Anxious Mo-Fo

An anxious m*********** from Seattle

Charles Xavier Vseslav, a.k.a Charles Kinbote, is actually Charles Francis Xavier, a.k.a Professor X

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Written by JPP

August 28, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Books

The thing about reading Pale Fire

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… is this terrible dread that you will find out you are Kinbote.

Written by JPP

August 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Posted in Books, Nabokov

Fun with Edmund Spenser and the O.E.D.

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I am slowly working my way through The Faerie Queene. Spenser refers to the poem’s hero knight as an elf, e.g., from Book I Canto V, “Which when the wakeful Elfe perceiu’d…” In what sense, I wondered, could this knight be referred to as an elf?

One of the O.E.D.’s definitions of “elf” is:

By Spenser applied to the knights of his allegorical ‘faerie land’.

Ah. In that sense.

Similarly, one of the O.E.D.’s definitions of “faerie” is:

The realm or world of the fays or fairies; fairyland, fairydom (cf. FAIRY n. 1). Usually, the imaginary world depicted in Spenser’s Faery Queene, the personages of which have little or no resemblance to the ‘fairies’ of popular belief.

Written by JPP

January 2, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Posted in Poetry

A not completely fair parody of apophatic theology

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A somewhat common way of talking about God among theists is to claim that God is a mystery, while simultaneously saying things which are pretty specific about God. An example is this piece by Mark Vernon, which I know about because it was parodied here, on a new blog called Exquisite With Love, of which I am a fan.

Vernon writes,

First you’ve got to ask what you mean by the word ‘God’. And there is a quick answer: we don’t know what we mean by the word ‘God’. God is a mystery.


[H]ow can God be talked of? It’s called the negative way, or the apophatic – saying what God is not. Whatever God might be, God is not visible: God’s invisible. Whatever God might be, God cannot be defined: God’s ineffable. Nothing positive is said. But nonetheless something is said of God.

He also writes,

You see, if you believe the question of God is worth asking then it’s because you’ve sensed that life might have meaning, that the cosmos is for something, that there might be an explanation beyond chance as to why there is something rather than nothing.

He doesn’t come right out and say it, but Vernon does seem to be implying that God is the Creator of the Universe, that He created it for a particular purpose, and that His purpose is relevant to how we conduct our lives. That is not anything close to only describing God by what He is not and, when combined with the attempt to describe God as an unresolvable mystery, is incoherent. At its worst, talking about God in this way is an ad hoc shuttling between describing God in detail and refusing to making any positive statements about HIm at all (e.g., He is an ineffable mystery who hates gay marriage and loves foreign aid to Israel).

It seems strange to talk in this way about God; it would be even stranger to talk this way about anything else. For example, let’s imagine talking like this about literature:

Vernon: David Foster Wallace is the best writer ever.

Some other person: I dunno, I thought Infinite Jest was self-indulgent and overly long.

Vernon: Anti-Wallacites – e.g., you – are shrill, anti-intellectual, and fundamentalist. Also, you don’t get to like or dislike Wallace, as he is the kind of writer who transcends simplistic ideas of approval and disapproval.

Some other person: …

Vernon: David Foster Wallace is the term I use to point to – not denote, but point to – the transcendent ineffable indescribable awesomeness of literature. It refers not just to the historic David Foster Wallace but to the David Foster Wallace dancing in the margins of your Penguin Classics edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a David Foster Wallace both seen and not-seen, heard and not-heard, existent and non-existent. You may claim not to like David Foster Wallace, but when you read Kafka or Proust or Milton or even Patricia Cornwell you are really reading David Foster Wallace, as his writing envelops and subsumes and is the still small voice at the heart of all literature.

Some other person: …

Vernon: When I say I like David Foster Wallace, I’m also saying I like The Iliad and The Canterbury Tales. That’s why we really don’t have anything to disagree on, as the themes of David Foster Wallace’s work are the themes of all great literature, and by shuffling terms around a bit we can see that themes not treated in his work really are treated in his work after all because that’s how awesome he is. David Foster Wallace didn’t write “The Garden of Forking Paths”, but, in a deeper sense, he did – or at least we can no longer subscribe to the rigid and limiting idea that he didn’t write it and that Borges did.

Some other person: …

Vernon: And Infinite Jest was not self-indulgent or too long, you fundamentalist anti-Wallacer: it was the finest English-language novel of the ’90s, and if you don’t like it you’re just jealous that you’re not the awesome writer he is.

Some other person: But I really didn’t like it all that much.

Vernon: Descriptivist. And your ignorance of David Foster Wallace’s work and my own work on David Foster Wallace is appalling.

Some other person: Okay, where are the hidden cameras?

I said in the title that this parody is not fair, and it’s not fair to Vernon at all. But it’s at least somewhat fair as a mockery of a particular way of talking about God.

Written by JPP

January 2, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Posted in Religion

Today in bad writing

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“The fact is,’’ [Sylvia A.] Earle writes, busily mixing metaphors, “that our actions relative to the natural living world, land, air, and sea, have taken us to a precipice, a tipping point, a crossroads with ourselves in the crosshairs, the ones responsible for the fix we’re in.’’

From Anthony Doerr’s review of Earle’s book, The World is Blue.

Written by JPP

September 21, 2009 at 9:10 am

Posted in Books

2666, laugh riot

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There’s something of a sad joke near the beginning of 2666: Morini, one of the four critics in the first chapter, “The Part About the Critics”, is found reading a cookbook by the poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The same joke is told at the very end of the book, when Archimboldi meets a descendant of Fürst Pückler, a writer and botanist remembered now for his delicious ice cream.

Morini, reading Sor Juana’s cookbook, is approached by a man who used to work at a business which makes mugs with slogans. He quit his job when pictures–first black and white, then color–were added to the mugs. He tells his now-former manager, “That the bloody mugs didn’t bother me before and now they’re destroying me inside.”

To be a poet remembered for your cooking, or a travel writer remembered for your ice cream, is funny and sad enough; to be crushed by your work is even sadder, and even funnier. I suppose that being remembered for nothing at all, or to be crushed by your work and continue anyway, would be sadder and funnier still.

Written by JPP

September 20, 2009 at 11:04 am

Posted in Books, Roberto Bolaño

No longer reading Gibbon on my iPod

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I did manage to read about two hundred sixty pages, and it wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t really great either. Having a gigantic set of books fit in your pocket is nice, but if your main goal is not portability, a nice large set of hardbound books is preferable.

The used copy I found yesterday was treated very nicely by its previous owner, who put a library-style plastic cover on each of the dust jackets, and put a list of Roman emperors and the years of their reigns in the back of Volume I. Unlike the version on my iPod, the books have beautiful illustrations: maps, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings. Unlike the version on my iPod, the books are designed, with beautiful and legible typesetting with nice wide margins, pretty initial capitals, and footnotes placed in the margins.

The books are also physical objects, which my six-year-old daughter is able to stack on each other and leaf through to find pretty pictures. Weightlessness is nice, but weight can be too.

Written by JPP

September 20, 2009 at 9:01 am

Posted in Books

Movie about Darwin fails to find a U.S. distributor

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The article isn’t clear on exactly why it failed to do so, but it’s difficult to think of reasons which aren’t depressing.

Link. Via Andrew Sullivan and Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb and everyone else.

Update: Things look better today (via @carlzimmer).

Written by JPP

September 13, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Science

Books for children about ancient Egypt

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I love David Macaulay’s book about how the pyramids were built. The illustrations are wonderful, and it makes plain what a massive (and massively useless) undertaking it was to build the damn things. However, I should mention that it has not sustained my (six-year-old) daughter’s interest long enough for me to read the whole thing to her.

Similarly, I love David Weitzman’s The Pharaoh’s Boat which, like Macaulay’s book, has beautiful illustrations and shows how clever the ancient Egyptians were. And, like Macaulay’s book, I like it much more than my daughter does.

We both like The Star-Bearer, which is a picture book (with very pretty pictures) retelling an ancient Egyptian creation myth. We also like Gerald McDermott’s Voyage of Osiris, which retells a myth of Osiris: how he was imprisoned and then murdered by Set, how he was reassembled, and how he became the ruler of the Underworld. I’ve left out a link because it appears to be out of print, and there’s not much on it online.

My daughter loves You Wouldn’t Want to Be Cleopatra! much more than I do–she asked me to read it to her five days in a row, to my sorrow. It certainly holds a child’s attention: there’s strangling, seasickness, beheading, poisoning, stabbing, and sibling rivalry (including an illustration showing Cleopatra’s brother taunting her with, “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, I’m Pharaoh”). If you’ve ever been to one of the Grossology exhibits at your local science center, you’ve got an idea of the kind of book this is.

I can tell you which books my daughter enjoyed, but someone else will have to tell you how true to the facts or the source material they are, because I have no idea.

Update: I completely forgot The Usborne Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, which has a long section on ancient Egypt, and which both my daughter and I love.

Written by JPP

September 13, 2009 at 11:35 am

Posted in Books

They Might Be Giants: new album of kids’ songs about science!

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It makes me so happy I could cry. While my six-year-old daughter was watching the video embedded below over and over again the other day, I actually did get a little something-in-my-eyes about it: the music is wonderful, the message is wonderful, and my daughter loves it. There are many more; follow the trail of related videos on YouTube.

Written by JPP

September 8, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Posted in Music, Science