Category Archives: Social trends

On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

The Clash - Jakub Julian Ziolkowski

Much that is rotten about the social order collapsing in the dying age of print is obvious from what was cut when censors ran amok on – of all things – a supposedly liberal newspaper’s poetry blog, the subject of the last entry here. Readers who never saw the comments hacked out of that discussion have been curious about what they said, so I’m putting up a selection in another part of this site.

The Guardian purge is well worth revisiting, for connoisseurs of pattern recognition. Censorship itself started with religious authorities who had glimpsed the beginning of their end in Gutenberg’s printing press. As hard as it was for their 15th-century ancestors to keep up with the subversive literature of their day, the toil of today’s online censors is even more quixotic. Yet they bash on, against the popular will, the masters that they serve as hopelessly misguided as hierarchs of the past were in insisting on their entitlement to authority – banding together for reinforcement in much the way they did, and deploying similar tactics.

It was the very smallness and insignificance of the group of actors associated with the poetry blog that made watching old patterns play out in the bloodbath so entertaining – not merely horrifying.

Here are seven parallels that stood out:

1. The use of propaganda. After a hundred-odd comments were slashed – by the reckoning of several readers – a supporter of Carol Rumens, the lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger enraged by attacks on academia’s effects on poetry, tried to justify the silencing of her opponents with this nonsensical post:

3 September 2010 3:47PM

An elegantly pruned blog, all excess foliage to the compost. These words of wisdom say it all: […]’Pruning grape vines is a basic principle that any grower, regardless of experience, must understand. Whenever you leave a vine unpruned, the first year you’ll have a massive big crop. Novice growers can feel delighted with their success and wonder what all the pruning fuss is about. […But …] when you actually prune a vine correctly, you remove as much as 95 to 98% of the previous season’s growth. […] The vine can’t produce enough energy to ripen an unregulated crop, and it’ll be poor quality.’

Propaganda is a branch of the art of persuasion. It nearly always relies on specious logic, like other kinds of communication that insult readers’ intelligence. Pruning a grapevine has absolutely nothing in common with suppressing free speech. Snipping leaves and branches serves a single, consistent aim – producing wine of a particular type. Not a bit like the right to free expression, which can serve as many aims as there are people expressing themselves, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed.

2. Defenders of the status quo are uniquely protected from criticism or reprisals – and on the public purse. SCFMH – whose posts are usually more intelligent — has revealed himself elsewhere on the net as Simon M. Hunter. Like Rumens, he appears to teach at a university. There is irony unbound in the reason why SCFMH can support a Rumens capable of calling her employers ‘you bastards’ without producing a single birth certificate blank where a father’s name should be – yet lecturing commenters not sitting in her classroom about their behaviour, and getting a few of them banned from the Guardian‘s site for no more than bracing, playful criticism. (I would place a large bet on no reader of or commenter on her blog’s ever having addressed an employer as she did, in full public view.)

That reason is called ‘tenure’. It was invented, as the Wikipedia says, ‘to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, …’

Who pays the salaries of most university lecturers? Ah, in Britain and the US, that would be us, the unwashed public. Shouldn’t we be entitled to as least as much freedom as they have to speak out?

3. Blatant hypocrisy goes unchallenged. Like feudal serfs, most readers of the Rumens blog were stopped from objecting to her treatment of dissenting commenters by the censors’ threat: ‘This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.’ (And indeed, all attempts to support Rumens’ critics disappeared.)

4. Defunct, repressive authorities have collaborators, enablers and appeasers. . . among those who should know better, but fear that they stand to lose more than they gain from a revolution. Look at the posts left in place after the grand cull on the morning of September the 3rd and you’ll find fine samples of smug support for the triumphant status quo.

5. No right of appeal for those muzzled and expelled. ….The Guardian’s censors and moderators will only discuss deletions in private, by email. As anyone who can see why transparency is essential to justice knows, that amounts to, ‘We’ll brook no challenges and will suppress all evidence of our repression and mistakes’.

6. The powerful never stoop to an apology. Rumens showed that she understood that something of the kind was required of her when she said vaguely, the following week, ‘Milton may be above criticism, ATF, but , alas, I don’t think I am…’. .. A whole-hearted apology clearly linked to the censorfest might have won her some points. Most of all, she owed – still owes – her critics a respectful discussion of what academia has done to modern poetry; of the wider implications of both her and her featured poet being academics. … And she and the Guardian could have won the undying loyalty of many a reader by conceding that the censorship went too far, and above all, by restoring the censored posts.

7. Futile attempts to carry privileges from the old order into the new. Noting cracks in the joists and foundations of their fortresses, some members of the old guard are naively trying to set the rules for the new order. Anxious to be seen as egalitarian in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Rumens said in the cull’s aftermath that her ‘blog has to have comments – that’s the admirable nature of the beast. It’s not about soloists.’ … Ah, but that’s the beauty of online media: there are no such rules. There are no externally imposed‘ has to have’s, shoulds, or musts. Millions of wonderful blogs on the net have no comments at all, year after year; millions of others have huge and lively comments sections that read like transcripts of beer busts.

… Indeed, the old order changeth … And yet, as an old friend put it, ‘These dictators never learn, do they? They can’t help themselves.’



Filed under Censorship, Criticism, Editors and editing, Poetry, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Deconstructing Ian McEwan-envy, the UK and US versions

Beard said, ‘It’s all crap, Toby. Don’t listen. This is the queen’s birthday honours list. She doesn’t choose it, she knows fuck-all about it, and they all scramble to be on it, every booby and arriviste from science and the arts and the civil service who wants to strut about the place hoping to be taken for a member of the minor aristocracy.’

Solar, 2010

Reasons for the widespread hatred of Ian McEwan fall into three categories, as far as I can tell. While I can’t relate to the people positively bludgeoning him for the first of these, I’ve been as irritated as they are by the hyper-inflation of his reputation by marketing gnomes dedicated to generating mountains of cash for his publishers. We must blame these worthies for the McEwan novels that read like superb short stories glued together with monstrous padding, with an eye to profit — because collections of short stories do not sell as well as long-form fiction does.

In the second category, an exclusively British phenomenon, he is accused repeatedly – often by those who have never read a page of his words – of being a member of the ‘middle-class’ only interested in writing about that social segment for other people in it. Presumably, these critics believe that a prominent writer committing this sin is conspiring with others like him – and middle-class publishing executives – to perpetuate their economic advantages at the expense of those further down the social scale. They do make it plain that they consider the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged to be the only legitimate subject for a serious writer of fiction. Why, in other words, doesn’t silly old McEwan see that it’s his job to serve as the Dickens, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Pinter or Jean Genet of the 21st century?

I have a question for these critics: why can’t they understand that there can be no one more devastatingly subversive than a perceptive writer concentrating on the privileged, their beliefs and biases?

Simply by choosing a scientist as his protagonist, and doing science today as his focus — as McEwan has in his latest novel, Solar — a writer in Britain is lobbing a small but deadly grenade at one of the most vicious, deeply rooted prejudices of upper-class England. Reviewing Never Pure, a book about the history of science for the New York Times last month, Katherine Bouton observed:

In the essay titled “The Scientific Person,” the professor shows how science gained from the upper classes’ disdain for learning and the learned. The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, made up of gentlemen one and all, attempted to garner respect for science. But it failed: scientists continued to be seen, as Professor [Steven] Shapin puts it, as “swilling around in human urine,” eliciting a “polite retch reflex.” This left the field open to the rising class of those industrializing Britain.

So science has, in fact, been a critical social leveller – as far as possible from a tool for entrenching middle- and upper-class privilege..

Reviewers have on the whole missed McEwan’s impish commentary in Solar on the war between lovers of science and the humanities – the subject of C. P. Snow’s famous ‘two cultures’ debate. He gives Michael Beard, his book’s lovingly mocked anti-hero — an obese, Nobel prize-winning physicist — a transformative experience at Oxford, where he has arrived as a scholarship boy. To impress Maisie Farmer, the beautiful literature student who has until then resisted all his attempts to persuade her to go out with him – he turns himself into an expert on Milton by buying a one-hour tutorial on the subject from a fellow-student, and then speed-reading for a week. The plan works and, McEwan writes,

… was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however bright, could have passed himself off after a week’s study among the under-graduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard’s colleagues. The traffic was one-way. [. . .] The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily in his course. [ … ] He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to come to terms with some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week. He suspected there was nothing they talked about there that anyone with half a brain could fail to understand. He had read four of the best essays on Milton. He knew. And yet they passed themselves off as his superiors, these lie-a-beds, and he had let them intimidate him.

There’s a sly joke buried there, sinc McEwan himself – though he was never a science student or scientist – is showing off as a rare literary artist proving that the traffic is not necessarily all one-way. He writes so accurately about complex theories in science and medicine that reading some highly technical passages of Solar is about as thrilling as munching on sisal carpeting.

As he never attended Oxford or any other elite university, the charge of smug obliviousness to social discrimination constantly levelled at him is even more baffling.

But bigots will be bigots, as the third category of complaints about him also illustrates. This one is largely an American phenomenon. An online search will show no shortage of his countrymen congratulating Walter Kirn on his crude and atrociously written attack on Solar, extensively quoted on this blog a few weeks ago. Yet any lit-lover who took the time to study last week’s comparison of paragraphs by Kirn and McEwan writing on closely similar subjects would surely agree with Moristotle, a wise, dissenting American who diagnosed ‘a serious case of jealousy’ as the explanation for Kirn’s hatchet-job on a novelist who, I believe, could out-write him sedated and fast asleep.

The gist of Kirn’s complaint was that McEwan writes too well, and is guilty of over-the-top over-writing. Yet in the puff piece he lavished on another novel, the excruciatingly un-funny, cliché-ridden Absurdistan, a review that put it on the NYT’s ten-best-books-of-2006 list, he made elaborate excuses for the same aspiration and flaw, respectively, in a novelist who did not make him feel quite so insecure. About Gary Shteyngart’s collaboration with his own protagonist-narrator, Kirn said:

Shteyngart and Misha, exuberant depressives, don’t stint on the syntax or the verbiage when objects huge and rotten hulk into view. Their thick, overloaded style is what happens, though, when socialist realism decays into black comedy. This is the prose of heroic disappointment, faintly labored at moments but fitted to the task of shoveling up mountains of cultural debris. Hemingway’s clean sentences wouldn’t do here. A man needs commas, semicolons, adjectives. He requires linguistic heavy machinery.

He does, does he? …And yet Kirn would, if he could, forbid McEwan — a sentence-by-sentence master of English prose — the use of any such machinery. Reviewing Shteyngart’s new novel, the NYT’s redoubtable Michiko Kakutani said earlier this week that it ‘avoids the pretensions and grandiosity of Mr. Shteyngart’s last book, “Absurdistan,” … ‘. Well said, Ms. Kakutani.

Jealousy aside, why is Kirn so much more indulgent of Shteyngart’s literary showmanship than McEwan’s? There might have been a clue in this paragraph of an article by Judith Warner in the NYT earlier this month:

A tendency toward anti-intellectualism isn’t new in our country … [I]n his 1962 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” Richard Hofstadter wrote of our culture’s longtime devaluation of the head in favor of the heart and a historic tendency to prefer people and phenomena — educational approaches, types of religious experience — motivated by passion or gut rather than intellect or reason. “Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion,” he wrote. “It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.”

The emotional excessiveness of Shteyngart’s ‘exuberant depressives’ makes him a more sympathetic chronicler of the human condition for a Walter Kirn than someone like McEwan, who cares just as much, but chooses a cooler and more detached stance towards his characters.

The British alternative is neatly encapsulated in a protest against overflowing sentimentality getting in the way of good sense by a prison doctor, Theodore Dalrymple, in the Telegraph earlier this week: ‘Sentimentalists try to make up for a lack of feeling by emotional exhibitionism.’

Wit – black humour – is much preferred in Blighty to Shteyngart’s style of histrionic Russian-American lamentation, extended tantrums and breast-beating.

I wouldn’t ordinarily be wasting time on such odious comparisons. It’s just that putting Kirn’s obtuse butchering of Solar on the front page of the NYT‘s Sunday books section did look a bit too much like an aggressive attempt to bring McEwan to heel, and to impose the American approach to fiction-writing on the world as the model against which all other styles must be judged.

It’s not unlike the persistent attempts by Americans to rewrite the rules for football – not simply re-name a game they don’t know how to win any version of without padding themselves to look like blank, faceless, Egyptian mummies in motion. P.J. Rourke was only half-joking when he whinged in the Wall Street Journal near the end of the World Cup:

“Nil-nil” is not a sports score, “nil-nil” is a foreign policy. Judging by the many successes of the United Nations, it’s a foreign policy favored by the majority of the world’s foreign countries. Of course nil-nil is not an American foreign policy, or wasn’t until we got a president with a suspiciously foreign name. Americans like to win. And, come on global sports fans, you like to win too. In this one respect you’re all Americans at heart. So knock it off with the whole “everybody’s a loser” soccer thing.

No thanks, P.J., go away – we don’t want any… Solar is, by the way, one of the funniest contemporary novels I’ve read for a very long time. One sequence in it could make a short story brilliant enough to make Woody Allen turn chartreuse and weep. It has just two male characters travelling on a train together, and a bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps.


Filed under Class and literature, Criticism, Psychology, Social trends

As goes blogging, so goes literature … or, … Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

Used with the permission of the artist:

Bruce Chatwin by Shawn Yu:

Mary Roach on Bill Streever‘s Cold in last Sunday’s lead review in The New York Times:

Streever himself is a scientist, both by degree and paycheck, but writing for journals hasn’t muddied his style. Phalaropes, he writes, “swim in tight circles, their heads bobbing as if connected to their feet.” […] He sculptures lucid explanations and fires them with fine writing.

A warning: This is a book only in that it has a cover. It’s structured more like a blog. There are chapters, but they aren’t united by easily discerned themes. One begins with a few pages about El Niño, followed by a section break and then “The moose is so well insulated that. . . .” I fought it for a chapter or two, and then I gave in. The book is so interesting it doesn’t matter.

Portraiture in the form of cheap snapshots became as blah-unremarkable as sneezing in the second half of the 20th century — at least for westerners –- and must have struck many an old-fashioned portrait painter in exactly the way blogs do serious writers today.

Old ideas about both the purpose of — and frame for — art have been smashed beyond repair. It isn’t just that artists are free to make art entirely on their own terms. Our uses for it are getting steadily more idiosyncratic.

Consider this:

We say that we take pictures of each other to make records of passages in our insignificant lives. But when I want to reconstitute the feelings, sensations and state of mind I link to living in a particular place – say, wordnerd7 in wc1e-7au — photographs of me outlined against Bloomsbury’s Georgian façades are next to useless. After all, I hardly ever saw myself like that – or indeed see myself anywhere I come and go at all. Nor does looking at anyone I was close to in those years against once-familiar backdrops work anything like the time machine I long for: instead, I instantly begin to think of all those people as they are today. Stupidly, it never occurred to me to create a pictorial archive of what I saw walking to work or the food shops or the newsagent’s or the Goodge Street or Russell Square tube stations.

But my lust for time travel means I’ve discovered a use for the sculptor Anthony Gormley’s prosaically wacky One & Other public art project being staged round the clock in Trafalgar Square.

In spite of my slightly slighting mention of it in my last post, I’ve found myself returning to its web site – an obsessiveness that puzzled me until I registered that my heart was skipping beats with every panning shot of the sky, or seeing the sheen of moisture on streets surrounding the plinth, or observing figures wreathed in silvery mist scurrying under umbrellas to get somewhere dry – or sunlight glinting off plane tree leaves. I remembered how intently and with what keen yearning to be out at sea or in the country I used to gaze beyond London rooftops. The webcam pointed skywards restores my own inimate, personal London to me more munificently than any device, including a passage in an A. S. Byatt novel set in the building where I, too, once occupied a rent-controlled flat.

In other words, for me, One & Other has simply been enabling a superior form of London-watching. Unlike the single fixed webcam trained on Trafalgar Square that I bookmarked in my browser two years ago, the ever-mutating Gormley installation has given me a focal point – if only rarely a wow! experience with a participant like LilacBonzai, the People’s Plinthess, a marvel of protean playfulness.

Gormley understands. Art is about audience participation, now. It’s about expertise going to bed with amateurism and staying there, not bothering to wash the sheets. Experts, whether they make a bow to classical conventions and standards or ignore them altogether, are inspired by what used to be called outsider-art, or merge their own ideas with those of outsider-artists who once had no audience not made up exclusively of family and friends. We, the audience, make what we choose to of the results — which can bear no resemblance to the artist’s stated intentions.

Digital media and digital networking on the internet have been hogging most of the credit for these changes but in fact, have only sped up the pace of the democratisation of the arts. In every branch, the direct pre-figuring of what we see and read today began more than a hundred years ago.

Henry Moore, who made Britain a power if not the ranking world power in modernist sculpture, was originally inspired in his choice of profession by Michelangelo. Later, as a quick Wikipedia check confirmed for me, it was primitive art like Mayan-Toltec carvings that helped him find his distinctive style – after he ‘became uncomfortable with classically derived ideals,’ and was also influenced by the work of Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and Frank Dobson (1888-1963).

In fiction, experimentation began early in the 20th century – unless you agree with those who think that Cervantes, who wrote the first novel, was also the first modernist. In non-fiction, I myself first admired Bruce Chatwin’s subversion of conventional structures for the contrast that this made with the elegant, sentence-by-sentence classicism of his prose.

Others will have their own candidates, but I was ready to nominate him the First Haut-Literary Blogger after I read the original memo on the manuscript of his first book, In Patagonia, by Susannah Clapp — the exemplary editor at Jonathan Cape whose help became indispensable to his work. She has described In Patagonia as ‘an attempt to give a “cubist” picture of that country.’ Her 1976 report on the manuscript said in part:

This is very extraordinary – and a possible problem. Basically, it’s a collage-like collection of impressions, memories, histories and stories about Patagonia loosely bound together by an intermittent first-person narrative, but mostly functioning more or less autonomously … I was impressed by each bit as I read, but didn’t feel impelled forward throughout the whole 350-odd pages. . . [I]f I weren’t so impressed by the matching of informativeness with intelligent description, I would say a sad no.

Her rare literary perspicacity can be deduced from her having discerned this author’s intentions so perfectly that his scribbling equivalent of cubism became even more so in the editing of his pages. She describes the book’s

angularity, its many small scenes and surfaces – one tilting away from another. The earliest manuscript was organised in this way; and in the process of editing – during which some sections went through as many as four versions – the book became still more angular.

I’ll know more when I have actually read it, but judging from the quotation with which I began this entry, I’m guessing that the reviewer, Mary Roach, is referring to a book written in the Chatwin mould.

In arts audiences everywhere, Chatwinesque fragmentariness and the Gormley style — which I nearly described as gormless, wondering whether One & Other is more an example of creative passivity or inclusiveness — have formalists and classicists tearing their hair out in disgust and despair. Against their insistence that ‘the rot’s set in well and truly, now’ – as one friend of mine put it grimly only last week, I’d suggest that it’s too soon to be pessimistic about artistic evolution in our time.

It’s a time of creative ferment. ‘To obtain perfection’ in growing a certain white wine in the district of Saumur, Isak Dinesen writes in one of her gem-like Seven Gothic Tales, the local inhabitants put off picking grapes until they ‘develop a peculiar condition which is called in the French pourriture noble, or in German, Edelfaule.’ That, she says, flavours the wine with what could turn out to be ‘the true odour of sanctity, or it may be the noble putrefaction, the royal corrodent rust of a strong and rare wine … or … both. . . ’.

That is what fermentation is. You cannot know which of its results are going to be bad or good – until you do.

Onward! the blogging revolution.


1. Only @exitbarnadine, posting until recently under the screen name @BaronCharlus, has so far come up with anything resembling a precedent for Harold Francis Bell’s sculpture of a woman in deep thought, Paulinewhich looks more and more as if it might be unique in the known history of western art. I recently encountered another self-portrait by a woman painter – the 17th-century Dutchwoman, Judith Leyster. Not as striking as @eb’s find, Artimesia Gentileschi, and not a patch on Bell’s thinker. In both self-portraits, self-consciousness unfortunately gets in the way of insight.

2. I sorted through all the choices Google Images offers for a portrait of Bruce Chatwin. Nothing appealed until I found the strikingly intelligent picture I’ve pasted in today. Quick sleuthing led me to the site of Shawn Yu –- who I was surprised to discover is only twenty-four years old. He’s a freelance artist.

Unlike all the other portraits of Chatwin I’ve seen, which celebrate his blond-god looks, Shawn’s drawing stresses his keen powers of observation and analytical turn of mind. I also seem to remember being told about Chatwin’s diminutive size, something that has somehow never been clear in other images of him.

I zapped the artist a note and was thrilled to receive permission to put his drawing here:

sure man, thank you for featuring my work.


Many thanks, Shawn, and best of luck with placing your work.


Filed under Book publishing, Editors and editing, Social trends, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

Is blogging ultimately the friend of war or peace?

My most disappointing conclusion from running this eight month-old experiment in blogging? It’s that we human beings appear to find fighting more enjoyable than sparkling debate and friendly disagreement.

Never mind that in answering a question about what he or she would do as a live, fully clothed substitute for a statue in the One & Other project now playing in Trafalgar Square – and proving hour after hour that Everywo/man has no imagination — one onlooker supposed doing ‘something to represent the need for world peace’. That this aspiration is usually honoured in the breach and not the observance is more drearily unsurprising than the wish itself.

The click count for acciaccature always soars when visitors notice a quarrel getting underway in the comments section. That is true even when the disagreements are only short and sharp like last week’s flare-up between an always-interesting contributor, @anytimefrances, and a tremendously welcome new drop-in commenter, @Anil Eklavya.

The least cheering job for anyone running a blog is defusing banal disputes with incomprehensible ‘bad chemistry’ behind them. These gain force and momentum from a tendency I find even more dismaying: bloggers forming themselves into packs and tribes in a medium that easily supports individuals expressing individual opinions — and proceeding, like pathetic George W. Bush clones, to act on the depressing, simple-minded principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

The extraordinary persistence of such enmity struck me last week as a miniature version of the ultimate mystery of why countries still go to war. I was reading a gigantic obituary of Robert McNamara — the mastermind and manager-in-chief of the Vietnam war, which ends with his reflection that

War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend […] Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.

He concluded that the US could not possibly win the Vietnam war near its end – and long before many of his fellow war-mongers did. The obituary contained a remarkable record of his abject mea culpa — which shows that he believed that cross-cultural incomprehension and intolerance, of which we’ve witnessed more than one instance in microcosm on this very blog, were ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of Americans:

At a going-away luncheon given by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Mr. McNamara wept as he spoke of the futility of the air war in Vietnam. Many of his colleagues were appalled as he condemned the bombing, aghast at the weight of his guilt.

He had thought for a long time that the United States could not win the war. In retirement, he listed reasons: a failure to understand the enemy, a failure to see the limits of high-tech weapons, a failure to tell the truth to the American people and a failure to grasp the nature of the threat of communism.

“What went wrong was a basic misunderstanding or misevaluation of the threat to our security represented by the North Vietnamese,” he said in his Berkeley oral history. “It led President Eisenhower in 1954 to say that if Vietnam were lost, or if Laos and Vietnam were lost, the dominoes would fall.”

He continued, “I am certain we exaggerated the threat.”

“We didn’t know our opposition,” he said. “We didn’t understand the Chinese; we didn’t understand the Vietnamese, particularly the North Vietnamese. So the first lesson is know your opponents. I want to suggest to you that we don’t know our potential opponents today.”

Getting to know actual or potential opponents is surely much easier now that we routinely have access to some of the most intimate thoughts, dreams and fears of foreigners – whether we read their blogs in English or rendered clumsily, but more-or-less comprehensibly, through automatic translators.

I’d have thought that our whizzy new digital tools would at least be discouraging disagreements about facts like the squabble between @anytimefrances and @Anil Eklavya – whom I’m guessing is a graduate student with a first degree from one of the famously dazzling Indian Institutes of Technology.

When we didn’t hear from @Anil after his last post here, I found the answer to the question I’d asked him about how he had word-processed documents in a mixture of English characters and Devanagari, the script used to write Hindustani. It’s a software product called ‘KickKeys’ that certainly made my eyes pop, even though I’ve worked with foreign keyboards in France and Spain:

KickKeys offers a complete language solution through Transliteration (type-as-you-pronounce). With it you can write a foreign language using the regular computer keyboard without memorizing difficult key sequences.

The optimist in me suggests that we have no way of knowing or measuring how much potential conflict our flexible futuristic tools have headed off — which, conceivably, could far exceed their promotion of hatred. Like good news, mutual understanding and harmony don’t have anything like the capacity of bad news and crises to attract attention.

I came across unexpected confirmation for this rosier view when I wandered over to another site after I’d pasted in the paragraph before last. There I found @anytimefrances – whose interest in Indian literature had seemed unserious and patronising to @Anil – saying,

i finally got something written after reading Nissam Ezekiel – i’m becoming very fond of the modern Indian poets writing in English. hope this doesn’t impugn his reputation too much but i just love his almost matter-of-fact deliveries.

She’d just announced the sudden death of her brother to other bloggers on the thread, and was explaining how a particular Indian poet had helped her find her way to writing a poem about her loss. So as hostile as her reaction to @Anil’s criticism had been, and much as I’d despaired over her failure to answer his generous concession with one of her own — if not an apology — she proved him mistaken, and in the most moving way imaginable.

@Atf, if you’re reading here, I was deeply sorry to read your announcement – since I can’t think of many shocks greater than the unexpected death of a sibling. And I’m surprised by meaning every word of that last sentence, even though I haven’t the faintest idea of who you really are or what you look like; not even after two years of blogging with you on various sites.

The succession of texting, telephoning, Twittering and key-tapping ‘plinthers’ might not, in the end, be meaninglessly engaged in their seemingly endless streams of yakyakyak after the JCB crane plants them on their Trafalgar Square perch to horrify pigeons fascinated by their dogged attempts to eat unappetising bits of buzzing plastic embedded with mysterious winking lights.


Filed under Psychology, Social trends, The blogosphere

Blogger-hatred – Indie journalists über alles – A beauty in love with blood-and-gore

This collection of clips supports positions taken and points made in these recent entries on this blog: The rafts of the unwelcoming print journos; Stick to your Polish Joseph Conrad! –Whoa Cleopatra! ; and Ruth Padel and the presentation of intelligent pulchritude in everyday life .


Referring to January’s baffling announcement by a respected Old Media columnist, Simon Jenkins, that the digital revolution in publishing is being halted by ‘printed blogs’ , I mentioned print journalists’ seething hostility to the Blogosphere.

On Sunday I found this review of Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin — an American journalist and novelist so angry about copyright violation on the net (a good cause) and the shift to e-media (a King Canute cause) that, by many accounts, not just Ross Douthat‘s, the book reads like the most intemperate raving by the maddest bloggers …:

The Internet multiplies arguments as swiftly as it multiplies pornographic images,[…] [I]t multiplies cautionary tales as well — feuds better left unfeuded, and rabbit holes that have swallowed writers whole.

Tellingly, it’s often older scriveners, unaccustomed to having their sallies met by waves of insta-disputation, who flail their way into embarrassment. […]

The novelist Mark Helprin is the latest distinguished writer to come undone this way. […]

[He has written] a furious treatise against the comment-happy horde. The resulting book, “Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto,” is a vindication of the aphorism about the perils of wrestling with a pig. (You get dirty; the pig likes it.) [ Possibly not all pigs, though: the giant pink ‘un made by one arts group, WRAS, appears to be finicky — and if I read right, was distressed about getting … er, pig-like, on a recent trip to Spain. ]

I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever blogged alongside foaming at the mouth in quite the way Helprin does. Douthat, again:

[I]t’s hard to write a polemic premised on the assumption that your opponents are monkeys without sounding like a particularly high-vocabulary monkey yourself. Helprin variously describes his foes as “wacked-out muppets,” “crapulous professors,” “regular users of hallucinogenic drugs,” “a My Little Pony version of the Khmer Rouge,” “a million geeks in airless basements,” “mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down” and so forth. The overall effect is like listening to an erudite gentleman employing $20 words while he screams at a bunch of punk kids to get off his front lawn.

[ I actually had to google ‘$20 word.’ ]


In the last blog entry, I also pointed out that independent operators like freelance journalists – temperamentally, close kin to bloggers — are increasingly getting the scoops these days.

About Laura Ling and Euna Lee — two young Korean-American reporters for the fledgling Current TV sentenced by the North Korean government to twelve years in a labour camp — The New York Times conceded in a story that it featured prominently,

Start-up news organizations like Current TV are increasingly sending journalists to the world’s hot spots, putting a spotlight on news stories in new ways. It is, experts say, another consequence of the fragmented media landscape and the declines in international news coverage by traditional outlets.

[…] “There’s an impetus with any upstart news organization that you have to be bolder and you have to be more aggressive than other news organizations to get attention for your stories,” said Kevin Sites, a freelance journalist who covered conflicts for Yahoo. “That has to be admired. That also has a real inherent risk in it.”

This brand of journalist stealing the colours of conventional print and TV rivals is all the more brave because,

One of the risks of this kind of improvised, headlong journalism is that reporters lack the backing of large established news organizations that might have the experience and leverage to deal with foreign governments. While Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee, full-time employees of Current, have the backing of Al Gore, who is a founder of the network, they lack the support system that their colleagues at CNN and the British Broadcasting Corporation enjoy.

Since, as I showed last week, respected print journalists – and the layers of editors and subeditors vetting their work – are as capable of appalling lapses in fact-checking as anyone else, it’s getting harder to see what we’ll lose in the move to online and indy reporting.

Kathryn Bigelow -- 5 June 2009 -- AP photograph

Kathryn Bigelow -- 5 June 2009 -- AP photograph


A recent thread sparked by what our comrade @Hazlitt called the on yer bike look of the writer who became Oxford Professor of Poetry for roughly a weekend encouraged sparkling exchanges about changing female images and self-images that ranged as far as the portrayal of women in western art – which continued on the next thread.

Of course the bolder and more challenging expressions in female portraiture are reflections of collapsing stereotypes about what interests women, and about the limits of what they can do.

In no way does the stunning illustration for this profile of a director I’d never heard of, Kathryn Bigelow, prepare readers for what follows:

THE take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies, the kind with big guns, scenes, themes and camera movements as well as an occasional fist in the face, a knee to the groin. Sometimes, more simply, she’s called a great female director. But here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker.


Although she now plays down the film, it seems like a template for much of her later work, with its emphasis on men, masculinity, violence and power.


yes, she’s working in an sexist field where even female studio chiefs are loath to hire female directors, but also because of the stubborn persistence of her artistic vision and intellectualism. She’s still investigating signs and meaning, but now through genres she deconstructs and sometimes immolates.

It’s telling, then, that after she made “The Loveless” a postmodern motorcycle movie in which she stretched narrative to the limit, she started receiving scripts for high school comedies, which she quickly realized was considered a suitable subject for her gender. “It was an intersection of absolutely inappropriate sensibilities,” she said, though I would love to see what havoc she could wreak on that genre. She was living in New York in a condemned building without heat and electricity. A juvenile comedy might have paid the bills, but instead she accepted an offer from her friend, the artist John Baldessari, to teach at the California Institute of the Arts, just north of Los Angeles. Hollywood was the inevitable next step. Through the director Walter Hill, she landed a deal at a studio, but it led to nowhere.

It was at this point, she said, that she understood “if I had a prayer of shooting something that intrigued me, I was going to have to be the architect of my own fate.”


The number of male mentors and aesthetic influences seems instructive as does her seeming discomfort when I ask why she likes to make movies about men. It’s one of the few times when she searches for her words. She mentions Richard Serra, whom she’s known for years, and “Torqued Ellipses,” his curvilinear steel sculptures that weigh about 40 tons apiece and which she describes as “real statements of power.” Suddenly I’m reminded of the moment in “K-19” when the camera glides between two submarines sitting parallel on the surface of the water, a glorious image of heavy metal that is itself a statement of power. When she was painting, she says, she loved “big, gestural, visceral, raw, immediate pieces.” She starts to move her fingers, as if she were sewing.

“Nothing really struck me,” she says, of the art she first loved, “that was tight and precise and patient and careful and perhaps more introspective. Perhaps,” she laughs, “it’s just a sensibility defect.”

I doubt that one Kathryn Bigelow, no matter how many copy-cats she inspires, will mean goodbye to the Jane Austen sensibility — her ‘little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush …’. Women always have been as different, potentially, as these two. But what a gap – a wow for the ages.


Filed under Editors and editing, Psychology, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Stick to your Polish, Joseph Conrad! … Whoa, Cleopatra!

A few questions and some leftover thoughts from the last entry in this blog, Ruth Padel and the Presentation of Intelligent Pulchritude in Everyday Life … in ascending order of frivolity:

Why is Derek Walcott the focus of such vicious animosity in sections of the transatlantic literary community – more than the combinination of jealousy about his Nobel prize and gossip about sexual intemperance would explain?

The high watermark for the nastiness about him is surely a 2007 review of his Collected Poems in the New York Times Book Review. Most startling are its omniscient pronouncements about Walcott’s relationship to himself by the reviewer, a poet called William Logan. Since Logan’s harshness as a critic is well-known and the NYTBR is usually moderate and careful in its criticism, it is impossible not to wonder whether his editors weren’t trying to get across a hidden message in choosing his assessment for a lead review.

‘[W]riting,’ Logan wrote with the presumption of a hanging judge revealing a heinous crime — but not reasoning very well — ‘was Walcott’s escape from the islands. The metaphors whisper their quiet acknowledgment of guilt.’

At times [Another Life, Walcott’s autobiography in verse] reads like “The Prelude” by a writer far more elegant than Wordsworth, though almost every line about the poet himself sounds false:
[F]or the exile, language is a daily form of betrayal. Walcott has remained a figure of divided loyalties and a double tongue — his grandmothers were descended from slaves, his grandfathers white. Though he “prayed / nightly for his flesh to change, / his dun flesh peeled white,” like any young man of parts he was somewhat enamored of himself. Even the late verse can seem shallow and narcissistic, beauty seized in his own beautiful eye — he treats women (“O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”) in a manner closer to lechery than to old-style courtesy. Caught between two races and two worlds, he has sometimes succumbed to pride or self-pity, or to that pride indistinguishable from self-pity.

[How does merely worshipping female beauty add up to lechery?]

Letters from outraged readers took up most of the letters column in a subsequent issue of the publication:

Joseph Cuomo complained, in part:

Logan asserts that “the rhythms and intonations of English verse were a passport to the elsewhere; but they came with a burden — the language of the colonial masters was not the one caught in his ear at home.”
First, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Walcott’s life knows that “the language of the colonial masters” was indeed “the one caught in his ear at home,” most particularly the language of Shakespeare and the Bible, both of which were read to him as a boy by his mother.

Logan only compounded his presumptuousness in his mostly incomprehensible attempt to justify his hatchet job:

The poet manages to sound like an exile wherever he lives; but mastery of English and immersion in the classics have estranged him from the island of his birth, no matter how often he returns or how long he stays.

Walcott’s conflicts are played out within himself — his vanities and even his self-pity erode the imperial manner of his verse.

The gist of Logan’s case against Walcott: he writes beautifully; in fact he writes too well – not least because by failing to do so in the patois of St. Lucia, where he was born, he has betrayed the half of his heritage that’s West-Indian for the sake of his English genes.

What business did Samuel Beckett have writing in French — or Conrad, Dinesen and Nabokov scribbling in anything other than Polish, Danish and Russian, respectively? Those Chinese and Indian engineers in Silicon Valley, how dare they code in western programming languages when it’s obvious that they should be working in the scripts of their Taoist ancestors, or of Sanskrit metaphysics?

There’s a great deal that we haven’t been told about the story of Walcott and the literati, I feel sure.

The real Cleopatra -- digitally recreated from the most reliable facts about her

The real Cleopatra -- digitally recreated from the most reliable facts about her

Didn’t Ruth Padel have a glimmer about how much damage she was potentially doing professional women last week with her bald-faced lie about her role in spreading rumours about Walcott’s past? About her failure to explain that, rather than her motives for exposing his reputation on some university campuses? Given that most working women have a hard enough time already with society’s ancient uneasiness about women and power — what was she thinking?

The drama of her resignation just nine days after her election as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry recalled a recent opinion piece on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, an outstandingly acute and meticulous biographer. (Read Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999), for a superb sample of the biographer’s art.) Writing on this site about Padel’s confident projection of sexuality, I was reminded of just how remarkable that is, given Schiff’s reminder that

… Cleopatra puts a vintage label on something we have always known existed: mind-altering female sexuality. […] She does not so much bump up against a glass ceiling as tumble through a trapdoor, the one that dismisses women by sexualizing them. As Margaret Atwood has written of Jezebel, “The amount of sexual baggage that has accumulated around this figure is astounding, since she doesn’t do anything remotely sexual in the original story, except put on makeup.” In Cleopatra’s case, the sheer absence of truth has guaranteed the legend. Where facts are few, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.

Padel, denying that she had used her connections to discredit Walcott, unwittingly recalled the female reputation for scheming that goes at least as far back as a first century BC marriage contract in which

a woman promises to be faithful and attentive — and to not add love potions to her husband’s food. Clever women, Euripides had already warned, are dangerous women.

In fact, as Schiff notes dryly:

Before she was a slot machine, a video game, a cigarette, a condom, a caricature, a cliché or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor, before she was reincarnated by Shakespeare, Dryden or Shaw, she was a nonfictional Egyptian queen. She ruled for 21 years, mostly alone, which is to say that she was essentially a female king, an incongruity that elicits the kind of double take once reserved for men in drag.
She was self-reliant, ingenious and plucky, and for her time and place remarkably well behaved. Having inherited a country in decline, she capably steered it through drought, famine, plague and war.

The ages-old controversy about Cleopatra – the subject of Schiff’s biography-in-progress – has an echo or two in the opposition to Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Obama nominated last week to replace a retiring justice on the US Supreme Court. Once again, a woman had to be defended against criticism of behaviour that would have attracted virtually no comment, had she been a man:

Judge Guido Calabresi, a former dean of Yale Law School who taught Ms. Sotomayor there and now sits with her on the Second Circuit, said complaints that she had been unduly caustic had no basis. For a time, Judge Calabresi said, he kept track of the questions posed by Judge Sotomayor and other members of the 12-member court. “Her behavior was identical,” he said.

“Some lawyers just don’t like to be questioned by a woman,” Judge Calabresi added. “It was sexist, plain and simple.”

Could there really be such a thing as a ‘collective unconscious’?

… and if there isn’t, how else are we to account for the phrase ‘thinking women’ turning up in The Independent (‘Can an ex-civil servant finally persuade women to buy erotica?’) ten days after I linked to Pauline, the sculpture I think of as Thinking Woman, in this space? I’m still waiting for someone to prove I’m all wet to suggest that the sculptor, Harold Francis Bell , has scored a coup for the ages.



What advice does Doris Lessing have for this premature case of Droopy Corners Syndrome that I found floating on the net a few years ago?

It is not given to every circle of bloggers to have a comrade posting not just one but two intimate anecdotes about a household name on every continent. @ISA, also known as Philip Hall – who should be hard at work on a memoir about his freedom-fighter family’s South African history this very moment – told us about the only anti-ageing cosmetic advice I have ever heard of Doris Lessing giving. Why she should have given him any advice at all after his ferocious evisceration, in her presence, of The Grass is Singing — that I, like many others, consider her finest work – surpasses all understanding. But it certainly says a lot for her.


Filed under Poetry, Psychology, Social trends, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

Ruth Padel and the presentation of intelligent pulchritude in everyday life

Ruth Padel

Something missing in the hullabaloo about a great poet, Derek Walcott, apparently having trouble leashing his libido on university campuses, is that Ruth Padel — the good poet who won* the coveted post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford last Saturday — has had one of the most strikingly sexy personae in literature. I only refrain from using the present tense because recent press photographs, like the last one in the Independent, show her looking irreproachably demure and even tweedy.

I came across the portrait on this page accidentally, about six years ago, looking for a writer with whom she once shared a platform at a reading — and was enthralled by it long before I’d ever heard of her or read a line of her work. Call it the picture that launched a thousand questions in me about the new images of themselves that confident, intelligent women feel entitled to project.

They couldn’t be more different from the old style deemed permissible, that a female a bit behind the times blogging on a newspaper site prescribed only last week for young women on university campuses – the sartorial equivalent of waving garlic bulbs under the noses of putative sexual vampires like Walcott. Though she took his side in the fight for the Oxford post with a ‘men will be men’ argument, in that comment, she allowed her own sex no particle of latitude to be sexual beings expressing their sexuality:

females entering onto campuses should dress properly and behave with decorum, only then can they expect to be taken seriously re male behaviour. like mutual respect and not one-sided shenanigans.

Peace be with you, Sister Nouvelle-Puritan. Today, a woman as accomplished as Padel — who, as the photograph shows, respects herself and can convey this in her expression, posture, dress, and above all, work — has no need to get tricked out as an insipid bluestocking squinting out of heavy tortoiseshell frames to earn anyone else’s regard. No more than good-looking men in the same circles need to hide their magnetism under a carrel, so to speak.

An unusually powerful sculpture (see slide no: 3) I found on a recent surfing expedition struck me as a watershed in the portrayal of women. The sculptor is, amazingly, a man. All the other human figures by this Harold Francis Bell are so keenly alive that you could say that their joints are jumping. In this one, Pauline, a piece I think of as Thinking Woman, he’s captured something we’ve hardly ever seen in the history of art – a depiction of a radiantly intelligent nude; a woman adorned only by extraordinary intellectual intensity and the physical grace of someone fit and almost too slender, in perhaps late middle age. No trinkets, no costume, no paint. The first time I studied her, I imagined her as the cross between a scientist and ballerina that a real-life friend of mine – a dancer with the Harkness Ballet and daughter of a research physicist – once longed to be.

I find this sculpture far more impressive than Rodin’s Le Penseur. He looks like a hunk of beefcake acting a part – or taking a day off from weight-lifting ‘to see what this thinking stuff’s all about, y’know?’ whereas Bell’s belle, La Penseuse, gives us a being who might conceivably be living almost exclusively to think, and for art’s sake.

I’ll concede that those are subjective impressions, but what equally compelling equivalents of her are there in painting and sculpture – apart from the works that Gertrude Stein inspired by portraitists in several media, and Frieda Kahlo’s tortured, wrenching self-portraits? Being no art historian – not even an amateur one — I’m actually asking for suggestions in any visual medium except for photography, which is (relatively) too easy.

Thinking Woman instantly struck me as iconic — for an age in which western society has begun to value intelligence in women as much as in men. Of course, what’s considered attractive by the majority grows out of the delicate and imperceptible negotiations between individuals and society that shape social trends. Erving Goffman, in his wonderfully named classic of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), theorised that

the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would put on in front of a specific audience. The actor’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. This is done mainly through interaction with other actors.

On doublex, a companion site for women that the online magazine Slate has just launched, an article on changing gender expectations records that whereas girls of the mid-20th century thought that they had to pretend to be stupid to get married,

Today the cultural consensus is very different. At this April’s conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, [a report on a recent study…] of middle school boys and girls [showed that although ] the girls were deeply preoccupied with their appearance, the kind of feminine mystique that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s was virtually dead.

Not a single girl who was interviewed thought she had to play dumb …

And whereas once, clever women were catnip for only the cleverest men, Luisa Dillner has noted with quiet delight that

Surveys show that men still rate attractiveness highly, but a study in Sex Roles, of 199 people in Amsterdam, showed men and women rated the importance of intelligence equally.

Still, a mystery remains. It’s one thrown up by women bloggers themselves. In Sex in the Literary Blogosphere , I mentioned that far from using the net to escape the social expectations that unequally weigh down women in places where they might be free to discuss ideas without those burdens of gender, many females blatantly or subtly draw attention to their looks and femininity. They don’t seem to mind being handicapped by what John Berger analysed so penetratingly in Ways of Seeing, a book that the ballerina friend I mentioned left behind after one of her visits:

One might say that men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines most relationships between men and women, but also in relation to women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

These bloggers give themselves screen identities like @allheart or @ickyinpink or @AirHedda or @angelica – which I’m modelling closely on actual names. Some – by far the most baffling — go out of their way to alternate references to academic texts with posts oozing girly gush.

‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ was once an advertising slogan that a big bad tobacco company deployed to flatter actual and aspiring feminists. . . Not far enough, on the evidence.

But Berger and others who have shown just how deeply images can re-shape perceptions would surely agree that a vamping professor of poetry at one of our oldest universities and a female rival for Le Penseur will make their mark – are doing so even as I type.

[ * On Monday the 25th, Ruth Padel resigned – a week after her pyrrhic victory. See: good thing that the Battle of the Bards wasn’t the subject of this post. ]


Filed under Poetry, Psychology, Social trends, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists