Friday, May 31, 2024

Quote of the Day (Sallie Krawcheck, on the Implications of the ‘Feminization of Wealth’)

“Women with wealth or building it are more confident. They tend to be more philanthropic than men, tend to vote for more moderate political candidates than men, tend to invest more in their families than men, and tend to invest more in their communities than men.

“They even tend to believe more in climate change and to invest more to combat it. In other words, the ‘feminisation of wealth’ could drive a meaningful societal moderation.”—Ellevest CEO and founder Sallie Krawcheck, “On Wall Street: Feminisation of Wealth Management is Coming,” The Financial Times, May 25-26, 2024

TV Quote of the Day (Nikki Glaser, on the Location of Your Soulmate)

“Your soulmate, statistically, is in China. That’s where your soulmate is, and that’s where they’ll die. The closest you’ll get is maybe your soulmate touched your phone on an assembly line, but that’s the closest where your stars will ever cross. Maybe he stitched your mom’s blouse when he was in third grade.”—Stand-up comic Nikki Glaser, Nikki Glaser: Someday You’ll Die,” original air date May 11, 2024, teleplay by Nikki Glaser, directed by Hamish Hamilton

The image accompanying this post, showing Nikki Glaser on “The Blocks” podcast, was taken Dec. 22, 2022, by Neal Brennan.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Quote of the Day (Rebecca West, on the Power of the Mind)

“The mind must walk proudly and always armed, that it shall not be robbed of its power.” —British novelist, biographer, journalist and critic Rebecca West (1892-1983) quoted in Harold Orel and Natalie Martin, The Literary Achievement of Rebecca West (1985)

(Photograph of Rebecca West by Madame Yevonde.)

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Quote of the Day (G.K. Chesterton, on ‘The First Essential Value of the Detective Story’)

“The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious the detective story is certainly the ‘Iliad.’ No one can have failed to notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery.” —English man of letters G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), “A Defence of Detective Stories” in The Defendant (1901)

It wasn’t until I read assorted essays and biographies by Garry Wills that I discovered why he so deeply admired G.K. Chesterton, born 150 years ago today in London.

Those who have read this blog over time know how often I have quoted from Chesterton’s poems, literary studies, essays, and Christian apologetics.

But years before that, as a child, I had become enthralled by his “Father Brown” detective tales, as seen in this post from 15 years ago.

The late novelist P.D. James (herself a sterling detective novelist) pretty much sums up what drew me years ago to Chesterton’s work in this often-unappreciated genre:

“We read the Father Brown stories for a variety pleasures, including their ingenuity, their wit and intelligence, and for the brilliance of the writing. But they provide more. Chesterton was concerned with the greatest of all problems, the vagaries of the human heart.”

(By the way: If you watch the recent BBC series Father Brown, based loosely on Chesterton’s stories on the mild-mannered, mystery-solving cleric, I’m afraid that I must agree with Steven D. Greydanus, who writes, on his “Decent Films” blog, that this “cozy, nostalgic British crime series…,while not without merit, has little in common with either the letter or the spirit of Chesterton’s yarns.”)

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

This Day in Literary History (Death of Anne Bronte, The Forgotten, Underrated Sister)

May 28, 1849— Anne Bronte, the youngest, quietest, and most religious of a trio of sisters who mined extraordinary fiction from the wild Yorkshire moors where they grew up, passed away from tuberculosis at age 29 in the seaside town of Scarborough, where she had begged to be taken for a last visit before she died.

The adjectives I used in the last sentence might conjure up a weepy, weak, wren-like woman accustomed to taking a back seat to sisters Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights). 

That image is reinforced by Anne’s physical appearance: a “long neck, thin features and pronounced mouth,” writes Bronte family biographer Juliet Barker.

But Anne was also the most bitingly satirical of the three sisters, and the one most unafraid to challenge Victorian mores about what constituted suitable fiction for women and children—so much so that after her death, Charlotte and early biographers did her an inadvertent disservice by softening her sharp edges.

Partly as a result, family biographers and critics didn’t plumb Anne’s life for clues to themes and characters in her poetry and two surviving novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has only had one TV adaptation, the 1996 BBC miniseries with Tara Fitzgerald in the title role, and Agnes Grey has had no TV or film versions at all—unlike for Jane Eyre (9) and Wuthering Heights (12, counting modern and Spanish-language versions).

Like Charlotte, Barker wrote in her epic 1994 biography, The Brontes, Anne had “a core of steel, a sense of duty and obligation,” which manifested itself in making the best of her time away in school, despite rampant homesickness; in how she looked after her parson father; in how she worked as a governess for five years, despite her growing dissatisfaction with the profession; and in an ironclad commitment to writing that was so intense, Charlotte worried, that she dreaded for her sister’s health.

Biographers face an unusual problem with the Brontes, for none more so than Anne. It is impossible to understand how they came to write at all without understanding their interactions.

But too much stress on that environment can also lead to a failure to understand the sisters’ differences from each other, as well as from their equally talented but troubled artist brother Branwell.

It was Branwell, for instance, who created one of the few likenesses of the three sisters together. (Emily—and Branwell--preceded Anne in death only months before.) But it was Branwell who seems to have brought Anne’s second job as a governess to an end when, as tutor to a son in the Robinson family, he engaged in a scandalous affair that led to his dismissal.

Branwell’s alcohol- and opium-spurred downward spiral when he went home, in turn, likely inspired Anne’s characterization of Arthur Huntingdon of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whose alcoholic rages lead his wife to flee under an assumed name with her child to a remote village.

The novel’s description of the suffering caused by alcoholism (“I see that a man cannot give himself up to drinking without being miserable one-half his days and mad the other”) has the special insight of one who has watched a loved one undone by the disease.

Anne’s relationship with Charlotte, though not as troubled, was equally complicated.

Though it was Charlotte’s idea, for instance, to publish her and her sisters’ poems together, Emily and Anne compelled her to adopt pseudonyms to protect their identities.

Eventually, Charlotte saw the wisdom of the sisters’ not using female names, because “authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.”

These pseudonyms—Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell—feature gender-neutral first names, with the initials of the three authors corresponding to their actual names.

But it was other circumstances surrounding the publication of their books involving Charlotte that led the oldest sister to leave Anne as something of a cipher in the brooding family saga.

As Samantha Ellis’ January 2017 essay in the British paper The Guardian outlined, Anne had written a novel about her experiences as a governess, Agnes Grey, first. But it was Jane Eyre that was seen by British readers first, because, separate from Emily and Anne, Charlotte found a publisher more enthusiastic about issuing her book.

In addition, Anne’s challenge to conventional mores in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall led Charlotte to be overprotective of her sister’s image after her death.

It would have been bad enough that Anne, in defiance of the Anglican Church, opposed the idea of eternal damnation in favor of universal salvation.

But she also raised hackles with her depictions of a single woman (Huntingdon’s wife, adopting the name “Mrs. Helen Graham” in her new community) earning a living through her paintings, of domestic violence, and of the precarious legal position of women in Victorian England.

While Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights ultimately belong to romantic fiction with their raging but suffering chief male characters, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is unsparing in its realism. 

When contemporary critics took issue with this treatment, Anne responded, in a preface to the second edition of the book, with a ringing defense of gritty, unillusioned fiction that doesn’t cater to readers’ expectations:

“To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of like to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.”

Anne also echoed John Milton’s denunciation of “a fugitive and cloistered virtue” in having her heroine directly challenge society’s encouragement of domineering boys while girls are supposed to be meek and mild:

“I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.”

Anne’s death following months of depression over the death of Emily and her own ineffective medical treatment for tuberculosis left her posthumous reputation in the hands of Charlotte, who did not authorize a reissue of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in the remaining six years or her life—and who described her as a “gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer.”

That overprotectiveness led critics and English professors to overlook a writer with a contribution to literature every bit as distinct as her older sisters.

Quote of the Day (William Dean Howells, on the Uncertainty of Work)

“No one is sure of finding work; no one is sure of not losing it. I may have my work taken away from me at any moment by the caprice, the mood, the indigestion of a man who has not the qualification for knowing whether I do it well, or ill. At my time of life—at every time of life—a man ought to feel that if he will keep on doing his duty he shall not suffer in himself or in those who are dear to him, except through natural causes. But no man can feel this as things are now; and so we go on, pushing and pulling, climbing and crawling, thrusting aside and trampling underfoot; lying, cheating, stealing; and then we get to the end, covered with blood and dirt and sin and shame, and look back over the way we've come to a palace of our own, or the poor-house, which is about the only possession we can claim in common with our brother-men, I don't think the retrospect can be pleasing."—American novelist, critic, and editor William Dean Howells (1837-1920), A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889)

It was true 135 years ago when Howells wrote these words, and maybe more so now, about how “caprice” can end employment, for either individuals or mass numbers of employees.

 Executives screaming for less regulation may well end up playing casino with their employees’ futures. A multinational conglomerate thousands of miles away may abruptly terminate workers who’ve given the best part of their careers to a company.

All of this feeds into worker anger. Many may well accept the nearest explanation at hand that they can understand, even if they involve the creation of scapegoats. 

Tweet of the Day (Taylor Kay Phillips, on the Phrase ‘Just So I Understand…’)

“Literally no one understands something more completely than a woman in a meeting who starts a question with ‘Just so I understand…’”— Emmy-Award winning writer and comedian Taylor Kay Phillips, tweet of May 15, 2023

Monday, May 27, 2024

Quote of the Day (John F. Kennedy, on Memorial Day)

“Memorial Day each year provides a fitting occasion upon which Americans may not only pay tribute to our honored dead but also unite in prayer for success in our search for a just and lasting peace.”—President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), “Proclamation 3477—Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day,” May 18, 1962

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Quote of the Day (Margaret Renkl, on Why Tragic Tales ‘Hinge on Specificity’)

“Human beings are storytelling creatures, craning to see the crumpled metal in the closed-off highway lane, working from the moment the traffic slows to construct a narrative from what’s left behind. But our tales, even the most tragic ones, hinge on specificity. The story of one drowned Syrian boy washed up in the surf keeps us awake at night with grief. The story of four million refugees streaming out of Syria seems more like a math problem.” —Essayist Margaret Renkl, “The Unpeaceable Kingdom,” in Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (2019)

This weekend, as we observe Memorial Day, the truth of Ms. Renkl’s comment is borne out anew. It’s hard to understand the toll that the Vietnam War took on America, for instance, when we read the statistic that more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers died in the conflict.

But, to hear how even one soldier became a casualty makes a huge difference in understanding the sacrifice that individual made and the continuing wound his loss represented to those who loved him.

The same applies elsewhere in the world, to victims of strife (as in Gaza) or human-rights violations (Ukraine, in the face of the Russian invasion).

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Francis de Sales, on Protecting Against a Vice by a Contrary Virtue)

“When attacked by some vice, we must practice the contrary virtue as much as we can and refer all the others to it. By this means we will vanquish our enemy and at the same time advance in all the virtues. Thus if assaulted by pride or anger, I must devote and direct all my actions to humility and meekness and adapt all exercises of prayer, the sacraments, prudence, constancy, and sobriety to this end. To sharpen his tusks the wild boar rubs and polishes them with his other teeth and thus files and sharpens them all. So also a virtuous man undertakes to perfect himself in the virtue most needed for his own protection must file and polish it by exercise of the other virtues.” —St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church, Introduction to the Devout Life, translated by John K. Ryan (1609)

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Quote of the Day (William Kennedy, on the ‘Precarious’ Trip From Writing Journalism to Fiction)

“The transition from journalism to fiction is always a precarious trip, for journalism foists dangerous illusions on the incipient fiction writer. The daily journalist is trained, for instance, to forget about yesterday and focus on today. There is also a car parked downstairs, ready to carry him off into tomorrow, and so every new day becomes for him a tabula rasa. This is deadly. The fiction writer who puts little or no value on yesterday, or the even more distant past, might just as well have Alzheimer's disease. Serious fiction, especially the novel, has time as its essence and memory as its principal tool.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist (and former journalist) William Kennedy, “Why It Took So Long,” The New York Times, May 20, 1990

Friday, May 24, 2024

Quote of the Day (Immanuel Kant, Defining ‘Enlightenment’)

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! [from Horace, Epodes, 1, 2, 40] ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ — that is the motto of enlightenment.”— German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), "What Is Enlightenment?" (1784), in On History, edited by Lewis White Beck (1963)

Last month marked the 300th birthday of Immanuel Kant in Königsberg, near the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea. As I learned from Lea Ypi’s essay from April in The Financial Times, his place of birth—and the extent to which his legacy belongs to one nation, rather than all humanity—has become tied up in the epic, blood-soaked wars of the 20th century that saw Konigsburg shift from East Prussian—i.e., German—control to that of Russia.

Unfortunately, changed European borders have, in the case of this pivotal modern philosopher, certainly proven the first half of George Orwell’s 1984 dictum that “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” We are about to see, as the struggle over Crimea moves into another phase, whether the second part of that statement will hold true.

I first encountered Kant in the famous Contemporary Civilization” course at Columbia University. I came away with two points that have lingered in my mind about him ever since.

First, he was so quirkily regular in his habits, the legend went, that the residents of Königsberg set their clocks to coincide with his afternoon walk.

Second, though a constellation of thinkers were trying to come up with a more convenient way of viewing the world, it was Kant who offered the definition of “Enlightenment” with which I began this post—and which has come to characterize an entire strain of thought in 18th century Europe and America.

Humanity can only change by beginning a public questioning of what is true and what is false.  But, Kant implied, it is inhibited by laziness and cowardice.

In moving Europe further away the sway of religion, Kant and other philosophers of his movement looked to “enlightened” rulers—i.e., “benevolent despots”—like Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria to spread education, learning and culture.

In time, the despots became less benevolent (if they ever really were) and the continent became continually rocked by great-power struggles.

My class had read the philosopher’s stringently argued Critique of Pure Reason. What I was not aware of, however, until I read Ypi’s essay, was how difficult it was for Kant to maintain the independence of thought he advocated in his writings with the necessity of survival when Königsberg came under the influence of a foreign power: perhaps not so surprisingly, considering current events, Russia.

In 1759, Kant petitioned Russian Empress Elizabeth, asking for an academic post.  But 11 years later, once the Russians withdrew, Kant went back to his original Prussian rulers and was granted a full professorship.

In recent times, some elements in Russia highlighted that reversal, calling Kant a “turncoat.” That term might be a bit strong, but “opportunist” might apply better—and even that is hardly a compliment or term of endearment.

Did Kant feel disgusted with this ideological maneuvering? Maybe, because late in life he was writing, in no uncertain terms: “No state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state.”

Having already seen Konigsberg change hands in his thirties, he had, by his seventies, lived long enough to see how the French Revolution had introduced the notion of an entire nation in arms—and collapsed any idea that civilian populations should be off limits in wars.

In 1795, Kent wrote the piercing essay “Toward Perpetual Peace,” warning, a century and a half before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about how “a war of extermination in which the simultaneous annihilation of both parties . . . would let perpetual peace come about only in the vast graveyard of the human race.”

Instead, he advocated a “cosmopolitan right,” based on the belief that “a violation of right on one place of the Earth is felt in all.”

Kant’s ideas have not only influenced notions of public education, but also the formation of organizations dedicated to preserving international security and guarding against the outbreak of war, such as the European Union and the United Nations.

(For yet another view of Kant focusing on the question of his Prussian or Russian identity, please see this essay by Robert R. Clewis in the April/May issue of Philosophy Now Magazine.)

TV Quote of the Day (‘Jersey Shore,’ As the Duration of a Crush is Described)

“It's obvious that Sammi has a crush on me. It goes back to the days of prehistoric kindergarten.”—Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, in Jersey Shore, Season 1, Episode 8, “One Shot,” original air date Jan. 14, 2010

The Memorial Day weekend is here, bringing with it summer. At this time of year, many young people gather together in houses, get drunk and stupid, and wreck the joints. 

Those are the types of idiots that Jersey Shore was about. While it aired, some colleges offered courses on the show. One of its “stars,” Snooki, was even paid $32,000 to speak at a student-sponsored event at Rutgers University 13 years ago.

And then there’s “The Situation.” What I’d like to know is who else he met in “prehistoric kindergarten”? Pebbles Flintstone?

Can you think of any better demonstration of the crisis in American education, or even the dire state of this republic?

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Hud,’ on the Consequences of ‘The Men We Admire’)

Homer Bannon [played by Melvyn Douglas] [to grandson Lonnie, played by Brandon de Wilde, about son Hud, played by Paul Newman]: “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire. You're just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what's right and wrong.”—Hud (1963), screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., based on the novel Horseman, Pass By, by Larry McMurtry, directed by Martin Ritt

Watching Hud again after nearly 40 years, it struck me, in a way it never had before, that the film was, at heart, a struggle for a younger person’s soul, in much the same way that Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was.

And here is what’s dispiriting about how Hud and Wall Street ended up being perceived: The anti-heroes that each movie warned audiences against, in no uncertain terms, were actually embraced by viewers who somehow missed the message. 

There should be little to admire about either Paul Newman’s Hud Bannon—an alcoholic, womanizing, unscrupulous heel—or Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko—a manipulative, ruthless inside trader who, taking a page from the late Ivan Boesky, blatantly announces, “Greed, for want of a better word, is good.”

Yet both Newman and Douglas were horrified to discover that these epitomes of selfishness became heroes of sorts. The actors brought such charisma to their roles that they embodied the glamour of evil for the type of male who values transgression.

I am afraid that America is now at the kind of crossroads that Melvyn Douglas’ principled patriarch in Hud feared. People in public life may disclaim being seen as role models, but they are (and they should stop pretending that they aren’t).

Preventing lying, cheating, greed, misogyny, prejudice, or violence is difficult at the best of times, but it becomes an epidemic when the faults of well-known politicians, entertainers, or athletes are not merely excused but trumpeted as positive examples. Unchecked personal appetites lead, step by step, to unmitigated national disasters.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Quote of the Day (Jean Anouilh, on ‘The Tribe That Asks Questions’)

“Why do you want me to be quiet? Because you know that I am right? Do you think I can't see in your face that what I am saying is true?... I want everything of life, I do; and I want it now! I want it total, complete: otherwise I reject it! I will not be moderate. I will not be satisfied with the bit of cake you offer me if I promise to be a good little girl….We are of the tribe that asks questions, and we ask them to the bitter end. Until no tiniest chance of hope remains to be strangled by our hands.”— French dramatist and screenwriter Jean Anouilh (1910-1987), Antigone (1944), adapted from Sophocles’ tragedy, translated by Lewis Galantiere, reprinted in Jean Anouilh: Five Plays, Volume 1 (1958)

I confess that, in the last few weeks, I have watched the tumult on college campuses nationwide with deep misgivings, and particularly at my alma mater, Columbia University.

I have wondered about the damage to institutions and to the general image that higher education presents to a segment of the public that, more than at any other since the Second World War, suspects such schools as being inimical to their way of life.

I have questioned how the message that most students are probably trying to convey—the humanitarian problems faced by the people of Gaza—with the anti-semitic fringes distracting from their discourse.

I have thought about school administrators—well-meaning, often inexperienced, and caught between opportunistic right-wing Capitol Hill members and students with demands frequently difficult to satisfy.

And I wonder about the students themselves—how much their idealism mixes inextricably with willfulness, even ignorance, about consequences.

At one point outside Columbia’s Hamilton Hall a couple of weeks ago, a news segment featured a female protester, shouting rapidly and furiously. In all her stridency, the young woman reminded me of the image of a similar one from a play I had seen on public television a half century ago, in my teens: Jean Anouilh’s Antigone.

When French audiences first saw the play staged in the midst of World War II, they interpreted the mortal-stakes conflict they were watching as analogous to their own, with Antigone standing in for the Resistance movement; her uncle Creon, the ruler of Thebes, for the Nazi collaborator Marshal Petain; and the guards for the German occupying forces who were "just following orders."

But, in a manner stronger than what I found on the printed page for this play—and even more than Sophocles’ Greek tragedy that started it all—the performance of Genevieve Bujold (in the accompanying image) in the title role, one year after the end of the Vietnam War, must have brought to mind for TV viewers of the time the fierce passions that many protesters in the conflict displayed.

Motives, emotions, and issues of right and wrong were far more clear cut in World War II than they would be in the domestic protests over Vietnam, mirroring the ambivalence in the Anouilh text.

This Antigone was every bit the “tense, sallow, willful girl” introduced by the Chorus and embodied by both Bujold and the young woman I saw on the news. Stubborn, obsessed, she resists the entreaties of Creon (played by Fritz Weaver) and her more conventionally beautiful but less passionate sister Ismene to obey Creon’s edict that the body of her brother--who led a rebellion against the state--be left on the battlefield to rot.

Typically, in her youthful zealotry, she bursts out to Ismene:

“The first word I ever heard out of any of you was that word ‘understand.’ Why didn't I ‘understand’ that I must not play with water-cold, black, beautiful flowing water-because I'd spill it on the palace tiles. Or with earth, because earth dirties a little girl's frock. Why didn't I ‘understand’ that nice children don't eat out of every dish at once; or give everything in their pockets to beggars; or run in the wind so fast that they fall down; or ask for a drink when they're perspiring; or want to go swimming when it's either too early or too late, merely because they happen to feel like swimming. Understand! I don't want to understand. There'll be time enough to understand when I'm old...If I ever am old. But not now.”

“If I ever am old”—she can’t see beyond the present moment, and if it means living in a world she can’t abide, she’ll have none of it.

Creon, who years before had “loved music, bought rare manuscripts, [and] was a kind of art patron,” has been forced, with the deaths of his brother-in-law Oedipus and the latter’s sons, to practice “the difficult art of a leader of men.” But, like college administrators the last several weeks, he has come to see order as the overriding consideration of what he oversees, leading to a fate he can’t escape.

Creon tries to disabuse Antigone about “the kitchen of politics,” but it doesn’t work. What matters are the dictates of her conscience: “Tell me: to whom shall I have to lie?” she asks Creon. “Upon whom shall I have to fawn? to whom must I sell myself?”

In the clash between reason and passion, authority and conscience, Antigone and Creon drag not only themselves but those around them to disaster. Nothing else is possible when authority won’t answer the unyielding “tribe that asks questions.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Quote of the Day (Edgar Allan Poe, on What We See As ‘A Dream Within a Dream’)

“All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep.” —American short-story writer, poet, literary critic, and editor Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), “A Dream Within a Dream,” first published in The Flag of Our Union, March 1849, reprinted in Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales, edited by Patrick Quinn (1984)

Monday, May 20, 2024

Quote of the Day (James Parker, on the ‘Old-School Surrealism’ of Bananas)

“There's an orthodox, old-school surrealism to the banana: its cartoon yellowness, its absurd curvature, the fact that when we think about a banana, we think about it upside down. The banana grows upward, doesn't it, jostling for sunlight with its fellows—but in our mind, we reverse it. We put its broken stem on top, like a nose or a little horn, and so we create a strangeness around the banana. We put it in banana quotes.”—James Parker, “Ode to Bananas,” The Atlantic, May 2023

The image accompanying this post was taken Apr. 10, 2018, by Filo gèn'.

TV Quote of the Day (‘Succession,’ As Cousin Greg Worries About Prison)

“Cousin Greg” Hirsch [played by Nicholas Braun]: “Yeah, I, uh... I'm worried about prison... I-I-I-I just feel because of my physical length, I could be a target for all kinds of misadventures.”—Succession, Season 3, Episode 6, “What It Takes,” original air date Nov 21, 2021, teleplay by Jesse Armstrong, Will Tracy, and Jamie Carragher, directed by Andrij Parekh

Oh, Cousin Greg, you’re not the only one worried about prison these days! There’s someone else who fears that “physical length” might make him a tempting target.

Oh, because of that, and the extra pounds that seemingly endless rounds of golf don’t seem to have trimmed…that puffy orange hair that begs for a good yank to test its strength and authenticity…and his former status as the most powerful man in the world.

Some might say that concern for his office’s dignity—a quality he daily had tried to corrode—might prevent jail time, or at least a significant amount of it.

There’s also the near-certainty that, though he’s been yelling so much about how he wants to testify at his trials, his lawyers won’t let him anywhere near the witness stand. 

After all, Cousin Greg only came off like a nervous doofus in front of Congress, whereas this guy might be ruthlessly exposed as the vengeful liar he is (as he has been in civil cases).

But he sure seems fearful every day as he engages in the kind of intimidation of judge, prosecutor, and anyone associated with the case that would never be permitted of…well, of a mafia don.

As the story arc of Succession demonstrated, “Cousin Greg” would serve as a great apprentice to anyone scheming for power. Only the guy in recent news who dreads prison might refuse to have his picture taken with him, loathing anyone who makes him look smaller.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Quote of the Day (Timmy Fisher, on the ‘Rich History’ of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’)

“If you played a musical instrument as a child, it's likely that you learnt ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ The melody is a gift for beginners: cheery, repetitive, largely stepwise. The words, meanwhile, are easy to adapt, making it a favourite for group singalongs. You'll hear it passed around campfires or belted from football terraces. Indeed, few songs in the western world are better known — a fact recognised by the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 when it was awarded ‘Towering Song’ status for having ‘influenced our culture in a unique way over many years.’ But, unlike ‘Happy Birthday to You’, ‘Over the Rainbow’ or any of the other 19 songs recognised in this way, ‘When the Saints’ has no standard version and no known composer—just a rich history of transformation.”—Music critic, editor, and podcaster Timmy Fisher, “The Life of a Song: ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’” The Financial Times, May 18-19, 2024

Fisher traces this classic American song past the jazz rendition that Louis Armstrong popularized, even beyond its first recording in 1923 by the New York gospel group, the Paramount Jubilee Singers, back to—if you can believe it—the plainchant “In Paradisum,” which became part of the Catholic requiem mass after being written down sometime between 996 and 1011.

Now, I’m not going to argue with Fisher’s credentials as a well-informed music maven. But I can assure him that nothing in the “rich history of transformation” he mentions compares to the rendition of this song on the sideline of football games played by St. Cecilia High School (what else did you expect?) in Englewood, NJ.

At the zenith of my alma mater’s gridiron glory, stretching from Vince Lombardi’s start as a football coach to a couple of years before it closed in 1986, “Saints” cheerleaders would lead the packed stadium with syncopated hand clapping and shouts as fans sensed victory.

I can assure Fisher that, no matter what he might believe, nothing before in the history of this much-played song could compare to the groundswell of glorious noise on these occasions—and, at this increasingly late stage in my life, I doubt that anything from now on ever will.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Albert Schweitzer, on ‘The Spirit Generated by Truth’)

“One belief of my childhood I have preserved with the certainty that I can never lose it: belief in truth. I am confident that the spirit generated by truth is stronger than the force of circumstances. In my view no other destiny awaits mankind than that which, through its mental and spiritual disposition, it prepares for itself. Therefore I do not believe that it will have to tread the road to ruin right to the end."—Nobel Peace Prize-winning surgeon, missionary, and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography, translated by C.T.  Campion (1931) 

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Quote of the Day (Somerset Maugham, on One Woman’s Gift for Conversation)

“She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit, and having for thirty years known more or less intimately a great many distinguished people, she had a great many interesting anecdotes to tell, which she placed with tact and which she did not repeat more than was pardonable."English man of letters W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), “The Creative Impulse” (1916), reprinted in Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (1931)

Friday, May 17, 2024

Quote of the Day (William Galston, on Partisanship and Geography)

“[W]ith today’s deep polarization, voters in the minority experience the enactment of one-party programs as an attack on their deepest convictions. As they lose hope of turning the tide, many respond by leaving their states for others where the majority shares their beliefs. This further intensifies the link between partisanship and geography.

“If this trend continues, our nation will become a patchwork in which citizens live under fundamentally different legal regimes.”— American author, academic, political advisor, and Brookings Institution senior fellow William Galston, “Florida Turns Right, Minnesota Turns Left,” The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2023

The accompanying photo of William Galston was taken Jan. 8, 2012, at a Civics Ed panel at the Brookings Institution by Medill DC.

TV Quote of the Day (Kevin Hart, Imagining a Medical Procedure That Makes Him Tall)

“I'm 6'6"….Now I can't put my hands in my pocket… I still wear a size 7 sneaker….Now I can't support the new body. My balance is off. I look like that thing that be at the car dealerships, that man... that air man.”—Stand-up comic, actor, and entertainment entrepreneur Kevin Hart, in Kevin Hart: Reality Check (2023), teleplay by Kevin Hart, directed by Leslie Small

The image accompanying this post, showing Kevin Hart at the red carpet premiere of Ride Along, was taken Mar. 6, 2014, by Eva Rinaldi.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Quote of the Day (Stephen Colbert, on Cynicism, ‘A Self-Imposed Blindness’)

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”—American comic and late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert, Commencement Address at Knox College, Galesburg, IL, June 3, 2006

The traditional commencement exercises that had been scheduled for yesterday by my alma mater were cancelled a few days ago.

I’m not going to retrace the words and actions that led to this decision. But I thought I would offer for students there and elsewhere in this tumultuous year a replacement of sorts, a throwback to another commencement address, from Stephen Colbert nearly two decades ago.

Extreme idealism—demands expected be fulfilled immediately—is also blindness. But the deformed moral vision that Colbert identified is more deadly in the long run, because it withers the soul day by day.

If you want to know something close to my philosophy on change, I can think of few lines better than these, from Bernard Malamud’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Fixer:

“I am somewhat of a meliorist. That is to say, I act as an optimist because I find I cannot act at all, as a pessimist. One often feels helpless in the face of the confusion of these times, such a mass of apparently uncontrollable events and experiences to live through, attempt to understand, and if at all possible, give order to; but one must not withdraw from the task if he has some small things to offer—he does so at the risk of diminishing his humanity.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on ‘The Form of Government Which Prevails’)

“[T]he form of government which prevails, is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it.”— American philosopher, essayist, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), “Politics” (1844)

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Quote of the Day (Henry Ward Beecher, on What Really Makes Someone Rich)

“No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, not according to what he has.”— U.S. abolitionist/minister Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), quoted by Thomas Wallace Knox, Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher: An Authentic, Impartial and Complete History of His Public Career and Private Life (1887)

Monday, May 13, 2024

Quote of the Day (Andrew Ferguson, on John McLaughlin, ‘A Legend’ Among Rotten DC Bosses)

“In a city famous for tyrannical bosses, from congressmen crazed with drink to bureau chiefs aflame with illicit desire, [John] McLaughlin had become a legend. You heard stories of volcanic rages, unimaginable flights of egomania. Least among his eccentricities was his requirement that all staffers refer to him as ‘Dr. McLaughlin,’ because he had once earned a Ph.D. in communications or some other of the lesser academic disciplines….

“The McLaughlin legend, I quickly discovered, had shortchanged the McLaughlin reality. When I opened the door to his production company’s suite, the first words I heard came roaring up in the famous Rhode Island drawl: ‘This is s–! Unadulterated s–!’ From the shadows of a darkened office, behind a desk as vast as the deck of an aircraft carrier, McLaughlin would bellow at his staff through an intercom. His voice ricocheted down hallways, and the epithets burst like ack-ack above the dim cubicles where his assistants cowered and trembled. The abuse was astonishing, unpredictable, and, in several instances, cruel. A single tirade could last for an hour.”—Conservative commentator Andrew Ferguson, “The Man Who Started It All,” The Weekly Standard, Dec. 24, 2007, reprinted in The Washington Examiner, Dec. 24, 2007

Since death took him eight years ago, fewer and fewer people will remember what all the commotion was about each week on The McLaughlin Group.

But nobody who heard the stentorian voice of the founder and host of that current affairs show, John McLaughlin, could ever forget it—least of all, judging from Andrew Ferguson’s profile, the staffers unlucky enough to work for him.

A high decibel level was only one aspect of his impact on employees, however. As writer and TV personality John Leonard noted in a June 2000 article for The Nation, McLaughlin “settl[ed] one sexual-harassment suit out of court, facing the prospect of at least two more–and nevertheless permitting himself to savage Anita Hill on his McLaughlin Group.”

In addition, on a scale of 1 to 10—a popular measure that the host used to rate and dismiss issues or legislation—McLaughlin, a former Jesuit who appeared to display precious little humility or piety in any part of his life, rated a “10” for his impact on the level or content of political discourse over the last 40 years. He has a fair claim to being the godfather of the cable shout-fests that have raised the nation’s emotional temperature during that time.

Did McLaughlin improve the environment around him by what he said or did—the choice that ultimately all of us face and are graded by? To quote the Beltway blowhard’s frequent response on other matters during his show’s long run: “WRONG!!!”

(The image of John McLaughlin accompanying this post was taken by Karl H. Schumacher on May 3, 1974, when the future pundit still worked at the White House as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon—whom he hailed, extremely prematurely and utterly preposterously, as “the greatest moral leader in the last third of this century.”