Thursday, September 21, 2017

Autumnal Equinox

All summer long  we lay at ease
adrift  amid  the daffodils;
by dawn refreshed, and evening breeze,
the while  the Sun  the sky-dome fills.

Yet now behold,  the face of Day
confronted is  with that of Night.
And each upholds  its war-array:
there, of Darkness;  here, of Light.

Stark at noon  the balance stands;
th’ assailants are  of equal strength.
Yet mark how,  as each day  extends
it fades,  and lapses  in its length!

How too encroaches  on the brink
of twilight, when the birds seek rest,
the swarthy foe who smears his ink
alike on cloud-banks, and on nest.

Thus ever did the Gods contend;
thus e’er, the Giants  whirl the wheel
of Ragnarok, while sinews rend;
until at length -- the Noon must kneel.

Soon groan the lands ‘neath Winter’s torment;
in dark  the linnets  cease to sing.
Yet grand, Lord, though the fields like dormant,
that from our ash,  may spring -- the Spring!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Adventures in Juvenile Lexicography

Katherine Nelson, in Keith Nelson, ed., Children’s Language (1978), p. 66,  offered the following glimpse into the orismological instincts of budding lexicographers.  Asked a “What is it?” question about the word tiger (“a large, fierce, flesh-eating animal (Panthera tigris)…” to you and me), the tots responded:

(1) “at the zoo”
(2) “animal”
(3) “it’s like a lion:
(4) “lives in the jungle and runs a lot”
(5) “animal with stripes and it eats a lot of things”
(6) “to run”
(7) “someone growls”
(8) “hair on its head”

I then polled our son (aet. su. 4 years,  3 months), who offered this:

   “It’s something that is big, and it eats people, and it runs around in the jungle.”

His assessment of her other examples:

apple: “it’s juicy; it’s big; it’s round”

car:  “Something that’s big, and not so tall -- it’s this tall [shows with his arms];  it can kill someone that stays in front of it, if it’s moving.”

coat: “It’s something that keeps you warm, is big and sort of smooth, and has little furry stuff”  [Note:  Our family was at that time facing an Edmonton winter]

bed:  “It has legs, or doesn’t, and it has a pillow, and it stands up on its posts”.
[Note: That first idea in the definiens, at once oddly precise and maddeningly vague, probably meant:  “Prototypically a bed has legs (the ones you see in books), but ours doesn’t” -- the family, indeed, then in exile and furniture-poor, slept on a mattress on the floor.]

Striking  is this repeated note of ‘big’, present in every definition except the last:  extending even to the humble apple -- even a baby is bigger than an apple, let alone a robust four-year-old.   But in light of the lad’s subsequent specialization in differential geometry, an explanatory hypothesis presents itself.  What may well have struck him was the apple’s unabashed convexity -- round, not like a thin dime, but round all around:  having everywhere positive and (roughly) constant Riemannian curvature, as he would no doubt rephrase the definition upon more mature reflection.  Such an apperception of an apple was indeed the Eureka moment of the founder of differential geometry, Carl Friedrich Gauss, as depicted in the movie “Die Vermessung der Welt”.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sad Hamster

The notion of some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing

Rules of Evidence

Farther back than Iago, or than those who slandered A’ishah (the Prophet’s denunciation of whom  constitutes the longest of the Ahâdîth), stands, or rather skulks, the figure of the Calumniator:  impugning the reputation of a faithful lover, to break up a union.   The question of motive is something of a mystery.

A comparatively innocent instantiation was the 1960 song “Staying In”, sung with teenage angst but on a gently rocking rhythm

I punched my buddy in the nose after lunch.
Now I'm in trouble 'cause the dean saw the punch
He was tellin' things that were not true about her
So I let him have it in the:  cafeteri-a.

Now I'm stayin' in,   stayin' in
Now my baby's walkin' home with him.
They passed my window hand-in-hand just then
But what can I do? 'cause I'm stayin' in.

If she just knew what that son-of-a-gun said
I know she wouldn't   be caught    with him dead
She don't know what he has got up his sleeve
But she would find out if I could only leave

By 1963, the tone was less Galahadean, and meaner: “My Boyfriend’s Back”.  A girl sneers with Schadenfreude at the thrashing her calumniator will soon receive:

You’ve been telling lies   that I was un-true-hoo.
Well look out now,  ‘cause he’s coming after you-hoo!

The rhythm here is relentless, four-on-four, like a sledgehammer, or a fist on a face.

Antedating these is a gem from that vintage year of 1959: "My Heart is an Open Book".

Some jealous so-and-so
wants us to  part
That’s why he’s telling you
that I’ve got -- a cheating heart.

Don’t  - be - lieve !
All   -  those - lies !
Dar-ling just be-  lieve your eyes, and

My heart is an  op-en book.
No-bod-y  but : You.

It is difficult to convey, in mere print (however much we fiddle with the formatting), the plain candor, the openness, conveyed by this song.   He does not argue the matter, but lets himself be read:  like Jesus in the oleographs, pointing to a glowing heart within his chest.
The music too reflects this simplicity, though in an antisymmetric way.   A chirpy girl-choir accompaniment  trips lightly up the scale, like cherubs on the stairway to heaven:  “Tootle-e-tootle-e-tootle-e-TOOT!”;  while on the key pleading, containing the whole of the singer’s epistemology, his voice descends, unhurriedly,


like Plato descending the steps in the “School of Athens”.


To return:   For most crimes, whether pecuniary or violent, the payoff for the perpetrator is manifest.  But what could motivate the Calumniator? In the “Staying In” case, apparently bare rivalry: the calumniator wants the same girl (thou one suspects that a relationship cadged by such means  will be unstable).  But that is not the case with Iago, nor with the “so-and-so” here.   No self-interest is readily discernable;  the motivation appears to be actually Satanic.
Or, perhaps, there are unconscious motivations.   To expend your envy, you can do something as simple as keying the guy’s Jaguar.   But here, crucially, the goal is not so much to injure the Envied One in his person, as to deprive him of an amour:  thus incidentally (in fantasy) placing him back in play…  But such spelunking we leave to the Viennese alienist.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Dueling Epigrams

Clashing stances re noögenesis:

   Materialist:   Mind is an emergent property of the  brain.
   Theist:   Mind is an emergent property of the  soul.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sigmund Freud: R.I.P.?

The writings of Frederick Crews  have delighted me  ever since I was in Junior High, when The Pooh Perplex came out in 1963.  It gave me not just delight, but lasting literary influence (cf. our posts labeled sotie or pastiche).  Then later, essays collected in Skeptical Engagements and The Critics Bear It Away.     I have not especially followed his evolution from Freud-embracer to Freud-basher,  but it is a notable trajectory, and (being self-critical) is at the very least  entitled to a certain respect.

And now, after long incubation, he has just published a book which … the world was not exactly waiting for, holding its breath:  Freud: The Making of an Illusion.  It replows, and resows -- nay, re-salts -- old ground.   In a front-page review in the current New York Times Book Review, George Prochnik poses the inevitable question:

Crews has been debunking Freud’s scientific pretensions for decades now;  and it seems fair to ask what keeps driving him back  to stab the corpse again.

The most creditable answer would be that, if the case to be made is important, it is worth doing in full, taking into account new developments:  No-one questions when, say, a classic biology text or physics text  is given further editions.   Yet that doesn’t seem to be all that is going on in this case (cf. Chomsky, Freud, and the Problem of Acolytes).


Prochnik’s review is workmanlike, with several well-put observations; but Louis Menand’s essay in the current New Yorker, taking off from the same publication, is magisterial.  We’ll not go over any of his widely-informed insights, since the essay is well worth reading in full;  but only address a couple of points that pursue the theme, “Freudianizing the (anti-)Freudians”.
Menand too sees this new volume as something other than an updated and sturdier consolidation and regimentation  of arguments made reasonably well before:

His criticism of Freud is relentless to the point of monomania.

Menand then applies his magnifying glass to that vexed and vexatious bone of contention, Freud’s relations with Minna Bernays.

Crews imagines assignations in the family home in Vienna as well.  He notes that Minna’s bedroom was in a far corner of the house, meaning that “the nocturnal Sigmund could have visited it with impunity in predawn hours.”  Could he have?  Apparently.  … Did he, in fact?  No one knows.  So why fantasize about it?  A Freudian would suspect that there is something going on here.

As Menand here implicitly concedes, that sort of psychological second-guessing of possibly unconscious motives, in which he himself has just indulged, is rightly reckoned to the legacy of the Viennese master;  and is a permanent Errungenschaft of our cognitive culture, slate ye the master howsoever ye may.


Now we ourselves, in turn, shall get down on the intricate Persian carpet with our magnifying glass,  searching such fragments of analytic tobacco as might be telling, now not for Freud nor for his critic Crews, but for the meta-critic Menand. 

That salacious item from the gossip pages of history is one in which neither Menand (avowedly) nor I  have any particular interest.   But, oddly, amidst an exemplary essay, Menand now drops the logical ball.  In the very next paragraph, he reports:

Some Freud scholar floated the suggestion that  since Minna’s bedroom was next to Freud and Martha’s, there would have been few opportunities for hanky-panky.

So:  diametrically opposite assertions about the floorplan.   Yet Menand in his own words presents the contradictory assertions with idioms that, linguistically, are “factives”:  that is, they presuppose the truth of their predicate.   “He notes that (X)” and “Since (not-X)”.   Odd, from such a careful stylist.

And now let us wiggle the scalpel a bit, under the skin.
On page 79 of the magazine, Menand refers to a well-known doctrine of Freud, call it P (und den wir nicht nennen, daß wir selbst nicht angepöbelt werden; siehe aber dies, das, und jenes.)   Now, P may well be false, for all we know;  or, true only to a limited extent.   But Menand goes farther, calling it

patently absurd

Absurd is a very strong epithet.  A hypothesis may be provably, definitively false -- as, say, that of the postulated primality of Fermat numbers -- without ever have been absurd, even in retrospect.  And, patently absurd -- scarcely any proposition once held as true by some community, in context, can justifiably be called that:  Not astrology, not the ether, not the geocentric theory, nor even the flat earth.  Our Freudian-Sherlockian thus here arches a brow.  (Actually I suspect that Menand’s protest-too-much formulation here  does not reveal anything unsuspected about his own unconscious, but merely reflects the pressure of political correctness.   Likewise the nervous parenthetical qualifier “justifiably” on page 78.)

So, Freud, R.I.P.  Requiescat in pace?  No, they will not let him rest in peace.
Resurrexit in potentiâ?   Possibly.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Al-Andalus irredenta

¡Santiago y cierra, España!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Up the Spout

The winter seemed colder
than winters used to be;

Margot looked about her
for something to pawn:
that sunset, perhaps.
-- Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark (1933)

It is not often than pawning  evokes such wistful mysticism.

Yet here (for readers who found the passage above  quite understandable and natural) is a story that fully develops  the idea  of a  magic  pawnshop:

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Last-Light Tableau

The sun had sunk now  to the line of woodland;
all the opposing slope  was already in twilight,
but the lakes below us   were aflame.

-- Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

“Refutation” inflation (updated)

[The present note is an exercise in logic and linguistic hygiene.  It is not political per se, and in particular is agnostic as to the facts and merits of the tangled case under discussion.]

[Original post-date 16 May 2017]
One of the top stories in today’s crowded news:

The family of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich rejected Fox News reports that he had leaked work e-mails to WikiLeaks before he was fatally shot last year in the District.
The reports, which gained traction on social media, said an FBI forensics examination showed Rich transferred 44,053 DNC e-mails and 17,761 attachments to a now-deceased WikiLeaks director.
Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Ann, said Tuesday through a spokesman that they do not believe their son gave any information to WikiLeaks.

That is admirably and neutrally stated.  However, some news sources are reporting the same facts with headlines like “Seth Rich Parents Refute New Claims On Wikileaks Contact”.   Therein lies a confusion.

To refute is (in its original, non-catachrestic sense) to disprove.  The allegations in question are perfectly precise and emprical, subject to either (partial) refutation or (partial) confirmation.
But the only party in a position to refute the allegations is someone who professionally and forensically examined the laptop in question.    Does it contain such material, or does it not?  The family is in no position to “refute” the allegation, however false it may be.  Indeed, on the Post account, they cannot really be said even to have denied the allegations;  they simply said they don’t believe them.  A perfectly rational stance; but not exactly a denial (for after all, how would they know -- if their son had been secretly betraying his employer, why would he inform his family?), and certainly not a refutation.

Increasingly, the less careful media uses refute where deny would be appropriate.  Part of this may be simple semantic weakness on the journalists’ part (to which many other technical terms, like impeach, are subject), but partly also to the fact that deny has accumulated invidious connotations, as though anyone who “denies” X  is himself shady in some way.   That is a legitimate worry;  other synonyms are available (the family discounted/pooh-poohed/scoffed at/… the allegations) which lack such connotations.  Better to use these than to induce a crucial ambiguity in the verb refute, in a way that renders it inapt for precise usage.

Part of the problem in the fluidity of use of refute  might be  not political, but cognitive and linguistic:  confusion with the paronym rebut.  A rebuttal is not quite as decisive as a refutation, but supposed to be more evidential and structured than a mere denial.  Mere denial is a weak defense indeed, available even to the ghosts of five-year-olds, as in the comic strip "The Family Circus".

A further semantic distinction:  re discussions within the first Nixon administration, of Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority:

Phillips had not been refuted by the West Wing,  but his thesis had been rejected.
--  Patrick Buchanan,  Nixon’s White House Wars (2017), p. 146

Note:  There are other ways of disposing of an allegation, other than outright refutation:  you may undermine, or infirm, or discredit it, in various ways.   Thus, if a witness presenting himself as Dr. Smith (M.D. Harvard) testifies that the deceased died of psoriasis, another doctor (or team thereof) might refute that testimony (on its own ground) by presenting evidence that the deceased had a huge malignant brain tumor but had never had a skin condition.  But anyone -- say, a lowly clerk at Harvard Medical School -- could discredit the testimony on entirely other grounds, by showing that Smith never attended Harvard Medical School, nor (with a bit of extra digging) ever so much as finished high school.  That would be devastating counter-evidence, but not a “refutation” in the technical sense.  (Logically, Smith might nonetheless have blundered upon the correct explanation of the demise.)

One can’t help suspecting that the media’s terminological laxity might be connected to an epistemological weakness:  presenting counter-allegations as evidentially telling (whether or not they are actually awarded the accolade “refutation”) although (consider the source) they are suspect or undermined at the outset, as coming from the accused's family, or attorney, or partner in crime.  Some of these are treated with great journalistic reverence, and actually pass into folklore  --  "he didn't do nuttin' " (spoken while the perp is actually in flagrante), or, post-hoc, “he didn’t have a gun” (though one was found in his possession, surrounded by spent cartridges), and where all else fails and guilt is  ... irrefutable, “he was hoping to go to college”, “he was starting to turn his life around”.

[Update 17 August 2017]  Bringing it back to Wikileaks:

Assange once told me that he did not “accept” the allegation that Russia had provided him e-mails through a third party,  which of course was different from saying that the allegation was untrue.
-- Raffi Khatchadourian, in 21 Aug 2017 The New Yorker]

But nor did he make any move to refute or cast doubt on the allegation:

I asked if he was even able to know the chain of custody of his election material before it came to him.  He declined to answer.

[Side-note:  for that phrase of forensic science chain of custody,  cf. the term of hadith stemmatology,  isnâd.]


A particularly piquant use of the term “refutation” occurs in the mathematical polylogue by Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations (1976).  The title impishly echoes that of Karl Popper’s better-known Conjectures and Refutations (1962).  But whereas that title reflected the expection rough-and-tumble of normal science, Lakotos’ phrase produces a double-take:  if a “proof” gets “refuted”, it wasn’t really a proof to begin with, but only a purported proof.  But Lakatos is not referring to those (relatively rare) instances of purported proofs that turned out to be fatally flawed, and left no progeny in mathematics.  Rather, he considers mathematical demonstrations that were all right so far as they went, but which contained hidden assumptions.  These being unearthed in a “refutation”, the original proof, or something much like it, gets deepened, until further unsuspected subtleties become revealed.    He offers a dialectic analysis of the process of mathematizing.   The result does not demote mathematical truth to a mere just-so story, as among nihilists and relativists.  It rather offers a more epistemologically modest picture of the mathematical enterprise (the fallible human excavation of a transcendental reality, a Platonist would say), in which the notions of “proof” and “refutation” both get toned down a bit, and the process becomes a bit more like developing a software package, finding and fixing bugs along the way.  The result is real progress.

For a more technical discussion of refutation and its semantic field, try


The flip side of the coin, by which the media use artificially strengthened language when presenting the allegations of the victim class and their attorneys, is artificial down-grading when the allegations come from the authorities.   As, a headline from a moment ago:

South San Francisco police officers on Wednesday morning shot and killed a man who they say was allegedly armed with a shotgun.

Either “they say” or “allegedly” would be an adequate and appropriate editorial distancing from the official police statement.   Together, they are at best redundant, or, if taken literally, false:  the police did not state “He was allegedly armed with a shotgun”;  such a statement would be in place if, say, the police had not actually seen the shotgun, but a bystander reported -- alleged -- such possession of a shotgun (which had  been abstracted from the crime scene by the time the police arrived). 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

“Blindspot” post-mortem

I bailed out of this TV show during the first season, after a promising premise devolved into frenzied absurdity.  Yet, curious whether  by the end of the second  anything had been resolved concerning the overarching idea (entwining memory, cryptography, an Origins Myth, and the tabula rasa motif), I checked the episode-guide in that indispensable modern Baedeker, Wikipedia.

And, no, nothing came of it.  All the initial hints were red herrings.  A typical episode boils down to such as this (midway through the second season):

While with Sandstorm, Jane alerts the FBI that their attack is imminent and Weller's team raids Sandstorm's headquarters. Roman knocks Jane out. When she awakens, Shepherd reveals she has long known Jane is a triple agent for the FBI thanks to Sandstorm's mole, Dr. Borden. Flashbacks reveal Borden's wife was the doctor who nursed a pre-memory wipe Jane back to health in Afghanistan; after she was killed by a US drone strike, Jane recruited him into Sandstorm. In the present, Shepherd tells Jane she pretended phase two was underway to lure out Weller's team; when the FBI arrives at Sandstorm HQ, she detonates a bomb, trapping them in the rubble. Shepherd orders Roman to kill Jane; when he refuses, Shepherd tries to kill both of them, but Jane and Roman escape. Weller manages to summon help and rescue his team. While treating Roman's wounds, Jane erases his memory, hoping to give him the same second chance she had. Patterson recognizes Borden's ring, realizing he works for Sandstorm. When she tries to arrest him, he fights back and a shot rings out; it is not shown who was hit.

The phrase “jumping the shark” was coined in animadversion to TV serials that, running out of steam, gin up some gimmick  foreign to the program’s original raison d’être:  the screenwriters’ equivalent of a Hail Mary.   But the “Blindspot” farrago is not just one incident in one episode:  every episode is like that, simply a turn of the kaleidoscope  to let the same bits of colored glass  shift randomly to different positions.  It’s not jumping the shark;  it’s a shark steeplechase.


It is a familiar experience, that extensive taking-in of some dramatic production (whether visual or written) may, after you have gone on to other things, still leave behind a kind of vapor or atmosphere, through which you view in-principle-unrelated material.   As, laying down a novel of Dickens and turning to some quite different prose, you yet continue to notice what seem stray Dickensian notes.

And such it was in this case, after I had scanned through the synopses of the complete list of episodes.  With a sigh  I turned to the day’s news:  and there it was, in large type:

British model kidnapped in Milan was to be 'sold as a sex slave' and 'fed to tigers when her buyer got bored'

The 20-year-old was held captive by the Black Death Group for nearly a week in a remote farm house in Italy before they planned to sell her on the 'dark web'.

 Like an out-take from “Blindspot”.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Wan Flame

I first read Lolita when impossibly young (much like the lass herself):  yet with a sense of complete understanding and delight.  Thus encouraged, I read various other Nabokov novels in high school, including, at some point, Pale Fire.   By that I was baffled.

It was my first exposure to what scholars term a sotie: an extended learnèd jest.   You had to wrap your young head around the notion of an Unreliable Narrator (nothing in the Hardy Boys had prepared me for that!), and the ironies and rivalries of literary criticism.    The central/initial segment, the poem, was alright, though not great, but I relished it as one of the longest poems I had then read, and quite comprehensible.   I accordingly took the criticism section in good faith, gradually growing perplexed at the increasing obtuseness of the critic.  What was going on?

A second read in mature years  had naturally a quite different effect.   Now it is easy to get all the jokes, the humor runs throughout, though in a donnish way inaccessible to the inmates of Ridgewood High.    All very jolly;  though as academic-psychosexual-picaresque exercise,  David Lodge does it better.  (Changing Places; Small World.)


Over the years,  I read most of what he wrote, the high point being Speak, Memory (the low point:  Ada).    Only a scattering of minor novels were left on my maybe-read-someday list;  when suddenly, the lot of them turned up  all at once, on the local remainder-tables, in a handsome uniform Penguin edition -- hardcover and clean print for these aging eyes.    It was thus that, for a couple of bucks, I took home The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

Appearing in 1941, it was the first novel that the initially russophone and later germanicolous polyglot wrote in English.   Linguistically, it is no apprentice work.   The style is smooth, as though to the manner born.  Nowhere is there the slightest off-idiom or false note -- scarcely one American author in twenty can write so well, simply from a grammatical and semantic standpoint.  He handles with unobtrusive ease such choice vocables  as elenctic, paraph, and kerf.  (And if anyone presume to make light of such feats:  how’s your Russian, by comparison?) For language-learners and language-teachers like ourselves, on that basis alone  it deserves notice. (Or is it possible that, unannounced by the publishers, Nabokov was allowed successive retouchings over subsequent editions?)

[Emendation:   Though the first so written, it was not the first that he published in English.  His own supremely fluent transation of the originally-Russian Laughter in the Dark  appeared in 1938.   Which only moves the mystery back a few years.]

As in Pale Fire, the basic premise of Real Life is the (real or chimerical) obsessive quest of a lone researcher  for the true story behind the author of a supposed literary masterpiece.   In Pale Fire, the author plays fair with you to that extent:  the entire opus, unabridged, is presented to the reader  before exegesis begins.   And though the ultimate result is dark farce, it is not for any failing of the poem.  Pale Fire’s poem has its high points, and goes on long enough to present a challenge to any lesser poet.   It boasts a couple of memorable lines;  many’s the undergraduate alehouse where, as the assembled English-majors work their way to the bottoms of successive schooners, some one of their number will suddenly arise and bellow

I-I-I was the shadow of the waxwing   slain
By the false azure in the windowpane!

before collapsing face-first into the french-fries.

Yet in Real Life, we are granted only late, brief glimpses of the supposed prodigy’s oeuvre,  which turn out to be remarkable in no respect.   As for the late Sebastian Knight himself, the reader never warms to him, he is never really brought to life, and indeed is finally depicted as having been rather unpleasant and not especially memorable  even to his familiars.   By the end of the novel, in the celebrated phrase of the Bard of Hibbing,  Nothing   is re-  vealed.”

Nabokov is perfectly equal to telling a rousing good yarn when he wants to, without sacrificing any of his connate literary elegance.  Lolita is such, accessible at several levels, variously to adolescents through pensioners.   Laughter in the Dark likewise -- it thus effortlessly made its way to the silver screen.  
Other novels tell a tale,  but allegorically or surreally, straddling a couple of parallel universes:  Invitation to a Beheading, Despair,  The Luzhin Defense.   (That last sort of told a story, but kept drifting inside and outside the protagonist’s head.   When it eventually was made into a film, the novel’s plot was not followed, that being impossible, and the result was  in any case  unsatisfactory, despite having a perfectly cast lead in John Turturro.)
Sebastian Knight, when all is done, hasn’t really told a story either, but only the narrative of someone in search of a story, which he never does find.

Postmodernist avant la lettre?  But the telling is reasonably naturalistic, and devoid of self-consciously self-referential tics.  Thus, a paradox:  a straightforward story that goes nowhere.

Unless it’s actually not straightforward.  We even begin to wonder whether, in exact anticipation of the much more successful execution later in Pale Fire, we might be again in the hands of an Unreliable Narrator who is not what he seems -- no genuine brother of Sebastian (and indeed, their fraternal relations are shown as having ever been sporadic lukewarm, on both sides, belying the later obsessiveness of his supposed admirer), and possibly even identical with Sebastian himself, the way the ‘critic’ of Pale Fire turns out to be none other than the fugitive king of Zembla (a cross between zemlya and semblance).  Fodder for such an extravagant ‘collapse of the wave-function’ is tossed forth towards the very end:   “All [his] books I knew as well as if I had written them myself.”   But unlike the case of Pale Fire, where the many deceptions  deftly interlock,  that interpretation makes nonsense of the entire affair, and would leave nothing but a mound of damp ashes.


So.  Not much to salvage.  Like certain other of Nabokov’s always magisteriously prosed novels (e.g. King, Queen, Knave, or the witty but cruel exercise, Laughter in the Dark),  the thing is spottily impressive but fundamentally leaves one cold.   All I can offer the disappointed reader, is the following thimbleful of tableaux, which were the best I could quarry out of this book:

one sheet of foolscap
lying alone  on the blue carpet, half in shade
cut diagonally  by the limit of the light.


The sky is alive    with stars


“We shall take our coffee in the green room”,
said Madame Lecerf   to the maid.


According to Wikipedia,  Sebastian Knight was the favorite Nabokov novel of the very well-read critic Edmund Wilson.   Now, Wilson had previously tackled a notoriously difficult and intricate work, Finnegan’s Wake, and managed to winkle out quite a bit of meaning.   Might it be that Wilson was simply more percipient in the other case as well, and that I missed the underlying premise, the way I did when first reading Pale Fire?  In light of the disappointments above, one would be curious to read his take on it.

The possibility is uncomfortable  -- as one who already suffers from Stultitia mathematica, it would be dreadful to suffer likewise from Stultitia literaria.

In defense nonetheless of the above jaundiced summary of the book,  it isn’t in any case  much fun to wade through -- not the sort of thing I’d reread in hopes of catching something I’d missed.   To that, someone might retort:  But if you missed the underlying point, that rules all your other observations out of court.

For some works  that’s true.   But an all-round work of narrative art, whether literary or cinematic, can be enjoyed on several levels.   Thus, “Memento” was an engrossing watch, and I expended much (futile) ingenuity later, trying to fit all the jigsaw fragments together;  and though ultimately failing (and reaching a suspicion that, in the final analysis, some of them don’t fit), it didn’t matter, Getting There is Half the Fun.   So too, classics like Robinson Crusoe or Alice in Wonderland or Wind in the Willows  can be fully appreciated only by historians or logicians or theologians  respectively, but laymen and even children are none the worse for the pleasures of the tale.
(/) At the extreme, there is the case of the Three Little Pigs, which has managed to delight generations of nursery dwellers, though they had no inkling of the deeper purpose of the tale:  at one level (as any professor can tell you), it is a thinly-disguised disquisition upon the filioque controversy concerning the Trinity;  yet at a deeper level (clear only to specialists), it is a subtle contraposition of the “Copenhagen interpretation” of the quantum theory, to the theory of Many Worlds or the “Three-Fold Way” philosophy of later researchers.   (/ Nabokovian sotie.)

[Another Pale-Fire-style sotie  can be viewed here.]


Shortly after posting all the above, and by sheerest happenstance, meaning to while away the remaining hours of a Sunday afternoon, 
I plucked from a pile of literary miscellanea,
an omnibus volume of criticism by the late Mary McCarthy,  novelist and critic and controversialist:
A Bolt from the Blue, and other essays,
edited by the estimable A.O.Scott  for the New York Review of Books in one of its exemplary editions of Books Worth Reviving -- a worthy counterpart to the Penguin Classics:  creamy paper, crisp type, and a dust-jacket  silky as a geisha’s intimate skin.
Indeed, no other publisher quite approaches these exemplars, unless it be Lingua Sacra, editore to the cognoscenti.
The title essay turns out to be a review, from 1962, of Pale Fire (interesting that Scott promotes this assessment  to primus inter pares of McCarthy’s critical oeuvre).

Nothing escapes her.  It is a masterly reading of a tricky work, brilliantly expressed.  Her ingenuity of interpretation, her weeviling through baklava-like strata of authorial metaphor and detail, exceeds what all but a very few readers could aspire to -- or desire.  By the time she is done with her analysis (and with us), Pale Fire has come to seem as steroidally mythological, and as perversely interarticulated, as Finnegan’s Wake (which I have never managed to read, despite assaults  first on the north face, then on the east, and finally an attempted gondola-ride to the summit  using the cheat-sheets of the Skeleton Key).   In particular, I blush to acknowledge that, no, after all, even after second reading, I did not get all the jokes.

Just possibly, such virtuosity might (after much labor) triumphantly decode Sebastian Knight as instructions for a play-by-play laying-out of an actual chess-game, from pawn-to-king’s-four to nuts.   Or better yet, a variant upon the tragic but celebrated grudge-match of Capablanca vs Nimzowitsch (Havana, 1894), in which Nabokov (or Sebastian himself?)  discovers an unexpected alternate line of attack at the crucial move 45, resulting in a late save for Black.
Only, such a feat still doesn’t work as simply literature, for a readership; any more than some blate embodiment of arcane fourteen-tone musical theory, dazzling on the Partitur  to handful of  virtuosi (sadly deaf), can cross the footlights  to actual ears.

The Pelican -- Briefer please

This week, John Grisham has  not one  but two novels  on the NYTimes bestseller list.  And the whole back page of this week’s New Yorker is taken up with an ad for these:  suggesting that an audience of (relatively discriminating) New Yorker calibre  might be interested.  What is the attraction?

And so, despite a recent bad experience with another Grisham potboiler (panned here), like Charlie Brown having just one more whack at the football held by (reliably) unreliable Lucy,  I reached down a well-known title from my wife’s discard shelf:  The Pelican Brief (1992).

It’s kind of a catchy title;  further, the basic premise of the thriller -- the murder of multiple Supreme-Court justices -- has a compelling logic to it:  such an Eingreifen into the politico-legal landscape would indeed have much more far-reaching and long-lasting consequences than most assassinations.   And at the hands of a former lawyer (like Grisham) an engrossing glimpse into the ins and outs of Constitutional theory and practice  should be central to the plot, and quite instructive.  
And what a movie it might have made!   Had I the good fortune to have directed it, a good third of the screentime would have been devoted to courtroom drama:  but this time, not to the sordid details of some random murder case (as in most such dramas) but to matters of weight to the Republic; to the (generally high-level, non-grandstanding) pleadings before the Supreme Court; and to serious discussions of all sides of the issues  in chambers, among Justices and clerks:  fine legal minds  grappling with crucial conundrums.  Only once the reader had been drawn in to caring about the issues at hand, and familiarized with the stances (well-founded or otherwise)  of each of the Justices, would one, and later another, be bumped off.   It is the basic principle of the classic dinner-party murder:   The reader has to be skillfully introduced to each of the potential victims (and suspects!), so that he cares about them or at least can recognize them, before the foul deed is done.   Otherwise we’re simply down amid the muck of the police-blotter.

Not only does he do absolutely nothing of that, but, amazingly for a reputed professional, Grisham makes what should count as an authorial Rookie Error:   First comes the slaying of a character we don’t know from Adam (one of the Justices, barely sketched-in);  then, before the blood is dry, and before reader has had time to assimilate that atrocity (one cannot call it tragedy, in Aristotle’s sense;  genuine tragedy has to be built-up-to) and attempt to care about it, another Justice is slain (in grotesquely pornographic circumstances  that itself is an authorial offence against the dignity of the Court), thus “stepping on” the original effect.  So that it feels more like a fairgrounds cockshy  than like anything which might have interested Sophocles.

(For a while it seems as though, despite having skimped on the victims, Grisham intends to make good via due diligence on the suspects:  there are extended Oval Office scenes, featuring a phony unprincipled President, a scheming power-hungry Chief of Staff, plus the heads of FBI and CIA, who, to any properly-brought-up progressive, are villains ex officio.  But nothing ever comes of it.)
The central character is a law-student who gets interested in the case.   In accord with the socio-literary pieties of our times, it is a she, and quickly introduced as a gorgeous athletic brilliant self-possessed do-it-all feminist heroine (“cheerleader … graduated magna cum laude with a degree in biology … planned to graduate magna cum laude with a degree in law, and then make a nice living suing chemical companies for trashing the environment”), and is given a scene in which (though arriving late to class) she effortlessly shows up all the boys  who have been clownishly  ducking and dodging, unable to answer the lecturer’s trenchant questions.   Well, fine (sigh);  and useful for the movies.   Dramatically, the choice of such an outsider to get drawn in to lethal and unsuspected depths, is an excellent old chestnut of the Man Who Knew Too Much school  (cinematically brilliantly depicted in, for example, “Six Days of the Condor”).   Why such a person, with no especial connections, working alone, and stranded out in Louisiana or somewhere, is able almost instantly to penetrate to the solution to the case (and this, without leaving the library), where the police, the White House, the FBI, the CIA, and a special spontaneous Let’s-Put-On-a-Play scratch-team of Supreme Court employees who throw themselves as amateurs  into their own investigation (in another kind of movie, of the Bad News Bears motif, these junior sherlocks would have been the ones to crack the case, though here this wrinkle is immediately forgotten) all mill around  spinning their wheels and getting nowhere,  is left unexplained (and puts the plot down into the adolescent-wet-dream subbasement of Superhero fantasies, quite foreign to the taste of Eustace Tilly’s cognoscenti).

As a side-thread, she is having an affair with her ConLaw professor (author checks off that box;  naturally the silver screen will require a bit of that sort of thing).  But sociopolitically (in the current climate), the matter is dicey.   The reader is supposed to sympathize with everything that WonderDamsel does, including her choices for her love-life.  But the professor is male, and superordinate in the power-structure, and several years her elder, and therefore (as dictated by the pieties, vid. sup.)  scum.  What to do?   Well, the author makes him a grotesque drunkard, so that we can all righteously sneer down at him (and, interrestingly, though at a semi-conscious subtext level, suggestive of impotence, hence he is merely a toy  and never an actual sexual threat  -- the figure of the Castrated Rapist, as it were),  and then -- startlingly early from a narrative standpoint, given the man’s prominence in the early sections (thus, a structural defect) -- summarily yanked from the stage, as though by the proverbial shepherd’s-crook of the cartoons:  somebody smashes his lecherous head like a watermelon, or whatever.    Cross out politically-incorrect love-interest;  call Casting for a socially acceptable replacement.
This arrives in the form of a crusading Bob Woodward-style newsman (he even works for WaPo),  who, despite his journalistic eminence, takes orders from her meekly, like a little boy  (for she had suddenly, after a few days on the run, become an expert in clandestine tradecraft).  And though he is of course attracted to her (like the entire world, Princess), and though he is repeatedly (at her invitation -- she calls all the shots) drawn into potentially libidinous situations, he ever and again simply sleeps on the couch, dutifully neutered  in line with the requirements of present dogma (at which later ages will gape).


The featured blurb, from the NYTimes Book Review, atop the cover of the paperback edition my wife initially fished out from some remainder-bin (“Half off all titles”), stated:   

“A genuine page-turner.”

And here I must concur, in both a good sense  and a bad.

It is the sort of book which is best consumed in circumstances where you do not invest overmuch attention or insight:  either amid the hectic distractions of air-travel, or, on the contrary, late on a tired Friday, before bedtime, the brandy-glass sampled, then emptied, then re-filled, mind wandering off the page and lazily back to it, the depictions of campus affairs evoking fond (or frightful) memories of one’s own, the chase-scenes allowing you to lie back and close your eyes, imagining how your favorite director might stage them -- nothing much riding on all this  one way or the other.   Amid the general background murmur of workmanlike prose, there is the occasional phrase (“They power-schmoozed with senators”) felicitous by the relaxed standards of the post-prandial, pre-somnial bedside reading-lamp, or cinematic imagery (“She draped her legs across his lap” -- the later screenwriter will bite his lip, wondering whether to swipe the trope, or to can it and come up with his own take), so that  for the first hundred pages or so  the pages really did turn effortlessly, as by themselves, requiring no more digital exertion than the text did mental. 

But in time, it dawns on the reader  that the mainspring of the killings really is that blasted pelican -- endangered down in the bayou, thus foiling the envirocidal plottings of an oilman (boo!) whom we eventually meet as a cartoonish melding of Mr Kurtz and late-life Howard Hughes, who is somehow able to recruit a host of killers including a Carlos-the-Jackal lookalike -- ah but the plot is too stupid to summarize.  By then we are no longer turning the pages, but flipping them, faster and faster, like those day-calendar sheets blowing rapidly off in a cinematic wind to symbolize the passing of time.   The thing drags, and bogs down…  It is as though Grisham had received a contract for a 400-pp. novel, but had misread it as “300”, and only after he had expended his last twist and least idea, did his agent inform him that, per contract, a further hundred pages were required, so that Grisham had to grind grind grind, or perhaps hand the task off to some uncredited amanuensis, like the apprentices who finished-in the details after Michaelangelo had drawn the main scheme and toddled off to the winehouse.


Ah well, the man continues to get away with it, and to bank the results, as ever new generations of unilluminati are born-yesterday.   No doubt his latest efforts will make it to the screen as well -- or, in accord with continuing developments, perhaps becomes comic-books or video-games.