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“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)

“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them”*…

Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country” (1913), like much that Edith Wharton wrote, can be described as a novel of manners. That’s to say, a social fiction in which the carefully observed customs of a particular society shape the characters’ actions and the plot. The designation somehow implies frivolity, or at least, traditionally, the feminine or domestic sphere (Jane Austen could be considered the first author of such works); and in this period of profound crisis in American society, it might seem easy to dismiss the relevance of such diverting works…

In this case, Wharton follows the social rise (and rise) of beautiful young Undine Spragg (named after her grandfather’s patented hair-crimper), who arrives in New York City from the fictional town of Apex City, Iowa, in the company of her newly moneyed, wide-eyed parents, Abner and Leota. She initially takes instruction on New York society’s hierarchies from gossip columns and her manicurist, but Undine’s looks soon gain her entrée into conversation with a fashionable portraitist named Popple, and then an invitation to dine at the home of the elegant Fairfords, where Mrs. Fairford’s brother, Ralph Marvell, pays her particular attention. On their eventual honeymoon, he’ll introduce her to European and in particular Parisian society, thereby widening the horizons of Undine’s social ambition: New York comes to feel provincial and dull next to Paris.

The fact that “The Custom of the Country” is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times. Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach… A quick study, she busily absorbs the conventions wherever she lands (she proves a masterful code-switcher, as we might say now), but she’s also resolutely, selfishly, intractably herself, ready to flout convention if and when she can get away with it. Always gorgeous and elegantly dressed — her husband, Ralph, describes her face when in society as “like a theatre with all the lustres blazing” — Undine is nevertheless limited by her vapidity. As an American friend married to a French aristocrat explains, “You’re as handsome as ever; but people here don’t go on looking at each other forever.”…

Wharton’s genius lies in her novelistic ability to allow her characters their perspectives while seeing the situation from all sides. Both in her lifetime and since, she has been maligned for being born rich (Franzen complains that “privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage”); and Janet Flanner accused her, in a waspish 1929 New Yorker profile, of lacking sensuality and sympathy, of “formally proving that the wages of social sin were social death.” But in fact Wharton — who could well have sat around in her fancy houses eating bonbons with her feet up rather than writing wonderfully entertaining, humanly true novels that have stood the test of time — turned her critical eye equally upon transgressors and upholders of convention alike. That’s not to excuse her snobbery or to overlook the limitations of accounts of high society; but now, as then, we’re fascinated by the lives of the wealthy, and shouldn’t project our own secret shame about it onto Wharton. Her sharp wit is hard on all her characters, and crucially, she captures also their redeeming qualities, their humanity. She sees and understands Undine’s laser-focused ambition, her parents’ trembling and self-sacrificing indulgence, Ralph’s highly cultured but weak romanticism, Elmer’s robust desire for material success. And she appreciates also Undine’s splendor, her vitality and allure, Ralph’s delicacy and tenderness, Elmer’s frankness and generosity. Like the novel’s discreet and cheerful Mrs. Heeny, masseuse and manicurist to the rich, who travels from house to house with her bag full of press clippings, Wharton observes and records it all. In this new Gilded Age, when the disparities between rich and poor are again, and disastrously, as great as they were in Wharton’s time, we could do with such a novelist, a cultural anthropologist who might hold up a mirror to our failings and our future, with eagle-eyed clarity and a small measure of compassion…

Novelist, essayist, and professor Claire Messud on the contemporary relevance of the chronicler of the Gilded Age: “How Can We Read Edith Wharton Today?

[image above: source]

  • Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

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As we peer into the not-so-distant mirror, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Marie-Henri Beyle; he was born on this date in 1783. Better known by his pen name “Stendahl,” he is remembered especially for his novels The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) and The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme). One of the first practitioners of acute explorations of his characters’ psychology, he is considered a pioneer of realism– and with Wharton, one of its finest examples.

source

“I keep pressing the space bar on my keyboard, but I’m still on Earth”*…

The Nation of Celestial Space’s flag is a #, which is the proofreader mark for “space.”

Anyone can start their own micronation. The hard part is getting the snobbish macronations to accept you into their club. Wikipedia has a list of about 90 micronations from the past and present…

The founder of the Nation of Celestial Space (aka Celestia) wanted nothing more than to have the United Nations recognize his micronation. James Thomas Mangan, a 52-year-old Chicago publicist, self-help author, and industrial designer founded the Nation of Celestial Space in 1948, claiming the entirety of outer space, ‘‘specifically exempting from claim every celestial body, whether star, planet, satellite, or comet, and every fragment.” In other words, Celestia owned no matter — just the empty space the matter occupied. (Celestia’s charter made an exception for the Moon, Venus, and Mars and its two moons as “Proclaimed Protectorates.”)…

Mangan registered Celestia with the Cook County, Illinois Recorder and mailed letters to the secretaries of state from 74 countries and the United Nations asking them to formally recognize the Nation of Celestial Space. They ignored him. “Only my wife, my son, and my partner see the depth of it,” he told a reporter in the May 1949 issue of Science Illustrated. “This is a new, bold, immodest idea.” In 1958 Mangan took it upon himself to travel to the UN building in New York City and run the Celestia flag up a pole alongside the other national flags flying there. UN security personnel quickly removed the flag and told Mangan not to try it again…

From the remarkable Mark Frauenfelder (@Frauenfelder), the tale of the man who declared the entire universe to be a country under his protection: “Dictator of the Vacuum of Space“– a feature in Mark’s newsletter, The Magnet, eminently worthy of subscription.

* anonymous

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As we celebrate sovereignty, we might rejoice in the naively noble: it was on this date in 1605 that El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha ( or The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha— aka Don Quixote), the masterwork of Miguel de Cervantes (and of the Spanish Golden Age) and a founding work of Western literature, was first published. Widely considered the first modern novel published in the Western world, it is also considered by many (still) to be the best; it is in any case the second most translated work in the world (after the Bible).

Original title page

“The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic”*…

Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate has issued proceedings, complaining that Enola Holmes,  a recently released film about Sherlock Holmes’ sister, portrays the great detective as too emotional.

Sherlock Holmes was famously suspicious of emotions. “‘[L]ove is an emotional thing,’ he icily observed, ‘and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things’.”  “I am a brain’, he told Watson. ‘The rest of me is a mere appendix’.”

I can imagine that many professional scientists and philosophers would feel affronted if they were accused of being emotional animals. Holmes is a model for them. He’s rigorous, empirical, and relies on induction.

But here’s the thing. He’s not actually very good. Mere brains might be good at anticipating the behaviour of mere brains, but they’re not good for much else. In particular Holmes is not a patch on his rival, Chesterton’s Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest. Gramsci writes that Brown “totally defeats Sherlock Holmes, makes him look like a pretentious little boy, shows up his narrowness and pettiness.Brown is faster, more efficient, and, for the criminal, deadlier. This is because, not despite, his use of his emotions.

In science it is rather more important to find out the right answer than to identify an answer that will fit one’s currently ruling paradigm. In moral philosophy it is rather more important to find the morally correct course than to identify one that doesn’t outrage the zeitgeist. Father Brown can help. Sherlock Holmes can’t.

Lessons for Philosophers and Scientists from Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown

For an example, see “Peirce on Abduction.”

[Image above: source]

* G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown

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As we get in touch with our feelings, we might spare a thought for Humphrey DeForest Bogart; he died on this date in 1957. An actor whose career began in the theater, his motion picture roles made him a cultural icon; in 1999, the American Film Institute selected Bogart as the greatest male star of classic American cinema. While there can certainly be legitimate debate as to his most memorable role, his turns as a detective (Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon; Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep) are certainly among the contenders.

source

“As long as the world is turning and spinning, we’re gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes”*…

Observant fans of HG Wells have questioned how a new coin from the Royal Mint commemorating The War of the Worlds author could be released with multiple errors, including giving his “monstrous tripod” four legs.

The £2 coin is intended to mark 75 years since the death of Wells, and includes imagery inspired by The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man.

Unfortunately, it strays from Wells’s vision of his creations. “As someone who particularly likes one of his very famous stories, can I just note that the big walking machine on the coin has four legs? Four legs. The man famous for creating the Martian TRIpod,” wrote artist Holly Humphries. “How many people did this have to go through? Did they know how to count?”

Science fiction novelist and professor of 19th-century literature Adam Roberts, who is author of a biography of Wells and vice president of the HG Wells Society, also criticised the depiction of the Invisible Man, shown in a top hat; in the book he arrives at Iping under a “wide-brimmed hat”.

“It’s nice to see Wells memorialised, but it would have been nicer for them to get things right,” Roberts said. “A tripod with four legs is hard to comprehend (tri: the clue is in the name), and Wells’s (distinctly ungentlemanly) invisible man, Griffin, never wore a top hat … I’d say Wells would be annoyed by this carelessness: he took immense pains to get things right in his own work – inviting translators of his book to stay with him to help the process and minimise errors and so on.”…

The Wells slip-up is not the first mistake immortalised in legal tender. In 2013, Ireland’s Central Bank misquoted James Joyce on a commemorative coin intended to honour the author. While Joyce wrote in Ulysses: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read …”, the Central Bank included an extra “that” in the final sentence, with its coin reading: “Signatures of all things that I am here to read.” The bank later claimed the coin was intended to be “an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation”.

Later that year, a new £10 note featured Jane Austen with the quote “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” However, the line is spoken by Caroline Bingley, described by academic John Mullan as “a woman who has no interest in books at all”. “You can imagine being the Bank of England employee given the task of finding the telling Austen quotation. Something about reading, perhaps? A quick text search in Pride and Prejudice turns up just the thing,” wrote Mullan at the time…

Memorializing mistakes in metal: “HG Wells fans spot numerous errors on Royal Mint’s new £2 coin.

* Mel Brooks

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As we cast with care, we might recall that it was on this date in 1493 that Christopher Columbus, having sailed from Spain six months earlier and arrived in the Caribbean, off the shores of (what we now know as) the Dominican Republic, saw three “mermaids,” described in his diary as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Mermaids, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, had persistently been reported in seafaring cultures at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees (sea cows), dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting).

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