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Film review: Danton outgrosses Robespierre

Preface: As I've said, oldie writing will be dusted off and plunked blogside (at least at first; new stuff should gradually overtake i...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: The Diary of H. L. Mencken (Edmonton Journal, March 10, 1990)

Herewith, the clippings-flagship, not my first published book review--that was a whimsical buffoonery upon a self-published paperback Seventeen Days in Tehran (which viewed the Iranian revolution optimistically circa 1980--one wonders if its rosy-visioned author is still as exultantly hopeful about Khomeini's legacy today. Nor was this Mencken autopsy the first judgement to rake in dollars; that was a review of Andrew Malcolm's The Canadians, done for the late, great, sanctified (or is that just sanctimonious?) Alberta Report...yeah, an amusing and instructive story behind THAT, which I'm saving for a projected volume of memoirs .

But the Mencken Diary review was my first Important Book dissected for a Major Publication, so I really sweated to give it some magisterial style and substance.The anti-climax came as I repeatedly tucked my precious baby into job-applications, and just as repeatedly had HR people neglecting to get back to me.

Cause and effect, perhaps? Who knows.

The review was printed under the headline "Was Mencken an objectionable bigot or simply a wit misunderstood by boobs?" The venue being sort of high-profile, I hoped my contribution might help kill the lingering accusation of racism against Mencken (via the mock-theory of Mencken's "hexaphenic personality"--ho ho--since I knew from long experience that any direct disproof of racism is ipso facto futile. A racism charge always sticks like napalm).

And sure enough, it continues to stick to H. L. Mencken, despite a thorough refutation of his "anti-semitism" in the American Scholar about the same time -- which I didn't uncover until years later, or I would have added to my below citation of Lawrence Spivak the additional fact that Spivak was still alive (and over 90) when the Diary was published, and when consulted he called the anti-semitism charge nonsense. Despite this and other vindications, the racism smear persists, e.g. in the Globe and Mail...

EUREKA! I actually found the Mop and Pail quote in the office mess!!! -- Jan. 25, 2003, pD7, in "America's skeptical sage" [review of Terry Teachout's biography, The Skeptic] which states, "Certainly, Mencken was an anti-Semite."

Horseshit. Read the American Scholar article. Or my, um, masterpiece below. For what it's worth. From the Edmonton Journal, March 10, 1990:

The Diary of H. L. Mencken
Edited by Charles Fecher
Alfred Knopf Inc.
477pp., $41

During his lifetime H. L. Mencken had a genius for scandalizing the boobs with his satire and criticism, and even now, 36 years after his death, he still inspires controversy.

The latest kerfuffle arose with the release of this diary, whose contents revived the charges of anti-semitism and anti-black bigotry which had occasionally dogged him before, though never too seriously.

Opinions differ as to whether the Diary validates the charges. Jonathan Alter recently went off the deep end in Newsweek, calling Mencken a "conventional bigot" -- which is rather absurd, since conventional bigots don't usually stay on amiable terms with dozens of Jews, as Mencken did, most notably with his publisher and close friend Alfred Knopf, who in 1980 described their relationship as "perfect" -- an astounding enough fact in any writer-publisher relationship, let alone one with a bigoted goy.

Furthermore, conventional bigots don't usually play a key role in.sparking and nurturing a black literary movement, as Mencken did with the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

Douglas Fetherling, writing in Saturday Night, is inclined to deflate the whole controversy, saying that while Mencken had a penchant for ethnic characterizations typical of his time, his only real hatred was of the British. Curiously, in 1946 the British ambassador asks Mencken if he is anti-English. According to his diary, Mencken replies, "This was a gross calumny, circulated by Japs.".

Diary editor Fecher merely tut-tuts what he sees as Mencken's paternalistic attitude towards blacks, but he does a dramatic flip-flop on anti-semitism. Where he once defended Mencken on the charge, he now believes it is true, mostly due to Mencken's copious use of the word "Jew."

The word, of course, usually has nasty overtones, but this isn't generally true here. For instance, Mencken calls Lawrence Spivak a "young Harvard Jew," but his assessment of him is completely favorable.

Clearly a more sophisticated explanation is needed. Maybe Mencken wasn't entirely a bigot, but merely had a hexaphenic multiple personality. In Phase One he was a raving anti-semite, labeling two businessmen as "dreadful kikes." In Phase Two he was a sweet liberal, frowning on the anti-semitism of Theodore Dreiser and Gerald K. Smith. In Phase Three he waffled, giving mixed reviews to Jews such as Morris Fishbein and Charles Angoff.

In Phase Four Mencken suggested that blacks are superstitious. In Phase Five he championed black journalist George Schuyler over the "dunderheads" (i.e. whites) at the Baltimore Sun. In Phase Six he described a negro chauffeur as uneducated but smarter than any New Deal economist.

This explanation should satisfy all factions in the bigotry feud, leaving us to the remaining 95 per cent of the Diary, which is far more interesting. It is a rich hodge-podge, the random gossip of a wide-ranging and very well-connected writer, editor and journalist.

Some of it is ancient news, like the drinking habits of Sinclair Lewis, some of it is mundane, like the details of his personal health,, but mostly it is alive and sublime. It covers everything from Mencken's bad luck in cultivating women writers, to jokes about William Randolph Hearst and physicist Robert Millikan, to the medical details of Al Capone's syphilis.

One of the best anecdotes comes from Dr. Frances Townsend, the old-age pension crusader, who confesses to Mencken that he once committed euthanasia on an unfortunate newborn. Mencken knows a good story when he he hears it, and he is wise enough to repeat this poignant tale without comment.

It's a pity that some critics of this book didn't exercise the same judiciousness.

# # # #

Since there is a new book just out, saying nice things about William Randolph Hearst, at least in his earlier life, perhaps the joke Mencken passed along about him should be made explicit -- some contemporary wiseacre quipped that "William Randolph Hearst married a prostitute, and dragged her down to his level."

That was pretty strong stuff in those prim, puritan days, and reminds us that Citizen Kane didn't happen by accident.

PS: If you are wondering who the hell Lawrence Spivak might be, he was one of the people Mencken gladly approved as his successor to the editorship of the American Mercury. A curious act, coming from an "anti-semite" eh?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dr. Swift meets the doctors sluggish (The Loserly Legacy Ch. 2)

How bad can English scholarship get? Well, this old term-paper, earmarked for a collection of my various undergrad cud-chewings (working title: Purely Academic) plumbs the depths of the wretchedness! Possibly the scholarly journals are as bad as Maclean's?

### In progress -- i.e. still hunting through the office mess for the damn thing). Did I mention that the prof marking the paper said it was the first time she had ever seen a Playboy publication cited? A **FREE** dog-eared Norton Anthology to the first person to guess WHICH Playboy, um, autobiography (hint: famous guy using a stage-name; real surname Schneider). ###

Extreme-headline cult seizes Maclean's!! Editor Kenneth Whyte steers media vehicle off rhetorical cliff into a chasm of crap!!!

The North American auto industry is DOOMED!


Actually, that's just this week's golly-gosh headline on the cover of Maclean's ("Canada's Timely Newsweekly") In loud, large type, our lurid rag whoops: "The long, sorry decline and ultimate crash [Maclean's colorful highlighting] of the mighty North American car industry (Who's to blame and what's next)" -- complete with a cover-illustration of dubiously relevant Freudian chrome auto-tits from 50s...

And, come to think of it, doesn't "ultimate crash" sort of answer the rhetorical question of "what's next"? In any case, the delicate art of headline-writing is certainly alive and foaming...

Have done a little headline-blaring myself (see above, and tell your libel-lawyers it's all "in the tradition" if you happen to be reading the snappy thing with eyes a-pop, Mr. Whyte and Co.) Hell, even the venerable National Geographic has resorted to jolts-before-sense ... (anyone guess which headline in last three years attracted my baleful eye?)

###More apocalyptic nonsense to come!!###

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Culture in the cab: back with a BlackBerry

First trip: a young lady, 20ish, with a story to tell. She has locked herself out of the garage, and her housemates, who might have loaned her a key, are all out of town.

"What are the chances, eh?" She ruefully asks..

A speeder rips by, cutting across lanes without signalling.

"Alberta drivers are just the worst," she laughs.

A familiar comment. Where is she from?

BC, and therein lies another tale, of our exorbitant insurance rates. In BC she paid $200/month for car insurance. Here she is paying $300, and one insurer even quoted her $500. On top of that, she had to have her 2008 Honda inspected before registering it, even though it was only two months off the lot.

For some reason this inspection-anecdote reminds me of my own mini-ordeal a few years back, when the City of Edmonton required all cabbies to take an English comprehension exam.

I tell my passenger how I enquired whether my Alberta high-school matriculation (I did my entire schooling in the Alberta system, including three years in the NWT) plus my university degree in English would excuse me from writing the exam? Nope. Rules are rules.

My passenger laughs again. I'm not sure it is from some fellow-feeling of being victims of bureaucracy, or because she is a waitress (usually good tippers) but she gives me $10 for $7.60 on the meter.

The happy moment opens the floodgates of thought, from the personal superstition that a good first trip portends a good night in the taxi (actually, this night will merely be ordinary, at least in dollar terms) to the recurring thought that I've GOT to write some of these stories down.

Indeed, having recently bought a new BlackBerry, the job should be easier now. I resolve then and there to blog, for the first time, direct from the cab.

Two days later, doubts are creeping in. Most of the preceding,for instance, was composed the morning after, and even the small segment done in the cab is some sort of testimony to how unusable all the plentiful free moments in the cab are --if one isn't watching the dispatch-computer like a Pavlovian hawk, one is undoubtedly missing trips and losing money. Who has time to watch another screen and ponder the Big Cultural Questions?

##in progress##

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Loserly Legacy: Prologue and Sphinx

As stated in the preceding post, this blog will recycle a bunch of OLD ARTICLES (click here for a Zen exercise in futility) partly for the amusement of visitors, partly as a "batch of clippings" for any employer brave or crazy enough to actually consider hiring this freaky critic.

For starters, here is a 2005 book review, never published, as it seems to have scared the editor who first agreed to let me review the book (Shadowplay), sending me the review-copy but then retreating into a shell of silence when I submitted the dissection. You have to sympathize; even to a Shakespeare specialist the critique must seem presumptuous, and of course it shows (deliberately) myself groping my way through that mystery poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle."

But I believe a critic should NOT use the standard aloof-pontifical style (except maybe humorously, or reviewing a lesser work), but should show the messy and awkward "workings" of criticism to some degree. The review's main job, next to giving a general idea of the book, is to pique an interest in author and effort -- informality does that best, although it's no easy task given how high-school pedants have dully inflicted Shakespeare upon their victims!

PS: I posted this on FaceBook nine months ago, to absolutely zero response. You just know it's going to be a long, hard slog for this heretic and his heresies...

* * * *

Author wanders from the sublime to the ridiculous
Was the Sphinx of Avon... Catholic? Puritan? Or what?

Clare Asquith
Public Affairs, $37.95

The passerby’s t-shirt is white, but darkly states: “Humpty was pushed.” I laugh, for all conspiracy theories are humdingers, from Keegstra’s Illuminati to the DaVinci Code piffle to John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire-bastardized intelligentsia.

But of all the paranoid mysteries, none surpasses the chronic question of Shakespeare’s true beliefs. Herewith, another agenda-hunter, reviving the century-old theory of his Catholicism. A tough one to prove, as Reformation zealots suppressed English Catholics, often with sickening ferocity. Evidence is thus mostly in textual intimations, the fodder of looney conjecture.

Having spent a few years poking at the religious enigma, I came to Shadowplay armed. Is Shakespeare’s bird-fable poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” here? Yes, naturally, since recent studies plausibly make it a stealthy elegy to a dead Anglo-Catholic couple, one executed... But Asquith skimps on details of this nice sleuth job.

If only she had trimmed her 2,000 repetitions of “Old Church good, Reformation bad” she could have provided better insight into a sphinx-poem that retains some mystery. For instance, one of its lines, “grace in all simplicity,”is almost a Puritan slap at ornate Catholic ceremony. What’s with that?

Asquith quotes the line and its neighbors, intuiting, “Shakespeare is here confronting for the first time the possibility that the spirit of the Catholic resistance would be extinguished” A mighty conjectural leap! The line, “Truth and beauty buried be” is her only visible evidence.

But now another possibility jolts me: this line’s double meaning is imperative: Shakespeare is quietly telling Truth (scripture-based Protestantism) and Beauty (ceremonial Catholicism) to “buried be” (i.e. bury their differences?--and in the poem’s final triad, pray for the dead, whether “true or fair”–a very significant “or” methinks).

Such analysis follows Asquith’s two critical methods of choice, testing the Bard’s writing with a keyword-code (e.g. “beauty,” “fair” and “gazer” indicating Catholic), and assuming “allegory” in his plays (i.e. veiled parallels behind stories and characters). But while these tools do resolve some cryptic bits, as a panacea they fail. Her attempt to make Julius Caesar a Christ-figure in a play promoting papal authority, for instance, is a knee-slapper.

Proud Caesar equals humble foot-washing Jesus?? Well, you see, Caesar’s 23 reported wounds are upped to 33, the years Jesus lived. Shakespeare prankish, maybe? Nah.

Still, hidden meanings have a respectable vintage. As scholar David Bevington notes, Elizabethans generally assumed that plays commented sneakily on current events, and often they did. But 19th-century poet Swinburne illustrated the downside, lampooning the habit of finding Robert Cecil, sly fixer for Elizabeth I, everywhere in the plays, arguing Juliet was a Cecil-figure, the sheer ludicrousness of this being proof of Shakespeare’s masterful concealment.

But Asquith’s pratfalls into “Fluellenism” (a term honoring the bonehead academic in Henry V who made dubious parallels an art) are balanced by pause-giving items: the details of an Anglo-Catholic execution in the “dovehouse”aside in Romeo and Juliet, Catholic Viscountess Montague lurking in A Winter’s Tale; and above all, many a perplexity cleared up by keyword coding, particularly in the Sonnets and early plays.

But Asquith uses her tools clumsily. She detects wavering Catholic Lord Strange in Sonnet 89, for instance, but doesn't connect the persecuted “gazers” in Sonnet 96. She virtually ignores Protestant hero Falstaff (as does last year’s pro-Catholic tome The Secret Shakespeare). Worse, twisting Hamlet to fit Catholic allegory reveals a gap in her references: Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension (1994, ed. Battenhouse). Its critics painstakingly delineate Hamlet not as her tragic hero but a vicious schmuck (and when will stage productions move beyond costuming atrocities to reflect such advances in understanding?)

The flaws will leave Shadowplay beneath most scholars, while its esoteric topic sinks it for most general readers. Still, for noting that poet Edmund Spenser was once banished to Ireland for calling Cecil’s father William a fox (a link to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, where sly Ulysses --say his name backwards-- is called a “dog-fox”), for this gift I give Asquith my own discovery: Shakespeare’s stealthy references to the morality plays in the Macro manuscript, a medieval relic likely rescued by Catholics.

All these connections clearly show Shakespeare’s familiarity with what Orwell called “ecclesiastic Trotskyism.” But was he thus Catholic? Or Puritan?--as Rev. T. Carter suggests, finding that Shakespeare’s father helped remove Catholic images from Stratford’s church, and was listed as a Puritan recusant by church-establishment spies.

For myself, the question is moot. Everything I have teased out of Shakespeare reveals an ecumenical above all, a conclusion that jolted home again when my headbanging against “The Phoenix and the Turtle” finally unriddled the poem’s subtext: that the horrific infighting between Protestant and Catholic destroys the loving essence of Christianity.

Check yourself if you doubt me. After 400 years Shakespeare still yields surprises.

Cabbie Jens Andersen devoutly wishes some publisher shared his fascination with the religious undertones of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

* * * *

Actually the theory of Shakespeare's Catholicism is about 200 years old (which didn't stop a heavyweight Maclean's reviewer from calling Asquith's book a fresh new insight), and the "nice sleuth job" on the "Phoenix" turns out to be Asquith's own, as I re-discovered on checking my Horrible Heap of scholarly articles. In my undergrad days (before her sleuth article) I wrote a course-essay on the poem--discovering exactly how little is really known about it (almost nothing), and what a big step Asquith's detective-work was, however groping and clumsy.

The latest scholarly book containing the "Phoenix" (from about 2007? -- check the Horrible Heap?...) doesn't mention Asquith at all, nor any "Christian" interpretation of the poem. Academic thickheads! Glad I'm no conventional Christian faithmonger so I can champion this view without being accused of the obvious biases...

2015 note: A few years ago I was also surprised to find an Anglo-Catholic Church in my neighborhood--and see that it wasn't Catholic but Anglican! Ooops. Things have gotten more complicated since Shakespeare's day...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Two poseurs, two letters to the editor

Dull domesticity envelops me. Pull the last potatoes. Reset fresh bait in the mousetraps. Clean leaves out of eavestroughs. Drive taxi for another 12 hours. And so on.

Before one knows it, two weeks are gone (three???!!) and this bloggistic attempt to reshape the cultural firmament has a gaping hiatus. Not that anyone is actually reading it. Or cares (and I sort of like it that way; until it has more meat on its bones it may as well languish unnoticed).

Still the human comedy proceeds apace, and scarcely a day passes that three or 17 topics don't pop up, begging for a satirist's cudgel. How about all the "historic" oohing and aahing over Barack Obama's election as U. S. president? The h-word was thrown about with such abandon that supplies of it must be severely depleted. Let's hope nothing else "historic" happens in the short-term, lest we have no gush-words left to whoop.

Politics is mostly the art of the not-possible in any case, so I try not to get caught up in all the surging hopes and futilities. Anyone who places their faith in politicians is gambling in a den of iniquity more dubious than the stock-market. Me for the wide-open spaces.

Nonetheless, I did take a quick gander at an Obama Facebook site (whatever...) and the official McCain site, which seemed to have made the mistake of allowing free speech, for it contained (and for all I know still contains) a "Sarah RACIST Palin" thread. Being a connoisseur of all things racism-related (stay tuned for my ancient History-of-Biology essay "Was T. H. Huxley a Scientific Racist?" among A COLLECTION OF MOLDY OLDIES TO BE POSTED HERE) I absolutely had to groove to the indignation and sputtering contained in the posts, and even contributed a personal smidgen telling everybody to calm down a little, and consider that racism might actually be to McCain/Palin's ADVANTAGE in a racist society. Or something like that. It managed to silence the thread for a week or more.

Then a few days before the U.S. election Christopher Hitchens wrote a long piece in the National Post savaging Palin for her downright voidness of intelligence. Well! What could a chivalrous gallant like myself to but write another soothing, calming pensee to the editors thereof:

A small quibble with Christopher Hitchens's otherwise sterling trashing of uber-bimbo Sarah Palin:
Hitchens rightly thumps her for under-rating and "Frenchifying" genetic research into drosophila (fruit flies), but he might also have noted that this 1930s Nobel-winning research was matched and even scooped by American Barbara McClintock, who labored under the handicap of employing corn (zea mays), an organism that produces only one generation a year (versus ten days for a generation in fruit flies).
McClintock's achievements in genetics (she eventually won a Nobel for them, after years of neglect and incomprehension, even among her peers) is a monument to the sort of feisty independence and individualism that Palin merely talks about, not to mention the sort of towering intelligence that Palin can't even remotely imagine.
Oh yes: McClintock had only disdain for fashions in feminine dress.

Mirabile dictu! -- the letter appeared Oct. 31 (slightly mangled due some missteps between myself and the letter editor). And of course the Hitchens/Andersen Critique was the "October surprise" that stopped the McCain juggernaut in its tracks and gave Obama his squeaker victory.

Hey, all in a day's work!

Then a few days ago I notice the showbiz machinery clanking and gearing up for the release of the latest James Bond flick Quantum of Solace. Oh jeez, another action-packed moron-treat for us critics to grab with our tongs! And not just the idiotic film itself and reviews of it, but all the gazillion spinoffs, as if jiggle and fantasy-hardware were more consequential than Taliban guerrillas and the ethics of HPV vaccine.

Count the column-inches devoted to each and weep.

(As I write this and chuck out old newspapers, I find "It's the Steve McQueen of jackets" in the Nov. 8 Globe and Mail and "Bespoke tailors of the world unite!" in the Nov 14 National Post, both gurgling about the film's sartorial splendors, yadda yadda. Or how about todays Post, reprinting a cutesy "Anything you can do, Bond can do better" spoof from Dose.ca, full of stuff like "Your average Brit Uses his accent to pick up women. James Bond Uses his British accent to pick up women... if his sophisticated charm, impressive knowledge of fine wines..."

And further codswallop.

One of the first Bond-items to annoy me was a review of a museum exhibition of things Ian Fleming, printed in the Edmonton Journal. Off I went again with a letter to the editor:

A Journal featurette (Nov. 10) cites a young Ian Fleming wooing his beloved: "...the azure of your eyes, the red red lips, the golden mystery of your hair!"
Oy! To think that our precocious, budding James Bond novelist could write such melodramatic crap at such a young age!
I'm just praying to my non-university-endorsed Divinity that Mike Myers will assemble yet another lampoon, Austin Powers: Modicum of Bolus, before the current spate of Fleming-cloning destroys Western Civilization with cheap imitations of the master's upscale sensationalism!

Let us hope our sarcasm wises up all the editors complicit in promoting the Bondomania.

Oh, don't be so cynical! YES WE CAN!

... and the letter DID get printed today...