Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Time to switch to WordPress (one more in a continuing series)

I've kept writing this blog with Blogger partly (mostly) out of inertia, and partly because WordPress doesn't have a feature like Blogger's slide show.

But the slide show works only part-time these days, and as of March 29 Blogger has lost one more format feature: curly single and double quotation marks. Those are the default formats in Windows Live Writer, where I started writing my Blogger posts last year after Blogger began losing the spaces between my paragraphs. But in Blogger they've now started showing only as empty boxes.

If you see one of those in one of my posts, please let me know. I'm replacing them, one punctuation mark at a time, but the progress is slow and the prospect of future readability grows ever more uncertain.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Homage before Rembrandt

Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Conservatives do learn

According to the March 24 New York Times, Governor Paul LePage of Maine has ordered the removal from Maine's Department of Labor building of a mural depicting Maine's workers. According to the article, "A spokeswoman said Mr. LePage, a Republican, ordered the mural removed after several business officials complained about it and after the governor received an anonymous fax saying it was reminiscent of 'communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.'" The link is here, with a picture of the mural.


And here's your portrait of a thinker whose ideas about aesthetics interestingly anticipated Governor LePage's.

Click to enlarge. The patronymic initial is wrong; it should be A, not O. With that correction, the transliterated name under the portrait is A. A. Zhdanov.

And about Zhdanov, who was the chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet from 1938 to 1947 and the most important Socialist Realist aesthetician, Maynard Solomon writes:

Zhdanov's and Radek's 1934 call for Socialist Realism coincided precisely with cancellation of the liberal abortion and divorce laws, with passage of strict laws against homosexuality and with the arrest of a large number of homosexuals among the intelligentsia, accused of conspiracy with the Roehm Nazis.  (Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary [1973; Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979] 239)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Words seen: prose vs. image

In my March 14 post "Heritage and heirloom" I quoted this passage from a justification of slavery written on the eve of the Civil War by the Southern economist J. D. B. DeBow.
The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use for savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with. If a woman, her children become heir-looms, and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.  (93)

On March 17 this image appeared in Edward Rothstein's "Not Forgotten," a New York Times article about Civil War museums.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/design/in-the-south-civil-war-has-not-been-forgotten.html . Click to enlarge.

Which words work better at communicating a notion of slavery as concept -- DeBow's purist prose, chaste black on a chaste white page, or this soiled trace on an empty bag?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

White surface

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

DeBow appendix: how to understand Faulkner and the Tea Party

At http://jonathan-morse.blogspot.com/2011/03/heritage-and-heirloom.html I quoted the economist J. D. B. DeBow writing in defense of slavery in 1860. The passage I quoted there was written from an economic point of view, but DeBow's essay "The Non-Slaveholders of the South" also encompasses theology and social psychology. Here, for its educational interest, is some of the social psychology.
The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro's vote shall weigh equally with his own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the school-house, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. It never occurs to him that a white man could be degraded enough to boast in a public assembly, as was recently done in New York, of having actually slept with a negro. And his patriotic ire would crush with a blow the free negro who would dare, in his presence, as is done in the free States, to characterize the father of the country as a "scoundrel." No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst his brother here has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.  (92-93)
Helps you understand why so many Republicans are so furious, doesn't it? Their world has been pulled out from under them. President Obama is black. Emily Dickinson, who suffered panic attacks at the sight of a black servant, explained:

Elder, Today, A session wiser,
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is,
I find Myself still softly searching
For my Delinquent Palaces --

And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then
That I am looking oppositely
For the Site of the Kingdom of Heaven --

(Fr1072, "A loss of something ever felt I")


After 26 years at my current address, I've just discovered a stand of Hong Kong orchid trees at the playground one block down the street. So:


Monday, March 14, 2011

Heritage and heirloom

Ruth Wisse of Harvard has a problem: in 1988 she coined a nine-word phrase which turned out to be a work of literature.

Professor Wisse has not been happy with that development. In a memoir at


she hints (though she doesn't quite say) that the phrase was foisted on her by an editor, and she calls one critic "tacky" for quoting it back at her. She bitterly adds: ". . . Google tosses up this quotation as Sea World caretakers throw food to their fish. On the two occasions when I was being considered for a government assignment, this was the only action or statement of mine that I was asked to justify or explain."

From the point of view of literary history, such indignation seems strange. Few writers achieve immortality, after all, and you'd think the ones who do achieve it would be grateful for any portion they receive, even if it's only nine words' worth. Not many English majors now, I suppose, can tell you anything about the short-lived Victorian poet Ernest Dowson, yet two tiny phrases written by Dowson have reached immortal anonymity as the titles of famous movies: "days of wine and roses" and "gone with the wind." And that's enough, isn't it?

Well, Wisse's annoyance turns out to have a simple explanation. When she coined her phrase, Wisse thought she was writing politics, not language. It wasn't entirely her fault that she failed to think through the effect of connotation and the effect of rhyme when, in the reactionary Jewish magazine Commentary, she called the Arabs of Palestine "people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery." A professor of Yiddish literature, she was under no professional obligation to have heard of "A Modest Proposal." Nevertheless, the scorn she was trying to direct at the Palestinians ricocheted back at her cause and her.

The trajectory is easy to analyze. In English, the verb "breed" is ordinarily applied to animals, not people. When it's applied to people, it's ordinarily intended as a scornful metaphor. But there's nothing metaphoric about the misery of the Gaza Strip, and when blood is shed there it's the real thing. Thanks to the power of rhyme, however, Wisse's metaphor "breed" took control of her two non-metaphors, "bleed" and "misery," and reduced them to metaphors themselves. Ever since, the result has been that we perceive Wisse as a woman who thinks of Palestinian human beings only as words. In Wisse's language, the Palestinians are a mere political construction, and their life's blood is a mere red abstraction.

But what might happen when, in the fullness of historical time, an abstraction like that one reverts to its primitive, non-metaphorical sense?

Consider, for example, the word "heritage" as it occurs in the American conservative lexicon. It's a favorite there. An important conservative think tank, for instance, is the Heritage Foundation, and Southern conservatives in particular are fond of dressing up in Confederate gray and extolling their states' rights' heritage. But how would they react if that heritage were suddenly to appear before them in the form of a human being?

In the years before the Civil War, it could. In December 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the Southern economist J. D. B. DeBow discussed the process this way in an essay called "The Non-Slaveholders of the South."

The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use for savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with. If a woman, her children become heir-looms, and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.  (93)

Of course there's a difference between a heritage and a warehouse full of heirlooms. An heirloom is a tangible, non-metaphoric thing, but a heritage is an idea. A heritage is to an inheritance approximately as a home is to a house. Still, that heritage represented by the antique hanging on the wall and the reenactor capering across his battlefield outside the picture window was once something living and suffering. In that stage it was what DeBow called an heirloom, but just now we're out of practice with the original sense of that word. To us an heirloom is a thing, but to DeBow and the men and women of his cause it had a more expansive meaning. In the days when their heritage held to that meaning, you could put your hand on your heirloom, feel its blood pulse, and then send it out to breed.

Work cited

DeBow, J. D. B. "The Non-Slaveholders of the South." 1860. The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Ed. Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean. New York: Library of America, 2011. 85-97.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The time term

The Kyodo/Reuters image in the MSNBC photoblog at http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com is captioned, "People take shelter as a ceiling collapses in a bookstore during an earthquake in Sendai, northeastern Japan March 11, 2011." Above the words, dissected out of the passage of time by a flash of light, a snowcloud of debris has leaped down into the middle of the air like a dancer. Now, for this instant, it seems to have been there forever, like a dancer.

Image removed for copyright reasons.

Behind the cloud, a man and a woman mime their single instinct as a man and a woman. The woman's body has rotated itself in front of the man's, and her head, cradled by the man's hand, wants to bury itself in the man's shoulder. But the woman also needs to see what is approaching from behind, and so she half-turns her head, glancing out of herself in the instant that she turns away from us to the shelter she has made for herself, of herself.

Image (a detail of the one above) removed for copyright reasons.

It could be a frame from a ballet. Posed and given a context in media culture, a glance over the shoulder can begin belonging to a repertoire of indices that conventionally symbolize femininity.

Or, set into the linear sequence that is language's subdual of perception to time, a gesture enacted by the body might become a lyric poem. "My heart leaps up," cries the heart, pulsing to itself as it leaps word by freeze-framed word through the double beat of iambic movement into a reader's wordy imagination.

The man and the woman in Japan have been pictured in a bookstore but not provided with words. They have no rhythm to pace them into and then back out of their instant before the shutter. An accurate verbal description of that instant will have to omit all the instants before and after, and so it can never be more than a lyric. But language does have a technology for bringing the pulse of time into description. It is the way of epic: Pound's "poem including history."

Consider, for instance, the episode in book 18 of The Odyssey where Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, sits at the feet of the suitors before his own fireside. The suitors mock and deride, but one of them, Amphinomos, takes pity on the wretched old man. He gives him food and sincerely wishes him a change of fortune, and so Odysseus speaks some words which the young man's gesture over bread and wine has made to seem destined.

Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, 1961

Odysseus's foretelling becomes a tributary of Homer's own words as they rush toward the completion of their event in the future perfect tense. The grammar is a tide gathering itself into a fullness of absolute knowledge. Its tidal force is the power of words to create that wonderful illusion. Lift me out of the wordless world, drop me into a dictionary, and I can believe I'm one more wordy component of the dictionary's illusion of omniscience. It's an illusion made of time, and it works by rhythm, sequencing itself word by word into grammar and then syntax and then verse. But if you close the book's cover in my face and lock me and my camera out of the rhythm, in the still instant before the shutter clicks and retrospect and words begin, I'll be able to see only what the camera sees: what Stevens's Snow Man would understand (if he had words) as "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Anaglyph and asymptote: San Francisco, 1906, color



the amazing news is that six color stereopticon slides of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake have been found. The blogpost reproduces three of the slides, and I've converted one to an anaglyph, viewable in 3D with a pair of red-and-blue glasses.

Click to enlarge. The anaglyph is color-balanced (not very well) and interpolated, and for me the stereo effect is strongest when I fixate on the utility pole along the image's left margin.

The image itself is blotched and blurry, and it depicts only the ruins of some uninteresting buildings. If it fascinates us nevertheless, that may be because it has brought us a step closer than previous photographs to one of the limits that separate us from the past. Color, a twentieth-century supplement to a nineteenth-century technology, has added one more image to the metaphor of something growing into our transient lives from a larger life that will never change. A tree, say. Maybe a tree like Whitman's live oak, uttering itself to us in green leaves.

We might enjoy believing that we can feel its trunk now, and think that at any moment we'll also be able to see through the dark bark beneath which light pulses upward. But that outer limit will never become transparent. Image's colored core will always remain just behind it, in a dark where it will be 1906 forever. To admit our mortal light to that darkness would bring it to its end.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

For Wisconsin: the air we breathe, first class and steerage

You wonder: but how can the Republicans oppose the Environmental Protection Agency? You think: no matter how rich you are, you still have to breathe the same air as everybody else.

You're naive.

In The New Yorker for January 31, 1983, p. 61, William F. Buckley, the father of modern American conservatism, explains to posterity that in his limousine there actually are separate atmospheres: one for the chauffeur to breathe and the other for Mr. Buckley.

Click to enlarge.

The chauffeur is, of course, devoted to Mr. Buckley, and Mr. Buckley loves the chauffeur right back. In fifteen years, the chauffeur has not once acted uppity.

On the previous page, The New Yorker has foreshadowed Buckley's theme of the devoted servant with an advertisement for the Park Lane, a Helmsley hotel. Most of the advertisement is taken up by a thank-you note from Leona Helmsley, the president of Helmsley Hotels. According to the letter, a Mrs. John Distler had left a $58,000 pin in her room at the Park Lane. The Park Lane's employees found the pin and called Mr. Distler before he was even aware that it was missing, and Mr. Distler wrote back to thank them. Oh no, Mrs. Helmsley riposted to Mr. Distler; we keep our hotel open only because we are so devoted to you, and in any case the only fault was ours. 

Under "Leona Helmsley," Wikipedia fills out the cultural context and establishes the utter truth of Mrs. Helmsley's profession of devotion. Ten years after writing her letter to Mr. Distler, Mrs. Helmsley went to prison -- in the first instance for tax evasion, but also, no doubt, for having told a housekeeper who went on to testify against her, "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Wikipedia's typography goes on to add:

"Queen of Mean"

  • "Lawyer Alan Dershowitz said he once had breakfast with Leona at one of the Helmsley hotels and the waiter brought him a cup of tea with a tiny bit of water spilled on the saucer. Alan says Leona grabbed the cup from him and smashed it on the floor, then demanded that the waiter get down on his hands and knees and beg for his job."[42]

Devotion doesn't come cheap, but vissi d'arte. Remember that the next time you breathe, little person.

Monday, March 7, 2011

An artifact for Wisconsin: were America's teachers ever respected?

The "Room for Debate" feature in the online New York Times for March 6


is headed "Why Blame the Teachers?", and its establishing shot looks like this.

Click to enlarge.

Look at the affectionate hearts on the picket sign. Look at the sad face on the man in the black wool cap. What this image shows us is the population of an imagined past: a domain perhaps like the one that A. E. Housman imagined in "Into My Heart an Air That Kills"; a world full of love for us teachers.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

But what was it like in real life, off the page of the kind of memory that's always a poem?

By way of a start on an answer to that question, here below is a small documentary trace. The pages come from August B. Hollingshead's Elmtown's Youth: The Impact of Social Classes on Adolescents (New York: John Wiley, 1949), a sociological study based on field work conducted between May 1941 and December 1942 -- that is, right at the end of the Great Depression, just at the moment the United States entered World War II (viii). 

Because of a wartime delay, Elmtown's Youth wasn't published until the beginning of the television era, when its Depression landscapes must have seemed a vista of the distant past. But it may be that Depression-era Elmtown is a society on its way again toward resembling ours in 2011: a society divided between the very rich and everybody else. As of 1941, Hollingshead's "Elmtown" (actually Peru, Indiana, a manufacturing center surrounded by farmland) was home to an American community living in an ordinary mix of poverty and prosperity. In one other respect, however, it was extraordinary: this drab little midwestern town was also home to a rentier class which was wealthy indeed. (The immensely rich Cole Porter was a Peru boy.) It was the rentiers who ran the town and its underfunded school system, and it was the rentiers who set the norms for teachers to live by.

So here's your artifact of the life that that society ordained for its teachers.

And what do you think, fellow teachers: in the hedge fund era, does this oldie from seventy years ago remind you of anything in your current lives? Is what was once extraordinary becoming ordinary for you and those who will follow you?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rabbi ben Ezra in the hedge fund era

No, says the lead article in the special "Retirement" section of the March 3 New York Times, you probably can't afford to retire. You didn't save enough, and it's too late to start now. But (chirps another article), now is the ideal time to start that brand new career! Have you considered, for example, becoming a pet sitter?

Also, adds a third article, college towns tend to be nice places to live, and they're not expensive. Does the author of that article have Princeton in mind, or perhaps Palo Alto?

Well, no. The specific suggestion is Oxford, Mississippi.

Seldom has the case for euthanasia been presented more convincingly.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Life imitates art, and the ironic effect is far too easy

The image, via


dates from about 1910 and was taken in Louisiana at what is now the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. With one word deleted for now, the photograph's original title was "Sternwheeler ______ at Angola Landing, State Penitentiary farm, Mississippi River."

Think 1960s. Think Easy Rider. Think a guy with a guitar and a battered fedora on the back of his head and an old lady (that's what we called them then; we're talking about a 19-year-old behind the counter in a radiator shop) supporting him. Think, "Ah, sophomore year."

Then look at the prison stripes. Then fill in the blank by looking at the name on the boat.

Click to enlarge.