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“It is a cliche that most cliches are true, but then like most cliches, that cliche is untrue.”*…

Although its, uh, cultural cachet, I suppose, has fallen in recent decades, a doofy poem called “The Desiderata of Happiness” used to be something that you’d see on the walls of doctors’ and dentists’ offices, at your grandmother’s, a great aunt’s house, or maybe in the very home that you yourself grew up in, during the 1960s and 70s. (At one point the hippies even adopted it.)

You don’t see it so often today, but it’s still around. Now that you’ve had your attention called to it, the next time you see it (normally as a varnished wooden wall plaque in a junk shop) you’ll remember this post (and wince).

Here’s an example of the proto-New Age almost meaningless wisdom you will find in “The Desiderata of Happiness”:

You are a child of the universe,

No less than the trees and the stars;

You have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you,

no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

“The Desiderata of Happiness” was written in 1906 by a lawyer named Max Ehrmann, but it was unknown during his lifetime. Its slow burn to popularity began in the 1950s when a Baltimore pastor printed it up in some church materials. The poem’s advice to be humble, live a clean and moral life and to even have respect for dipshits (it doesn’t use that exact term, of course) seems simplistic even by Forrest Gump standards, but for whatever reason this thing struck a chord with the public. (You can read more about its history at Wikipedia).

In 1971, a “groovy” American radio talkshow host by the name of Les Crane (once married to Gilligan’s Island‘s Tina Louise and considered by some to be the original “shock jock”) narrated a spoken word/musical version of the poem (avec gospel choir), that reached #8 in the Billboard charts and won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Performance of the Year. It was on the British pop charts for 14 months.

The following year, a parody version titled “Deteriorata” was created by the National Lampoon’s Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra and Christopher Guest (The words were Hendra’s, the music is Guest’s) released as a single and on the classic Radio Dinner album. Melissa Manchester sings on the record. The humorously ponderous reading was handled by Norman Rose, who was THE voice over announcer of the era. You’ve also heard his voice in Woody Allen’s Love & Death and The Telephone Book.

There are a few then current references in the song that might need some context for listeners almost fifty years later: The line about your dog’s diet refers to a TV dog food ad which wondered, “Is your dog getting enough cheese in his diet?” The “Remember the Pueblo” bit refers to a rightwing bumper sticker rallying cry about the capture in 1968 of the USS Pueblo by North Korea. “Do not bend, fold, spindle or mutilate” was a phrase employed on government checks. And again, bear in mind that narrator Norman Rose would be the equivalent to say, Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones reading it today…

A cultural history of cultural oddity, “The Desiderata of Happiness”: “The Universe Is Laughing Behind Your Back,” from the ever-illuminating @DangerMindsBlog.

* Stephen Fry

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As we become one with the universe, we might note that today is The Day of the Dude, he annual sacred high holy day of Dudeism, a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle inspired by “The Dude,” the protagonist of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski.  Dudeism’s stated primary objective is to promote a modern form of Chinese Taoism, outlined in Tao Te Ching, blended with concepts from the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and manifest in a style personified by the character of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (the character portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the film).

Dudeist logo

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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)

“If and when all the laws governing physical phenomena are finally discovered, and all the empirical constants occurring in these laws are finally expressed through the four independent basic constants, we will be able to say that physical science has reached its end”*…

The fine-structure constant was introduced in 1916 to quantify the tiny gap between two lines in the spectrum of colors emitted by certain atoms. The closely spaced frequencies are seen here through a Fabry-Pérot interferometer.

As fundamental constants go, the speed of light, c, enjoys all the fame, yet c’s numerical value says nothing about nature; it differs depending on whether it’s measured in meters per second or miles per hour. The fine-structure constant, by contrast, has no dimensions or units. It’s a pure number that shapes the universe to an astonishing degree — “a magic number that comes to us with no understanding,” as Richard Feynman described it. Paul Dirac considered the origin of the number “the most fundamental unsolved problem of physics.”

Numerically, the fine-structure constant, denoted by the Greek letter α (alpha), comes very close to the ratio 1/137. It commonly appears in formulas governing light and matter. “It’s like in architecture, there’s the golden ratio,” said Eric Cornell, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “In the physics of low-energy matter — atoms, molecules, chemistry, biology — there’s always a ratio” of bigger things to smaller things, he said. “Those ratios tend to be powers of the fine-structure constant.”

The constant is everywhere because it characterizes the strength of the electromagnetic force affecting charged particles such as electrons and protons. “In our everyday world, everything is either gravity or electromagnetism. And that’s why alpha is so important,” said Holger Müller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. Because 1/137 is small, electromagnetism is weak; as a consequence, charged particles form airy atoms whose electrons orbit at a distance and easily hop away, enabling chemical bonds. On the other hand, the constant is also just big enough: Physicists have argued that if it were something like 1/138, stars would not be able to create carbon, and life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

Physicists have more or less given up on a century-old obsession over where alpha’s particular value comes from; they now acknowledge that the fundamental constants could be random, decided in cosmic dice rolls during the universe’s birth. But a new goal has taken over.

Physicists want to measure the fine-structure constant as precisely as possible. Because it’s so ubiquitous, measuring it precisely allows them to test their theory of the interrelationships between elementary particles — the majestic set of equations known as the Standard Model of particle physics. Any discrepancy between ultra-precise measurements of related quantities could point to novel particles or effects not accounted for by the standard equations. Cornell calls these kinds of precision measurements a third way of experimentally discovering the fundamental workings of the universe, along with particle colliders and telescopes…

In a new paper in the journal Nature, a team of four physicists led by Saïda Guellati-Khélifa at the Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris reported the most precise measurement yet of the fine-structure constant. The team measured the constant’s value to the 11th decimal place, reporting that α = 1/137.03599920611. (The last two digits are uncertain.)

With a margin of error of just 81 parts per trillion, the new measurement is nearly three times more precise than the previous best measurement in 2018 by Müller’s group at Berkeley, the main competition. (Guellati-Khélifa made the most precise measurement before Müller’s in 2011.) Müller said of his rival’s new measurement of alpha, “A factor of three is a big deal. Let’s not be shy about calling this a big accomplishment”… largely ruling out some proposals for new particles

A team in Paris has made the most precise measurement yet of the fine-structure constant, killing hopes for a new force of nature: “Physicists Nail Down the ‘Magic Number’ That Shapes the Universe.”

[TotH to MK]

* George Gamow

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As we ponder precision, we might spare a thought for Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet died on this date in 1131.  While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important works on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle).  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology, and Islamic theology.

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“If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint”*…

Studies of various types of water bird, swimming and diving among river weed. This work seems to have been intended as a kind of picture thesaurus.

One of the world’s most important collections of art has re-emerged after having been lost for more than 70 years.

The corpus – 103 original drawings by the non-Western world’s most famous artist, the 19th century Japanese painter, Hokusai – came to light in Paris and has now been bought by the British Museum.

The newly discovered artworks appear to have formed part of one of the most ambitious publishing projects ever conceived – a Japanese plan to create a huge pictorial encyclopaedia.

Known as the Great Picture Book of Everything, it was conceived by Hokusai (best known for his most famous work – The Great Wave) – but was never completed.

Published at around the same time as Hokusai was producing the 103 recently rediscovered drawings, The Great Wave is the artist’s most famous painting

The project was abandoned in the 1830s – either because of cost or possibly because Hokusai insisted on reproduction standards that were difficult to attain.

The Great Picture Book of Everything was to have been a comprehensive way for the Japanese to have access to images of people, cultures and nature around the world – at a time when virtually no Japanese people had been allowed out of Japan for some two centuries –  and virtually no foreigners had been allowed into 99 per cent of the country.

In that ultra-restrictive atmosphere, the project was to have given people an opportunity to explore a highly stylised printed version of the outside world as well as Japan itself…

The full story (and more examples of the work) at “Hokusai: More than 100 lost works by non-western world’s most famous artist rediscovered“– the artist’s abandoned attempt to create Great Picture Book of Everything.

* Edward Hopper

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As we picture that, we might send challenging birthday greetings to Hans Peter Wilhelm Arp; he was born on this date in 1886. A sculptor, painter, and poet (who also worked in other media such as torn and pasted paper), Arp was a friend and associate of Hugo Ball and a regular at the Cafe Voltaire, where he helped create the Dada Movement; at the same time he was associated with the Surrealists. But he broke with those movements to found Abstraction-Création, working with the Paris-based group Abstraction-Création and the periodical, Transition. Beginning in the 1930s, he expanded his efforts from collage and bas-relief to include bronze and stone sculptures, and to write and publish essays and poetry. Examples of his work are here.

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“All poets write bad poetry. Bad poets publish them, good poets burn them.”*…

 

Thunderstorm with the Death of Amelia 1784 by William Williams active 1758-1797

Thunderstorm with the Death of Amelia, by William Williams, 1784. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

 

Readers may recall an earlier nod to William Topaz McGonagall, widely considered to be the worst published poet in British history.  McGonagall, best known for his widely-excoriated verse recounting of “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” distributed his poems, often about momentous events, on handbills and performed them publicly (often, it is reported, to cat calls and thrown food).  And he collected his verse into volumes including Poetic Gems, More Poetic Gems, Still More Poetic Gems, Further Poetic Gems, and Yet Further Poetic Gems.  Imagine your correspondent’s surprise and delight to find a learned appreciation of McGonagall’s place in poetic history:

Not unjustly, McGonagall is rarely mentioned without an epithet: some version of “the worst poet in the English language.” And by any reasonable account, any judgment based on the most universally shared values of poetics, prosody, and taste, there is little to admire in McGonagall. The rest of his corpus shares—replicates, really—the faults of “The Tay Bridge Disaster”: its lapses into bathos, its involuted syntactical structures, its rhymes so slanted as to be more or less horizontal.

There have been worse poets, of course, and as such it would be more accurate to describe McGonagall as the worst famous poet in the English language, a testament in part to the man’s powers of self-promotion and the caprices of literary history. But McGonagall’s notoriety still owes much to the singularly strange power of his own badness. There’s something, I think, in poems like “The Tay Bridge Disaster”—as well as McGonagall’s many poems on his great themes of death and destruction—that is worth examining; something that might redeem him, ever so slightly, from the annals of amusing semi-obscurity; something unsettling about his ostensibly blinkered artistic vision that might help to account for why he lingers as the patron saint of misbegotten verse…

On William Topaz McGonagall, the worst famous poet in the English language: “The Disaster Poet.”

(Readers will find a selection of McGonagall’s poems here.)

* Umberto Eco

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As we bathe in bathos, we might spare a thought for the decidedly more-accomplished poet (and playwright, artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and philosopher) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; he died on this date in 1832.  Probably best remembered these days for Faust, he was “the master spirit of the German people,” and, after Napoleon, the leading figure of his age.

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Written by LW

August 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

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