “Happy Family” script gone, what does the world look like to Hamlet now?

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah, fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

True Believers

So Anne Rice—you know, the writer of those vampire novels—has announced on Facebook(!) that a dozen years after seeing the light and quitting being an atheist and becoming a Christian, she’s renounced being a Christian. Does that mean having presumably been born again, she’s been born again again? Keep going, Annie--a cat has nine lives; you can find out how many a human has. Though you have a way to go to catch the real master change artists, such as Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver went from being a serial rapist {"rape was an insurrectionary act," he declared at one point) to becoming, in turn, a founder of the Black Panthers, a born-again Christian, a Mormon, a conservative Republican.

What I find particularly interesting about serial born-againers is that each time they change they need to announce it to the world. "Look, everybody, I'm no longer an A, I'm a B!" Presumably, their announcements are to garner admiration from the public (for someone who has found the truth) and to inspire the public to follow in their footsteps (because you want to find the truth too, don't you?). But what I see in serial born-againers are people for whom it is a almost a badge of honor to proclaim: "Look what a stupid ass I was--but you must now follow me as I march off in the direction opposite to which I was heading before--but I'm right this time!"


In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck has mistakenly drugged the sleeping Lysander, the lover of Hermia, (rather than Demetrius) and he will fall in love with the first person he sees when he awakes. As it happens, that person is the rejected lover of Demetrius, Helena.

But who is here? Lysander! on the ground!
Dead? or asleep? I see no blood, no wound.
Lysander if you live, good sir, awake.

[Awaking] And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.

Lysander, of course, has no idea that his change of love object was caused by a drug. He proclaims that it was reason that instigated the change; after all, "The will of man is by his reason sway'd;/And reason says you are the worthier maid." And the rational fact that he produces? "Who will not change a raven (dark-compexioned, dark-haired Hermia) for a dove (fair-skinned, blond Helena)?" Thus, even the self-deluded will put in a claim for reason and produce a seemingly-logical explanation for his actions.


And so I ask with all sincerity those who appear before me hopping from one foot to the other in reverent ecstasy, hoping to convey to me the intelligence, reason, logic, and truth of their latest religious, philosophical, or political discovery: "Why should I believe what you believe today, which you didn't believe yesterday--and will not believe tomorrow?"

Monday, August 2, 2010


A sort of philosophical investigation (eventually)


Scottish football manager Gordon Strachan’s response to a reporter’s request for “a quick word.”

On the next-to-last weekend in July this year, the small German town of Hockenheim (population just above 20,000) was invaded by an international army: the Formula One circus had descended upon the state of Baden-Württemberg to conduct the German Grand Prix auto race. For those not familiar with the world of auto racing, be aware that Formula One is the most highly-sophisticated, technically-advanced, and, hence, most expensive form of auto sport (within the past two years such automobile giants as BMW, Toyota, and Honda, looking at the financial bottom line, packed up their gearboxes and went home).

The Formula One season is comprised (this year) of nineteen races run from March through November, and includes encounters at such venues rich in motoring history as Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Turkey, and Bahrain. It all leads, at the end, to the crowning of two champions: the World Drivers Champion (individual) and the World Champion Constructor (team).

The great sports writer Jimmy Cannon would occasionally write a column entitled “Guaranteed to Happen,” in which he would offer a jaundiced—but accurate—anatomization of a sporting event (such as the Kentucky Derby) or a non-sporting one (such as the annual office Christmas party). Well, it’s pretty accurate to say that “guaranteed to happen” during any Formula One weekend is controversy. And just past the half way point of the schedule the Hockenheim race produced the biggest of the season (so far).

At the start of the race the pole sitter (determined by qualifying lap speed) and hometown favorite, young Sebastian Vettel, from the nearby burg of Heppenheim, moved sharply to his right in an attempt to keep the second-place qualifier, Fernando Alonso of Spain, from outsprinting him into the first corner. Unfortunately for the German, not only did he not prevent Alonso from getting ahead of him, by veering off his driving line, he also allowed the third-place qualifier, Felipe Massa of Brazil, to pass both him and Alonso on the left. And so the race unfolded all the way to the checkered flag.: Massa in the lead, followed by Alonso, who was unable to pass the Brazilian, and Vettel, who was unable to pass the Spaniard. Or should have unfolded.

You see, while Vettel was driving for Red Bull Racing (all that energy drink profit has to go somewhere), the two cars in front of him were Ferraris, and the driver of the second-place Ferrari (Alonso) was getting more and more upset as the race went on, because he couldn’t catch and pass his teammate in the leading Ferrari, who he thought was holding him up. “This is ridiculous,” he complained over his radio to his support crew. Bowing to Alonso’s whining, the Ferrari race bigwigs radioed Massa (who had lost the 2008 World Drivers Championship by a single point), telling him, "Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?" “The Da Vinci Code” it wasn’t; a more obvious command from the management to let Alonso (a two-time World Drivers Champion) pass there couldn’t be. On lap 49 (of 67) Massa slowed dramatically, allowing Alonso by--and the controversy to begin.

Since 2002, after another Ferrari manufactured switch of positions (that time just a few feet from the finish line), team orders that would affect the racing outcome have been banned from Formula One. (The race authorities saw the Alonso/Massa switch as team orders and has fined Ferrari $100,000.) After the race,, neither of the Ferrari drivers, the unrepentant Alonso nor the crestfallen Massa, used the term “team orders” but came mighty close, Alonso pointing out that the team pays his salary (a whopping great one—leading F1 drivers are among the highest-paid athletes in the world). The Spaniard justified his win by claiming that he was faster than Massa all weekend during the practice sessions. (Alonso was ahead of Massa in the points standing for the Drivers Championship, but, in fifth place, a not-impossible, but also not-probable threat for a third title.)


And now the philosophical investigation:

What do we mean by “faster” or “fastest”?

Alonso, trailing Massa, claimed that he was "faster" than the Brazilian. But if he was "faster," why was he behind his teammate? Now, passing another car (at least one that is competitive with you) is not especially easy in F1. (The tracks are not the nice wide ovals like the Indianapolis Speedway, but are composed of both slow twisting corners and high-speed straights.) But neither is an F1 race a race up a ladder, in which the person who gets to the lowest rung first will always be ahead.

Perhaps Alonso was correct in claiming that he had the “faster” car and could race away from the other Ferrari in a head-to-head battle. Motor racing does provide for such match-ups—drag racing, where from a standing start two cars sprint down a quarter-mile strip to see who gets to the finish line first. At Hockenheim, it was Massa, starting farther back than Alonso, who won the drag race (against Vettel also) to the first corner. Did that mean he was “faster”? And how about this: the car that registered the top speed through the course speed trap (317.5 km/h) was driven by Englishman Jenson Button, who was fifth across the finish line. Did that top speed mean that Button, the defending World Drivers Champion, was the “fastest” of all the drivers—and should have been awarded the winner’s trophy?

The drag racing criterion for determining the winner is simple: who crossed the line first? But even there, one must sometimes separate “winner” from “faster”—for drag racing uses a handicap system to stagger the starts of its races, the “faster” car (based on past performances) being forced to concede its rival a slight time advantage.

The “fastest” car in a Formula 1 race (based on qualifying lap time) concedes its rivals nothing; in fact, it has all the advantages—it starts at the front of the grid a few feet forward of the second-place car sitting to its right or left (depending on the track configuration) and its initial racing line is on the clean side of the track, which allows for more tire grip. At Hockenheim the impulsive Vettel squandered his advantages, to the benefit of both Massa and Alonso. Massa, in front of Alonso, did not squander his advantage. He kept the Spaniard behind him all the way, until the Ferrari brass intervened. Had they not done so, and had Massa crossed the finish line ahead of his teammate and rival, would he not have been the “fastest” on the race track—if by that term we mean the one who completed the task, overcoming the obstacles in the way, in the shortest elapsed time?

Massa was Alonso’s obstacle, and apparently he could only overcome it by wishing it away.

It is worth noting a philosopher’s words about another sporting endeavor:
In a football match, everything is complicated by the presence of the other team.
Jean-Paul Sartre

In the Bible we are informed by “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem”:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9:11

On the other hand, a twentieth-century American writer advises us:
It may be that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong -- but that is the way to bet.
Damon Runyan

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clean Hands (Civilization, Part Three)

Do you mean to say that I am just as bad as you are?

(Trench to Sartorius, Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw)

At the end of Moliere’s The Misanthrope the title character, Alceste, storms off the stage proclaiming his intention to leave society behind and dwell by himself in some place uninfected by other people. One dramatic character who has no desire to abandon society is Harry Trench, one half of the love interest in George Bernard Shaw’s first play, Widowers’ Houses. Like Alceste, Trench appears to be an upright person and, furthermore, as a newly-graduated doctor, he is intent upon doing good for society. Unlike Alceste, he is not a social misfit; he observes the social conventions, among other things, keeping an unpleasant truth from being revealed (to save a daughter’s image of her father), even when doing so, works against his interests.

The unpleasant truth that Trench keeps secret from his fiancée, Blanche Sartorius, is that her father is not a respectable businessman, but a slumlord. Honorable Harry Trench refuses to accept any money from his would-be father-in-law—it is tainted money, screwed out of the poorest citizens of London, who live in ramshackle hovels.

When Trench is challenged by Sartorius about the source of Trench’s own income, the latter claims, “M y* hands are clean as far as that goes,” for the money derives from “Interest on a mortgage.”

“Yes,” responds Sartorius, “a mortgage on my property.”

When I, to use your own words, screw, and bully, and
drive these people to pay what they have freely
undertaken to pay me, I cannot touch one penny of
the money they give me until I have first paid you
your £700 out of it.

And, so, shockingly, Trench learns that his hands aren’t clean.

Likewise, Vivie Warren, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, another of Shaw’s early “Plays Unpleasant,” owes her comfortable upbringing (financed by profits from brothels) and quality education (her university scholarship was established by the owner of sweatshops) to “tainted” money. Even people of good will and highmindedness cannot escape being tarred by the corruption of their society.

There are no innocents in an imperfect society. And unless society is made perfect, the only way to free oneself from its taint is to flee to a desert island—but, then, what happens if a serpent bites you?


*For emphasis Shaw doesn’t italicize or underline; he
s p a c e s the letters (Well, of course, he has to italicize
I, though, doesn’t he?).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To Tell the Truth (Civilization, Part Two)

In polite society, custom decrees
That we show certain outward courtesies . . . .
Wouldn’t the social fabric come undone
If we were wholly frank with everyone?

(Philinte to Alceste. The Misanthrope, by Moliere)
Philoctetes—marooned on a desert island for almost a decade. One person who would gladly change places with him is Alceste, the title character of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. In Act I he proclaims:
Sometimes, I swear, I’m moved to flee and find
Some desert land unfouled by humankind.
And at the very end of the play (in the last lines but two) as he stomps off to leave French society he reiterates his desire for isolation:
I’ll flee this bitter world where vice is king,
And seek some spot unpeopled and apart
Where I’ll be free to have an honest heart.
Strangely, what leads Alceste to his misanthropy is his idealism. He demands that mankind should never dissemble, that men
be sincere, and never part
With any word that isn’t from the heart.
When challenged by Philinte:
Then you’d tell old Emilie it’s pathetic
The way she daubs her features with cosmetic
And plays the gay coquette at sixty-four? . . .
And you’d call Dorilas a bore,
And tell him every ear at court is lame
From hearing him brag about his noble name?
Alceste stands his ground, replying, “I would.” He would spare no one: “All are corrupt.” And because “mankind has grown so base,” Alceste claims he is determined “to break with the whole human race.”

Philinte understands that mankind is (and always will be) imperfect; he points out that just as
the vulture dines upon the dead.
And wolves are furious, and apes ill-bred
it is natural for humans to be “knavish, selfish and unjust."

But he takes “men as they are,” recognizing their faults but refusing to “storm and rave” about them like Alceste. Your “philosophic rage,” Philinte tells him, “is a bit extreme/You’ve no idea how comical you seem.”

The “manners of our days” are most typified, according to Philinte, by the “flighty” Celimene, a young widow of “brittle malice and coquettish ways.” Yet she is the one whom Alceste favors. “How is it,” Philinte asks him,
that the traits you most abhor
Are bearable in this lady you adore?
Alceste admits that he sees Celimene’s faults, but he’s helpless to resist her, for “reason doesn’t rule in love, you know.”

Celimene, for her part, is surrounded by beaux, whom she quite blithely mocks in her letters. One letter that is passed on to Alceste gets him into a rage, because it seems to profess affection for a rival. But in the irrational weakness of his love for her, he asks her to
Take back that mocking and perverse confession;
Defend this letter and your innocence,
And I, poor fool, will aid in your defense.
Pretend, pretend, that you are just and true,
And I shall make myself believe in you.
And so it is down to this: the upholder of truthful speaking at all costs is forced by the irrational passion of his love to beg for pretense. Alceste, the idealist, is a misanthrope because he hates mankind’s inability to be perfect. But he has set the bar for mankind’s behavior far above the level that anyone can attain. Not even he can live by his principles. And any principles that cannot be lived by are as worthless as ships that can’t float or airplanes that can’t fly.

A recent fortune cookie told me that “Compromise is always wrong if it means sacrificing a principle.” Unfortunately, that cookie didn’t crumble correctly; a principle must be sacrificed when it is incompatible with reality And the test is: can it be lived by?

But, perhaps, there is a way to make sure that one needn’t sacrifice one’s principles: as noted at the beginning of this essay, Alceste is determined at the end of the play, to make good on his vow to separate himself from the rest of civilization. If he follows through, then he will be “free to have an honest heart,” for there will be nothing to confound him.


Note 1: Translations from the French by Richard Wilbur.
Note 2: We will re-visit Alceste in a later posting.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cave or Cure? (Civilization, Part One)

The mighty Greek armada is making its way towards Troy. Its purpose is to deliver Helen, the wife of Menelaus, one of the leaders of the Greek forces, from her Trojan captivity and restore her to her husband. The fleet makes occasional stops along the way, and on one of those stops Philoctetes, one of the Greek warriors, literally steps into tragedy.

Oedipus the King is. of course, by far the best known play of Sophocles. His Antigone is also very well known. But, unfortunately, few people are aware of the tragedy of Philoctetes. In typical Sophoclean fashion, almost all the action has taken place before the playwright chooses to open the play. The mis-step of Philoctetes has occurred almost ten years before when he blundered onto a patch of sacred land. In punishment for his action, a guardian serpent bit him on the leg, infecting him with noxious venom. Back on board ship, the wound began to fester, and its stench and Philoctetes’ cries of pain were so disturbing to the other warriors that Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother and leader of the army, had to do something. He called upon Odysseus (who is always referred to as the “wily Odysseus”) to come up with a plan. Odysseus had the ship make another landfall (this time at a deserted island), where he lured Philoctetes onto the shore and stranded him, as the rest of the army sailed off to war.

A war, which after almost a decade of bloodshed, still had not been won.

And here is where Sophocles begins his play.

Odysseus has once again been called upon to use his wiles for the benefit of the group. A prophecy has revealed to the Greeks that they can only conquer Troy with the use of the bow and arrows of the god Herakles. Unfortunately for the army, the weapons were gifted by Herakles to Philoctetes. Crippled by his wound and unable to wander far from his cave home, Philoctetes is dependent upon the bow and arrows to secure food. The weaponry has sustained him—that and his undying hatred of the man who deceived him.

Odysseus has taken Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, to Philoctetes’ island, intending to use him as a cat’s paw, to get the young man to inveigle the weaponry from the grasp of the crippled man. Neoptolemus does succeed in getting his hands on the weapons, but in a fit of conscience and pity gives them back to Philoctetes, who then turns the weapons on the man he most despises, Odysseus.

Disaster looms—averted only by the appearance of a literal deus ex machina: Herakles descends from the heavens. He addresses Philoctetes:

Thou too like me by toils must rise to glory-
Thou too must suffer, ere thou canst be happy;
Hence . . . to Troy, where honour calls,
Where health awaits thee- where, by virtue raised
To highest rank, and leader of the war,
Paris, its hateful author, shalt thou slay,
Lay waste proud Troy, and send thy trophies home. . . .
My Aesculapius will I send e'en now To heal thy wounds-Then go, and conquer Troy.
(translated by Thomas Francklin)

Left to himself, Philoctetes would savor his bile and nurse his grievances. But the god’s command to Philoctetes to swallow his hatred for Odysseus and the rest of the Greek leadership overrules him. The gifts of the gods (such as Herakles’ bow and arrows) are not for a private man. They are meant for the community (civilization, if you like). And it is within civilization that the arts and sciences flourish. It is only when Philoctetes is re-integrated into society that he can be healed. There is no art of medicine on a desert island.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lovers and Losers (Part Three)

Dum spiro, spero

(While I breathe, I hope.)


Tennis Match (Scenario 1):

It is match point for the server, but it is second serve. The receiver watches as the ball arches toward the far corner of the service box. He lunges for it, but to no avail. The ball, with the help of the wispiest of breezes, kicks up chalk; the serve is an ace and the receiver plunges into despair as the match is lost.

Tennis Match (Scenario 2):

It is match point for the receiver, and it is second serve. The receiver watches as the ball arches toward the far corner of the service box. He lunges for it, but to no avail. The ball, with the help of the wispiest of breezes, however, lands just outside the service box. It is a double fault. The receiver throws his racket into the air in joy at his triumph.

Now, what should be apparent from these scenarios is that in neither case did the receiver’s actions play any role in the outcome of the point. The laws of physics, the law of gravity, and the whim of Mother Nature determined where the ball would ultimately land. And yet, where the ball landed determined the receiver's emotional reaction. He let forces outside his command control him.*


In a recent article on** Daniel Engber wrote of his rooting for the underdog (or whoever was behind in the game) during the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament:
Soon I found myself cheering for a Spartans team that couldn't get it together in the second half. They made a late run—closing to within one point in the final minute—but, alas, my disappointment was guaranteed. (If Michigan State had come back, I would have been pulling for Butler.) When the game ended, I fell into a sour mood.
So, here is a man who didn’t dribble one ball, shoot one basket, or attempt one free throw falling into “a sour mood” because of events completely out of his control.


Surely, the absurdity of allowing, like the tennis receiver or Mr. Engber or the pale lover of Suckling’s poem, agents beyond one’s control to determine one’s emotional well-being should be strikingly evident. To allow oneself to be blown about by the whims of others or to concede to the forces of nature the power to subject one to joy or despair is to surrender one’s emotional autonomy; in reality, to concede that one is a loser. And a loser has only one fallback—hope.

Hope is the food of losers.


At the beginning of this essay I quoted words written in his copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio by King Charles I of England while imprisoned after being dethroned by the forces of Parliament. Charles was the consummate loser; he lost his breath, his hope, and his head simultaneously.


*In The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, W. Timothy Gallwey looks at this from the perspective of the tennis ball.

**Daniel Engber, “The Underdog Effect: Why do we love a loser?” Available at:

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lovers and Losers (Part Two)

One of the loveliest ballads in the Great American Songbook is “I’ll Be Around” (words and music by Alec Wilder). It goes (in part):
I'll be around,
No matter how
You treat me now
I'll be around from now on.

Your latest love
Can never last,
And when it’s past,
I'll be around when he's gone.
A beautiful song—but totally wrong-headed.

The persona, having been dumped (once again) by his* former flame, will put his life on hold until she changes her mind and returns to him (he thinks). He is in despair now, but will be in seventh heaven when she recognizes that he is the true and steadfast lover. Unfortunately, no one can make another person love him (or her). And, so, the persona is left to spend his days allowing the fickleness and whims of another to control his emotional destiny.

He would do well to consider the advice offered in the third (and final) stanza of Sir John Suckling’s “Why So Pale and Wan?”:

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

*The persona can, of course, be a woman.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lovers and Losers (Part One)

A young actor, plucked from obscurity, is chosen to play Hamlet in a major new London production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. His director, knowing that the young actor will benefit from all the advice he can get, arranges an interview for him with Sir ____, the last of the great actor-managers, whose fame rests on his countless tours with his troupe, bringing the classics to regional theaters throughout Great Britain.
So, early one morning the young man boards a train to Leeds, where the grand old man of the theater is to play the title role in King Lear. Sir ____ is decidedly generous with his time, spending several hours describing his Hamlet experiences and answering the young actor’s questions. At last, Sir _____ gets up from his chair and begins to escort the other man to the door.
“You must excuse me,” the theatrical knight says, “but I must begin my preparations for this evening’s performance.”
“I want to thank you for your time and patience,” says the young man, “but, if you don’t mind, I do have one last, rather strange question. At any time during the course of the play, does Hamlet ever sleep with Ophelia?”
“Well,” answers Sir ____, “I can’t speak for London, but in the provinces, most definitely.”*


In actuality, from evidence in the play it is clear that Hamlet and Ophelia were never lovers. In Act II, Scene 1, Ophelia relates to her father, Polonius, the following appearance of Hamlet:

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me.

And what is Polonius’ response to this?
Mad for thy love?
Why is that Polonius’ instantaneous response?

Consider this excerpt from As You Like It (Act III, Scene 2), which was written at about the same time as Hamlet:

ROSALIND (disguised as Ganymed)
There is a man haunts the forest, that
abuses our young plants with carving 'Rosalind' on
their barks; hangs odes upon hawthorns and elegies
on brambles, all, forsooth, deifying the name of
Rosalind: if I could meet that fancy-monger I would
give him some good counsel, for he seems to have the
quotidian of love upon him.

I am he that is so love-shaked: I pray you tell me
your remedy.

There is none of my uncle's marks upon you: he
taught me how to know a man in love; in which cage
of rushes I am sure you are not prisoner.

What were his marks?

A lean cheek, which you have not, a blue eye and
sunken, which you have not, an unquestionable
spirit, which you have not, a beard neglected,
which you have not; but I pardon you for that, for
simply your having in beard is a younger brother's
revenue: then your hose should be ungartered, your
bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe
untied and every thing about you demonstrating a
careless desolation; but you are no such man; you
are rather point-device in your accoutrements as
loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other.

Rosalind’s description of “her uncle” is that of the classic picture of the courtly lover who has been rejected by the woman he is enamored with. Disconsolate, he has no concerns about his appearance or most anything else in the world.
And, it is clear, Rosalind’s description of the rejected lover fits Hamlet down to his socks. (Earlier in Hamlet, Polonius had ordered Ophelia to have nothing further to do with Hamlet, and the dutiful daughter obviously obeyed.)

Most people, I would guess, do not realize that before Romeo set eyes on Juliet, he was mooning over Rosaline.

Act I, Scene 1
What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?
Not having that, which, having, makes them short.
In love?
Of love?
Out of her favour, where I am in love.

And that exchange explains this description of his son’s behavior by Romeo’s father (also I,1):

Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew.
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the furthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora's bed,
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night.

A few decades after Hamlet and AYLI, Sir John Suckling wrote the lines that best satirized the image of the disconsolate, disheveled rejected lover:

“Why so pale and wan fond lover?” (First two stanzas)

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can't move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can't win her,
Saying nothing do't?
Prithee why so mute?


*This joke I have retained in my memory for about half a century. As I recollect, I heard it on the Tonight Show when it was hosted by Jack Paar. I have always thought that it was told by the actor Laurence Harvey—but, then again, I have always associated the following joke with Harvey and the Tonight Show (so, after all this time, who knows who told what joke?):

A London bobby is given an unexpected half a day off.
He arrives home about mid-day to discover his wife in bed with three men.
“Allo! Allo! Allo! What’s all this then?”
The wife lifts herself up from the pillows and says, “What’s the matter? You not talking to me now?”

Friday, April 23, 2010


I was chagrined to discover some hours after I sent an email announcing my last blog post that the mailing had an erroneous subject line: it read “wallet” instead of “No Sweat.” Now, I am interested in what I call “errorology”—the understanding of how and why mistakes are made (I’m sure there’s a technical term for this, of which I’m totally unaware). Why, for instance, did a number of students one semester think that a poem by Poet A was written by Poet B?*

The explanation for my error was simple:

I usually compose my emails and other documents in Word. If you are sending multiple emails during a single on-line session, the email template will retain the address(es) of the previous recipient(s) and the previous subject line. In the case of the “wallet” email, I added everyone’s address to that of the recipient of the previous email (my daughter) but neglected to delete the previous subject line and paste the new subject, even though I had copied “No Sweat” from the body of the text itself.

My excuse for this (probably) tedious explanation is to point out that not all human actions have a meaningful connection with other actions. The placement of “wallet” as the subject of the text of “No Sweat” did not have any metaphysical or deep symbolic meaning. It was purely a screw-up. In this world, coincidences can be insignificant,** correspondences can be irrelevant, and seeming causes can have no relationship to effects.

Then again, it might be “The Normalvision Code.”


*The layout of the poetry book from page to page caused the confusion.

**Freudians in the audience, please refrain from making something of the obvious (?) female sexual symbolism of "wallet."