Monday, March 31, 2014

On Brilliance and Boredom

Our substantial essay on mathematical depth and difficulty, and the very different intellectual rungs on the ladders of those who attempt to reach it, has been repeatedly updated;  time perhaps to give a taste of these.  For the full essay, click here:


[Fifth appendix]   From a lecture by Professor Messing in Princeton, March 2002, in allusion to Robert Langlands of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies:

Langlands, with characteristic humility, wrote:  The virtue of Dieudonné theory  is that, for mathematicians of middling ability, it lets you translate difficult problems in abelian varieties  into straightforward problems in linear algebra.

I can well believe this.  I personally attended Professor Langlands IAS lecture series (autumn 1999);  in the first of these he stated that he'd wanted to be a physicist, but physics was "too difficult", so he had to settle for being a humble mathematics professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies.   Nor was this a pose;  his whole manner is that of straightforward humility, very … Canadian. 

John Conway, one of the most brilliantly elflike of mathematicians, confessed to a similar trajectory, during his time at Cambridge.  In a lecture at Princeton University (17 XI 1999) he confessed:

I studied Quantum Mechanics with Dirac.  Quantum Mechanics is hard to understand, even when you can answer the questions on the exams.  And I couldn't answer the questions on the exams anymore.

After his lecture, I went up with him to his office, and the sense of his almost Franciscan combination of humility and playfulness  was confirmed.   His small and crowded office (Princeton has an enormous endowment;  this is the way they treat their stars?)  was a four-dimensional playpen (of which, with my limited vision, I could perceive only three) of mathematical mind-toys, stacked up here and there, hanging from the ceiling, projecting from the walls …

[Sixth appendix]

Alex Masters, The Genius in my Basement  (2011)  [a book that treats of the  downfall of Simon Norton, once a key collaborator of John Conway]:

At Trinity College in Cambridge, there was a man who scored a double first in his undergraduate degree, took his PhD in the flash of an eye, and still gave up in despair  and became a tuba player.

How much more poignant, with the humble, doleful tuba, rather than piano or violin!

*     *     *
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Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

[Seventh appendix]   On a related note:
In the moving coda to her splendid examination of the meteoric careers (or perhaps, fireworks-like, including the eventual fizzle) of a pair of brilliant (counter-)Freudians, In the Freud Archives,  Janet Malcolm, all passion spent, has a last interview with the man she has so closely followed, and not-unsympathetically depicted (and who would later sue her), Jeffrey Masson.   He says this, he says that;  and then she says:

“You know, as you’ve been talking, I’ve had the feeling that you’re bored with what you’re saying.”

The prodigy, his own passion likewise depleted, concedes that this is so.   He has seen farther than others, and has already said, and re-said, all that he has to say.  And then adds, fatefully:

“For people who are truly smart, like Bob Goldman, there really isn’t much they want to do, or can do.  The truly smart people seem to do less and less.  It’s terrible.  The dull have taken over.”

This chilling observation put me in mind of my best friend in high school, Ted Franklin, whose gifts in math and physics  lay far beyond my own.   I had an excursus in Europe before following him to Harvard, shortly after which time he had dropped out.   I did get to room (informally) with his erstwhile roommate, the brilliant math major David Collins -- who, however, himself promptly parachuted out of the university -- leaving the undergraduate mathematics to the tortoise, myself.  Both of them went on to quixotic social projects, and then I lost track.   Somehow neither one managed to stay sufficiently interested  to wind up doing anything intellectually really interesting.   They thought of themselves as rebels, but in that way they were more like Edwardians.   Leaving the field to us dullards.

How valid Masson’s plaint may be, in psychology or philology (two fields in which he greatly distinguished himself), I do not know.   But enormously smart people are doing deeper things than ever before, in mathematics.   They are not bored.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dichtung und Deutung mitteleuropäischer Prägung

I am presently enjoying Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project, in much the same way one enjoys a dish of ice-cream.  
The dust-jacket of this volume, handsomely produced by Mr. Farrar and Mr. Straus, ably aided by Mr. Giroux, is French-vanilla, with touches of peaches-and-cream.    The paper is like fresh butter.   The translation, by Mr. Franzen (with, one suspects, an occasional or possibly frequent assist from Messers. Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann[**], absent from the dust-jacket  but present in the notes to the text), is superb.  Really, truly superb.   Occasionally, the German original even reads like an awkward back-translation from the English, as “Der Gedanke ist ein Gefundenes, ein Wiedergefundenes” => “… a discovered thing, a recovered thing”.
Yet, rather than now praise it further (that for later),  I’ll now talk back to it a bit.

[**  This is the same Daniel Kehlmann who wrote the best-selling Die Ermessung der Welt.   We examine the film version here.]

Kraus (“Heine und die Folgen”), in the course of his long dismantling-job on Heinrich Heine, writes and quotes:

Kein Dichter ruft einem Fräulein, das den Sonnenuntergang gerührt betrachtet, die Worte zu:

Mein Fräulein, sein Sie munter,
Das ist ein altes Stück;
Hier vorne geht sie unter,
und kehrt von hinten zurück.

Franzen chimes in  in a footnote (p. 83):

Boy, does Kraus nail what’s wrong with Heine’s sunset poem.  And yet, when I was twenty, I found this poem hilarious.   … [And yet again:]  Heine’s poem about the girl and the sunset  is smart-ass.  It shouldn’t wear well as you get older.

Now, I cannot testify as to that, since this is the first time I read it.  But I found it -- mildly amusing:  and this, though fall’n into the sere, the silver leaf.   Certainly not worth making a fuss against.  Smart-ass? -- freilich;  but so is that indispensable reference-work, The Onion. 
Yet I wish to say something more substantial than to defend a limerick against the charge of not being an epic. 

Falls Sie im Doktor-Justiz-Sammelsurium
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[Sprightly background music for this section:
  The Forellen-quintett, splendidly performed by some young Asian guys you never heard of.
The prejudice (as we watch young Asians take over, say, my meta-alma-mater, UC Berkeley) is:  Technical brilliance, to be sure;  but they can scarcely capture the echt Viennese Gspaß und Gemütlichkeit.  -- Only, they do.   They do not at all overdo the technique;  the performance is full of humor.  And -- like that Krausian quatrain -- as simple and silver as a fish.]

Let us take that rhyming trifle, not “on its own terms” (in the anemic way of New Criticism) but as having been written by a Man in Full, Heinrich Heine.  And the literalistic simplicity of the poem’s depiction of the eternal wheeling of the Sun, suggests an equally literal simplicity at the human level.  I had spent much of the morning reading  his Viennese countryman and contemporary Sigmund Freud;  perhaps that suggested this unchaste thought to my mind, but in any event:  Any red-blooded poet or artist,  beholding some buxom Mädchen waxing wet around the edges at the spectacle of the beauties of Nature, has only one natural reaction:   Invite her up to your Bude  “so that I may show you my etchings”.   Then -- vorne slides  the  Schlüpfer down;  while the frock comes up  behind.    
Following which instruction, the girl is certain to emerge with a more deeply  deepened appreciation of the cycles of Nature (even if her own might be somewhat disrupted by the aftermath).  The only point being, that while that “snatch” of doggerel (permit me the word) still falls sort of the Iliad, neither is it purely deflationary, but  on one natural reading  points forward and upward and inward, to a more fructuous development, which could even result in the birth of a child.


So much for the smutty reading.   But there is also -- as so often -- an anagogic, of a sort especially perceptible to the more contemplative elderly gentlemen, who are long past de-frocking Fräuleins.  For indeed, there is a subtlety here.

[Background music  for this part of the essay:

This symmetry of the sun setting before us, and rising behind, is not an elementary fact of perception, but is a non-obvious cosmological hypothesis, and fallible as such.  Certainly, as a child, it never occurred to me to connect the two widely-separated events.   You see the sunset, you go to bed;  sleep happens;  you get up and eat your oatmeal, and run out to play;  the sun is already back in the sky, just as Mom & Dad are once again up and about.  What’s to explain?
Later, in school, or from our parents in a pedagogic mood, we learn abstruse suppositions about things called “East” and “West” -- not easily observable in themselves, and which go all cock-eyed the instant you race your bicycle around the corner, but in principle localizable via consultation of a completely magical and paradoxical little novelty-item called a “compass”:  you turn the thing this way and that way, trying to get the little needle to move, but it’s like herding hamsters.  Later still, they teach you poems to memorize:  “The Sun rises in the East, and sets in the West.”   (Or is it the other way about?   One can never remember.)   As with the Alphabet Song, and the one about Columbus and the Ocean Blue, knowing such poems is constitutive of becoming an educated grown-up.

And superficially, Heine’s ditty is bringing in that magisterial scientific description, with deflationary intent, to crush the girl’s vesperal (and vestal) sentimentalism.  But, note:  it does not.

It does not evoke a uniform isotropic curvilinear coordinate system, together with (all the fixings):  Rather, it leaves the human perceiver  still planted in the center;  unbudging  from sundown to sunup, so that the great renewal of the diurnal earth  now sneaks up on her from behind, like a jack-in-the-box popping up to surprise you.  The bland planetary fact of a hemi-diurnal rotation  is here collapsed into a single poetic instant;  the sentient experiencer is at once  epiphanically aware of the unity of these mirror occurences, much like that of the right and left hand.  This vision is -- strictly mystical.   More fundamentally even than the astronometric account, this perspective succeeds in taking a literally quotidian fact of existence, and making it new -- making it strange.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for an epiphany,
this is what I would be reading: "
(Ich heisse Heinrich Heine, and I approved this message.)

Indeed, the Kraus-quoted quatrain  immediately called to mind one of Rilke, about Symmetry as observed by a mooncalf (we quote it as part of an essay here):

Ach was ist das für ein schöner Ball !
Rot und rund wie ein Überall.
Gut, dass ihr ihn erschuft.
Ob der wohl kommt wenn man ruft?

Superficially, in both rhymes, the language is naïve;  in reality, faux-naïf.  On the surface, rather unpleasantly, immaturity is being mocked, here in a simpleton, there in a Backfisch.   More profoundly -- Ah, but, it is difficult to plumb the profound.  I have simply circled around it, approached it from different faces and facets, in a series of poems and parables,  which you may sample via any of the following thematic labels:

And for an extravagantly anagogic take on a scatological joke, try this:     

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Thoughts 'n' Things

  Rudy Rucker, Infinity and the Mind, p. 38:

(**) Just as a rock is already in the Universe, whether or not someone is handling it,  an idea is already in the Mindscape, whether or not someone is thinking it.

This is itself a pleasant thought, recalling the ditty about God-in-the-quad; but in actual fact – I don’t think so.

(So you see—I am not an uncritical Platonist.  Platonic heaven must be so gerrymandered, as to exclude such things as cheese doodles and Sponge Bob Squarepants.)

The actual universe has (for example) -- whatever geometry it has:  regardless of whether there are rational creatures capable of understanding it, let alone deriving it.  Likewise the landscape of math.  But particular formulations of physics, and perhaps even of math – matrix mechanics v. wave mechanics, Cauchy analysis vs. non-standard analysis – do not exist in complete independence from their proponents.  They are, one might say, propositions, not objects.  The objects (or patterns, or whatever they are)  exist  even in the absence of  a person to spout propositions about them; but the propositions require a proposer.  – Nothing specially abstract here; the same thing is true of rocks.  This rock exists independently of any finite mind, but: “There lies a rock” and “Behold that rock!” and “What a rock that is!” must come out of some actual someone’s mind or mouth.

            The unbridledly idealistic view in (**) conjures up a skyscape of untethered thought-balloons.  It is pleasant to contemplate, in a comic-strip sort of way, but not to be taken too seriously.  For one thing, unlike the situation with mathematical truths, where anyone at any place or time might discover them, there is no way for a rational creature in another galaxy or dimension to reach out and grab one of those thought-balloons by the tail;  he is required to blow his own bubbles.  Whereas the structures of mathematics are like fixed landmarks, which one encounters again and again, from different approaches.  For instance:  Yang-Mills gauge theories, discovered by the physics expedition; and connections on fibre-bundles, discovered by the math team; and lo, they meet in the middle.  Likewise group-theory.  Different body-parts of this have been grabbed onto by matrix theory, algebra (symmetries of solutions to equations), geometry (the Erlangen program), particle physics (glad you could get here; meet Sophus Lie), and in time it becomes clear that it’s all part of the same elephant.  Whether they come from physics, or mathematics, or computer science, two such explorers may not realise that they have come upon the same mountain, till they have circled around it a bit and compared notes.  And this happens repeatedly.  We may summarize in an epigram:  The mindscape of mathematics is a multidimensional torus:  whatever direction you set off in, you eventually wind up back at Hilbert’s Hotel.

It turns out that Shing-Tung Yau likes this montane metaphor as well.  Cf. The Shape of Inner Space (2010), p. 103:

A mathematical proof is a bit like climbing a mountain.

And he nicely outlines the Yang-Mills case (p. 290):

The physicist Chen Ning Yang was similarly astonished to find that the Yang-Mills equations, which describe the forces between particles, are rooted in gauge theories in physics  that bear striking resemblances to ideas in bundle theory, which mathematicians began developing three decades earlier, as Yang put it, “without reference to the physical world”.  When he asked the geometer S. S. Chern how it was possible that “mathematicians dream up these concepts out of nowhere,” Chern protested, “No, no.  These concepts were not dreamed up.  They were natural and real.”

            Contrast the case with “thoughts”.  Supposititious entities of the mindscape, even some popular thought-balloon, tethered to a billion different heads, need never be rediscoverable by another explorer, nor acknowledged as real should he simply be grabbed by the lapel by one of the thinkers, and treated to an exposition of same.  For example, the notion held dear by countless generations of schoolboys around the globe, of the uniquely funny nature of flatulence, will never appear among the gravely ellipsoidal thought-balloons of the solons of Fdrmrphlandia; even “funny”, for them, is not well-defined, and not particularly worth defining.

Now, probably Rucker meant to restrict the realm of “ideas” to just some of them.  Not, “Wouldn’t it be fun to dip Suzy’s pigtail into the inkwell!”, but things like “The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.”  Fine; but careful, here.  The Pythagorean theorem has  as its basis  a fact about Euclidean geometry, in every possible world; just as Fermat’s Last Theorem expresses (in a possibly somewhat contingent and imperfect way) a fact about the natural numbers.   But a fact is not the same thing as an idea.  As a matter of fact, there is a coffee stain on this shirt; but “the idea of this coffee-stained shirt” is no strut or girder of God’s architectonics.  An idea concerning a fact of mathematics, in a finite mind,  may bear – must bear -- but an imperfect relation to the fact itself (‘fact’ here used broadly: it may refer to a wildly transfinite complexus of relations, some of them perhaps perceptible only to angels).   Most people’s ideas of mathematical truths bear as much relation to the truths themselves  as does a crayon scribble to the Sistine Chapel  which it might (based merely upon memory of a fleeting ill-lit glimpse) attempt to depict.  To posit that all truths of mathematics exist as Ideas in God’s mind, is logically allowable, but really adds nothing, and is in any case unknowable. To identify these truths with the neuronal states of the pitiful meat-wads sloshing around in our half-cracked crania, is to add nothing at all, but is rather to detract.

[Appendix]  Karl Kraus apparently entertained a notion of independent or pre-existent thoughts.  He speaks of someone being

von der Präformiertheit der Gedanken  überzeugt, und davon daß der schöpferische Mensch  nur ein erwähltes Gefäß ist; und davon, daß die Gedanken und die Gedichte da waren  vor den Dichtern und Denkern.
-- “Heine und die Folgen”, reprinted in J. Franzen, The Kraus Project, p. 88

The whole ‘meme’ idea (itself a meme) is similar -- not that the various Chiclet-thoughtlets were truly Platonically pre-existing, but that, once hatched, they lead a promiscuous existence, wandering into people’s minds  like pollen into our air-passages.


Footnote from the 19th century:

Dedekind … allowed his philosophy of mind  much reign, with a ‘proof’ that “there are infinite systems”;  for he gave  as evidence “the totality S of all things, which may be objects of my thought”, since  as well as any of its elements s,  it contained also “the thought s’ that can be the object of my thought …This ‘proof’ did not gain a good reception.”
-- Grattan-Guinness, The Search for Mathematical Roots 1870 - 1940 (2000), p. 105

Prolegomena towards a theory of the Early Wittgenstein

Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.”

which, translated into pentameter, becomes

“The World is everything that is the case.”
Neatly put. 

Thus begins Wittgenstein’s celebrated Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, translated as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in a vain attempt to be even more pretentious than the original, each of whose oracular sentences is separately numbered  and set in its own glass case, and known fondly to philosophers and cab-drivers alike as the Tractatus.

Anyhow, a nice line, ya gaddidmit. I once offered it to a musician friend, who composed an oratorio  with that line as libretto.  The music alas is lost;  but the lyrics read as follows, and can be sung to the tune of “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (y’all know that one, hum it in the shower, sure: Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten…_)

Die Welt ist AH--ha-ha-haha- HA-haha-ha-ha,
HA-haha-ha-ha-AHHHH-less  was
AH-ahah-ah-ah-ahhhhhh-less,  dee
AH-ahah-ah-ah-ahhhhhh-less,  dee
Ha, haha hahaha haaa, (hee hee -- ha ha)
hahaha, hahaha, haaaa --- ho ho ho ho ho ho --
 -- Diiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…… !   Welt!   Ist! --

(and here we must break off, as the oratorio runs on for several hours.)

Well.  Wittgenstein should have quit while he was ahead, and ended the book right there -- or rather, passed immediately to its fine last line, deserving of being inscribed in marble in every parliament and broadcasting studio:

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen.”(**)

[(**)  Ramsey’s formulation of this general idea  was a good deal larkier:
“What we can’t say, we can’t say -- and we can’t whistle it, either.”]

For then it would have been cherished for all time, as the paradigm of authorly forbearance.  Instead, he blathered on to found the school of Atheism for Autists;  and the world cries,  “Also schweig doch denn, Ludwig!  Halt’s Maul!”

Already the Tractatus goes seriously off the tracks at Oracular Utterance #1.21 (love how they’re not merely numbered sequentially, but decimally tabulated):

“Eines kann der Fall sein  oder nicht der Fall sein, und alles uebrige gleich bleiben.”

Oof.  Each man is an island.  Tout se tient -- NOT.  I’ll rub my back, you rub yours.  A philosophy for monads, whacking off in solitude in an S.R.O.

[Footnote for specialists:   The later Wittgenstein also sucks, but in so many richly different ways. ]


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weiterblättern möchten,
Bitte hier klicken:

[Further footnote]   It turns out that others  have had the same idea:

After Thus spake Zarathustra,  Jacob Burckhardt  ironically asked Nietzsche  whether he also meant to turn his hand to opera.  … It is astounding that the Tractatus has not been set to, say, atonal music (leaving aside Russell’s suggestions that Proposition 7  can, in the original German, be sung to the tune of ‘Good King Wenceslaus’).
-- Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude (posthum. 1998), p. 107

And-a one, and-a two ...

For those of you who -- unaccountably  and reprehensibly -- have not your copy of the Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung about you,  I indulge your frailty  and quote the line (unnecessarily, as you have  naturally  already committed it to memory):

Wo-von man nicht     spre-chen kann,
d’rüber  muß man    schweeiiiiii- gen !

Monuments of Musical Minimalism

Supernatural singing from the distant past:

(Marianne Faithful, then Carolyn Hester, "Once I Had a Sweetheart")

Both versions are sung to the tempo of the sough of the sea.
Each lasts for several hundred years.
Yet by a miracle of time-trance, we awaken  as had it been but a day.
Yet behold! -- out the transom --  The towers are toppled,
the fields all lie fallow,
King Alfred is dead !!!


And then this -- sounding like avant-garde Music from the Hearts of Space / Baba OReilly-style “incremental repetition” -- yet written hundreds of years ago:

Friday, March 28, 2014

The latest from sweet Lemonflower

A link to this  just appeared in my mailbox:

Here, startlingly, appearing under a new name, “Frances Everett”.  Previously lemonflower and coffeescup.

She does not crave vulgar publicity, which is fine and more than fine;  but her music deserves a wider audience.

Taliban warriors foil sinister Western orchard plot !!

A narrow escape for the innocent peoples of the Islamic emirate!

Taliban storms compound of U.S.-based charity
The suicide bomb and gun attack in Kabul was directed at the Roots of Peace, a group that turns minefields into vineyards and orchards.

Crusader commandos lurking for a chance to attack peaceable Afghan peoples

[Update 30 March 2014]
Usually, an Afghan election — a $100 million, Western-funded exercise — draws foreigners to Kabul like flies to honey, with incoming flights full of consultants, international monitors, diplomats and journalists.

Not this time. Now, it is the flights out that are full, and the incoming planes are half empty. With the possible exception of journalists, foreigners have been leaving Afghanistan like never before during an election period after a series of attacks on foreign targets and the commission running the vote.

An attack on the offices of the Independent Election Commission went on all Saturday afternoon, with staff members hiding in armored bunkers and safe rooms while five insurgents fired rockets and small arms at the commission’s compound, having sneaked into a building nearby  disguised in burqas.

Notice how the Salafis, extremely quick to cry foul if anyone looks squiggly-eyed at their women, and to profess how offended they are if any Western government attempts to regulate going about veiled in public,  yet do not scruple to dress up in drag to carry out their terrorist attacks -- thus further undermining the claims of their own women  to special treatment at checkpoints and so forth.   Fact is, you see someone coming at you in a burqa, you’d better check what is underneath that burqa.


For further examples of neocolonialist infiltration, thrown back by the popular forces of the People, click  here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Life, Art, nabbed in Parisian love-nest !

In the following post,

itself repeatedly updated, as though with post-it notes, with each fresh whiff of scandal out of France, we apologized to the French President  for having called him “a crowd-courting doofus;  a lackwit wazzock”, and other things still more unkind.   Here, now, is the latest:

Anthony Lane, reviewing the new Tavernier film “Quai d'Orsay” (the title which Wiki gives it in English as well, though apparently it has recently been dumbed down for American audiences as “The French Minister”, rather the way the first Harry Potter book, “The Philosopher’s Stone”, had to become “The Sorcerer’s Stone” to cross the Atlantic), highlights the femme fatale character:

She is played by Julie Gayet, who was in the news recently as the woman to whom the real French President, François Hollande, was paying regular visits  on his little scooter.  And her character is called Valérie, which is the name of the partner whom Hollande was allegedly spurning for Mme. Gayet.  This is not life imitating art.  This is art going to bed with life  and staying there for the afternoon.
-- The New Yorker, 31 March 2014

A nice touch, that, by the way -- “his little scooter”.  This is artful of Mr Lane, suggesting that what the dumpling Hollande has   down there  between his legs  is pretty small, and goes putt-putt.

Si cela vous parle,
savourez la série noire
en argot authentique d’Amérique :


For further instances in which French sex and French politics  intertwine like the rose and the briar, try these:
            L’affaire  Masson  / Grosdidier
            The Muff of Mystery
            The World Cup of Crime


An after-reflection upon Mr. Lane,   the Art of Criticism, 
and the Meaning of Life

Well, no, precisely not, though that is just the temptation:  It’s just a mo-vie.   I enjoy Lane’s reviews the way I enjoy P.G. Wodehouse  -- reliably;  and sometimes there is rather more than that.   Yet in Googling his name, there in the very top returns were some absolutely scathing, venomous denunciations.  Bringing it home that, not only can you not count on pleasing all of the people all of the time (I think Abraham Lincoln said that):  if you so much as delight some people  some of the time, there will be others who downright  despise you.

One of these counter-critics, writing in some New-York-based webzine, poured scorn upon Lane as a mere spewer of witticisms, with almost no knowledge of cinema;  and in particular (in reference to the movie under review, one of those vaporous martial-arts-cum-mysticism films) for having insufficiently spent his life delving into the splendors and subtleties of kung fu movies, or whatever it was.   His final, crushing verdict:  Anthony Lane’s reviews are so bad that they read like something out of a webzine.  (Oh, wait …)
Now, inside this animadversion lie perdu  two traits for which I specially value Mr Lane.   One, that he is no prisoner of the self-referential Cahiers-du-Cinéma-style film-crit hall of mirrors, but has windows on the world:  the review referenced above is informed with a sense of biography and of current politics.   Further, Mr. Lane knows his audience.   Probably few regular readers of The New Yorker (and I have been following that venerable weekly, though in part  pre-natally, since its inception in 1925) could by any possibility care less about puffed-up Oriental kick-‘em flix, however balletic the cinematography.  Mr Lane is not writing for the sort of pimpled basement-dwelling masturbators who batten on kung fu flix.   He reviews them, along with all the rest, simply because he is paid to do so, that is his job, whatever washes up on his plate that week.
As for the charge of wittiness, no doubt Mr Lane would own the soft impeachment.  He indeed is consistently witty, but also at least intermittently keenly perceptive, and occasionally (as here) capable of genuine moral seriousness.

[Note:  I had long suspected, based simply upon the archness of his writing (& yes yes, well aware, pot/kettle/black), that he might share with his countryman Oscar Wilde  more than the charm and English drollery (something that his ‘jacket photo’ on the New Yorker site  does nothing to dispel).  But no, turns out the man is a paterfamilias.  Some years ago,  I experienced an exactly parallel realization  regarding the arch and icecream-suited Tom Wolfe.]

[Afternote:   As for the Meaning-of-Life stuff, sorry, that lies above your service-level.  For that, you’ll have to upgrade to World of Dr Justice Prime ®.]

[Update 27 III 14]  The blushing vestal to get big buck$  in compensation:[-closer-devra-payer-15000-euros-a-julie-gayet]-20140327-[titre]

Monday, March 24, 2014


With the leisure of a Sunday, I dabbled, reading in this and that.  An old New York Review of Books (13 Aug 2009) yielded an article by the ever-interesting Freeman Dyson, which contained this odd glimpse into his family life:

Last year  I received  as a Christmas present, a “Portable Genome Chest”, a compact disc containing a substantial amount of information about my genome.

Initially  that reminded me merely of my puppy-eager ophthalmologist, whom I visit once a year, that he may check for diabetogenic retinopathy (so far:  clean slate), and who beamingly gifted me with a CD containing a detailed rotatable enlargeable image of an enormous and bloody-looking eyeball, allegedly my own.   He burbled on about the wonders I could do with this, once I learn the software;  and I had not the heart to inform him that  I was about as likely  ever to look at the thing, as  fondly to go over (on wintry evenings) old videos of my colonoscopy.

But he went on:

My children and grandchildren, and our spouses, got their compact discs too.  By comparing our genomes, we can measure quantitatively  how much each grandchild inherited from each grandparent.   .. I consider it a cause for celebration  that personal genetic information is now widely distributed  at a price that ordinary citizens can afford.

Well, make of that what you will.   -- I would not have given it another thought, save that, not an hour later, finishing Arthur Koestler’s intensely interesting novel, I happened upon this passage:

“The next step will be the compiling of a card-index for the whole nation, in which each family will be registered with the chief traits of its heredity -- a kind of Domesday Book of the national protoplasma.”
-- Arthur Koestler, Arrival and Departure (1943), p. 137

Freeman Dyson is a notably decent and gracious man;  the character uttering the above in the novel  is a Nazi.   Make of it … what you will.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ms Steinem!

The top article in today’s Review section of our newspaper of record, taking up its entire front page, leads off with this:

On Tuesday, Gloria Steinem turns 80.
Do not bother to call. She’s planning to celebrate in Botswana. “I thought: ‘What do I really want to do on my birthday?’ First, get out of Dodge. Second, ride elephants.”

This is good to know.  Many happy returns of the day!  And to help everyone celebrate, here is a pageful of nice things about our big friends the elephants:

“It’s fun being the elephant-king.”


Friday, March 21, 2014

Hör zu, Maria, zärtliche Vorschläge … (On Supplication)

Among my favorite lyric romantic passages in literature, is this, from Günther Grass Die Blechtrommel (1959):

"Hör' zu, Maria, zärtliche Vorschläge: Ich könnte mir einen Zirkel kaufen  und einen Kreis um uns schlagen,  könnt'  mit demselben Zirkel  die Neigungswinkel deines Halses messen, während du liest, nähst oder, wie jetzt, an meinem Kofferradio drehst. Lass doch das Radio, zärtliche Vorschläge:  Ich könnt' mir die Augen impfen lassen und wieder zu Tränen kommen. Beim nächsten Metzger ließe Oskar sein Herz durch den Wolf drehen, wenn du deine Seele gleichfalls. Wir könnten uns auch ein Stofftier kaufen, damit es still bleibt zwischen uns beiden. Wenn ich mich zu Würmern entschlösse und du zur Geduld: Wir könnten angeln gehen und glücklicher werden. Oder das Brausepulver von damals, erinnerst du dich? Du nennst mich Waldmeister, ich brause auf, du willst noch mehr, ich geb' dir den Rest - Maria, zärtliche Vorschläge. Warum drehst du am Radio, hörst nur noch aufs Radio, als besäße dich ein wildes Verlangen nach Sondermeldungen?"

I was reminded of this  by the following passage in the fine and undervalued novel by Arthur Koestler (who likewise  originally wrote in German), Arrival and Departure (1941):

“Don’t go, please,” he repeated.  “I’ll play you the gramophone.  I’ll make clever conversation.  I’ll give you iced wine for tea from the refrigerator.”
He looked up at her in hopeless devotion.

I too have toddled  a ways down this path,  in the finale to the story “Lost and Found” (available in the collection I Don’t Do Divorce Cases):

     She called, or he called her.  It was the final call.
     He confessed his failure.  She seemed not to take it hard.  She began to take her leave but suddenly he interrupted her, his voice taking on an unbearable urgency.
     "Lady lady, I'm not just a P.I. you know.  Not at all. I can serve. No no, please listen.  I can do other things for you.  Everything, anything.  Fix your car, do your taxes.  Grow your garden, wash your windows. Carry your bags, protect you from the sun, shield you from shadows.   Please, anything.  I can go on trips, run errands for you.  Please.  I can go to the market:  for eggs.  I can go to the store: for milk."
     He listened in silence, to the silence, crackling immensely across acres of empty space.  And then he heard the click as she hung up forever, and vanished vastly and forever from his unimagined life.

Miserere, Domina