Wednesday, April 30, 2014


This news came to me last week, but I thought I'd wait to write here until I could link to a full obituary. I never had Don as a teacher at Germantown Friends, but he was an extremely close friend of my mother's - they met in graduate school at Penn in the 1960s, and it was in fact on Don's urging that my mother applied for a position at GFS, where she proceeded to have a fantastic thirty-plus-year career (my brothers and I all went there basically as scholarship kids on the strength of her position, so we really have a lot to be grateful for!).

I particularly associate Don with the amazing four-hands piano canon that he and my mother worked up from time to time for public appearances (Faure, Poulenc, etc.). Also, ragtime as per below! But he was a very good friend to our family over a huge span of years - I remember him visiting us when we were still living in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware (mid-1970s) bearing implausible and delightful gifts: Chuckles candy, which we rather despised (especially the liquorice one) but found magically intriguing regardless; Halloween masks (Wonder Woman for me, Spiderman and Batman for my brothers - in those days as you probably know the younguns had a much more modest influx of new things into the home, so this was thrilling); and one Easter, a present that became one of my utter favorites, and is now in the fond possession of my niece GG: a pink plush rabbit, with revolting and yet endearing big pink googly eyes, subsequently known to me as "Mr. Bacon" (the resemblance to the cured meat was unmistakable) and second only to stuffed chimpanzee "Jim" in my youthful affections.

(Unless I am misremembering, it was also Don - who had a huge, eclectic and fairly risque collection of VHS cassettes - who introduced me and my brothers some years after that to the unforgettable Videodrome!)

My classmate Adam Goodheart explains more effectively than I can how meaningful it was when Don came out at the commencement exercises at the Arch Street Meetinghouse in front of students, parents and grandparents (scroll down to the comments): as Adam says, it is easy to forget how homophobic even a liberal east-coast independent school in the 1980s was likely to be, and how taboo it was for teachers or students to reveal that they were gay.

This Youtube snippet gives much of the flavor and appeal of Don's presentation style as well as his piano-playing. He had the longest, most multi-jointed fingers I have ever seen on a pianist!

The quantified self

My friend and Columbia colleague Andrew Gelman has a very nice post about Seth Roberts.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Blindness, insight

At the LARB, a very good essay by Jonathan Freedman on the topic of Paul De Man:
De Man was a mediocre student (largely because he took engineering and chemistry courses), but he was steeped in different traditions than his US peers: existentialism, modernism, the avant-garde both before and after the second World War — indeed in America, he served as an important conduit to European thought, writing on Walter Benjamin before it was de rigueur, engaging in dialogue with Derrida when Derrida was largely unknown, turning in his later works to an encounter with Adorno. And there remain important continuities between de Man and his European elders. It’s important to remember, for example, that one of de Man’s major late essays is called The Return to Philology, by which he meant a return to a rigorous attention to the linguistic specifics of a text in and of itself without recourse to any humanistic pap or moral, ethical, or hermeneutical hijinks. Whether this is an adequate “return,” I leave to the philologists to debate; what seems important is that late in his life, de Man affiliated himself with a tradition of European thought that began, as Jeffrey Harpham has reminded us, in the 18th century’s demystification of Biblical texts and thence to Nietzsche’s madcap philologism before it rolled across the seas in the 20th century. More generally, explication de texte as a method was rooted, in its Comparative Literature aspects, in philology, and competed with — even as it ultimately merged into — the superior pedagogically (because more accessible) but inferior intellectually (because un-self-critical) Anglo-American “New Criticism,” with its emphasis on close reading as a method. Deconstruction in its de Manian guise needs to be understood under the sign of this genealogy, as an attempt to bring the demystifying essence of the philological perspective and close attention to literary detail inherent in the explication tradition together as a critical method.
Had a meeting today about the course I am teaching in the fall: it is called "Literary Texts, Critical Methods," and it is the required introduction to critical approaches that all our undergraduate majors take, preferably in their second year. An interesting challenge, but also a daunting one!

Enjoying the scission

Stefania Heim interviews Wayne Koestenbaum at the Boston Review (Wayne is truly one of contemporary literature's great interviewees!):
The “room” that houses my book’s figures (writers, artists, opera singers, porn stars) is a studio (like M-G-M, in the old days); a system (like the periodic table or the alphabet); an opera house with a roomy backstage, big enough to store sets for all of early Verdi (I Lombardi set-flats cheek-by-jowl with Un giorno di regno); an AMG (Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild) brochure or catalog, the models’ attributes (preferred sexual position, penis size, etc.) signaled by hieroglyphs; a subway stop with a functioning john (“tea room”) and multiple transfers; an orientation session for new enrollees in the non-existent yet alluring New York School of Poets; a yard sale, where one may hope to stumble across an unattributed Forrest Bess that forever escapes the prison of the catalogue raisonné.
Courtesy of Dave Lull.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


I don't know what I would do with it, but I want one.

Week of culture!

Too many evenings out this week - I really do better when I have a lot of time at home with books and cats! That said, I saw the most amazing set of things this week.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is completely captivating - I endorse Ben Brantley's rave for the Times.

Hearing Nico, Sam and Nadia perform "The Only Tune" live at Carnegie Hall was absolutely exhilarating (it is the most transcendently beautiful piece of music, both in its composition and in its remarkable instantiation through Sam's amazing voice); bonus for the evening was some stuff I really liked and didn't know at all in the form of The Uncluded, a collaboration between Kimya Dawson and Aesop Rock (here is one of my particular favorites - I have to say, I feel like this song could have been written by me, and it is certainly the best song about candy that I can think of - "the other good news is an apple Jolly Rancher"!).

Then last night I saw the most amazing film, not quite like anything I've seen before but in another sense perfectly the kind of thing I most like - my old friend Sean Gullette's feature debut Traitors, which was showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. Gripping female noir, a thriller with a mesmerizing protagonist and the most beautiful visuals and soundscapes - really exceptional. I feel very lucky I am in a position to see so many longtime friends making the most incredible stuff!

Miscellaneous light reading around the edges of a very busy week: Laini Taylor's conclusion to her Smoke and Bone trilogy, Dreams of Gods and Monsters (now I want to go back and reread the whole thing in one swoop); Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones, The Islands of Chaldea. Also, Shirley Hazzard's novel The Great Fire, which for some reason I have never read although I think I remember seeing the paperback on my mother's shelf. It is very good, only it makes me extremely glad that given I am stuck being female, I am living in the English-speaking world in 2014 rather than the late 1940s!

Mantel postscript

Sara O'Leary sends an amazing and much fuller interview with Mantel, a must-read if you are at all interested in the process of theatrical adaptation:
“There have been extraordinary times late in rehearsals where Ben” – Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, the production’s riveting focal point – “would say, ‘I don’t think that line’s right. Give me a new one, Hilary’ – and there’s your line. There’s something very bracing about that atmosphere.”

Bracing – and perhaps just a little bit eerie. For it becomes apparent during the course of our conversation that it is not just Mike Poulton she’s been working with. In Ben Miles she has, it seems, a living, breathing personification of her complex and chilling protagonist, dead these past five centuries or so. Miles, who is almost never offstage for the plays’ six-hour running time, has created his Cromwell not only from the scripts but also from a total immersion in the books that are their source. He is, Mantel remarks to me at one point, “the only one who really understands the structure of Wolf Hall”; perhaps in part because he made himself a timeline of the novel, and of Cromwell’s life, which he kept pinned up on the walls of an office he had in the rehearsal rooms of the RSC. “It was like that scene in A Beautiful Mind,” he tells me, “when Russell Crowe’s office is discovered and there are just these scribblings everywhere.”

Straining your ears for the response

Tim Adams interviews Hilary Mantel for the Observer Review:
I always write in terms of scenes, and for a big scene in one of the Cromwell novels I will prepare for several days by going through all my notes and all my sources before diving into the writing. At that moment where I commit to the writing it is exactly like walking on stage. All your senses are alive and it is as if you are straining your ears for the sound of a response.
Another bit caught my attention too, in response to a question about the huge success of these books: "I never expected it but it gives me great pleasure though, because I saw it as a continuation of what I had been doing. Right from the first page, the first paragraph, it was like: "Ah! Now you see everything you have done was aiming at this!" I think this project is the thing I could have done that nobody else could have done, if that doesn't sound boastful." I am overdue a post about writing, only I am (a) waiting till frenzy of school year is over and (b) full of trepidation about airing thoughts and plans, as there does tend to be a dynamic in which one speaks about a future project and then loses interest in actually executing it! Definitely some thoughts on writing soon, though - I have been writing very little this year (other than tens of thousands of words of these reports for the tenure review advisory committee!), and it has actually been very helpful in terms of letting the desire and the ideas well up in me and want to burst out in a sustained stint of effort over the summer.

"(the pain, or the piano-tuning)"

At the NYRB blog, Christopher Benfey on pain and parenthesis.

"Nothing sloths do is normal"

Useful adhesions. (Via Tyler Cowen.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014


These are amazing!

Closing tabs

“A body-temperature wallet is a petri dish.” (Via Tyler Cowen.)

Also: the private lives of public bathrooms (via I.H.D.).


Upcoming: Little Women/Girls mashup - see it while you can!

Good but busy week upcoming (still have slightly implausible amount of work to do between now and Wednesday morning): a dissertation defense, an oral exam, the regular weekly meetings and seminars, but also tickets to various friends' artistic enterprises (this, this and this).

I am sad to have finished all three books of Jane Gardam's Old Filth trilogy! And surprised I didn't read them sooner. They are perhaps not quite as much to my taste as Susan Howatch's Church of England books (I prefer a novel's span to be defined by a period of crisis rather than the entirety of the character's life), but they are very good indeed - I will certainly read her other ones. Have been reading a lot of top-secret books for the Tenure Review Advisory Committee - I suppose at the end of the year I could make a few recommendations, as committee membership is public and so is fact of tenuring, once it's gone through final stages of approval.

Highlight of the week: IMAX 3D Island of Lemurs: Madagascar! Only was able to stay for the first two segments of The Mysteries on Thursday evening (I got home at 11pm and still had a couple more hours of work I had to do before Friday morning meetings, really couldn't face getting home a couple hours later than that with remaining work ditto!); not sure it is quite as transcendent as the Sophocles marathon a few years ago (there is unevenness in the switch from one playwright to another, also too many of them want to make the same sophomoric jokes), but many great aspects, and I definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Really I have two committee reports to write by tomorrow morning, but the ritual throat-clearing at the computer before I start to type something more than minimally complicated often includes a catch-up light reading post....

Some YA paperbacks I picked up last time I was at the Bank Street Bookstore: Merrie Haskell, The Princess Curse; William Alexander, Goblin Secrets; Jasper Fforde, The Last Dragonslayer (very appealing series) and then on Kindle the next installment, The Song of the Quarkbeast.

An unmemorable novel by Alexander McCall Smith that I read only because it was set in Cayman, The Forever Girl; one new novel by Victoria Clayton, Stormy Weather, and then two I'd read before (they are delightful, their only flaw is that they are very much all the same as each other), Dance With Me and Out of Love; Ian McDonald, Out on Blue Six; and Jane Gardam, Old Filth. Not sure quite why I haven't read this and sequels already - am now halfway through the second installment.

OK, better get down to business here with report #1....


This Kirkus review of the style book gives a slightly inaccurate impression that I basically just go through saying whether things are good or bad!

Monday, April 07, 2014

The end of the world as we know it

A genuinely charming book trailer for the paperback edition of Annalee Newitz's Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

Hands corrected

Hand surgeon James Chang became obsessed with the deformities evident in Rodin's hand sculptures. Now he teaches a class
in which students pick one of Rodin’s hands, diagnose the problem, and develop a surgical plan to correct it. The course is extremely popular, and Chang says he’s been fascinated by the reasons students are drawn to it. “One woman was a butcher’s daughter, one was the organist for the Stanford Chapel,” he said. “I had a baseball player from Stanford who was interested in the mechanics of grip, and a student who was partially paralyzed and wanted to learn more about his condition.”

Internet of Cattle

Farmers are connecting their cows to the internet. (Via Tyler Cowen.)

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Stern distinctions (AMNESIA/INSOMNIA)

Aleksandr Hemon interviews Teju Cole at BOMB:
TC Nigeria is an ideal for me in two ways. One, it’s a space of possibility, an opportunity for its people to move beyond the pressures of tribe or ethnic group. This opportunity is often squandered. Two, it’s a soccer team, one that could be one of the world’s best—there’s certainly enough talent to be, at least, on Uruguay’s level. This opportunity, too, is often squandered. So, Nigeria haunts me in terms of being a space of unfinished histories. But my identity maps onto other things: being a Lagosian (which is like a city-state), being a West African, being African, being a part of the Black Atlantic. I identify strongly with the historical network that connects New York, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Lagos. But, as a subject, Nigeria won’t let go of me.

Like you, I am now in a country where people (convinced of their innocence) sleep well; and like you, I’m still one of history’s amnesiacs.

AH Amnesiacs?

TC I meant to write “insomniacs”! But the error is illuminating.
Also: "yes, I believe in life online, the way a person in 1910 might believe in aviation, or a person in 1455 might believe in movable type: with excitement and apprehension."

Capping the bottle with the genie in it

Ulrich Baer interviewed on reading, writing and other things that matter:
UB. …yeah, but, if you think about them, Baudelaire—I’ve never thought about them this way—Rilke, Celan, I mean there is a reason that I moved toward them from a certain direction, I started with Baudelaire and then I went to Celan. My native language is German. I couldn’t get to Rilke until I had passed through Celan…

GW. …why do you think that is…

UB. …who deconstructs—Celan deconstructs German in a very fundamental way, in a way where you can’t really reconstitute it afterwards. That’s why I call him the last poet of modernity. He’s at the end of a tradition and of a language used in a certain way. I’m not sure if that can ever be redone. And for him this is because it passes through being the language of a kind of mechanized genocide that is not easily dissociated from German as a language. And for me Rilke was too–the German was too melodious and it was too good, in a way. It was too complete, and actually had this promise of transcendence. And I thought, oh he’s promising something greater in German. And then I went back to Rilke after Celan and I translated Rilke into English. So, in some ways, what I find in Rilke is that it’s not the German which makes this promise, but he as a poet is continually trying to find this other place in himself to have some greater awareness, which means it’s not bound up with his German and his incredibly great gift for poetry. He was one of the greatest, a gifted rhymer—he was rhyming way too much. Lou Andreas-Salomé said to him early on, “you’re a great poet” –when he was 19 and she was his lover, she’s 36—and she says, “you’re really great and really talented but you really are overdoing it with the rhyming” (laughs). Take the foot off the pedal a little bit. It’s too much. It was too much in a way, too much “poeticity” in his poetry. And then Rilke kind of pares it down. So in the Elegies, later on, they actually, in a weird way, take away the poetic aspects, the artifice, and get to something—for me—more essential. He gets to something about how language relates us to the world.
I am keen to read The Rilke Alphabet.


The piece Geoff Dyer filed from hospital. (Via Leo Carey.)


Slothified! (Via B.) Sloth rescuer and kitten socializer are at the top of my list of fantasy alternate careers - though really it might just be that I need to find somewhere with a few more animals I can help look after (do not need more in my own home, despite temptation to acquire a pet rat or rabbit for the office)....

Friday, April 04, 2014


Peter Aspden lunches with Mary Midgley for the FT (site registration required):
Midgley went to Oxford during the war, and she has fond memories of a time, she says, when there was a spirit of genuine inquiry in the air. “When I was at Oxford, I suppose some people thought about their careers but not the sort I talked to.” Her “sort” included Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe. “There has been a surge in interest in us today because here we were, four women philosophers [who became prominent], and that hasn’t happened since! The important thing was that we were not put under this kind of cheese grater, with a lot of people from Harvard shouting at us. The men who were there were conscientious objectors, disabled, or ordinants, they weren’t so keen on putting everybody down all the time. I really think it is a vice in professional philosophy, a real crime.”

There was a certain kind of machismo about the winning of arguments, I say. “It’s quite interesting isn’t it? Plato gives this very good explanation of why we shouldn’t just be trying to win arguments all the time, and then look at what Socrates does – he utterly and single-mindedly does precisely that! I think the Athenian law courts have a lot to answer for. All right, it is an important part of our reasoning, but it is not everything. It has to be balanced.”

Markets in everything

The phone storage business in NYC.

Thursday, April 03, 2014


Style book reviewed at Publishers Weekly!

(This semester is now officially kicking my ass - so tired I don't really know what to do with myself! Four more weeks - I think it can be done....)

Celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Columbia University Seminar on Eighteenth-Century European Culture this weekend - I have had no hand organizing it, but will preside over a graduate student panel and weigh in where appropriate.

Too lazy to log full list of light reading (I had a pile of YA paperbacks that I picked up the last time I visited the Bank Street Bookstore, have just ploughed through them due to dearth of mental attention for anything more challenging), but I did read and love two short books over the weekend, both highly recommended: Jenny Offil's Dept. of Speculation (good interview here) and Teju Cole's Every Day is For the Thief.

Teaching Emile tomorrow. It is a very strange book. To my chagrin, the edition I taught it from last time is out of print, and I haven't been able to lay hands on my own old copy - teachers know that this means my quite reasonable set of teaching notes is now virtually useless! Rectification of page numbers (and it is a different translation, too, alas - I was marking stuff with post-its as I reread in this edition, but it's going to be a pain trying to reconcile things) will have to wait until tomorrow, though. I got nothin'!