Evil Forces in the World

Reflections on ''Evil Forces in the World,'' as well as occasional remarks concerning ''Good Forces in the World.''

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Ben Reads The Spectator...So You Don't Have To!

While I lead a life of nominal leadership and service (pace my first alma mater), in actual fact I spend a great deal of time reading bellicose periodicals from the UK. Especially the Spectator, a delightful assemblage of Tories who can't get over 1917 and Clause Four Socialists who hate Tony Blair considerably more than Satan. A really good British political magazine will make 'Crossfire' look like sherry hour after High Mass at St. Alban's. This week's middling issue offers some pretty good examples.

John Laughland writes an awfully bizarre dispatch from Iraq talking up the willingness of plucky Iraqis to defend their regime against neo-colonial aggression. After quoting a rather vehement professor in Baghdad, he adds:

Such sentiments may be the stock-in-trade of the peculiarly intense nationalism of the Iraqi Ba'athists; but when we changed the subject to English literature--the students love Wuthering Heights but they find John Osborne and Samuel Beckett a bit perplexing--the professor's demeanour and tone of voice remained identical. She had obviously meant what she said about their willingness to fight. My spine froze when she fixed me with her dark eyes and said very slowly and very firmly, 'I have three sons. They are aged between 18 and 26. Do you think I am going to hide them in the house if there is a war?'

I was a bit less impressed by the examples he cites. Aristocratic Tory or Clause Four Socialist? Hard to tell.

The inimitable Mark Steyn breaks the dichotomy with his more-American-than-the-Americans, neocon on crack routine, which I adore. HIs mad wordplay and semantic brilliance have more than once saved his less-than-scintillating analysis. This time he talks about the upcoming US elections:

Out on the hustings, Democratic candidates glide past the war question like the Queen passing one of those mooning Maoris: keep smiling and pretend nothing's happening. In this, they have the considerable assistance of the press. The American Prospect gave Minnesota leftie Senator Paul Wellstone the full Monica the other day in a drooling campaign profile broken up by sub-headings such as 'The Draw of Conscience.' '"I believe in Paul's conscience," says Karen Jeffords, a mental-health worker.' The Senator, in return, 'pledges' his 'commitment' to federal funds for light rail transportation. Paul's conscience on the controversial light-rail issue seems to be in cracking form, but where does it stand on the war? Whoops, gotta run.

As a fan (with reservations) of both TAP and Wellstone, I still found this brilliant, especially the comparison to the Queen and the diction in the penultimate sentence--"cracking form" is perfect.

Also, Roger Scruton, longtime head of the Salisbury Review (paleo-Con), compares the UK unfavorably to Czechoslovakia under the Communists. He pulls off what I had thought was a uniquely American feat of being self-pitying and self-congratulatory at the same time.

Michael Hanlon has a peice on farm subsidies called, appropriately, "Throw Them to the Wolves," which makes no new or interesting arguments but is distinguished by its unvarnished message: Fuck 'em. This is worth reading all the way through. Bonus: shots at the CAP (the evils of which RM Salam had convinced me of some years ago), the French, and--unexpectedly--the Irish. Great stuff.

Thanks, also, to Rich So for being a true gentleman. My apologies for my own moments of excess.

Monday, September 16, 2002

Rich So Apologies To Ben Dueholm

So shit, Reihan just called me up to point out that I was a pompous asshole in my last blog. I have thought about this for a few minutes, and this is true. I'd like to think that I am not typically - at least on an hourly basis - a condescending bastard, and so I must issue a humble apology. An explanation: I did not mean the blog as a personal effront, in any way suggesting an ad hominem attack. I am a fan of Mr Dueholm's blogs, and always enjoy whatever exchange we have on this site. I hope my asinine, transparently defensive diatribe does not preclude future exchanges. I hope it is explicable that my rant stemmed from a petty impulse: I am an English PhD, and so read Mr Dueholm's blog as a personal attack, and likewise, the former editor of Social Text is my current advisor. By way of further explanation, the bulk of my blog was waxing on the undergraduates that surround me at Columbia right now. Again, in no way was it a specific engagement with Mr Dueholm's blog or his person.

In related news: poignant blog on David Grene. I mourn his passing as well, as the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago is one of the few truly excellent programs of its kind in the US (I can only think of MTL at Stanford being its equal). Thomas Pavel wrote one of the best works of literary criticism last year (Spell of Language) and of course, JM Coetzee and Mark Strand are brilliant writers. It is tragic that one of the program's progenitors has passed.

In unrelated news: new music. Keep an eye out for delicious new indie-pop music on the way, the very best that exists right now. I am talking about new Ivy, new Saint Etienne, and new Tahiti 80. All within the month (don't hesitate to order the new Saint Etienne from amazon.co.uk to beat the US market by two weeks). I am putting aside a weekend to write a 6000-word blog on the new Saint Etienne, which promises to be the fucking bombshit. You think I am kidding.
DAVID GRENE, 1913-2002

The death of the poet was kept from his poems

Professor Grene's death shocked me, despite his years and manifest frailty. I took his last two classes at the University of Chicago. He could do nothing unaided, but he taught every week. His sight had deteriorated to the point that he needed 8.5x11 reproductions of the text, and he could only walk at the slowest, most deliberate pace. But all this, as a friend and fellow admirer pointed out, just demonstrated an incredible strength of character. If anyone made the idea of academia as a vocation plausible to me, it was David Grene.

Grene was the world's greatest living classicist, translator of Herotodus and editor, with Richmond Lattimore, of The Complete Greek Tragedies. His rendering of the Oedipus cycle still makes me shiver. He was a founder of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and, by the time of his death, a 65-year teaching veteran. Moreover, he never earned a Ph.D., and when he raised a stir in the late 30's at the U of C's classics department, he bought the first of several farms to fall back on in case he got fired. As late as this summer, he travelled back to his farm in his native Ireland.

There are probably vanishingly few farmer-classicists left in the world, and that is a shame--Homer is far, far earthier than those who teach him today. There are probably now no professors left who can discourse on the great performances of 'Lear' in pre-Anschluss Austria. Part of his appeal as a teacher was just that, his anachronistic quality. When he taught T. S. Eliot or Yeats, he was teaching his contemporaries.

By the time I could take his classes, he was in marked decline. Still, he had no trouble summoning a dismissive grumble in response to my carefully thought-out comments, and once in a while he would awe us--and the room was always filled with lab school kids, undergrads, Ph.D. students, faculty members, and two kidney doctors from the old days of Social Thought--with a completely unexpected insight into the work at hand.

The U of C site has a good obituary, with remembrances from the likes of Saul Bellow and other famous Committee grads. For me, he was the co-teacher of the two best classes of my undergraduate career, one on Eliot's Four Quartets and the other on The Tempest. He read Eliot better than Eliot did, and he had a singular gift for Shakespeare's language, knowing intuitively when to reverse feet and when to step a bit harder on a crucial 'if.' It is too fitting, painfully fitting, that the last two courses of his career should have been on great poets confronting mortality and renouncing their craft, but even without this unfortunate denouement, I would have found him unforgettable. We shall not see his like again.