Archive for the ‘Prose’ Category

Fiercely Honoring Hope Witsell

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Sylvia over at Sylvia Has a Problem posted an extraordinary rant several weeks ago that should stand as a testament to the value of opinionated blogging. There may be too much self-indulgent crap and too little fact-checking in the blogosphere – of course, the same could be said of most opinion-spouters on op-ed pages and on cable news. But every once in a while, something extraordinary breaks though – and this piece on Hope Witsell is exactly that sort of extraordinary thing.

I won’t post an excerpt. Just read the piece.

Rothkopfian Aphorisms

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Although the conventional wisdom holds that blogging and the internet is leading us to become cretins who cannot compose full sentences (lest they run longer than 140 characters), there is reason for hope. And not just because Twitter and Wordpress have made more prolific writers out of all of us. I have never read the news as intensely as I have this past years, so I cannot judge from even the limited perspective of my life, but there is some great prose written on blogs. I’ve found though, that when reading on a computer screen, I “read/skim” and don’t notice the finer sentences as I jump about the piece searching for the most interesting bits. However, I have taken to printing out substantial entries from blogs, and found much of the writing is in fact quite good.

One of the writers who has consistently drawn my attention with his witty aphorisms is David Rothkopf. His blog is well worth reading, for the insight, yes – but also for the wit.

On diplomacy:

In marriage, a lack of intimacy usually means you are not getting fucked… but in diplomacy, it means you almost certainly will be.

On the advantages America has over most other potential great powers:

We’re also protected by two great oceans and our neighbors are fairly easy to get along with. (Mexico is a bit of a concern at the moment but Canada lost its last remaining offensive capability when Wayne Gretzky moved to the United States.)

On Venezuela’s announcement of a nuclear program:

I’ve been predicting this problem for so long that it gives me a little lift even if it is a potential calamity for millions of others. Take note: that’s what narcissism makes possible.

On Eliot Spitzer’s desire for publicity:

The A.I.G. scandal and the collapse of Wall Street could have been [Spitzer's] apotheosis, the moment the howling dogs of ambition in his breast might have finally gotten enough red meat of press exposure.

On the mania of the government for ensuring constant economic growth, specifically of GDP growth:

Didn’t our founders specify that the purpose of our country was to guarantee the right of all of us (well, white men anyway) to life, liberty, and the pursuit of constant growth in “the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation’s borders during a given period (usually 1 year).”

Commenting on GQ’s “50 Most Powerful People in Washington” edition:

If you follow Washington without losing your appetite, you’re not paying attention.

On the relationship between capitalism and Wall Street:

Because 21st Century Wall Street is to capitalism as Pope Alexander VI was to the teachings of Jesus Christ. There was a connection but it was remote and observed more in the breach than in the honoring of the essentially good underlying ideas.

On why Wall Street will finally be reformed:

Personally, I think they miscalculate. They finally may be undone by their greed. Except it won’t be because they stole too much or blew up the international economy. It’ll be because they stopped paying off the people who set the rules. And nothing puts a politician back in touch with his principles like a failure to keep up payments by the banker to whom he has mortgaged them.

Describing the dust-up between Kim Jong Il and Hillary Clintons:

No doubt drawing on his extensive training in rhetoric and stand-up comedy at the University of Malta (training ground for all of Malta’s best comics), Kim fired back with the tell-tale wit that once had him referred to as “the anti-factionalist Oscar Wilde of Baekdu Mountain” until someone discovered who Oscar Wilde was and the guy who invented the nickname was dropped out of a Russian helicopter into the Amnok River. (Wilde, meanwhile, might have called North Korean official efforts at humor “the unspeakable in pursuit of the unattainable.”)

Comparing America’s hegemony with Microsoft’s monopoly:

In the mid-90s, America and Microsoft were clearly the future of the world. Then both started to abuse their power. America, in the wake of 9/11, undercut the international system it built, rhetorically flaunted its hallowed values and then crudely and repeatedly undercut them in its behaviors. Microsoft went from a symbol of the garage-launched entrepreneurial energy of the tech revolution to being a ruthless crusher of competitors. In fact, it became so dominant, that it felt it could foist on the American public products that didn’t work, were full of bugs, were vulnerable to security breaches and, as in the case of Vista, should never have been released in the first place.

Defining the foreign policy precept, the law of the prior incident:

A reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today.

I had also accidentally included this Paul Krugman quote in the mix of Rothkopfian aphorisms – because it seemed so like something he’d say. Only on searching for the quote did I find its true author, but I’ll include it here anyway:

Serious Person Syndrome, aka it’s better to have been conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.

[Image adapted from a photograph by the New America Foundation licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Two Novels That Can Change Your Life

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

I mention this as I’m working myself up to read Atlas Shrugged soon. Stephen Colbert, among others, piqued my interest.

The elation of victory is fleeting and the burden of responsibility is enduring

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Bob Gates in his 1996 memoir From the Shadows:

The White House is a poignant place. I spent more years working there than any President but Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it seems to me that for those who live and work there, if they are completely honest with themselves, with rare exception the most vivid memories are not of victory but of crisis and defeat — and, for a fortunate few, of one or two occasions of historical importance. This is why character counts for so much in a President. In the White House, the elation of victory is fleeting and the burden of responsibility is enduring.

H/t Elizabeth Bumiller in the New York Times.

The Latitude To Be Human

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Former centerfielder and now occasional Times columnist Doug Glanville defends Alexander Rodriguez in the only way possible, asking that we not judge this man too harshly, or any of our fellow humankind, for despite the near perfection of A-Rod’s game, he, like all of us, needs the latitude to be human:

So whether you are A-Rod or the last guy to make the team out of spring training, you might not always be as forthcoming as some would like. It could be for fear of not living up to something, or to keep someone safe, or maybe it’s pure deception — all the ways we all use to avoid facing certain unpleasantries in our lives. It’s human nature to preserve and protect. And even though this game inspires magic, its magicians need the latitude to be human.

The Brave and Wise Politician

Friday, February 6th, 2009

I was listening to Governor David Patterson speak at the Council on Foreign Relations podcast of a recent session – and was somewhat favorably impressed with him. His remarks were coherent and interesting and clearly showed that he was an intelligent person gathering information and acting as he saw best. He seemed to have an almost Bushian disregard for the legislature though – and a sense that he – and he alone – knew what was best.

Much more interesting than anything Gov. Patterson said though was moderator and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld’s offhand comment:

There’s no one so brave and wise as the politician who’s not running for office and who’s not going to be…

The remark certainly conveys a certain wisdom in itself – as even prosaic politicians are found to have some real insight once they leave office. It’s an interesting comment on our political system – that bravery and wisdom are seen as detriments to political success and acceptance.

The Inherent Character Flaws of Politicians

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

From a blog post by Timothy Egan last week in the New York Times about Portland’s mayor:

But with the betrayal by Sam Adams, the city now offers an old lesson in timeless and tawdry human weakness. The story of Sam Adams is not about gay predators or gay anything, because Portland has seen this civic morality tale once before, with a heterosexual mayor.

It’s about why voters should never give their hearts over completely to politicians. As a class, they are inherently insecure — a character flaw at the base of all politicians, from Bill Clinton to Bob Packwood. And they lie, with rare exceptions — a hard thing to say at a time when the doors of possibility are open to leaders yet untarnished.

That’s an eternal lesson, though, as with all rules, there are rare exceptions.

My Thirteen Favorite Updike Quotes

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

I discovered John Updike when most people should – when I was about 13. Updike explained in an interview that he wrote his books aiming towards this existence as:

books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a …teenaged boy finding them, having them speak to him.

And that is how I discovered them. His books were depressing and yet exotic with a sad sexuality that I was enticed by but did not understand. I read through the Rabbit Angstrom series as well as a number of other minor works. Later, I rediscovered Updike in a novel which has scarcely been mentioned in his eulogies, Toward The End of Time, which seems to me to be exceptional. It takes place after the end of civilization and the fall of the American government due to a war with the Chinese. I still vividly remember the casual indifference of the narrator in what is, I think, a quintessential Updike quotation:

One advantage of the collapse of civilization is that the quality of the young women who are becoming whores has gone way up.

For me, this quotation demonstrates both the author’s humor, the misogyny of his characters, the world-weariness, the carnality, the enforced normalcy and mundaniety.

As a man who would go on to write 61 books, Updike had an almost pathological need to write as his obituary in The New York Times made clear:

I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to. The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.

Given this compulsion to write, it’s no surprise that Updike wrote in every form – short story, poetry, novel, criticism, nonfiction. The New York Times called him:

a literary decathlete in our age of electronic distraction and willful specialization, Victorian in his industriousness and almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words

Updike seemed to finding what meaning he did in life from his art:

But the work, the words on the paper, must stand apart from our living presences; we sit down at the desk and become nothing but the excuse for these husks we cast off.

As his obituaries attempt to categorize his work, I’m not sure anyone can do better than his near-contemporary, the similarly prolific, Joyce Carol Oates:

John Updike’s genius is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies.

At his best, Updike described his work as giving “the mundane its beautiful due.”  These quotations below are either from my collection or in the various collections of Updike quotes online and in his obituaries:

  1. He had returned to the archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand. Bech had expected the pathos, the implied pecking of furtive typewriters, but not the defiant beauty of the end result. (jwcampbe.)
  2. I think “taste” is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves. (Wikiquote.)
  3. Sex is like money; only too much is enough. (The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.)
  4. To say that war is madness is like saying that sex is madness: true enough, from the standpoint of a stateless eunuch, but merely a provocative epigram for those who must make their arrangements in the world as given. (Wikiquote.)
  5. A leader is one who, out of madness or goodness, volunteers to take upon himself the woe of the people. There are few men so foolish, hence the erratic quality of leadership in the world. (The Telegraph.)
  6. An affair wants to spill, to share it’s glory with the world. No act is so private it does not seek applause. (The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.)
  7. He was bad at the business of life, which is letting go. (jwcampbe)
  8. To be President of the United States, sir, is to act as advocate for a blind, venomous, and ungrateful client. (The Telegraph.)
  9. In asking forgiveness of women for our mythologizing of their bodies, for being unreal about them, we can only appeal to their own sexuality, which is different but not basically different, perhaps, from our own. For women, too, there seems to be that tangle of supplication and possessiveness, that descent toward infantile undifferentiation, that omnipotent helplessness, that merger with the cosmic mother-warmth, that flushed pulse- quickened leap into overestimation, projection, general mix-up. (Wikiquote.)
  10. Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went. (ThinkExist.)
  11. Truth should not be forced; it should simply manifest itself, like a woman who has in her privacy reflected and coolly decided to bestow herself upon a certain man. (BrainyQuote.)
  12. I love my government not least for the extent to which it leaves me alone. (BrainyQuote.)
  13. We do survive every moment, after all, except the last one. (Conversations with John Updike.)

Quote of the Day

Friday, November 21st, 2008

In Europe during most of the twentieth century (here come a few shameless generalizations), the political thinkers of the right and the left have pictured the best of all societies as something other than democracy. The better world of their fancy might have been (depending on party affiliation) feudal, fascist, Communist, or revolutionary socialist in one of several versions – but it was not likely to be democratic in any ordinary sense. In the European imagination, democracy was a politics of compromise and true. It evoked a spirit of tolerance, moderation, caution, sobriety, rationality, and fatigue, which might amount to wisdom, but also to mediocrity. Democracy was something to arrive at only when the bright dream of exterminating one’s enemies no longer seemed within reach and the notion of a truly superior society had been abandoned. It was a “secondary love derived from a primary hatred,” in Andre Gluckmann’s phrase.

Paul Berman in A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968, pages 49 – 50.

Quotes Summarizing the Past 8 Years

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.

Commonly attributed to Winston Churchill.

Andrew Sullivan cites another relevant and similar quote by Alexis de Tocqueville as his quote of the week:

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.