What did I read, listen to or watch during the past year? Let’s see….
Published, released or broadcast in 2019
Hellbender, by Frank J. Fleming — A very silly post-apocalyptic fantasy revolving around a mysterious cube on which are drawn bunnies. The characters are mostly flakes, and the story about “warfs” (war orphans) in the haphazardly totalitarian Confederacy of Astara after the Third Digital Rights War is too complicated to easily summarize. However, the author, friendly Frank Fleming 1, is clever and funny, and the book is always entertaining even at its most confusing. A representative paragraph:
“Donuts!” Lulu jumped up from the couch. “I always said one of these days you’d do something useful … or accidentally kill us all. And it was the former!”
There was Winfield in September, and a few concerts during my visit to St. Louis. If you’re ever in that area, see if Dave Black, Roger Netherton or Joey Koenig are playing anywhere.
Japanese: The only show I watched all the way through was Endro. It’s featherweight fluff, but it was fun. I also managed to watch about half of the first season of the similarly light Iruma-kun, which is something like Hayate goes to Hells. I sampled most everything on Crunchyroll that wasn’t obviously drivel, but I didn’t get beyond the second episode of anything else.
Too often, watching anime felt like doing homework. My CR membership recently expired, and I doubt that I’ll renew it. This is the first time in several years that I didn’t order a Japanese calendar. I may write a few summary posts about Japanese animation (don’t hold your breath), but I’m pretty much done with the form.
So much for 2019.
So, what else did I read this year? Mostly old favorites: J.R.R. Tolkien, R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers, G.K. Chesterton, Tom Holt, Cordwainer Smith, etc.
New to me this year
The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq — The token important book for the year. I was prompted to read it by the perspicacious, flaky Rod Dreher. Here’s Houellebecq on Lovecraft:
Lovecraft, for his part, knew he had nothing to do with this world. And at each turn he played a losing hand. In theory and in practice. He lost his childhood; he also lost his faith. The world sickened him and he saw no reason to believe that by looking at things better they might appear differently. He saw religions as so many sugar-coated illusions made obsolete by the progress of science. At times, when in an exceptionally good mood, he would speak of the enchanted circle of religious belief, but it was a circle from which he felt banished, anyway.
Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure “Victorian fictions”. All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact and radiant.
Lovecraft wrote about unimaginable horrors; Houellebecq writes about human behavior. There is some overlap. I might read Submission sometime, and that will be enough of Houellebecq.
Less important, but more enjoyable:
The Conan stories of Robert E. Howard — If all you know of Conan is Arnold Schwartzenegger and Frank Frazetta, you don’t know Conan. Dr. Mauser discovered Howard at about the same time I did and reacted similarly. See John C. Wright for extensive commentary.
A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs. I figured I ought to read something by Burroughs to see just how bad a writer he was, since people still read his books despite the contempt of the literati. Surprisingly, he’s not bad. He’s not Howard’s caliber, but he can tell a story.
Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain, Richard Roberts — Blame J Greely for drawing my attention to this. The daughter of superheroes discovers that her own wild talent makes her best-suited to be a mad scientist. It’s fluff, clever and entertaining. There are hints that the sequels could be darker.
Many years ago, Daniel Pinkwater and Tony Auth colloborated on a newspaper cartoon, Norb. It did not catch on and disappeared without a trace. I recently stumbled over a collection of its Sunday strips, which you can view here (start with page one). It’s an absurd serial, somewhere between Terry and the Pirates and Firesign Theatre, but sillier.
Gahan Wilson, whose macabre cartoons were the best feature of many editions of National Lampoon, passed away last month. There’s a memorial here with a selection of his work. You can find much more online.
… both fields [chess and music] have become so professionalised that their function as social activities is easily lost or forgotten. In an age when my performance of a Bach Prelude and Fugue can be immediately compared by anyone with a mobile phone to that of András Schiff, and when my playing of a complex chess endgame can be immediately shown to be full of errors by chess software on that same mobile phone, we need (or at least I need) reminders that music and chess alike are ways of interacting with other people. They are, properly, the pursuits of friends. Our play is part of our human flourishing.
I came across a tribute to dancer Herman Cornejo, who amazed me as Puck in The Dream, Frederick Ashton’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This particular video is useful in that it slows the action down to show the viewer exactly what impossible things Cornejo is doing. It demonstrates that a good dancer is among the very best athletes of any kind.
(It also demonstrates how bizarre ballet can be. Many years ago my aunt was mortified at a performance of Le Spectre de la Rose when her then-boyfriend bellowed with laughter at the appearance of the “Rose.” I can’t say that I blame him.)
I have a nice not-so-little steak thawing in the refrigerator at the moment. I don’t think I’ll mind missing the traditional turkey dinner tomorrow. Meanwhile, a certain Roman Catholic boy for art is celebrating the holiday in his own way.
Is Miyazaki’s vision fundamentally conservative? Perhaps.
Being a major 20th-century American poet was a hazardous job — in one anthology on my shelves, of the forty poets included, three (Berryman, Plath, Sexton) and possibly a fourth (Jarrell) were suicides, for 10% fatality rate. Apparently, being a K-pop star is also a dangerous occupation.
Wonderduck points out that we’ve had Monty Python for fifty years now. I discovered them late. Their show didn’t arrive in Kansas until years after I quit watching teevee. It wasn’t until a friend handed me the scripts for the shows that I found that they were pretty good. Reading the scripts alone doesn’t give you a complete idea of what they were — “Ministry of Silly Walks” seems like a dumb little skit on paper, but John Cleese perambulating transforms it. However, the words to “The Spanish Inquisition,” “The Cheese Shop” and a good proportion of the other skits are funny on the page as well as in performance, and that is still largely how I know them.
Enjoy the Pythons now, because in the very near future the punchline to all jokes, not just “how many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?” will be “That’s not funny.”
Derek Lowe recently added nitro groups to his “Things I won’t work with” category. You don’t need to be a chemist to enjoy his Lowe’s appreciations of azides, FOOF and other exceeding noisy or smelly substances.
“Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” This is, as everybody knows, Conquest’s Second Law. It is a true law, as all modern experience shows. But it says nothing about the pace or rate of the flight from Reality and Tradition.
A rock thrown upwards at the top of its flight is stationary. For a moment it neither goes up nor down. Then, a fraction of a second later, it begins it descent, but slowly, slowly. The speeds picks up, the rocks plummets faster and faster. It eventually crashes to the ground.
That’s the progress of rocks, a good but imperfect metaphor for the “progress” of human institutions. The imperfection comes in recalling a law Conquest didn’t mention: motus in fine velocior. Things accelerate toward the end. A falling rock has constant acceleration. Human failure is a force that feeds on itself.
The other thing that struck me was that Ginger looked like a mad wizard from a fantasy novel, impossibly aged, but terrifyingly powerful. He was three years younger than I am now. I think both his mistakes as a human being and his phenomenal talent aged him in dog years.
The post-war conservative movement in the United States has not turned back the clock a single minute and has succeeded only in gradually lowering marginal tax rates as same-sex marriage became law in all 50 states….
If anyone else was interested in creating something like The Lamp it would have existed already. (In point of fact, something like it did exist in the late ’60s and early ’70s: Brent Bozell’s Triumph, almost certainly the only publication in which one could have read things like the traditionalist Catholic case for Black Panther militancy.1)
I injured my leg a couple of weeks ago, which has limited my photography. The doctor is upbeat and says I should recover fully in a few more weeks, but until then don’t expect much to look at here.
None of the current anime have held my interest. When I do feel like watching something, it’s an old show such as Shingu, where you can find the largest human yawn in Japan, above. I might give Sarazanmai another try, though probably not during my lunch hour at the office. Josh notes, among other things, that “[t]he art is often very pretty.”
As I mentioned earlier, I finally persuaded myself to get a Kindle. I’d like to say that real, physical, print-and-paper books are clearly superior in every respect, but in fact the Kindle has one overwhelming advantage: I can make the type larger. I can read for hours now before my eyes get tired, and I’ve been taking advantage of that. Beside The Lord of the Rings, I also read Honor at Stake on Joseph Moore’s recommendation; it’s fun. I followed that with Dracula, which I hadn’t looked at since high school. Whatever your academic obsession is, you can pursue it in Stoker’s book (from Wikipedia):
In the last several decades, literary and cultural scholars have offered diverse analyses of Stoker’s novel and the character of Count Dracula. C.F. Bentley reads Dracula as an embodiment of the Freudian id. Carol A. Senf reads the novel as a response to the New Woman archetype, while Christopher Craft sees Dracula as embodying latent homosexuality and sees the text as an example of a ‘characteristic, if hyperbolic instance of Victorian anxiety over the potential fluidity of gender roles’. Stephen D. Arata interprets the events of the novel as anxiety over colonialism and racial mixing, and Talia Schaffer construes the novel as an indictment of Oscar Wilde. Franco Moretti reads Dracula as a figure of monopoly capitalism, though Hollis Robbins suggests that Dracula’s inability to participate in social conventions and to forge business partnerships undermines his power. Richard Noll reads Dracula within the context of 19th century alienism (psychiatry) and asylum medicine. D. Bruno Starrs understands the novel to be a pro-Catholic pamphlet promoting proselytization. Dracula is one of Five Books most recommended books with literary scholars, science writers and novelists citing it as a influential text for topics such as sex in Victorian Literature, best horror books and criminology.
Considered simply as a vampire story, it’s not bad, though the plot occasionally requires that the characters act like idiots.
Other fiction re-read include The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Time Machine, both good despite their authors’ quirks.
I came across a short biography of Pauline Baynes, who illustrated several of Tolkien’s works. She also did the pictures for the Narnia books, though she didn’t have the same rapport with Lewis as with JRRT.
After a long day of storms, the clouds to the west are starting to thin out. I just looked out the front door: the setting sun colored the overcast sky a dull, glowering red, perhaps a bit too appropriate to my reading.
And the Japanese have Utena Tenjou. Josh lists some possible interpretations of Revolutionary Girl Utena. (Caution: spoilers.)
Male uniforms have a tendency to suggestively come undone for no reason at all, a tendency which increases as the show progresses. This indicates that Ohtori Academy has contracted the production of these uniforms to a low quality manufacturer. Furthermore, the academy seems to be perpetually understaffed, as we rarely see any faculty, and indeed almost never see them actually teaching. All this suggests severe budget cuts. Meanwhile, the Chairman’s quarters has a projector which can physically manifest objects, while the Student Council is given an entire tower with a picturesque view. All this is obviously an indictment of how many educational institutions allocate funding in an inefficient manner, resulting in greater financial burdens on students and a lower quality of education.
From a news release that crossed my desk this morning:1
While at St. Christina the Astonishing, Mr. Redacted has become known for growing and developing the school’s professional staff and implementing a new community system to enhance the relationships among both students and faculty.
One of the books I (re)read during my recent trip was The Man Who Was Thursday. The cover of the 1971 paperback edition, above, depicts a moment from chapter X. Those who’ve read the book might amuse themselves by seeing how many errors they can spot.
Thirty years ago, a British newspaper took an unscientific survey of current and former intelligence agents, asking them which fictional work best captured the realities of their profession. Would it be John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum? To the amazement of most readers, the book that won easily was G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, published in 1908….
… Soon, even police agencies themselves had no idea whether a given attack was the work of real terrorists, or of agents and provocateurs notionally working for the regime. In this wilderness of mirrors, the only certain facts were provocation and deception. “Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything?” However fantastic The Man Who Was Thursday might appear, it was describing the stark realities of counter-subversion, with all their moral ambiguities. And that was what gave the book its appeal to latter day spooks.
Political honesty means telling the voters who you are and what you promise to do—and then governing as that person and in accord with those promises. By this measure, Trump is the most honest political figure of his generation.
Quiz time: school or prison?
The answers, and some comments on education, are here.
… there’s a game everyone is playing today and it really is bad for you. Having played this game for eight years I can tell you first-hand that it really does impact the way people behave and perceive each other. And I’m not talking about in-game behavior, here. I’m talking about real, lasting consequences in the real world. I’m talking about a game that can actually change the way you see other human beings, and how you treat them. It’s a game that’s genuinely harmful and continues to impact your thoughts and behavior, even after you stop playing it.
Russia was also the first country where young men and women, asked to name their intended careers, might well say “terrorist.” Beginning in the 1870s, terrorism became an honored, if dangerous, profession. It was often a family business employing brothers and sisters generation after generation. Historians sometimes trace modern terrorism to the Carbonari of early-19th-century Italy, but it was Russia that gave it unprecedented importance. You cannot relate the history of czarist Russia in its last half-century without the history of terrorism. As we now associate terrorism with radical Islam, Europeans then associated it with “Russian nihilism.” By the early 20th century, no profession, except literature, enjoyed more prestige among well-educated Russians.1
(The Weekly Standard, where this article appears, may not be around much longer. If Morson’s piece becomes unavailable there, you can read substantial excerpts at Isegoria in a series of posts beginning here. Morson was also responsible for And Quiet Flows the Vodka.)
Four years ago, I sat across a conference table from an assistant dean with a Ph.D in the humanities who, with no evident trace of self-loathing, asked me to write bullet points summarizing the “workplace relevance” of medieval literature. (That day I confirmed that the soul really does exist, because I felt mine howling to leave my body.)
Puzzle: what does this sequence represent? The answer, with notes on “boundary violations,” is here.
This was a skit from the 1924 I’ll Say She Is, re-enacted in 1931 when moving pictures finally had sound.
A bit of musical history:
Jean-Jaques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley recorded what was probably the first electronic music intended for popular audiences. Their first album featured Perrey’s Ondioline, a forerunner of the Moogs and Arps to come, plus tape loops with funny noises. In the musical demonstration during the second half of the video, note how Perrey wiggles the keyboard side to side to obtain a vibrato.
I stumbled across the Perrey video while looking for the episode of To Tell the Truth in which the panelists try to identify the real Robert Moog.1 Perrey and Kingsley used Moog’s modular synthesizer on the second album, over a year before Switched-on Bach. The music from the two Perrey-Kingsley albums is collected here. It may be cheesy, but it’s cheese of high quality. If you’ve been to Disneyland, you may have heard one of their tunes.
The formidable jazz pianist Dick Hyman was another early user of the Moog. “The Minotaur” got some airplay on top-forty radio in 1969, but the flip side was more fun:
Back in ancient times, synthesizers such as those played by W.W. Carlos and Keith Emerson were assembled from various single-purpose modules, linked together by a multitude of short cables. To change the sound, the musician rearranged the cables and fiddled with the controls on the modules. It was laborious, but with perseverance you could make something like Switched-on Bach or Tarkus. Eventually these modular monsters were replaced by compact synths with fixed architectures, which were easier to program and to transport. Later ones added polyphony and memory for patches, so the musician could play chords and recreate sounds instantly.
Although many of the later synths were immensely useful and desirable, none ever sounded quite like their forebears. Emerson’s modular Moog in particular was legendary. During the past 20 years or so, there’s been increasing interest in modular systems. Notably, the Doepfer “Eurorack” format has become prevalent in certain parts of the electronic music world. A musician can buy whatever modules he wants from a variety of manufacturers and combine them as he pleases. Unfortunately, purchasing modules gets expensive.
However, if you have a reasonably powerful computer, you can run the VCV Rack, a virtual Eurorack. The basic rack, including all you need to make funny noises, is free, and there are many more modules you can download to play with once you get the hang of it, most of which are also free. It’s available here.
I spent several recent lunch hours fiddling with the VCV Rack, and a couple of things quickly became apparent. First, it’s not easy to get an interesting sound out of it. The early synthesists had to work hard to make their music sound good.
Second, videos are the worst way to teach anything. There’s very little text documentation for the rack, so I sat through a number of videos explaining the basics. Good grief, they’re such a waste of time. In principle, videos should be perfect for this job — you can see the connections being made and hear the sounds that result. In practice, you get a guy rambling for half an hour trying to explain something that could have easily been summarized in three minutes. Advice to anyone making an instructional video: before you plug in your microphone, make a detailed written outline of what you want to cover. Better yet, write out what you want to say and skip the video entirely.
Charles G. Hill brings tidings from Japan of a man who “married” a holographic representation of the vocal synthesizer “Hatsune Miku.” Hill linked to a video featuring Miku’s voice which is apparently extremely popular but which doesn’t show what the software is capable of. Here are a couple that better illustrate how a pathetic dweeb could become fixated on the computer-generated image of an anime-style girl: Miku in concert; Miku on a desktop.
Francis W. Porretto wonders if anyone remembers Vaughn Meader and David Frye now that their targets are gone. The First Family was before my time, but I do remember hearing one particular skit by Frye frequently at the left end of the FM dial.
It’s been scientifically established that nearly any pop song can be improved by remaking it as a polka or surf tune. In a similar vein, J Greely recently wished that the cast of Dr. Who had turned a recent episode into a Bollywood musical. I haven’t seen that episode so I can’t say for certain, but I expect that would indeed have been an improvement. I suspect, in fact, that most television shows would benefit from being transformed into Bollywood musicals. (Just wondering: are there any Bollywood musical production numbers featuring surf guitar?)
This is terribly unfair, I know, but Cardinal DiNardo in the picture above looks very much like how I visualize Wormtongue when I read The Lord of the Rings.
A bit of music to set the mood. You can all sing along.
It’s that time of year when I recommend that everyone watch Mononoke, unless I forget. So, if you want to view something appropriate to October 31 done with intelligence and artistry, watch an arc or two of Kenji Nakamura’s first and best anime. It’s not necessary to watch the stories in order. My personal favorites are Bakeneko (“Goblin Cat”) and Nue (“Japanese Chimera”), episodes 10-12 and 8-9, though all of the tales of the simple medicine seller are worth your time.
A couple of other possibilities:
Madoka Magica — Not for casual viewing. If you try to marathon this in one evening, you’ll be an emotional wreck at the end. You do need to start at the beginning.
Hozuki no Reitetsu — Something a little lighter, set in the Japanese version of Hell. The first episode introduces the main characters, but after that you can skip around. My favorites include the fourth episode, which introduces the demure rabbit Miss Mustard, and the eighth, which examines J-pop and modern art.
Willa Cather, a writer I have come to admire as the greatest twentieth-century American novelist, chose not to allow any of her novels put into what she called “school editions,” lest young students, having to read her under the duress of school assignments, never return to her books when they were truly ready for them. She was no dope, Miss Cather.
Twenty or so years ago there was a vogue for speed-reading. (“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen quipped. “It involves Russia.”) But why, one wonders, would you wish to speed up an activity that gives pleasure? Speed-reading? I’d as soon take a course in speed-eating or speed-lovemaking. Yet the notion of speed generally hovers over the act of reading. “A real page-turner,” people say of certain novels or biographies. I prefer to read books that are page-stoppers, that cause me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence.1
In the risky generalization department, slow readers tend to be better readers—more careful, more critical, more thoughtful. I myself rarely read more than twenty-five or thirty pages of a serious book in a single sitting. Reading a novel by Thomas Mann, a short story by Chekhov, a historical work by Theodor Mommsen, essays by Max Beerbohm, why would I wish to rush through them? Savoring them seems more sensible. After all, you never know when you will pass this way again.
“The art of not reading is a very important one,” Schopenhauer wrote.
It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.