Sunday, October 31, 2004

Princess Alice and the Earl of Sandwich

Princess Alice, the aunt of Queen Elizabeth II has died at the age of 102. As one blogger says, the event occasions "utter indifference." Read news articles here, here, and here.

When she was 99, the Guardian called her the "forgotton princess." In an article published in July 2000 it said:

[T]he Dowager Duchess of Gloucester will spend the next month - as she has spent the past five years - hidden in Kensington Palace, the west London residence monickered the 'Aunt Heap' by Edward VII... When Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott married Prince Henry of Gloucester in 1935, he was fourth in line to the throne. If the Luftwaffe had killed George VI and his immediate family when it bombed Buckingham Palace, Alice, not Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, would have become Britain's Queen and last Empress of India... What is as sad as the Princess's decline is the wall of silence that surrounds it.

It interests me that she was part of the Montagu family. The Montagu's are a fascinating bunch. The family originates in England with the Norman conquest in 1066 and boasts many military and naval commanders during succeeding centuries -- dukes of Montagu and of Manchester and earls of Sandwich and (maybe) Salisbury.

It also boasts the "wit and beauty" Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, said to have been "the toast of the Kit Kat Club" in 1697 (she was eight at the time and the remark was made by her father). Unlike most women, she received an excellent education, was devoted to literature, and learned Latin, Italian, French, and Turkish. While still young, she formed a close friendship with Mary Astell, champion of womans rights, and, at age 23 eloped with a son of the duke of Montagu. She is credited with bringing innoculation for small pox to England from Turkey and became first a friend then enemy of Alexander Pope. She was an accomplished author, but generally did not publish under her own name during her lifetime. There are e-text collections of her writings at the University of Oregon and the University of Virginia. The Oregon collection has a biography as well. Her daughter married Lord Bute who became George III's right hand man.

This last fact leads to my main subject, John Montagu, who was the 4th Earl of Sandwhich, and cousin to Bute's wife. He led a fascinating long life in the heart of the 18th century (1718-1792) and I've been meaning to blog about him for some time. So here goes.

Sandwich was the John Kerry of his time. His enemies said that he befriended John Wilkes, the radical politician, and subsequently betrayed him. A pamphlet, "The Life, adventures, intrigues, and amours of the celebrated Jemmy Twitcher," attacked him mercilously and the name "Jemmy Twitcher" stuck to him as the flip-flopper of his day. The caricature shows him as Jemmy with a cricket bat on his shoulder. More on the cricket connection below.

His friends point out that Wilkes was totally unscrupulous. As Secretary of State it was Sandwich's duty to undercut his power and he did it in a marvelous way.

The negative view of Sandwich is summarized in the Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 Edition and here (which seems to quote the Britannica without attribution. The positive view in N A M Rodger's excellent biography: The insatiable earl : a life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792. Here's the Amazon page for the book.

This earl of Sandwich did invent the sandwich, apparently because his administrative duties sometimes gave him too little time for supper, although the more popular explanation is that he couldn't tear himself away from gambling to sit down and eat.

He was both an able administrator and persistent gambler. He was also champion of George Frederick Handel at a time when Handel (having alienated the king) badly needed support. He gave impetus to the voyages of Capatain James Cook and the original name for Hawaii -- the Sandwich Islands -- attests to this influence. He was a hard-working peer when most were negligent of official duties. He was a diplomat, strategist, and politician.

Almost a Horatio Alger figure of his time, he overcame many difficulties in making his way in the world. His father died when he was four and his mother abandoned him the the care of an aunt. He became earl at 23 on his grandfather's death, but had too little income to support the rank properly. He married for love rather than take the usual course to marry into a wealthy family. He fought prejudice against impecunious peers in seeking to make a career in politics (as a follower of Lord Bute). In later life, his wife went mad and the woman he subsequently lived with as wife (though unmarried) was murdered. That he succeeded becoming a leading figure in mid-century politics is much to his personal credit and very little to his title and rank in society.

Here's the connection to cricket. He took an interest in the sport when it was considered to be of no consequence. An excellent athlete, he played in as well as sponsoring matches, Being a betting man, he also placed large wagers games. Here's a depiction of Cricket in his time. For more cricket pictures from the second half of the eighteenth century, see here.

Not enough to be right

Nick's essay on politicians' lies brings to mind a conversation with my brother and an op ed piece I saw recently in the Washington Post.

My brother spends his days with guys who drive pickup trucks, as he does. He says most of them plan to vote for Bush. They don't like Bush or his policies. Though he frightens them, they say, Kerry frightens them even more.

The op ed piece says that the Bush campaign is pushing one theme, security, and, despite the administration's huge array of failures, this theme is convincing half the electorate that they should vote for him. Kerry's campaign has failed to produce a theme with anywhere near the same persuasive power.

Lately, Kerry has been saying that Bush does not make us safe. The author of the op ed piece says he needs to do more:

...he also needs to flesh out what he would do -- not just in Iraq, but with his presidency. Already, the contours of what his legacy could be are becoming clear: He will be the adult who cleaned up the mess the careless and reckless Bush has made. This is a natural fit for Kerry's biography and personality. As Kerry has said.., "It is never easy to discuss what has gone wrong while our troops are in constant danger. . . . I know this dilemma firsthand. After serving in war, I returned home to offer my own personal voice of dissent. I did so because I believed strongly that we owed it [to] those risking their lives to speak truth to power. We still do." This truth-telling was also a hallmark of Kerry's Senate career, one highlighted by investigations that took on both Republicans and Democrats.

If still available, the piece can be read at the WP web site: Senator, You Need To Fill In The Blank (By Kenneth S. Baer
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page B03)

Wayward press

Over at Gobbergo, Nick's post on lies and damned lies is a good one. (See I'm afraid I can't help it / I'm afraid I can.)

I don't follow as he does, but I've seen the phenomenon he discusses. Here, for example, is David Border's article on failure of the press, which reminds us (doesn't it?) of AJ Liebling's "Wayward Press" columns in the old New Yorker.

The Media, Losing Their Way

By David S. Broder
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page B07


We don't yet know who will win the 2004 election, but we know who has lost it. The American news media have been clobbered.

In a year when war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism and looming problems with the federal budget and the nation's health care system cry out for serious debate, the news organizations on which people should be able to depend have been diverted into chasing sham events...

After almost a half-century in this business, I certainly feel a sense of shame and embarrassment at our performance. ...

The common feature -- and the disturbing fact -- is that none of these damaging failures would have occurred had senior journalists not been blind to the fact that the standards in their organizations were being fatally compromised...

The way to the top of journalism [is] no longer to test yourself on police beats and city hall assignments, under the skeptical gaze of editors who demanded precision in writing and careful weighing of evidence. It [is] to make a reputation as a clever wordsmith, a feisty advocate, a belligerent or beguiling political personality, and then market yourself to the media.

[Nonetheless] the fickle public -- whose wishes editors now [take] as their command -- [have] switched to even more sensational outlets: the cable talk shows and infotainment formats that put argument, gossip and amusement at the top....

We've wandered a long way from safe ground in the news business. Sometimes I wonder if we can find our way back.


One for Nick

Tim Bray is one of the creators of the xml internet language and a leading proponent of open-sources software. Tim has lots of interests, as you'll see if you check out his blog. Here, he's writing about percussion.

Sly and Robbie by Tim Bray in Ongoing.

That would be Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, approximately the world’s greatest rhythm section; we spent a couple of hours with them Friday evening at Vancouver’s venerable Commodore Ballroom, a fine place for listening to electric music. That bass line has a direct karmic connection to the secret heart of the sun.

Sly and Robbie, both Jamaican, started playing together in the Seventies (this evening was billed as the “25th Anniversary Tour”) and I first heard them backing Peter Tosh (R.I.P.) singing Downpresser Man; Tosh was one of the great singers but, you know, I could have sold records singing in front of that band.

The Rhythm There’s this rhythm that’s already out there, everywhere. It’s your mother’s heartbeat that backgrounded the birth of your mind in the womb, though you don’t remember. It’s the creaking in the roots of the world tree, and the secret resonance of the inner heart of the Sun.

All the best music is about getting closer to that rhythm, and anytime you’re in a room with Sly & Robbie, you’re inside it looking out. Sly’s impressive, but for me, Robbie Shakespeare, now that Pastorius is gone, towers above the ranks of electric-bass players. I don’t know anyone else who’s close. His rhythms gather and fade and are punctuated by silence, shifting like the stormclouds in front of our Vancouver mountains.

Anyhow, at a Sly & Robbie show, everything starts ’round midnight, the basic six-piece (S&R + sax + trombone/singer + guitar + keyboards) never stops, various dreadlocked boy-candy singers take turns up front; in between the pretty singers it’s all about being at the heart of the rhythm.

Last night, with the beat down into slow-dub territory, a slinky young woman climbed the stage and did a dreamy/sexy dance, her head bowed so her grey fedora’s brim hid her face. The band dug it and let her go a while before she got gently hauled off.

In my secret dreams, I’d give up software and become Robbie Shakespeare, but it ain’t gonna happen. Sly & Robbie started late, we ran out of steam (married, children, babysitting in effect) sometime too far into the wee hours the next day while they were still hard at work. Go see them if they come to your town.

Darby O'Gill and the floresiensites?

We all liked Disney's Darby O'Gill, called "the definitive Leprechaun movie" by one source (from the 1903 novel by Herminie T. Kavanagh). It's not oh-so-very-young Sean Connery who captitivates, but Albert Sharpe as Darby himself and Jimmy O'Dea as King Brian. The family is also fond of the Hobbit movies.

The discovery of skeletal remains of chimp-size humans on a remote island in Indonesia has tempted headline writers to draw on this small-folk fantasy theme to a wonderful excess. As the Times account says, "the bones appear to belong to a new and unexpected species of humans, little more than 3 feet high, who lived among giant rats and pygmy elephants on the island of Flores until at least 13,000 years ago. That would make these miniature people contemporaries of our own human ancestors for tens of thousands of years, though no one knows if they ever met."

Here's a sampling of headlines

Obsessing about "Hobbits": "Indonesia may be teeming with Hobbits, "Are Hobbits Still Among Us?, "Hobbits: Fiction or reality?" "'Hobbit' Joins Human Family"

About "little people": "Skeleton Reveals Lost World Of 'Little People'"

And about a "lost world": "A lost cousin in a lost world," "Scientists unearth resident of the 'lost world',"

A bit cloyingly cute: "It's a small world after all," "Say you want an evolution," "A breed apart," "Good hair day for hobbit hunters"

Big themes, such as "rewriting of human history:" "Evolutionary Shrinkage: Stone Age Homo find offers small surprise," "Ancient, Tiny Humans Shed New Light on Evolution," "'Hobbit' Skeleton Could Rewrite Prehistory'Hobbit' Skeleton Could Rewrite Prehistory"

Take-offs for op-ed pieces on other topics: "Humans are getting taller, but we still weigh too much," "October Surprise II: Missing Link To Liberalism Discovered"

One of my favorites, for its alliteration: "Indonesia's Hobbit-Sized Humans Find Humble Home"

If you missed the story, here are some accounts: here, here, and here

And here is a nice take on the subject by Jonathan Dresner in Cliopatria:

Posted by Ralph E. Luker at 4:55 AM | Comments (0)

JONATHAN DRESNER: Humanity and Diversity

We can't even live with ourselves terribly well most days. How well would we co-exist with another sentient, or semi-sentient, species? Not very well, suggests anthropologist Desmond Morris [via Butterflies&Wheels], but the real crux of his argument is two-fold: did Homo sapiens sapiens kill off Homo floresiensis (I'm not terribly fond of any of the currently popular 'nicknames' for this species, and I won't use them), and does our relatively recent co-existence with this species of humans affect our definition of humanity? There's some stuff in there about religion and evolution, too, but that's not what I'm terribly interested in. The best "Floresiensis for dummies" I've seen so far is anthropologist John Hawks' [via Panda's Thumb], who speaks directly to an issue which came up in my mind immediately: is it a hoax, like Piltdown, etc.? He says no, with some authority.

The question of whether a 'lesser' human (floresiensis was certainly not as intelligent, on average, as well as being smaller, though we can't speak to their wisdom or judgment or culture) can or should have full civil and legal rights is, mostly, an abstract one at the moment. But in the not-so-distant past we did make stark legal distinctions based on relatively minor genetic variations (and we still do, in certain circumstances). [Side note: if other species of humans, with clearly distinct abilities and features, were more widespread, would there be less racial thinking among ourselves? Or would it have come up sooner and stronger? Would racial categories be more meaningful in that case?] Aside from the upcoming (you can call it science fiction, but it's just a matter of time) issue of artificial intelligences, we haven't dealt terribly well, overall, with the issue of rights or responsibilities for individuals with physical or developmental or mental disabilities, not to mention indigenous peoples with non-agro-capitalist lifestyles. Those models would suggest some form of protective custody arrangement....

The second, historical, question is: is this where elves come from? Dwarves, gnomes, leprechauns, whatever you want to call them, but stories of forest-dwelling, elusive and irritable "little people" are deep rooted in our human civilization. Local folktales could very plausibly be the result of contacts as recently as 13-15Ky bp (This article also implicates Homo sapiens in the extermination of several other human species.). It's possible that these are just myths, imaginary tales with no basis in fact. It's also possible that they are based on contacts with non-human species like chimps and monkeys and apes. But this is a tantalizing find, and it suggests (proving anything at this distance is terribly hard) that some of our ideas, myths, etc., really do have roots that go back tens of thousands of years.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Random Acts of Poetry Week

A while back it was poetry week in Great Britain but you'd hardly know it. I couldn't find one newspaper writeup, only an indirect reference in the Scotsman. Maybe the Brits should take their lead from the Canadians:

From the Globe and Mail:

Canada's week to wax poetic Look out for poets on the loose likely to burst into verse, ALEXANDRA GILL warns

Monday, October 25, 2004

VANCOUVER -- Don't be alarmed if a stranger stops you in the street today to recite a rhyming stanza for your listening pleasure. It could very well be an imaginative homeless person looking for spare change. More likely, it will be one of 27 Canadian poets who are taking part in Random Acts of Poetry Week, the first cross-country public celebration of poetry.

See also this article in our local weekly newspaper, The Gazette. It describes the poems that adorn benches at trolley stops in nearby Bethesda. (It's not actually a trolley but a bus that calls itself that, but the benches are real and so is the poetry.)

The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words

I've been interested in The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words for quite a while now. This is the title of an essay by Sigmund Freud and also a concept to which Christopher Ricks has been drawn more than a couple of times. Since it's also somewhat obscure, I've been using it as a way of comparing web search engines. It's interesting to see what comes up when you search the phrase in Google, Yahoo, A9, or whatever (try it, if you like). Recently I was pointed to a new search engine called Muse (it's still in development and is being marketed to the likes of the Library of Congress as a "federated search" tool -- a piece of software to search across a huge, complex site like LC's and make sense of the results. Of couse I tried my antithetical search in Muse and was surprised to find my post on Derrida ("Derrida Dead") as one of the first hits. Amazing. The Muse search is derived from Google, but you won't notice my post in the Google results because it's not in the top group. The relevancy ranking algorythm that Muse uses put me up top.

The concept is a meaty one, but Freud didn't make much of it and neither have his successors.


The essay in book form
Freud, Sigmund, (1910) The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words.
SE 11, 155-161, also in
Collected Papers, vol iv, London: Hogarth Press, 1957, pp. 184-91.

An online version of the essay
The Antithetical Meaning Of Primal Words
Posted on Thursday 17 October @ 00:51:35
Ethnopoetics An article by Sigmund Freud explaining intriguing findings from his own analytical work.

A way-out take-off on the essay
"antithetical meaning of primal guitars"

A dissertation linking the concept to Derrida
Eric W. Anders, Ph.D., Psy.D.

An essay by a translator
Language Ambiguity: A Curse and a Blessing
By Cecilia Quiroga-Clare

A discussion in the Linguist discussion list
LINGUIST List 6.465
Tue 28 Mar 1995
Disc: Words that are their own opposites

A flabbergasting failure

Christopher Hitchens is a guest author on a history weblog -- the Liberty & Power: Group Blog. He's a controversialist to the core. Recent articles include "Not Even a Hedgehog - The stupidity of Ronald Reagan," "Flirting With Disaster: The vile spectacle of Democrats rooting for bad news in Iraq and Afghanistan." "Unfairenheit 9/11: The lies of Michael Moore." He currently a columnist for Vanity Fair. There's a Christopher Hitchens web site here.

On Oct 21st, he wrote "Why I'm (Slightly) for Bush" in the Nation and on Oct 26th, Slate lines him up as a Kerry supporter. The piece in the Nation supports Bush but is a bit over-qualified. He's basically attacking the "anyone but Bush" crowd.

Here's the statement in Slate:

Christopher Hitchens, Contributor: Kerry

I am assuming for now that this is a single-issue election. There is one's subjective vote, one's objective vote, and one's ironic vote. Subjectively, Bush (and Blair) deserve to be re-elected because they called the enemy by its right name and were determined to confront it. Objectively, Bush deserves to be sacked for his flabbergasting failure to prepare for such an essential confrontation. Subjectively, Kerry should be put in the pillory for his inability to hold up on principle under any kind of pressure. Objectively, his election would compel mainstream and liberal Democrats to get real about Iraq.

The ironic votes are the endorsements for Kerry that appear in Buchanan's anti-war sheet The American Conservative, and the support for Kerry's pro-war candidacy manifested by those simple folks at I can't compete with this sort of thing, but I do think that Bush deserves praise for his implacability, and that Kerry should get his worst private nightmare and have to report for duty


Another statement from Hitchens and then his piece in Liberty & Power: Hitchens has been quoted as calling Geo W Bush "unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things."

Here's the post

From Liberty & Power
article | Posted October 21, 2004

by Christopher Hitchens

Hoover Beats Roosevelt!

Given the months of bad news and administration blunders, Kerry should be 30 points ahead of George Bush instead of wherever he is. Should the ineptness of Kerry and his campaign managers finally bring him down to defeat it will be the same as if Herbert Hoover had defeated Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One of our far flung secret agents has called in with a report on the hows and wheres of the 380 tons of high explosives which disappeared out of an Iraqi ammunition dump. You may rest easy. The insurgents don't have it. The French do. Out of their well known hatred for the United States the French have bred up a species of undercover ant. These ants penetrated the guard set around the dump and, grain by grain, were able to surreptitiously remove all 766,080 English pounds of the stuff, carrying it across the Middle East and southern Europe to a vast cave in the Pyrenees where it is safely stored next to 55 million flu shots.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Republicans are running ads claiming the trial lawyers are responsible for the flu shot shortage. This is a typical bit of Republican understatement. Why are the Republicans covering up for the trial lawyers? Why don't they tell the American people the truth which is the trial lawyers are the ones who do the partial birth abortion baby killings? Trial lawyers are behind the drop in factory employment in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but not in New York or Illinois where it's the liberals who are to blame. It has also been established that the trial lawyers are the cause of over fifteen common kinds of cancer and two thirds of the Federal government deficit. If re-elected President Bush has said that he will ask Congress for the power to draft trial lawyers and send them to Iraq where they can work their mischief on religious fanatics who don't care whether or not they get cancer.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Congratulations are flowing into Ariel Sharon for his engineering the Israeli "pullout" from the Gaza Strip, leaving those 1.3 million plus Arabs to rot in their own stink. Being the thoughtful person he is, Prime Minister Sharon is making sure that the Gazans or Gazanians or Gazites will not be allowed to wander about the world seeking revenge for what they mistakenly imagine to be their mistreatment. Israel will control all land, sea and air access to the Strip and its inhabitants, thus insuring its continued existence as a desert Gulag. If there is such a thing as justice Herr Sharon will be awarded next year's Nobel Peace Prize. Should the Swedes, who are unreliable and sentimental when it comes to the Middle East, bestow the prize on some obscure mombo under house arrest in darkest Africa and omit recognizing Senior Sharon for his irenic contributions to world comity, President Bush could confer the Medal of Freedom on him. We owe Gaspadin Sharon so much. After the famous peace process failed and the Mitchell Plan failed and the Tenent Plan failed and the Anthony Zinni Plan failed and the Road Map failed, it is he who has at long last settled all outstanding questions in Gaza. This should also help President Bush in his re-election campaign whether or not reports are true that upwards of 200,000 Israelis are voting by very absentee ballot. Shalom.

Posted by Nicholas von Hoffman (Guest Blogger) on Wednesday, October 27, 2004 at 2:54 PM

Hobbit, is it?

I've grown interested in pre-history since reading a book about "Big History." About this, see The Case for "Big History" DAVID CHRISTIAN, Macquarie University and Maps of Time, An Introduction to Big History, by David Christian, California World History Library.

So here's a little piece from BBC News about an ancient species of human, considered to be the first hobbit.

'Hobbit' joins human family tree


The three-foot (one-metre) tall species - dubbed "the Hobbit" - lived on Flores island until at least 12,000 years ago.

Wear on the teeth and growth lines on the skull confirm it was an adult, features of the pelvis identify it as female and a leg bone confirms that it walked upright like we do.

The 18,000-year-old specimen, known as Liang Bua 1 or LB1, has been assigned to a new species called Homo floresiensis. It had long arms and a skull the size of a large grapefruit.

The researchers have since found remains belonging to six other individuals from the same species.
elephant called Stegodon which the "hobbits" probably hunted.

What is surprising about this is that this species must have made it to Flores by boat. Yet building craft for travel on open water is traditionally thought to have been beyond the intellectual abilities of Homo erectus.

Even more intriguing is the fact that Flores' inhabitants have incredibly detailed legends about the existence of little people on the island they call Ebu Gogo.

The islanders describe Ebu Gogo as being about one metre tall, hairy and prone to "murmuring" to each other in some form of language. They were also able to repeat what islanders said to them in a parrot-like fashion.

"There have always been myths about small people - Ireland has its Leprechauns and Australia has the Yowies. I suppose there's some feeling that this is an oral history going back to the survival of these small people into recent times," said co-discoverer Peter Brown, an associate professor of archaeology at New England.

The last evidence of this human at Liang Bua dates to just before 12,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption snuffed out much of Flores' unique wildlife.

Yet there are hints H. floresiensis could have lived on much later than this. The last legend featuring the mythical creatures dates to just 100 years ago.

But Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature magazine, goes further. He speculates that species like H.floresiensis might still exist, somewhere in the unexplored tropical forest of Indonesia.

The sophistication of stone tools found with the "hobbit" has surprised some scientists given the human's small brain size of 380cc (around the same size as a chimpanzee).

"The whole idea that you need a particular brain size to do anything intelligent is completely blown away by this find," Dr Gee commented.

Space, or is that "spaced" Invaders

One of the family's favorite films is "Spaced Invaders". The title of the piece quoted below has nothing to do with the film, Here's an interesting Spaced Invaders fan site, complete with # quotes page, script, dramatis personae, picture gallery, and a trivia section.

Here's the piece from Crooked Timber:

Space invaders
Posted by Henry

More on the troubled relationship between the Republican Party and technology. One of my colleagues complained to me this morning that her AOL Instant Messenger software had been hijacked by political spam. As I’ve seen for myself, every time she moves her cursor over the program, a loud, obnoxious movie-ad pops up, telling her in stentorian tones about the horrible things that John Edwards and the Evil Trial Lawyers are doing to doctors. On further investigation, it turns out that this particular box of delights has been brought to your desktop by the “November Fund,” a pro-Republican 527 created by the US Chamber of Commerce. Apparently, the fund has spent $2 million; according to the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal, they’re legally prohibited from buying attack ads on TV or radio, which probably explains why they’re spending money on pop-ups.1 For my part, I sincerely hope that they raise and spend as much money as possible on Internet advertising. If I were a swing voter, I can’t imagine anything more likely to make me vote Democratic than having my desktop invaded by talking, dancing Republican adware.

1 The Internet is exempt from the ban on corporate funded advertising that specifically targets candidates.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Will in the World

October 4, 2004|6:53 PM Arts&Entertainment

Call Me Will, Forsooth: The Bard as Ordinary Guy

by Robert Cornfield

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton, 430 pages, $26.95.

excerpts from review:

The records of Shakespeare’s life aren’t skimpy: ... there are no letters, no personal memories, no diary, no confessions or extended memoirs; nothing that explains the wonder of how this hick from a small town north of Oxford, without a university education, got to London to become the leading playwright of his day and managed to write the supreme masterpieces of English dramatic literature....

Did he loathe his wife, Anne Hathaway? He spent most of their married life in London while she, back in Stratford, lived with his folks and raised the kids. In his will, he left her only the second-best bed; daughter Susanna got most everything else. Did he have more than a crush on the Earl of Southampton, who we presume is the young man his Sonnets are addressed to? And is this Dark Lady who came between them a poetic invention? Why did he retire? And did Gwyneth Paltrow really disguise herself as a boy to get the part of Juliet? ...

[All this is covered in Stephen Greenblatt’s] new book on Shakespeare’s life, Will in the World. (Is the title meant to recall Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea—the world as Will Shakespeare and Idea?) ...

Mr. Greenblatt gives his intention in the book’s subtitle: to tell us "How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare." How good are his guesses?...

Though Shakespeare has indeed been resuscitated (thanks also to gender studies, reception theory, semiotics and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo), we still want to know why these plays don’t flame away like nitrate film, why they persist in devastating and invigorating us....

[A]s Mr. Greenblatt sees it, the genesis of the character of Falstaff begins with Shakespeare’s entry into London’s tavern world of fellow playwrights, where he may have discerned the dramatic possibilities in a malicious, dissolute and fat rival named Robert Greene. This conjecture allows for an account of the social marginality of London theater, bear-baiting, prostitution and how these all work themselves most conspicuously into both parts of Henry IV, Measure for Measure and The Merry Wives of Windsor....

Mr. Greenblatt proposes that, at the abbreviated funeral for Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, dead at the age of 11 in 1596, grandfather John, still attached to the old ways, asked his son William to have masses secretly recited. William refused, but Shakespeare’s unassuaged grief and the fear of his father’s imminent death (in 1601) became key ingredients in the making of the play Hamlet (c. 1600). With its logical skips, the theory hangs on John’s secret reverence for Catholic ritual and William’s sensitivity to ceremony.

This does, however, lead to a rare digression: an examination of a strictly technical playwriting matter, Shakespeare’s gradual discovery of the dramatic value of allowing an action to be based on an unexplained motivation (why does Hamlet pretend to be mad? What is Iago’s compulsive motivation?). Shakespeare learned to leave something crucial in the play unexplained. Mr. Greenblatt terms this "the principle of opacity" or "the radical excision of motive." Another strictly literary digression examines Shakespeare’s skill in recording hesitations, secret intentions, ambivalences in dialogue, "the hidden processes of interiority." Neither of these take him long to spell out, but they are not trivial, and the second might have something to do with what Harold Bloom has called Shakespeare’s invention of the human....

[In the last chapter, called "The Triumph of the Everyday," Greenblatt discusses Shakespeare’s] celebrations of "the ordinary." ... [Greenblatt writes:] "He never showed signs of boredom at the small talk, trivial pursuits and foolish games of ordinary people." He means the scene-changing blather of servants (as in Romeo and Juliet) and the dopey festival folk (as in The Winter’s Tale). And then, on retirement to the Stratford homestead: "What Shakespeare wanted was only what he could have in the most ordinary and natural way: the pleasure of living near his daughter and her husband and their child." He alludes only briefly to the other, less sentimentally comforting legend—Shakespeare succumbing to a fatal illness after a drunken London binge with old cronies.

Thursday, October 14, 2004


I loved reading Walt Kelly’s comics and particularly recall bringing my Pogo books to Maine for summer reading. I think the grownups around me thought I was precocious, pretentious, or both. I just remember the fun of it all.

Later, as it happened, Walt’s daughter was a classmate at Swarthmore (as was Gene Kelly’s daughter: offspring of two famous persons of Irish heritage -- bio of Walt & bio of Gene).

There’s a Pogo review, more of a reminiscence and meditation in the Boston Review:

The Happy Place
John Crowley

Pogo, vols. 1–11
Walt Kelly
Fantagraphics Books, $9.95 each (paper)


[T]he language has nothing in common with any “Southern” speech ever heard; though some of it might be called “stage Southern,” on the model of “stage Irish”—the “ever-lovin’ blue-eyed dag-blagged lil’ scapers” sort of thing—the whole is unrelated even to American illiterate speech. It has less in common with Joel Chandler Harris or other rural wits than it has with the synthetic language of Herriman’s Krazy Kat and, arguably, the Irish dialect of James Joyce. The constancy of puns and wordplay; the subtle transmogrification of words into unrelated but significant other words that shadow them; the misheard, misremembered, and misspoken—the language not only drives the strips forward but embellishes the corners and backgrounds of panel upon panel with play that is not quite nonsense: Sent under separate cover of darkness . . . Support you in the style to which you are a customer . . . It don’t pay to Tinker for Ever with Chance . . . To corn a phrase . . . Girl of the Limberwurst . . . Never dark on the door again...

I can’t argue that the elaborate and continuous verbal play is really distinctly Irish, or even Irish-American, though it was a constant feature of my own household, and seems to me clearly related not only to innate (or at least highly regarded and rewarded) verbal facility but also to a compulsion to put signifiers in doubt where the signified (sex, say, or money, or religion) is hard to approach directly.

CHURCHY: Now, if we clear our throats with ASCAP, we’ll be all set.

MOUSE: (Checks sheet music.) Hold it! “Silent Night” is effective played fortissimo on a steam calliope.

CHURCHY: Our steam calliope was traded to Cleveland for a second baseman an’ a pitchpipe.

MOUSE: Then I’ll carry the tenor (providin’ he has a light rein)

BUN RAB: Here’s the key . . . . (Plays:) bloo bloo

CHURCHY: Bloo? What kind of a key is that?

BUN RAB: Bloo? Old bloo is a Yale key . . . Want to make somethin’ of it?

MOUSE: Yes . . . We could make a lovely bolt for the door.

I think there is an [easy] way to account for what goes on in most of Pogo, though it didn’t occur to me until I had grown up and had children and watched them grow: above all, it seems to me, what goes on in the swamp is very like what goes on in many a backyard. The interplay of imagination and asserted reality, whereby the same small cast continually reinvents itself by donning old clothes, and asserts the new roles (with their concomitant power and responsibility) until weariness sets in or a fight breaks out; the ability to travel great distances and go on long adventures within a very small space; the cheerful forgetting of rages and obsessions as soon as new amusements arise; even the inchoate language and the moral ambiguities seem a part of child-life. What clued me in was the legs and feet: studying these fat little legs and bare toes, I suddenly realized I was looking at children (probably Kelly’s own), and this made a new sense out of the constant inventiveness and play—the spaceships and mechanical men made of junk, the TV station made of an old bureau with an empty mirror frame. The paralyzing shyness of the male characters in the face of sexuality fits with this conception as well—they all court Miz Hepzibah the Parisian skunk, though they never get farther than delivering the flowers (or the pail of fish) before being overcome with nerves and running away, unless food is on offer. So it used to be with little boys and little girls, some of the time anyway, and though it’s different now, it’s not all different.

The activities of the Pogo characters are, like those of children, free from seriousness as we observe them, but not as they are experienced by the characters themselves; if it were not so, they would be trivial. The dark menace that, as I have noted, sometimes intrudes amid them, and sorts them into the few who are brave and wise and the many who are less so, proceeds into their Eden from the outside (adult) world, which they can consider and imitate but not in the end be truly harmed by. And isn’t this what we would wish for children too: that their space be both safe and free? Yet we know the menace to be there.

Pogo is dream-Edenic, a world at once ever-novel and changeless... I loved it unreservedly as a child, and it is bound up with my own childhood; so my necessary expulsion from the one Eden only increases my longtime delight in the other, and also the melancholy at the heart of my contemplation.

Diagramming sentences

Yesterday I visited Dr. Wyre, the dermatologist at our HMO, He’s always fun, even when he inflicts sharp (but brief) pain as he did yesterday in removing an extraneous bit of my epidermus. He works extremely fast, talks fast too, and asks questions not just about the state of your health, but about your life, kids, the domestic scene. Sometimes he gives a mini-disquisition on a topic that interests him; I mean maybe 90 seconds worth. Yesterday, he brought up diagramming sentences. He likes diagramming, is proud to have learned it, feels it’s a valuable skill, and regrets that kids today - in his view - have a shakey grasp of grammar. I generally agree, though my kids both know grammar.

So today, in honor of Dr. Wyre, I present an essay on diagramming sentences. It’s a full-fledged co-incidence that she mentions Ralph Waldo Emerson in the introductory paragraph and Gertrude Stein mid-way through.

by Kitty Burns Florey


Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss. Invented, or at least codified, in an 1877 text called Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, it swept through American public schools like a measles germ, embraced by teachers as the way to reform students who were engaged in (to take Henry Higgins slightly out of context) “the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.” By promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax, diagramming would root out evils like “it’s me” and “I ain’t got none,” until everyone wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least James Fenimore Cooper.

Even in my own youth, many years after 1877, diagramming was serious business. I learned it in the sixth grade from Sister Bernadette. I can still see her: a tiny nun with a sharp pink nose, confidently drawing a dead-straight horizontal line like a highway across the blackboard, flourishing her chalk in the air at the end of it, her veil flipping out behind her as she turned back to the class. We begin, she said, with a straight line. And then, in her firm and saintly script, she put words on the line, a noun and a verb – probably something like dog barked. Between the words she drew a short vertical slash, bisecting the line. Then she made a road that forked off at an angle – a short country lane under the word dog – and on it she wrote The

I was hooked. So, it seems, were many of my contemporaries. Among the myths that have attached themselves to memories of being educated in the Fifties is the notion that activities like diagramming sentences (along with memorizing poems and adding long columns of figures without a calculator) were draggy and monotonous. I thought diagramming was fun, and most of my friends who were subjected to it look back with varying degrees of delight.

Gertrude Stein, of all people, claimed to be a fan of diagramming. “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences,” she wrote in the early 1930s. “I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.”

Mostly we diagrammed sentences out of a grammar book, but sometimes we were assigned the task of making up our own, taking pleasure in coming up with wild Proustian wanderings that – kicking and screaming – had to be corralled, harnessed, and made to trot in neat rows into the barn

Sometimes, on a slow subway or a boring car trip, I mentally diagram a sentence, just as I occasionally try to remember the declension of hic, haec, hoc or the words to the second verse of The Star-Spangled Banner. I have no illusions about what diagramming sentences in my youth did for me in any practical way. But, in an occasional fit of nostalgia and creeping curmudgeonhood, I like bringing back those golden afternoons when

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Dettingen Te Deum

Not feeling well, I drove to work Friday. This almost never happens. Normally, either I'm healthy enough to bike, or too sick to work at all. I consoled myself that the weather forecast was dire: downpours and thunderstorms, but, as it turned out, my commutes in and out were dry and calm.

As it happened, my choice of music for the drive was a tape of Handel's Dettingen Te Deum, a work of typically Handelian majesty that has a charming comic-opera aspect. It celebrates a victory of somewhat dubious triumph. Here's a description: "King George the second [prevailed] over a startled Franco-Bavarian army in 1743. His Majesty's Anglo-Hanoverian troops had seemingly been trapped, but the King's horse bolted, his army took the spectacle for a heroic charge and followed with such gusto that the opposing forces snatched improbable defeat from the jaws of seeming victory. Thus cast as an unlikely war hero, the runcible monarch saw his chance and commissioned the two works from Handel." (source here)

This was certainly the last time a British monarch led troops in battle and may have been the last time any monarch did so. The event remained controversial for much of the rest of the century, since the political opposition fervently believed that George II and his government followed a policy favoring Hanover and continental intrigue to the detriment of trade and the overseas colonies in North America and the West Indies. In a mild way, the battle of Dettingen was a precursor to the American War of Independence.

Read about the Te Deum as a form of music here, an article pointing out that Handel borrowed his inspiration "for ten of its numbers from a Te Deum composed by the Minorite Francesco Urio, and able Milanese composer of the seventeenth-eighteenth century." Be that as it may, the music is glorious and the text seems typically 18th-century Anglo-English. Christ is "Thine Honourable, True, And Only Son." In this text, we do not simply pray, but "Vouchsafe, O Lord." The final anthem has five sections which read as one text: The King Shall Rejoice -- His Honour Is Great -- Thou Shalt Give Him Everlasting Felicity -- And Why? Because The King Putteth His Trust In The Lord -- We Will Rejoice In Thy Salvation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Cow Worship

Parents Weekend at Earlham. We attended hardly any official functions. The only one I can recall, thinking back at the moment, is the Saturday morning opportunity to meet professors: Huge space in the Wellness Center. Coffee and eats in the middle. Tables set, circularly, on the periphery. Signs indicating division (Social Sciences, Humanities,...) and Department (English!, Physics, ...). Everyone in a bit of an early-morning daze. We arrived early and spoke first to some of the Earlham Parent Committee members who had sponsored the event. Then made some long chats with Nick's advisor and a couple other of his professors, all of whom have profound respect for him. We also got some useful information about a science requirement he has to fulfill for graduation. All this is preface to a poem. The English Lit folks had a basket full of bookmark-size poems. The one I picked up, and fell in love with, was Gerald Stern's Cow Worship. I knew it had to be on the web somewhere, but couldnt't get Google to cough it up -- Yahoo was the one that came through for me. So here it is. Read it twice throught, three times, and smile with me.

Cow Worship

I love the cows best when they are a few feet away
from my dining-room window and my pine floor,
when they reach into kiss me with their wet
mouths and their white noses.
I love them as they walk over garbage cans
and across cellar doors, over the sidewalk and through the metal chairs
and the birdseed.
-Let me reach out through the thin curtains
and feel the warm air of May.
It is the temperatures of the whole galaxy,
all the bright clouds and its clusters,
beasts and heroes,
glittering singers and isolated thinkers
at pasture.

by: Gerald Stern

From: 250 Poems: A Portable Anthology

Here's another from the same site:

The cow is of the bovine ilk,
One end is moo, the other milk.

by: Ogden Nash


Also recommended, this by the Irish poet, Medbh McGuckian:


A man will keep a horse for prestige,
But a woman ripens best underground.
He settles where the wind
Brings his whirling hat to rest,
And the wind decides which door is to be used.

Under the hip-roofed thatch,
The bed-wing is warmed by chimney breast;
On either side the keeping-holes
For his belongings, hers.

He says it's unlucky to widen the house,
And leaves the gateposts holding up the fairies.
He lays his lazy-beds and burns the river,
He builds turf-castles,
And sprigs the corn with apple-mint.

She spreads heather on the floor
And sifts the oatmeal ark for thin-bread farls:
All through the blue month
She tosses stones in basins to the sun,
And watches for the trout in the holy well.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


The Maine music box: a pilot project to create a digital music library

Marilyn Lutz
The Authors

Marilyn Lutz, Director for Library Information Technology Planning at the University of Maine, Orono, Maine, USA


The Maine Music Box (MMB) is an interactive, multimedia digital music library that enables users to view images of sheet music, scores and cover art play back audio and video renditions, and manipulate the arrangement of selected pieces by changing the key and instrumentation. .. The impetus for the endeavor is a unique collaborative effort within and among diverse institutions and individuals. The project demonstrates how the collections of one library can be enriched with the tools of information technologies from another library, and the resulting digital collection and services made available to support and advance the broad education mission of libraries.

Building on [a] history of collaboration and common vision, the Maine Music Box ... seeks to explore the feasibility of and obstacles to combining collections, digital library infrastructure, and technical and pedagogical expertise from different institutions to implement a digital music library and integrate it into Maine's classrooms. The joint effort has brought together individuals with widely varying backgrounds....

In the winter of 2001 preliminary discussions took place between Fogler Library and the Bagaduce Music Lending Library, a unique, non-profit organization that houses a collection of over 400,000 pieces of sheet music, scores, and printed music that the library lends to professional musicians and educational institutions. Of concern to the Bagaduce Board was providing broader access to their rapidly expanding collections and creating archival copies of fragile and deteriorating paper sheet music and scores. For a small organization like the Bagaduce Library, the digitization of parts of the collection was impossible without outside fiscal and technical assistance. Fogler Library wanted to leverage its investment over the past decade in information technology infrastructure and expand its experience in the digitization of text, image and audio collections by supporting access to significant music collections in Maine.

Fogler Library proposed undertaking a digitization project, using off-the-shelf software, to deliver a digital music library and instruction tool with the Bagaduce and Bangor Libraries' collections of sheet music, scores and manuscripts that would be hosted by Fogler's technology infrastructure and technical staff, thereby broadening access and increasing the scholarly value of the collections. Through digitization, musicians, scholars, educators, students, and the general public would be able to search textual data and retrieve images of scores or sheet music and cover art, link to the full text of lyrics, hear selected-computer generated sound files, and link to other digital versions of a piece. The system interface, which manages the delivery of the images combined with the customizable options for the associated sound files, would enable instructors to integrate the digital music library in teaching and learning. Preservation copies would be created and delivered to the partner libraries. The archive would also be accessible through a Web-based instructional channel integrated with the music database.

The Bagaduce staff selected four collections of music scores, manuscripts and sheet music, totaling 22,641 titles or 114,517 pages, for digitization and inclusion in the pilot project... The Bangor Public Library contributed one collection. The condition of the original materials, their historical importance, and the need to preserve and broaden access to them through digital conversion were primary considerations. ..

[T]he project cataloger... adds subject headings and performs authority verification (Library of Congress Authorities, Library of Congress Subject Headings, Art and Architecture Thesaurus, and the Library of Congress Thesaurus of Graphic Materials), adds local thesaurus terms provided by Bagaduce staff, and further enhances the records as necessary according to AACR2 rev. Chapter 5 Music. ...

Library Hi Tech
Volume 22 Number 3 2004 pp. 283-294
Copyright © MCB University Press ISSN 0737-8831

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Writing in the margins

Writing in the margins

John Keats wrote in the margins of books he borrowed and owned. He passed them to his friends and they did the same. Books were too expensive to keep to oneself, and the marginal notations were sort of the equivalent of today's blogging habit. No?

This from Cliopatria:

Two of my favorite books about John Adams, Joseph Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993); and Zoltan Haraszti's much older book, John Adams and the Prophets of Progress (1952), make extensive use of the marginalia in the books in Adams's library. Some people apparently write notes in the margins of library books. Brandon Watson at Siris has a post that leaves you wondering why anyone would leave behind such evidence of non-comprehension. At Mode for Caleb, Caleb McDaniel looks, not at marginalia, but at the debris left to mark pages in a library book. It usually leaves no damage and may be a sort of winsome greeting to the next reader. In my first teaching position, one of my colleagues actually sent me on a scavenger hunt through books in the college library. He meant well. The message was: the odds against your getting tenure here are overwhelming; get your work done and be prepared to move on.

Friday, October 08, 2004

The clothes we wear

I changed and re-named this post; that's why it's showing up as a new entry, though it's actually not.

As a VISTA Volunteer in 1966, I remember letting my hair grow so long that the South-Side Chicago kids I worked with called me "wolf-man." The hair was only half an inch longer than the regulation Kennedy/Princeton cut of my college years. I remember New York City in 1967 in all it's exuberant Hippydom. And I remember how ridiculous I felt in the first pair of bell-bottom jeans I bought (at the urging of my friend Alan, a slightly more adventurous cultural observer). I also remember London at the tail end of the decade, the outrageous gear on the backs of the young, Carnaby Street shops, small flats in Notting Hill Gate, mini-skirts, bell-bottom trousers, wide lapels and fat ties; not to mention the Brits' celebration of R&B.

Click images if you wish. The first one leads to a BBC article on demise of the mini-skirt in 1970.

Of course not everyone took to the new fashion. I had an office with Rex and Ian, publisher's representatives who specialized in the educational market in Africa. Rex wore a midnight blue, chalkstripe suit. It was his work uniform and I saw no other. He kept three of them and would order his tailor to make another when one was getting worn out. The cuffs were lined with leather to prevent fraying. Two years earlier, my major professor at U of Wisconsin, also an Englishman, had been the same, only he had three tweed sport jackets. I expect Eric Hobsbawm, my thesis advisor in London, followed the same practice, though the subject never came up.

Not having been brought up to bespoke tailoring, my wardrobe gradually did evolve. I bought a tight-fitted military tunic (mufti, not Guards' red) and still own a wide-lapel herringbone Harris tweed jacket bought then. Also a rather nice sheepskin winter coat, which, unlike the tweed, I still wear.

There it is: I still wear a garment bought 35 years ago. The following essay is about the tawdry dressing habit of academics. But I see it more as an essay in conservation.

From: The Common Review


Look at us. Glance around a room at a professional meeting: we look like refugees. And not refugees from an interesting culture. Refugees from Scarsdale in 1983 or from Boise in 1994. ... [O]ne long for the days when scholars wore robes. After all, the students we teach are not about to tell us if we are dressing like morons. [They, the] sublimely fit gazelles who sit restless in our classrooms can wear cargo pants and look acutely gorgeous. Whereas if we wear cargo pants, we look like cargo.

Why is how we dress important, after all? We're busy with texts, not with textiles. We pride ourselves in saying, along with Hamlet, "I know not seams," winking at the homonym, as if to say we know better than to mistake fripperies for fundamentals.

From Volume 2, Number 3 of The Common Review. No part of this material may be reprinted without the permission of The Common Review and the author. © 2003 by The Common Review.


See also:

Selling Us
The Emperor's New-Tech Clothes
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page F01


The developments in clothing performance are the result of chemists and engineers getting involved in fabric treatment on the molecular level. ... Creating a stain-resistant shirt means fusing molecules of water-resistant chemicals to the actual fibers of the fabric, giving it an almost creepy ability to deflect any kind of liquid.

At the same time, molecules of anti-microbial substances might be attached to those same fibers, preventing the growth of odor-causing bacteria. Meanwhile, other chemicals, weaves and treatments can make that same shirt pull moisture away from the body and release it, so sweat evaporates more quickly.

And, voilà -- you have a shirt that doesn't stink or show sweat marks or evidence of this morning's breakfast disaster. [This clothes tech has sales appeal.] Shoppers have demonstrated a willingness to pay more for performance is going to be the main driver behind the growth of functional apparel. Retailers believe they may finally have found a way to get customers to pay full price for their clothes again. Unlike the old Alec Guinness movie "The Man in the White Suit," in which the invention of a never-needs-cleaning-or-ironing fabric sends the apparel industry into a tailspin, the clothing and retail worlds today are positively giddy about the real-life possibilities that technology is offering to an age-old business.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


The Crooked Timber weblog has a piece of satire on the Cat Stevens deportation incident. It claims that the historian Eric Hobsbawm has been deported in a manner similar to the treatment of Cat Stevens. Hobsbawm is a Marxist who was on U.S. "no-entry" lists during the Cold War, but still was able to enter the U.S. occasionally before 1989 and was a frequent visitor, & part-time resident, subsequently. He held a teaching post at the New School in NYC for awhile, maybe still. He's now 87 years old.

The posting goes like this: 'After the historian’s name appeared on a no-fly list, his UA flight was diverted 600 miles to Maine, the elderly scholar was removed and, after questioning by FBI agents he was placed on the first available flight to the UK. Homeland Security officials said “we’ve been watching this guy for a while, we had new intelligence….”'

People who have commented on this post point out that Stevens is a very active supporter of radical Islam. Possibly the worst that can be said about Hobsbawm is that he has never disowned his belief in Communism despite all the horrors that have been perpetrated by Communist regimes.

The satire got me roiled -- and fooled me into believing it was accurate reporting -- because I've a strong affection for Hobsbawm and his work. The author of the satire tipped his hand by including this link. But, of course, I didn't open it at first.

During the two years I studied in London, he was my thesis advisor and I've fond memories of him. His books are all interesting, and some are special because he's not afraid to write World History, and has the skills to carry it off well. The world history series includes Age of revolution 1789-1848, Age of capital, 1848-1875; Age of empire, 1875-1914; and Age of extremes, 1914-1991.

I've been meaning to write about him in context of a book I recently finished, a book self-described as "big history" meaning not just what Hobsbawm did in his world history series, but the history of all time -- everything from the big bang to the moment the book was written. This book is Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (David Christian. xxii + 642 pp. University of California Press, 2004). It draws heavily on Hobsbawm's work for its treatment of human events of the twentieth-century.

Hobsbawm belongs to the tribe of Labour Historians in England, but is quite different from most of this breed. They confine themselves to England, or at best the United Kingdom, while he ranges world-wide. They seem to be mostly mono-lingual where he has numerous tongues. They're pretty much all British-born, whereas, though a British subject, he was born in Alexandria, Egypt. They're in the Anglo-Protestant tradition, where his roots are Jewish. They stick to history, whereas he has a passion for jazz, and has been a noted jazz critic. What he shares with them is a view of history from the bottom up and a Socialist/Communist inclination or commitment. Typical of this work is his early book Primitive rebels: studies in archaic forms of social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, 1959. This was the work that drew me to him when I started work on my (unfinished) PhD thesis about imprisonment for debt in late Georgian and early Victorian England. I came later to enjoy his universal approach to history as the "Age of" books subsequently appeared.

My two favorite memories of him don't have to do with academic work. He and his wife came to dinner at our tiny flat one evening and insisted, against all protestation, that he would do the washing up; said he actually enjoyed it. Second, he lent us use of his cottage in Wales for a long-weekend ramble in the spring of 1970. It's an ancient field-stone structure in the wonderfully romantic sheep-grazed hills of North Wales. As he says, it's located "between the Hay-on-Wye literary festival and the Brecon jazz festival" [source]

This is not the actual cottage, but it looks like this.

Despite his age, he continues to frankly speak his mind in print. The current issue of Foreign Policy, has an article in which he writes: "We are at present engaged in what purports to be a planned reordering of the world by the powerful states. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are but one part of a supposedly universal effort to create world order by “spreading democracy.” This idea is not merely quixotic—it is dangerous. The rhetoric surrounding this crusade implies that the system is applicable in a standardized (Western) form, that it can succeed everywhere, that it can remedy today’s transnational."

Though the thought-connection with Maps of Time is strong, it's not the only one that I've been brooding about. It occurs to me that Hobsbawm's career would be interesting to compare with Isaiah Berlin's. Though Berlin is commonly labelled a philosopher, he considered himself to be a historian of ideas and though Hobsbawm has written histories of events, his approach is ideological in the broadest sense. They're both idea men in their way. In their historical research they both seek out the unheralded and overlooked sources. They're both supra-national in outlook, They are both pluralists. I think Hobsbawm would agree with what one commentator has said of Berlin's approach to pluralism: "ultimate human values are objective but irreducibly diverse, that they are conflicting and often uncombinable." Neither espouses "Whig History"; they both view "progress" as at best a misleading way of looking at the course of history. They are both Jewish by birth.

The contrasts are just as remarkable. Hobsbawm is a prolific author, and, while there's lots of Berlin in print, he actually wrote little and relied on a Boswell -- Henry Hardy -- to compile and edit his lectures. Hobsbawm is anti-establishment, Communist, and materialist in philosophic approach. Berlin was establishment, liberal, and not at all doctrinaire, thus more pragmatic in philosophic approach. Hobsbawm is anti-Zionist and believes it was a terrible mistake to set up a Jewish nation in Palestine. Berlin was a Zionist. It might be true to say Hobsbawm champions the common man, if there is such a creature, and that Berlin was fascinated by the larger-than-life characters of history, such as Tolstoy. Trivially, Berlin was an Oxonian while Hobsbawm a Cantabrian.

Interestingly, they both wrote books about Marxism (Berlin's and Hobsbawm's).

Hobsbawm is not conventionally handsome. His face is most dramatic and, as you can see, memorable.

Hobsbawm links:

Eric Hobsbawm: Observer special

Eric Hobsbawm: a life

New York Review of Books

Eric Hobsbawm,
Interviewed by Michael Monteleone

Essential facts

Tuesday, October 05, 2004


We've been watching more DVDs lately. Here's one.

I recall disappointment, thinking the movie un-Berman-like when I first saw it. This viewing was pure delight. It's just right for what it is. The music is beautiful, voices excellent, acting just right, and cinematography entirely appropriate for all the rest.

The film evokes the original production of the opera in 1791, but is presented as to a modern audience of all the world, including a cherub in whom Bergman and the camera take particular delight.

The opera's libretto isn't as bad as some, though Mozart gave too much rein to his infatuation with Freemasonry.

As one critic says: "Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in 1791, just after the French Revolution and just before he died. Haydn had introduced Mozart to Freemasonry, and the opera is full of the ideas (the autonomy of the individual, self-determination, appalling sexism) and ideals (power, wisdom, beauty) of the Masons...." Arthur Lazere

This hodge-podge is interesting from a history-of-ideas perspective, and Bergman's touch is respectful of the original but far from propagandizing this view of life. His Music-Hall moral placards keep the Masonic themes from weighing down the tone of boyant optimism.

Another critic, Mark Blumberg, says, "Rarely does one see a movie that has such visual flair and sincere emotions that it fills the viewer with so much excitement."

Squib from the Internet Movie Database:
Bergman's Magic Flute
made for TV
Far from attempting to open out the opera, Bergman has been at pains to recreate the atmosphere of the 1791 production at the Theater auf der Weiden in Vienna (even the dragon that pursues Tamino upstage is a delightful creature of felt and bunting). The Drottningholm Palace Theatre proved too fragile to accommodate a TV crew, so the stage was carefully reconstructed in the studios of the Swedish Film Institute, under the direction of Henny Noremark.

This one's from Bright Lights Film Journal
Ingmar Bergman does it again!
Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, was a prominent German Shakespearean actor, who’d just finished a run in The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most artificial plays. Schikaneder imported Shakespeare’s characters wholesale, so that Prospero equals Sarastro, Ferdinand equals Tamino, Miranda equals Pamina, Caliban equals Monostratos, and Ariel equals Popagano. The Magic Flute hovers deliberately between comic opera and fairy tale, and Bergman takes off on this. ... Schikaneder’s libretto is, famously, a mess, but that’s half the charm. It’s hard to see how anyone could make The Magic Flute coherent, and, at any rate, Bergman wasn’t the man for the job.

Other Magic Flute links

New York Times

DVD Beaver

British Film Institute