Monday, June 09, 2008

Quick Hits

Anthony Lane channels Dorothy Parker and shreds the "Sex and the City" flick like a neurotic housecat on a Victorian armchair.

When Garbo made “Anna Karenina,” in 1935, she got happy, unhappy, loved, left, and under the train in less than a hundred minutes, so how the hell are her successors supposed to fill the time?

To be fair, there are four of them—banded together, like hormonal hobbits, and all obsessed with a ring.

Then there's this comparison:

In a montage of wedding-dress fittings, she honors “new friends like Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera and Christian Lacroix, Lanvin and Dior,” and so on; what I object to is not the name-dropping — think of it as a chick response to “American Psycho”— but the montage itself, which is shot in lazy veils of schmaltz. Compare the quick-change sequence in “Funny Face,” with Audrey Hepburn robed in one Givenchy masterpiece after another, and you sense not merely the greater snap in Stanley Donen’s direction (with more than a hand from Richard Avedon), and the hotter bloom of the coloring, but the way in which Hepburn herself outglows the frocks, with her smile and her imperious shout—“Take the picture, take the picture!” No thoroughbred was ever just a clotheshorse.

Those who find nothing whatsoever appealing about Sarah Jessica Parker (I seem to be a minority of one) will enjoy the link just for David Hughes' Steadman-esque illustration of the "Sex and the City" cast.

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Before I took to American history, my intellectual love was English romantic poetry and the era in which it flourished. As André Malraux wrote in his biography of Lord Byron, one of the great pleasures in studying the lives of great artists is meeting and getting to know the people who figured in their lives, but who otherwise have not been remembered -- the publishers, mistresses, valets, cads, drinking buddies, adventurers (Trelawney!), and salonnières.

Some who now figure mostly in other people's biographies deserve to be remembered for their own sakes. Madame de Staël certainly is one.

Michael Dirda does a good job of it here:

Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) wasn't considered good-looking, but she possessed real charisma, as well as brains and money. Her father was Jacques Necker, the finance minister of France, at once rich, astute and intellectual, while her mother, nee Suzanne Curchod, remains famous to all students of 18th-century English literature. When Curchod was an impoverished girl in Switzerland, a young Englishman of scholarly bent fell in love with her and proposed. But the match was forbidden by the young man's father. Years later, Edward Gibbon, the historian of the Roman Empire, wrote in his memoirs: "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." Clearly, Suzanne Curchod attracted men of genius and, from her, Germaine learned stern self-discipline and devotion to principles and duty. Both parents adored their only child, and from an early age she was allowed to hone her wit and conversation in their salon.

Her diaries are wonderful insights into the times. One of the pleasures her life offers (not mentioned in the book review) is seeing her effect on Lord Byron -- that ultimate sexist swine, who was big enough to admit he had met his match in her as a thinker and literary figure, and befriended her, even if he never got over his extreme discomfort in having to deal with a woman on that level. Some of what he wrote privately about her is now considered dismissive: I rather think passages like this were his way of paying a high, if backhanded, compliment:

'Her figure was not bad; her legs tolerable; her arms good. Altogether I can conceive her having been a desirable woman, allowing a little imagination for her soul, and so forth. She would have made a great man.

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Updike on art. Lord, is there anything the man doesn't write well about? I wonder if he's reviewed "Sex and the City" yet. Bonus pleasure in this for those of us who think Norman Rockwell is a great American painter.

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The Butterfly Effect. Do you really know what it means? Does anyone? Peter Dizikes helpfully explains it.

The larger meaning of the butterfly effect is not that we can readily track such connections, but that we can't. To claim a butterfly's wings can cause a storm, after all, is to raise the question: How can we definitively say what caused any storm, if it could be something as slight as a butterfly? [MIT meteorologist Edward] Lorenz's work gives us a fresh way to think about cause and effect, but does not offer easy answers.

When I first heard the term "Butterfly Effect" in pop culture I assumed it was a reference to the Ray Bradbury short story, A Sound of Thunder, in which a time-traveling safari to kill a T-Rex goes awry and one hunter inadvertently crushes a Cretaceous insect. The party then discovers the present, when they return to it, strangely changed.

Eckels felt himself fall into a chair. He fumbled crazily at the thick slime on his boots. He held up a clod of dirt, trembling. "No, it can't be. Not a little thing like that. No!"

Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful, and very dead.

"Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!" cried Eckels.

It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels' mind whirled. It couldn't change things. Killing one butterfly couldn't be that important! Could it?

Bradbury's story was published in 1952. Lorenz began his "Butterfly Effect" experiments in 1961. Convergent metaphors, I presume.

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The indispensable Roger Scruton ponders the past, and the future, of Western European cities.

Admittedly, nothing in Europe compares with the vandalism that modernists have wreaked on Buffalo, Tampa, or Minneapolis (to take three examples of American cities that cause me particular pain). Nevertheless, the same moral disaster is beginning to afflict us—the disaster of cities in which no one wishes to live, where public spaces are vandalized and private spaces boarded up.

When I was ratting around in Central Europe in the 1970s, it was easy to trace the tracks of the two European fronts of World War II: Wherever the Russians and the Germans had fought, nothing stood from before 1945. In the West, most of it more or less survived. The Eastern cities, mostly rebuilt by communist governments, were simply awful places. But the same mentality slowly began eating away the cities of the West:

Until recently, European architects have either connived at the evisceration of our cities or actively promoted it. Relying on the spurious rhetoric of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, they endorsed the totalitarian projects of the political elite, whose goal after the war was not to restore the cities but to clear away the “slums.” By “slums,” they meant the harmonious classical streets of affordable houses, seeded with local industries, corner shops, schools, and places of worship, that had made it possible for real communities to flourish in the center of our towns. High-rise blocks in open parkland, of the kind that Le Corbusier proposed in his plan for the demolition of Paris north of the Seine, would replace them. Meanwhile, all forms of employment and enjoyment would move elsewhere. Public buildings would be expressly modernist, with steel and concrete frames and curtain walls, but with no facades or intelligible apertures, and no perceivable relation to their neighbors. Important monuments from the past would remain, but often set in new and aesthetically annihilating contexts, such as that provided for Saint Paul’s in London.

There is hope, however, and from a rather surprising source.

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Communism? Alive and well and thriving, thank you for asking. In the east Indian state of Kerala, as Martha C. Nussbaum reports.

ON THE CRUCIAL issues of health and education, Kerala’s Communists have performed far better than those in West Bengal, making the state, in some respects, a model of successful state-led development. Kerala provides universal health care and has achieved universal literacy among adolescents, through an aggressive and well-managed program of public education that includes the clever idea (pioneered in neighboring Tamil Nadu) of a nutritious midday meal, as a carrot to lead parents of working children to allow them to go to school. The Supreme Court of India has now said that all states must offer this meal, even specifying the number of calories it must contain (at least three hundred) and the number of grams of protein (eight to twelve). West Bengal, by contrast, has shown little creativity in either health or education. Infant mortality, it is true, is lower than in most Indian states, but distinctly higher than in Kerala. Maternal mortality figures are distressingly high, and a major cause is lack of access to decent health care in the rural areas. (A recent UNICEF report documents the alarming frequency with which women giving birth die because they simply cannot reach a hospital in time.)

But, sadly, with the usual down-side qualities as well:

Third, one must strongly condemn the government’s reliance on unofficial “private army” cadres. The rule of law requires that enforcement be carried out by the agents of the law. The private armies of Nandigram are in that sense no better than the private armies of the Hindu right. Fourth, one must condemn the government’s cavalier way with truth and evidence, as in the unsubstantiated allegations about Maoist activity in the area. Finally, and most strongly, one must utterly condemn the (apparently continuing, at least until very recently) acts of rape, murder, and assault against villagers, mostly by these “private armies.”

And attracting the usual usefuls:

A particularly fatuous document of this kind was a letter authored by Noam Chomsky, signed by a number of Indian American intellectuals who should know better, and published in the Hindu, a leading national India newspaper, on November 22, 2007. Besides lauding the CPI(M) for “important experiments” for which it deserves no particular credit (such as “local self-government”), the letter reasons that people on the left ought to focus on opposition to the actions of the United States in Iraq, rather than fighting with one another. “This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist,” concludes Chomsky, having asserted, entirely without cause on that date, that things are basically back to normal and that the two sides have reconciled. This is the type of left politics that holds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no matter how many rapes and murders that friend has actually perpetrated.

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Frank McLynn reviews a book about the Comanches by a Finnish scholar.

For a hundred years from 1750, the Comanches dominated New Mexico, Texas and even parts of Louisiana and northern Mexico. As Amerindians, the Comanches were even more impressive than the Aztecs or the Iroquois, for until the American Civil War they largely forced Europeans to bend the knee, and did so moreover when the European imperialist impulse was at its height. Although the word 'empire' may be author's hyperbole, the Comanches ruled an extensive domain that worked on a melange of kinship ties, trade, diplomacy, extortion and violence.

Our friend Kat the Contractor, who is part Comanche, will enjoy this. Alas, it seems the review will be more interesting than the book:

Hämäläinen's book contains powerful scholarship, original insights and some intermittently excellent narrative writing, but is, sadly, marred by faults all too common in academe. The modern academic is compelled by peer pressure to write prose spangled with jargon, academy-speak and gobbledygook. I suppose Hämäläinen is not to blame, because if he wrote in plain English, instead of larding his text with the rebarbative language used by his colleagues, they would doubtless accuse him of being a mere journalist. And so we get totally unnecessary discussion of various academic models - differential spaces, cultural hegemons. At one point Hämäläinen defines a horse as 'a transportation device that compressed spacial units into conquerable size'. The author is also confused and confusing about bison. Although it is clear that the decrease in this animal's numbers underlay the decline and fall of the Comanches, Hämäläinen does not explain how, if 280,000 buffalo was the maximum annual number that could be taken from a total of seven million when the Comanche population was 20,000, the crisis point was not reached much earlier when the Comanches had twice that number of mouths to feed. Yet the worst fault remains the jargon.