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William Chase writes on the  decline of English as a college major:

[T]o teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

(Please read the rest.)

I was an English major back in the mid-80’s.  When I chose this course initially, I had no real plan in mind except the vague notion that teaching The Great Books might be kind of cool.  However, it quickly became obvious to me that I would never be able to do anything in this area unless I advocated the position that Shakespeare was a cross-dressing poof, that Jane Austen had an incestuous, lesbian relationship with her sister, and that Toni Morrison was the bestest writer evah.

Well, thankee but no thankee.  Like many fellow majors who came to learn that the field was nothing more than a juvenile food-fight, I scurried off to law school.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  (Talk about getting coals to Newcastle!) 

Speaking of history, I think that if I had it all to do again, I’d have double-majored in history and classics. 

A glass of wine with Arts & Letters Daily.

Well, here we are again on what has always been my least favorite day of the week.  (Pay no attention to the GMT-centric date-stamp on this post: It’s still Tuesday evening at the Port Swiller residence.)  What better way to deal with this veritable hole in the week than to put on some Telemann, charge the old glass and prattle on?

♦  I believe I mentioned before how happy I am with my new glasses.  The fact of the matter is that I am rapidly finding that I actually prefer wearing them to wearing my new contacts, since the glasses have the bifocal function while the contacts do not.  The only problems I find are a) that of course the glasses cut down on peripheral vision, and b) that they tend to promote a kind of fish-eye effect, especially when I’m looking down and away, as it were.  I wore them to Mass this past Sunday for the first time.  My church, alas, is built on the worship-in-the-round principle.  As I started toward my accustomed spot, the combination of curved pews and downward sloping aisle – magnified by the ol’ windshields – nearly caused me to topple over.

Curiously enough, I can’t help feeling a sense that I’m abandoning my contacts (which I’ve worn almost exclusively since about 7th grade).  Indeed, if I didn’t think my family would start yelling at me about it, I’d almost say that I feel a slight bit guilty about this betrayal.  

♦   Speaking of Mass, while for most of the year we have an absolutely top-notch choir singing absolutely top-notch musick mostly from the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, during the summahs they are reduced to a rump and the congregation is expected to chant its way through the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.   Even then, the organist usually gives us a lead.  This past Sunday, however, he forced us to chant the Gloria a capella.  Extreme hesitancy ensued, not to say a number of spectacular trainwrecks.  Bastard.

I don’t know much about the chant modes we use, except that they’re obviously medieval.   I was chatting with the Mothe the other day about more modern liturgical musick and remarked to her that it always reminds me of the creepy mutant underground people who worship the nuclear bomb in Return to the Planet of the Apes.   Do the people who write this kind of garbage not understand this?

♦    I remarked the other day that I was reading Chris Buckley’s latest satire Supreme Courtship, questioning whether I would go on with it in light of a completely gratuitous and over-the-top jab Buckley takes at DubyaSupreme Courtship early on.  Well, I kept going in spite of this, and it turns out that, barring a really spectacularly heavy-handed footnote later on, he pretty much leaves Dubya alone.  On the other hand, Buckley also proceeds to go after a certain well-known current Justice.  I need say no more about which one it is other than to state that Buckley’s fictional version is named “Silvio Santamaria,” and he’s something of a cartoon character of a hard-Right Catholic.   I can’t help wondering: Supreme Courtship was published the same year that WFB Jr. died.   I know a thing or two about the curious effects an Old Boy’s cashing in can have on his offspring:  Is this book perhaps a lashing out inspired by such an event?   Of course, I know absolutely nothing of the relationships in this particular case, so I offer no opinion.  On the other hand, I’d be prepared to lay a wager that there is some basis to my curiosity.

On, and and as for the book?  Well, it’s okay.  Fairly typical of the Chris Buckley canon, I would say.  Not his best, but not his worst, either.  I would call him on one thing though: If one is in a car driving from McLean, Virginia to Dulles Airport, there is no conceivable reason why one would cross the Potomac, as Buckley pens, unless one’s driver is seeking to rook one for an exhorbitant fee.  Trust me on this.   

♦    Speaking of pedantics, I am also more or less finished with Robert Harvey’s biography of Robert Clive, essentially the founder of the British Raj in India.  As loyal port-swillers know, I have been harping on technicalClive errors in this book the past few days.  In the end, I wish I could say that I like it more than I do.  Apart from confusing “ship” with “boat” and “rifle” with “musket”, Harvey’s overall style is not very good.  He’s needlessly repetitive, and tends to switch topis violently, sometimes within the same paragraph.  He also has a curious habit of using the same set of facts to prove two different principles.  For instance, with regards to the famous Battle of Plassey, on the one hand Harvey notes that Clive was able to carry the day thanks to the tactical mistakes of his foes, coupled with some plain dumb luck, without which he might well have suffered a staggering defeat.  Nonetheless, a page or two later, Harvey is referring to Clive’s “military genious” in winning the battle.  It does not strike me that both propositions can live together in harmony.

And it’s all the more the pity, because overall I like Harvey’s sympathies very much.  He rightly praises the second half of the 18th Century in Britain – one of my very favorite times and places in history.  He is also quite fair about British influence in India, not giving in to the p.c. sensibilities about a harmonious and holistic native population suddenly being rent assunder by mindless, money-grubbing, imperialist Saxon invaders.  (For one thing, as Harvey points out, the Mogul rulers of India at the time were Moslem foreigners from Central Asia.  They lorded it over a native Hindi aristocracy and merchant class.  All of these, in turn, kicked the bejaysus out of the peasants without batting an eye.)  

At one point, Harvey quotes Elizabeth Longford (whose two-volume biography of the Iron Dook is the gold standard for Wellington-philes) as one of the best modern historians of the period in question.  Quite right, but I wish Harvey had the same talent as Longford. 

♦    So what’s next?  Logic would dictate that, having finished a book about Clive, I should next read one about Warren Hastings, the first Brit Governor-General of India.  Recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

♦  beer_gogglesAt RFEP this past Sunday, an old friend and ally came up and asked whether I was still blogging about politics.  Well, not that much, I replied.  Given that I am on the guv’mint payroll, it don’t seem very, ah, politic. Tace is the Latin for a candle, after all. 

 Nonetheless, I assured her that I was watching events closely.  I also noted that my long-standing theory of the beer-goggle election seemed to be proving spot on and that we are now in what might be described as the morning-after-“Oh, My God, What Have I Done?”- phase.

It’s a curious dynamic now, ain’t it?  Without going into the merits, I would think it’s safe to say that there has been an attempt to drive the Country in a radically left direction on many issues.  It is equally safe to say that the Country has no desire to take such a drive, despite its justifiable worries about the current state of things, and that the spontanious eruptions at the town halls and tea-bagger rallies is simply a manifestation of this reluctance. 

  In a Big Picture Dynamics way, it’s all kind of teh awesome.

♦   Oh, speaking of Big Pictures, I ran off Kevin Costner’s The Postman the other night.  Truly. Bad. Film.   What is it that possesses certain people to believe that anyone is interested in their navel-gaving about the Apocalypse if such gazing is presented in so blatently awful a manner? 

And what’s the deal with Costner and mules?  In this film, his recalcitrant yet loveable pack animal gets turned into stew by the neo-fascists.   In the only moment I can remember from his Dances With Wolves, some lonely fellah bushwacked by the Sioux out on the prarie uses his last breath to ask them to take good care of his mule.

Coincidence?  Or, like the psychiatrist in Fawlty Towers, should one mutter that there’s enough material here for an entire conference? 

What else have I to say for myself? Well, not all that much.  Except that in taking the time to type this post, I missed the Nats getting slaughtered by the Dodgers this evening.  The loss is bad, but this also means that I’ve squandered watching the first of the last nine games of the season.  Therefore, not to get all egotistical about it, but perhaps you lot could, you  know, comment a bit about these musings? Sort of get the conversational ball rolling, as it were?

Sorry to be so blunt in my solicitations, but every now and again I suffer the curious sensation of feeling that I’m a ghost in my own world, whom nobody else can see.   Just a leetle affirmation does wonders to make this sensation go away.

 The other day I was suddenly possessed by the idea to see if the short-lived 1977 sci-fi comedy series Quark a) might be available from Netflix and b) might be as amusing as I remember.  (I’m like that, you know.  No real strategic plan, just going with whatever comes to mind.  All we are is dust in the whim, dude.)

Well, I am happy to report that the answers to those questions are a) yes and b) yes.  Of course, the show suffers from a certain amount of 70’s cheesyness, the laughtrack is what the eldest gel would call “annoyink” and the whole Gene/Jean gag would never fly in these correct days, but it is actually somewhat cleverer than I rememember. (Granted, I was only 12 when I first watched it.)  Not that I would go out and buy the DVD, or even rent it again for a long time, but it was very pleasant to find that the memory was not ruined by my rewatching.

BettiesAnother pleasure was again seeing Betty and Betty, forever at war over who was the original and who was the clone, as they co-piloted the ship and mooned over Captain Quark.   Again, I was only 12 when I last saw them, but even then I thought they were pretty durn easy on the eyes.  (Like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, I never had a latency period.) And I may say that I was not mistaken at all, at all.

A few years back, our old pal JohnL ran a sci-fi babes poll over at the now-dormant TexasBestGrok.  And despite the fact that JohnL scoured the known Universe for candidates, for some reason, Betty and Betty never seem to have made it into the running.

I demand a recount.

The other day, Mrs. Robbo brought home from the library for me a copy of Christopher Buckley’s latest novel Supreme Courtship.   Very broadly, it’s the story of a President who, tired of Congress blocking his Supreme Court nominees from purely political motives, decides to hocus them by appointing a daytime teevee judge to the Bench instead.  Hy-larity ensues.

Now I’ve always enjoyed Buckley’s satires (Thank You For Smoking was probably his best), although I note that in general their plots seem to fizzle out about three quarters of the way through, and it strikes me that he’s never really learned to stick the climax and denouement.

Having just started it, I can’t tell you whether Supreme Courtship will follow this form.  I’m also not sure that I ever will be able to.  And why? Because not twenty five pages into the book, Buckley serves up this passage:

How many times had those awful words – “I know what I’m doing” – been uttered throughout history as prelude to disaster?  The night before Waterloo in Napoleon’s tent?  In the Reichschancellery before invading Soviet Russia?  Before the “cakewalk” known as Operation Iraqi Freedom?

Please read that passage again.  Now, before you jump to conclusions, let me say this:  First off, reasonable people can differ about both the wisdom and execution of the Iraqi War.  Second, I really don’t give a damn one way or another about what Buckley thinks of it.  But comparing Dubya with Napoleon and Hitler?  Suggesting that there is any kind of comparison – military, political or moral – among Iraqi Freedom, the Hundred Days and Operation Barbarossa?  I’d expect something like that from some hack columnist like, say, Maureen Dowd or Joe Klein.   But I had hoped that somebody as gifted and talented as Buckley would know better than to commit such a display of historickal myopia and literary heavy-handedness, all for the sake of a purely gratuitous cheap shot.

The book was published in 2008 and one may assume that Buckley had already drunk deep of the Obamessiah kool-aid.  Let that be a lesson about the dangers of writing under the influence.  I’m not angry, just terribly disappointed.  Nonetheless, if Buckley insists on making an ass of himself going forward, I’m just going to stop reading.

charlie_brownTeam Robbo had its opening game of the fall ball season this evening.

May I brag just a leetle?  This was easily the best ball game the eldest gel has ever played.  She was 3 for 3 at the plate, not pokey and hesitant as she sometimes was back in the spring, but eager to step up and put bat to ball with vigor.

As for fielding, the gel played three innings’ worth at catcher.  In our league, the first four innings are machine-pitch, followed by two kid-pitch.  The gel has always hated machine-pitch, but this evening she braced up for it twice, snagging pitches in the high 30’s pretty impressively and doing a great job of knocking down any balls she couldn’t actually catch with whatever part of her body was most convenient. And, And, not complaining about it!  A first, as far as I can recollect.

Yes, I think it’s fair to say that the gel is overcoming her fear of the ball.  This, as anyone remotely connected with the sport will tell you, is a monumental step, a clear line of demarcation between those who go forward and those who don’t.

I may tell you also that the gel was pretty durn proud of herself when all was said and done.  And I did everything I could think of to encourage that pride with word and gesture.  Why? Because I’m pretty durn proud meself.

180px-Francis_ParkmanBorn this day in 1823, Parkman is to me surely as he is to anyone else even remotely interested in the colonial history of North America: a 19th Century combination of Herodotus and Thucydides.   His descriptions of the early French Jesuit efforts to colonize and convert Canada are fair and admiring, and his perceptions of the differing mentalities between French and British colonizers of North America – and their differing relationships with the Home Countries as well – are absolutely fundamental toward understanding not only America’s colonial history, but her Revolution as well.  ( As with most historickal events, 1776 was not quite so simple as School-House Rock would paint it.)

My fellow port-swillers, I tell you truly that I have passed some kind of major threshold in my life in that I received my first pair of bifocals this afternoon.  And the punchline? I love them.

As regular swillers will recall, I finally went to the optho opætho opthlathhpppttthhhh, oh hell, eye doctor a couple weeks ago after a lapse of six or more years, in order to update the ol’ contacts and glasses prescriptions.  I duly received the contacts a week or so ago, and while I greatly appreciated the support the new set provided in overcoming the nearsightedness and astigmatism that have plagued me since third grade, I was somewhat appalled that they also showed up just how farsighted I also have become recently.  Indeed, I think the bloody things have made it even more difficult for me to stare at a computer screen all day, which is, in fact, the bread and butter of my existence.

So imagine my delight when the bifocals turned up this afternoon.  Finally, I can see not only at a distance, but up close and personal, too.  But Robbo, you might be wondering, didn’t you also get a prescription for a pair of reading glasses to go with your contacts in order to deal with just this situation?  Well, yes I did.  But the truth is that I suffered so much sticker-shock ordering the bifocals that I point-blank refused to also order a pair of prescription reading glasses.  I’ll be damned if I pay a thou’  and better just to avoid squinting.  

I reckon that my choices now are either to wear my glasses all the time or else to plunk down 20 bucks or so get a pair of generic CVS reading specs to use with the ol’ contacts. 

In the meantime, where does one go to get an AARP membership application?

For those two or three of you who still stop in for a glass of port, yes, I am here, and is that decanter stuck to the table? 

I thought not.

So, what is floating throught the so-called brain of Robbo at the moment?  Well, if you really want to know:

♦   Some interest was expressed in the post I put up a few days ago about what struck me (at any rate) as glaring errors in Robert Harvey’s biography of Lord Clive.  (See below.)  I may add that since then, I have discovered several others:

 –  For one thing, in describing the armaments of the British forces in India in the 1750’s, Harvey freely mixes the words “musket” and “rifle”.  This is flat wrong.  A rifle and a musket are two very different things.  And while a rifled musket was eventually to be developed, this did not occur until the mid 19th Century.   While I believe the first rifles did appear in the mid 18th Century, I can tell you without even looking it up that they were not standard issue for British Army infantry units fighing in India at that time.  Such soldiers, along with most everyone else, used smoothbore muskets. 

–  For another thing, Harvey doesn’t seem to understand that when one is speaking of three or more   individuals, one uses the word “among” instead of “between.”

–  For a third thing, Harvey’s use of superlative adjectives becomes quite conspicuous after a while.  Every event is either the “greatest” or the “largest” or the “most disastrous” of its kind anywhere in the world at the time.  I understand that he wants to make certain points, but please – hyperbole quickly gets quite tarsome.

Now you may think these are petty nits, but I was talking about all this with a friend over the weekend and we agreed that if this kind of thing could both flow from Harvey’s keyboard and get past his editors, how are we supposed to attach any credence to the larger points or more obscure assertions in his book?

♦   I watched Downfall for the first time this past weekend as well.  (For those of you unaware, it depicts the last days of Hilter in the Bunker, more or less through the eyes of his young stenographer.)  I have only two words: Good. Lord.   I think an awful lot of people these days, armed with 20/20 hindsight, naturally wonder how anyone could have let the National Socialists do what they did.  The most horrid parts of this movie, it seems to me, are the hints at the actual ease with which Germans at the time let themselves be both blinded and seduced by the Nazis’ promises of Greatness.   As They Might Be Giants say, “can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

Might be worth keeping in mind.

No, actually, the absolute worst part of the movie was watching the Goebbels murder their six children (not because they didn’t want the Reds to get their claws on them, but because they didn’t want the kids to live in a world without National Socialism) before killing themselves.  Pure. Evil.

♦   Want something a bit cheerier?  In the same mailing as Downfall came the Kevin Costner post-apocalypse epic The Postman.   The cry goes round the clubs, “Why, Robbo? For the love of God, man, Why?”  Well, there are two reasons.  First, I had a hankering for a Truly Bad Film, which this is, beyond any reasonable doubt.  Second, it happens to be one of those movies that, while I’ve seen it several times on cable, I’ve never actually seen it all the way through, and suddenly felt an urge to do so.  Surely, you know what I mean. 

♦   There’s a bit of folk wisdom that says you can tell how early and severe a winter is going to be by both the fuzzy-wuzzy caterpillars and by the spiderwebs.   I can’t really say anything about the former, but when it comes to the latter, I have noticed a marked increase in both number and thickness this year in our neck of the woods.  The Mothe reports the same phenomenon up in Maine.   Ayuh, could be a weathah-breedah……

I bring this up in part because we have had neither a severe winter nor any major tropical weather in these parts in six or seven years.  As a result, the trees have gone unpruned by Nature for a considerable period.  I have been predicting – to anyone who stands still long enough – that when she finally does get down to business, there’s going to be the devil to pay.

Am I great cocktail party material or what?

♦   Speaking of insufferability, I can honestly say that picking out new kitchen counters and cabinets with one’s wife is almost, but not quite, as painful as going shoe-shopping with her.   I can laugh now because finally, finally, everything has been measured, selected and ordered.  Laus Deo.  True, the actual installation is going to be an almighty pain, but that’s a kind of discomfort with which guys are more naturally capable of dealing.  

♦   And speaking of home improvement, given the general slump in contractor jobs these days, we got the fellah who is going to put in our new cabinets for us to also construct a nifty little portico to grace the front of the Port Swiller’s residence, something Mrs. R has wanted for years.  If you’d care to see, I might just be persuaded to post a photo…..

♦   We had our first softball practice of the fall over the weekend.  I must say that my second season of attempted coaching is proving to be an awful lot easier than my first season last spring, at least in terms of organization and skill-teaching.  It is not easier on the old frame, though, as I am still quite sore from demonstrating fielding moves. 

♦   Speaking of volunteer work, for one of the readings at Mass last Sunday we had the letter of St. James about how faith without works counts for bupkiss.   I’ve been chewing on that lately because, having spent the last 18 months or so settling into my new Church, I am now beginning to feel a definite call to do something above and beyond just showing up for worship on a regular basis.   What that something may be, I don’t yet know.  I’ve already been pestered by the Legion of Mary to join up, but somehow I don’t think standing around in grocery store parking lots and handing out anti-abortion bumper stickers is quite my line.

No doubt time will point me in the right direction.

♦  Well, friends, I hadn’t intended to write a post quite so transparently derivative of Jay Nordinger’s Impromptus, but it looks like that’s where we’ve got to.  Jay, if you’re reading this, all I can say is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  

(This may not be the most appropriate post after the last one, but I wanted to get it down before the thought drifted out of my mind.)

I think there are few sensations more purely delightful than laughing oneself awake from a dream.  This happened to me last night.

After an earlier scene that I thought was going in an entirely different direction (and the details of which I will not repeat here lest they frighten the horses), I dreamt that I was in a really cheesy hotel lounge.  It had a stage at one end with two poles coming down to it from holes in the ceiling.  Suddenly, disco lights began flashing and some horrid Euro-pop musick started playing – all synthesizers and drum machines.  Two men came sliding slowly down the poles.  They were decked out in leather and heavy jewelry and had exotically-moussed and colored hair.  One of them – who looked a lot like Ben Stiller – was blowing rings of fire from his mouth.  The other kept singing, “Crisssscollini, Crisssscollini!” to the beat of the musick.

As the two men landed on the stage and began dancing, I suddenly heard a voice-over that said, “This might have been seared into your soul forever.  Lucky for you, FedEx delivers on time, every time.” 

And with that, one of those Monty Python 16-ton weights dropped out of the ceiling on top of the two singers.

I haven’t the faintest idea what any of this meant.  All I know is that I woke up positively hooting and wonderfully refreshed.

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September 2009