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Posts Tagged ‘criticism

“A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing”*…

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pumped body was like “a brown condom full of walnuts”. Damon Hill’s Formula 1 car was “a modern sculpture propelled by burning money.” Television was “the haunted fish tank”, a sense of humour was merely “common sense, dancing” and a luxury liner was nothing but “a bad play surrounded by water.” Sydney’s Opera House looked like “a portable typewriter full of oyster shells”… and the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland’s maquillage became the most famous make-up in town: “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”

You didn’t need to read Clive James’s books or poems to feel the impact he made on the English language. You only had to watch television or read the papers…

No other writer could capture the popular imagination like this. But this generous, glittering shrapnel of unforgettable imagery all fell outside the realms of Clive’s formal literary career, leaving him with an unfair reputation as a brilliant lightweight who never quite fulfilled his dazzling potential.

The antidote to this is simple. Forget the image; read his work. If Clive James had not been such a popular and familiar figure, it would be even clearer now that we should be mourning the loss, a year ago, of a literary giant…

An appreciation of a late, lamented literary treasure: “The Enduring Prose and Poetry of Clive James.”

Your correspondent heartily recommends James’ remarkable Cultural Amnesia, richly entertaining and deeply enlightening…

This was an 850-page blockbuster, consisting of 106 brief essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on the characters he felt had determined the course of Western culture and liberal democracy’s fight for survival in the twentieth century. Most of those featured were Clive’s heroes—from Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, by way of Camus and Dick Cavett, Fellini and W.C. Fields, Egon Friedell and Terry Gilliam, Kafka and Keats, Beatrix Potter and Marcel Proust, Tacitus, Waugh and Wittgenstein. Others were his villains—Hitler, Goebbels and Mao, but also Sartre (Stalin’s apologist, “a devil’s advocate worse than the devil himself, because the advocate was smarter”), Edward “Decline and Fall” Gibbon, Alexandra Kollontai and the “dismaying” Walter Benjamin…

See also Adam Gopnik’s appreciation of James, “Clive James Got It Right” (source of the image above).

* Clive James

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As we trip the light fantastic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884 that the first installment of the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary was published.  Edited by James Murray (“The Professor” in Simon Winchester’s wonderful The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary), it was originally a project of the Philological Society of London, devoted to cataloging the English words that had evaded inclusion in then-current dictionaries.  The first edition had the benefit of 27 years of work, by dozens of contributors; the first installment, the full title of which was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, ran to 352-pages, covered the words from A to ant, and cost 12s 6d (or about $668 at current rates). The total sales were only 4,000 copies.

James Murray in the Scriptorium, the home of the OED,
on Banbury Road in Oxford (source)

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty”*…

Readers will know of your correspondent’s deep affection and respect for Martin Gardner (c.f., e.g., here), so will understand his inability to pass up this appreciation:

You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner.

I first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!”

Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies.

And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation…

Read on for Ted Gioia‘s (@tedgioia) appreciation of Gardner’s autobiogrphical works: “Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

* Bertrand Russell

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As we add it up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to J. H. C. (Henry) Whitehead; he was born on this date in 1904. A mathematician (and nephew of Alfred North Whitehead), he was a topographer, one of the founders of homotopy theory, an approach to mapping of topological spaces.

Born in Chennai and educated at Oxford and Princeton, he joined the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II and by 1945 was one of some fifteen mathematicians working in the “Newmanry,” a section headed by Max Newman that was responsible for breaking a German teleprinter cipher using machine methods– which included the use of Colossus machines, early digital electronic computers.

He spent the rest of his career at Oxford (where he was Waynflete Professor of Pure Mathematics at Magdalen College). He served as president of the London Mathematical Society, which created two prizes in his memory: the annually-awarded Whitehead Prize and the biennially-awarded Senior Whitehead Prize.

source

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”*…

 

What is a sentence? But that is such a formal question. How about, what is a sentence for? Less formal, perhaps, but obviously impossible to answer, for sheer variety. There may be some human purposes that don’t find their way into sentences, but writers keep trying, and for any limit we experience there may be a sentence in waiting and a writer to try it…

I’ll propose one purpose that all sentences have in common. The purpose of a sentence is to end. If this is a property of all sentences, any ought to do for an example, but here is one particularly determined to be done with itself:

1 The world is everything that is the case.

It comes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as translated from German into English by C. K. Ogden in 1922…

From the first of the Paris Review’s eight-part series, Life Sentence, the literary critic, scholar, and poet Jeff Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence every week.  Tom Toro illustrates each sentence Dolven chooses.

[TotH to John Stedman]

* H.L. Mencken

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As we pause to parse prose, we might recall that it was on this date in 1983 that the celebration of the crafter of so very many elegant sentences, Martin Luther King, was made official, when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating the Martin Luther King Jr. Day federal holiday.  Reagan had opposed the holiday, citing its cost, joining southern Republicans like Jesse Helms, who were more naked in their reasoning; but the enabling legislation had passed by a veto-proof margin.

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“I got a little bored after a time. I mean, the road seemed to be awfully long.”*…

 

Explore– and enjoy: “14 classic works of literature hated by famous authors.”

* Aldous Huxley on On the Road

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As we devour the dish, we might send prolific birthday greetings to E. Phillips Oppenheim; he was born on this date in 1866.  

After leaving school at age 17 to help in his father’s leather business, Oppenheim wrote in his spare time. His first novel, Expiation (1886), and subsequent thrillers caught the fancy of a wealthy New York businessman who bought out the leather business at the turn of the century and made Oppenheim a high-salaried director. He was thus freed to devote the major part of his time to writing. The novels, volumes of short stories, and plays that followed, totaling more than 150, were peopled with sophisticated heroes, adventurous spies, and dashing noblemen. Among his well-known works are The Long Arm of Mannister (1910), The Moving Finger (1911), and The Great Impersonation (1920). [source]

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Written by LW

October 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand”*…

 

Cultural critique is in a tricky spot. Living as we do under an extremist government, it is hard to know what to do with criticism, or how to consume art that does not carry a big rubber stamp declaring it “political.” It’s hard to defend doing anything except being in the streets…

Cultural criticism is not self-indulgent: It is a service to the community…  Painting, music, television, the visual culture of the internet, poetry: These art forms and their consumers and critics represent an aesthetic space whose boundaries are not defined by the president. Unless we believe in and nurture this space, the critic is stuck forever explaining how this or that book is crucial reading “in Trump’s America.” But this type of reviewing hobbles thought, because it reduces all art to the structure of satire. It is as if Trump is a spider in the middle of a web, and every review that tethers the meaning of a pop song to his régime strengthens it…

Art as society’s hope chest: “In Defense of Cultural Criticism in Trump’s America.”

* Bob Dylan, “The Times, They Are A’-Changin'”

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As we think for ourselves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1839 that Charlotte Brontë, eldest of the three literary Brontë sisters, and author of Jane Eyre (among other novels), wrote to The Reverend Henry Nussey, the brother of Ellen Nussey, her long-time friend and correspondent, refusing Henry’s proposal of marriage.  Charlotte found Henry desperately dull.  Still, she let him down diplomatically.  “I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you,” she wrote in her unenthusiastic reply, going on to cite altruistic reasons for her demurral: “mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you.”

cbrichmond source

 

Written by LW

March 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

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