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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mystery solved: Prince Harry is totally vile, and his schtick altogether medieval

To clarify: not Britain's current Prince Harry, but "the madcap prince" Harry of 600 years ago, artfully resurrected by Shakespeare a little over 400 years ago.
    You may also know him as Prince Hal (and ultimately Henry V in Henry V) and perhaps you are familiar with his famed tavern-scenes with Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. The mystery here concerns one of these: Act 2 Scene 4 in Henry IV, Part 1. Its oddball opening-portion has Prince Hal emitting largely incomprehensible babble, ostensibly drunken verbosity in a WTF-moment which has aroused the curiosity of quite a few scholars, including ***drum roll*** Great Canadian Critic Northrop Frye. The scene occurs just after the Gadshill robbery, and begins with HRH Harry and his henchperson Ned Poins waiting at the tavern for Falstaff to return, so they can badger him about his cowardice during the robbery. While they wait, Harry and Poins have some fun with a beer-slinging apprentice named Francis. Since we shall inspect this rollicking prelude with ye olde fine-tooth comb, let me reproduce it in full:

    Enter Prince and Poins

PRINCE: Ned, prithee, come out of that fat room, and lend me thy hand to laugh a little.

POINS: Where hast been, Hal?

PRINCE: With three or four loggerheads amongst three or four score hogsheads. I have sounded the very bass string of humility. Sirrah, I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers, and can call them all by their Christian names, as Tom, Dick and Francis. They take it already upon their salvation that, though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy, and tell me flatly I am no proud Jack like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy--by the Lord, so they call me!--and when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap. They call drinking deep "dyeing scarlet"; and when you breathe in your watering they cry "hem!" and bid you to "play it off." To conclude, I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life. I tell thee Ned, thou has lost much honour that thou wert not with me in this action. But, sweet Ned,--to sweeten which name of Ned, I give thee this pennyworth of sugar, clapped even now into my hand by an underskinker, one that never spake other English in his life than "Eight shillings and sixpence" and "You are welcome," with this shrill addition, "Anon, anon sir! Score a pint of bastard in the Half-Moon," or so. But Ned, to drive away the time till Falstaff come, I prithee do thou stand in some by-room while I question my puny drawer to what end he gave me the sugar; and do thou never rest calling "Francis," that his tale to me may be nothing but "Anon." Step aside and I'll show thee a precedent.        Exit Poins

POINS: (within) Francis!

PRINCE: Thou art perfect.

POINS: (within) Francis!

              Enter drawer (Francis)

FRANCIS: Anon anon, sir--look down into the Pomgarnet, Ralph.

PRINCE: Come hither Francis.


PRINCE: How long hast thou to serve, Francis?

FRANCIS: Forsooth, five years, and as much as to--

POINS: (within) Francis!

FRANCIS: (calling) Anon anon, sir.

PRINCE: Five year! By'r Lady, a long lease for the clinking of pewter. But Francis, darest thou be so valiant as to play the coward with thy indenture and show it a fair pair of heels and run from it?

FRANCIS: Oh Lord, sir I'll be sworn upon all the books in England, I could find in my heart--

POINS: (within) Francis!

FRANCIS: (calling) Anon, sir.

PRINCE: How old art thou, Francis?

FRANCIS: Let me see, about Michaelmas next I shall be--

POINS: (within) Francis!

FRANCIS: (calling) Anon sir. Pray stay a little, my Lord.

PRINCE: Nay, but hark you, Francis: for the sugar thou gavest me, 'twas a pennyworth, was't not?

FRANCIS: Oh Lord, I would it had been two!

PRINCE: I will give thee for it a thousand pound. Ask me when thou wilt, and thou shalt have it.

POINS: (within) Francis!

FRANCIS: Anon, anon.

PRINCE: Anon, Francis? No, Francis; but tomorrow, Francis, or, Francis, o'Thursday, or indeed, Francis, when thou wilt. But Francis--

FRANCIS: My lord?

PRINCE: Wilt thou rob this leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch--

FRANCIS: Oh Lord, sir, what do you mean?

PRINCE: Why then, your brown bastard is your only drink; for look you, Francis, your white canvas doublet will sully. In Barbary sir, it cannot come to so much.

FRANCIS: What, sir?

POINS: (within) Francis!

PRINCE: Away, you rogue. Dost thou not hear them call?

    Here they both call him; the drawer stands amazed, not knowing which way to go.

    Enter Vintner.

VINTNER: What, stand'st thou still and hear'st such a calling? Look to the guests within.     Exit Francis    My Lord, old Sir John (Falstaff), with half a dozen more, are at the door. Shall I let them in?

PRINCE: Let them alone a while, and then open the door.     Exit Vintner   (calling) Poins!

    Enter Poins

POINS: Anon, anon, sir.

PRINCE: Sirrah, Falstaff and the rest of the thieves are at the door. Shall we be merry?

POINS: As merry as crickets, my lad. But hark ye, what cunning match have you made with this jest of the drawer? Come, what's the issue?

PRINCE: I am now of all humours that have shown themselves humours since the old days of Goodman Adam to the pupil age of this present twelve o'clock at midnight.     Enter Francis, hurrying across the stage with wine.   What o'clock, Francis?

FRANCIS: Anon, anon, sir.    Exit

PRINCE: That ever this fellow should have fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman! His industry is upstairs and downstairs, his eloquence the parcel of a reckoning. I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the North, he that kills me some six or seven Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, "Fie upon this quiet life! I want work." "Oh my sweet Harry," says she, "how many hast thou killed today?" "Give my roan horse a drench," says he, and answers "Some fourteen" an hour after, "a trifle, a trifle." I prithee, call in Falstaff. I'll play Percy, and that damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife. "Rivo!" says the drunkard. Call in ribs, call in tallow.

      Enter Falstaff...

    *       *       *

Okay, that's all we need. Anyone familiar with the play knows how the scene progresses to Prince Harry confronting Falstaff, as he has confronted Francis, by means of a certain brow-beating. Or rather Prince Harry attempts to brow-beat Falstaff, but unlike Francis our heavyweight buffoon possesses verbal sparring skills to hold his own--all of which culminates in the pair playing out a King-versus-wild-oats-son-Hal impromptu at the end of the long scene.
    A splendid one, most would agree, one of Shakespeare's best. But why not just start it with Falstaff's entry? As Ned Poins himself asks, what's the point of the escapade with Francis?--an especially intriguing question  given the curious "all humours" answer (or non-answer) that Hal delivers to Poins. Or to nobody in particular.
   The question intrigued Northrop Frye as well, in the aforelinked book, and Frye is where I plunged quite haphazardly into it. The year was 1995, I was taking a Historical Drama course (something of a pratfall in itself) at the University of Alberta, floundering, getting behind as usual (hey, married with kids!) and desperate for a topic for a final essay. Scrounging frantically around the Salter Reading Room my eye lit on the Frye book, where I found his "Bolingbroke Plays (Richard IIHenry IV)" and ultimately used it as starting-point to crank out an essay concerning Hal/Henry V's character and what Shakespeare may have been doing in resuscitating the celebrated monarch of England. NOT glorifying him, trust me!--nor do I subscribe, as Frye and many others do, to the theory of Hal's reform from his madcap ways (and it is a puzzle why Frye didn't proceed through to Henry V, which really does tie up his story with remarkable tidiness).
     But the thing that snagged my attention and ignited the essay was the Francis segment. Ultimately I deduced from it that Hal/Harry/Henry is a pretty aggressive fellow (and stays aggressive to the very end; but that's another story). Still, what the hell WAS he babbling about to Francis and Poins?? I must have read it and re-read it, stood on my head and squinted at it, peered three times at every footnote (let's see: "dyeing scarlet" might be urine-chemistry, a doublet is a tight-fitting Spanish-style jacket, Barbary is in North Africa--yeah, that's all a big help), and nearly went cross-eyed trying to figure it out. Nope.
    But luckily it was now burned into my brain. Luckily, because four years and several pratfalls later I lurched into a course in Medieval and Tudor Drama (surely "lurched" is the right word, because it was offered only rarely, as one of those Way-Obscure-If-Not-Pointless courses that regularly get snickered at by mainstream-media smarties, who would prefer to train another 10,000 computer programmers and attain the total robotification of humanity--and I was just "fortunate" enough to flunk a Biochemistry course the very semester before it was offered, then belatedly realized that my last course before graduating could just as well be in English as in Biological Sciences). So I jumped, and in that Medieval/Tudor course, and, thanks to the scorch-marks in my brain, discovered Shakespeare's source. Also perhaps a glimmer of his methods.
    Not that I was specifically looking for either. My impetus for taking the course in the first place was a burgeoning interest in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, a play that is regarded as the most puzzling of puzzlers, and which is known to have medieval roots. Reinforcing the importance of those roots was an article I stumbled on in a discarded scholarly journal (the U of A English Department has or had a pretty interesting used-books/periodicals table for charity) in which a professor (possibly Dr. Velz) had made an impassioned (by professorial standards) plea that Shakespeare was generally quite influenced by medieval literature and those roots should be investigated in detail. So, mayhaps I could clear up a few things in Troilus and Cressida? (shockingly, a lot got cleared up, but that's another story).
     But for the first part of the course, our little class of about 15 students was just struggling through that weird, archaic Middle English (somewhat modernized in our text, the massive Medieval Drama, ed. David Bevington; and keep an eye on his name--he's something of a punchline to this long story). The fact that medieval drama is largely religious is likely to send most folks scurrying thither, but once you get past the language-barrier the plays are actually a great deal of fun, and certainly the morals and messages in the plays are not flogged more obscenely than in your average crappy Hollywood flick. No, the medieval plays can be lively romps, possibly written by funky monks or clergypersons appealing to an even funkier agrarian audience, and it is quite possible to delight in them even now.
   Indeed, they have a legacy that continues today, in what is known as the comedy of evil. If some movie today, usually of the horror variety, shows it's chief bogeyvillain doing something humorous, a portion of the royalties should really go to an English monastery, if any still exist, or to a Doctor of Divinity program in Old Blighty. Those holypersons invented the schtick.
    And certainly the comedy of evil is present in the medieval play Mankind, which we plowed through about midway through the course. It portrays an everyman-protagonist named "Mankind" who tills the land like his fellow peasants. But into his allegorical onstage life comes those evildoers, Mischief, New-guise, Nowadays and a fourth oddball named Nought, a sort of straight-man-zany. Acting opposite these "Vices" and mediating things stands a Virtue named Mercy. The Vices are soon joined by their devilish boss, a gentleman titled Titivillus (Latin for all-vileness) whose costume is so horrifically awesome (including a metal tube of gunpowder flaming out his arse) that the Vices pass a hat through the audience for money before he is allowed to make his spectacular appearance (the first recorded admission-charge in English theatre). The bad dudes proceed to harass Mankind, placing a board in the soil to frustrate his digging, stealing his tools and seed-sack from behind his back, and so on. The Three Stooges with a mean streak.
    Shortly into the play's Middle English and Dog Latin, at line 122 I hit this:

MERCY: Mercy is my name and my denomination
I conceive you have but a little favour in my communication.

NEW-GUISE: Ay, ay! Your body is full of English Latin.
  I am afeared it will burst.
'Pravo te" quod the butcher unto me
  When I stole a leg of mutton.
Ye are a strong cunning clerk.

NOWADAYS: I pray you heartily, worshipful clerk
  To have this English made in Latin:
'I have eaten a dish full of curds
And I have shitten your mouth full of turds'

Very guffawsome, in the low, slapstick style of the Vices, but what caught my eye and pre-scorched brain was the "Pravo." Somehow it echoed with Shakespeare's Rivo, although the similarity is very faint, little more than a vaguely parallel Latin-ish spelling. I note that David Bevington, who has also edited an edition of Henry IV Part 1 did not make any connection between Pravo and Rivo, and why in hell should he? No, the imaginary echo was surely a trick of my lamentably digressive neural pathways. As the rational part of my brain told me, "It's just a coincidence, you moron!"
    Nevertheless, I stared at it. And if fading memory serves, the next thing I noticed was that both Latinates were grammatically almost identical ("Rivo" says the drunkard; 'Pravo te' quod the butcher). Then the fact that both exclamations are followed by butcher-shop references (ribs, mutton). Then the mutual use of the word cunning nearby.
    At that point my rational side was probably still pushing the likelihood of coincidence, but my paranoid lobe prevailed, and I placed the two texts side by side for what the scholars call close reading. Whereupon the parallels came tumbling in, most electrifyingly the contextual ones. It wasn't just the linkage between Goodman Adam and Good Adam, between anon anon and Mankind's anon anon anon (comic repetition also occurs in Mankind in such outbursts as anow anow anow, and nay nay, ser! nay nay! Or if you prefer Latin, hic hic hic hic hic). No, there was also the realization that Hal's suggestion to Francis to flee his indenture echoes Titivillus's insinuation to Mankind that he abandon his farm labours. Then, more joltingly, the realization that Hal's first speech actually describes Mankind: "three or four loggerheads" (i.e. Vices; it is unclear if Shakespeare shares my doubts about Nought's status, or just counts him arithmetically as zero) amongst three or four score hogsheads--these 60 or 80 kegs suggesting at first glance a staff/storage room in the tavern, but also matching a description of the staging of Mankind in an innyard, on a platform atop barrels (a picture of such staging is found in Bevington's Medieval Drama).
    Or what of Hal's statement that he is "of all humors that have showed themselves humors"?--pretty close to an admission of playing Titivillus, eh? (I confess my eyes popped a little at this correspondence). Note too that Mercy warns Mankind that Titivillus cannot be seen (line 295).
    So of course Mankind is the "precedent" that Hal is showing Poins.
    But the biggest adrenalin-shot was yet to come--arriving two-thirds-way through Mankind in the shortening-the-coat segment. In this action, Mankind has been duped into following the Vices, who arraign him in a mock-court, take his coat and drastically shorten it, until it verges on non-existence. The clip-job is done in two installments (for prop-purposes three coats are used) where the Vices take the coat offstage and return with a trimmed version (the entrances and exits from the raised platform are via steps; and Mankind too "is upstairs and downstairs" a few times).
    Here New-Guise has taken the coat away for the first trimming and the mock-court resumes:

NOUGHT: Hold, master Mischief, and read this.

MISCHIEF: [Reads] Here is-- 'Blottibus in blottis
Blottorum blottibus istis.'
I beshrew your ears, a fair hand!

NOWADAYS: Yea, it is a good running fist;
   Such an hand may not be missed.

NOUGHT: I should have done better, had I wist.

MISCHIEF: Take heed sir, it stand you on hand!
(continues reading) Curia tenta generalis,
In a place there good ale is,
Anno regni regitalis
   Edwardi nullateni.
On yestern day in Feverere (February) the year passeth fully.       685
As Nought has written, here is our Tully,
  Anno regni regis nulli.

NOWADAYS: What, ho, Newguise! Thou makest much [tarrying]  688
  That jacket shall not be worth a farthing.
 Re-enter Newguise with shortened coat....

Did you catch anything there? Something Shakespearean? It is surely helpful to have a scholarly note to tell us that "Tully" refers to Cicero, an exemplar of Latin composition, as Nought is not; but it wasn't exactly Tully that caught my eye, but the triplet rhyme fully/Tully/nulli, which could be expanded to a tetrad with Shakespeare's sully. And the proximity of another jacket, i.e. Francis's canvas doublet.
    When Prince Hal says, "Why then, your brown bastard is your only drink; for look you, Francis, your white canvas doublet will sully. In Barbary sir, it cannot come to so much"--scholars struggling through the semantic mess generally assume the "it cannot come to so much" refers back to the pennysworth of sugar, which has skyrocketed to a thousand pounds, whereupon the economic bubble burst. But the reference may be closer, to the doublet/jacket, which, like Mankind's coat, doesn't come to so much (a jacket not worth a farthing would not come to a penny, right?) Again, if this "it" does indicate the coat, it would not be the only case of Shakespeare playing fast and loose with a coyly ambiguous pronoun).
    Anyway, tentative parallels, but as yet no adrenalin shot. Somehow the allusion was too faint, barely there. Surely there had to be something else in the vicinity to reinforce it? But squint as I might, nothing came. Would monks even know of Barbary in North Africa? There were alehouses mentioned in Mankind, but no "brown bastard" (a sweetened wine, I recollect from somewhere). The word "doublet" hinted promisingly of double-meanings, but led nowhere.
    I was scouring the above extract for maybe the 20th time and cursing my habit of over-thinking things, when I idly eyed the word "tarrying" for the 20th time (actually it may be "taryynge" in my Bevington edition, which is currently misplaced). The word is in fact an interpolation by an earlier editor, of a word missing and/or illegible in the manuscript (specifically the Macro manuscript, where Mankind has its only surviving existence) and the editor's hypothetical word is based on the dramatic situation and a possible rhyme or near-rhyme with "farthing" (and maybe partly-legible letters??--the text didn't say. I have since found an undated (early-1900s) Chief Pre-Shakespearean Plays, edited by Joseph Quincy Adams, that reproduces the above Edwardi nullateni as  Edwardi millateni, and a reader has to sympathize with editors trying to decipher the fraying medieval penmanship).
    Alas, there is only a very short break while the coat is sent off to be tailored and returned, so "tarrying" seems a bit dubious. My brain, which on rare occasions actually writes poetry, and now was on auto-pilot and, lacking anything better to do, started checking for other possible rhyme-words that might fit the context better, which, in my brain's case means trying every consonant in the alphabet, from barthing to zarthing. It didn't have far to go.
    Bar... BARBERING!!!
    As I said, a shot of adrenalin. It was perfect! As every schoolboy knows, barbers in those days didn't just do haircuts, but most jobs involving sharp blades from surgery to hedge-trimming, and surely they could do a ripping job on a jacket, including making it resemble the tiny remnant of a pant-leg scissored up by Harpo Marx. Moreover, Shakespeare could do something similar in imaginatively slicing, dicing, and reassembling the pieces of Mankind into a little schtick in a historical scene. For a comparable achievement in literary carvery, you'd need to trot out some of Bob Dylan's wonky transfigurations of Shakespeare plays into folk-lyrics.
    Indeed, such was my 1999 delight in the discovery that, checking and finding David Bevington alive and kicking at the University of Chicago, I e-mailed him with the suggestion of "barbering"--minus the evidence, which you have to admit is rather long and convoluted. To my gobsmacked surprise he actually e-mailed back approving the emendation on its contextual merits alone. For 15 minutes I was in heaven.
    But of course every rose has its thorns. Mainly, what was now to be done with the detective work? I'm somewhat allergic to scholarly journals and their inexorable dulling-down, but eventually, possibly a year or two after the discovery, I relented and approached a journal of medieval studies with the idea for an article on how Shakespeare can be used to reconstruct a missing word in the Macro manuscript, but didn't even receive the courtesy of a "no thanks" from the theoretical thunkers. Prejudice reinforced!
    Still, the research sort of fits into my other Shakespeare snoutings, in a very small way. If my edition of Troilus and Cressida ever gets off the ground (debatable) the Francis bit will be included as an example of how Shakespeare does sneaky things. And he most surely did some wondrously sneaky things in his work. Sneakiness is almost a constant in his writing, at least until James I arrives on the throne, frowning at the rampant hidden meanings of those sly Elizabethan dramatists.
    But within the general area of Shakespeare and his Henry plays, the Francis-clarification adds a smidgen of clarification, reinforcing the notion that Shakespeare performs covert allusions like nobody's business--subterfuges that are plentiful, significant, and yet to be fully ferreted.
    In the meantime, some unfinished business has been tidied up, and another blogpost has been nailed to the cyberwall, bait for anyone who wants to hire an offbeat critic. Someday my editor will come. But that's another story.

Postscript: So yesterday, Friday Oct. 2, 2015 Anno Domini, the article is done. Consummatum est. Except for a thousand niggling, nagging afterthoughts, such as how I didn't manage to whiplash snidely about "give my roan horse a drench" being an obvious and structural sex-metaphor. Really, I could waste another week researching how ALL the studious scholars missed this easy one, even the compilers of thick tomes on Shakespeare's bawdy. Furthermore, Mankind has a sexual horse-metaphor too. Maybe such things are too common to comment upon? Or maybe nobody noticed that when Prince Hal says, "I'll play Percy, and that damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife." he is effectively saying, "I'm going to fuddle Falstaff the way Percy fuddles his wife, and the way I fuddled Francis." Come on, sleepyheads, WHAT DO YOU THINK PERCY AND WIFEY WERE DOING DURING THE HOUR BETWEEN QUESTION AND ANSWER?! Adjusting the dosage of Dr. Whinny's Oats Supplement??? Sigh.
    But having put far too much time and effort into this, I tweet out a blog-notice and wait hopefully for reverberations. The Blogger-stats tell me that within the first few minutes this baby has gotten about 8 visits. Then for the next 24 hours absolutely nothing. No visits, no replies, nada. Perhaps the entire interweb is all mega-data now, and the 8 clicks were just government computers routinely checking for indicators of terrorism, criminality, money-laundering, bullying, federal election polling, box-office trends, celebrity eruptions, economic growth, and the sustainability of buzzwords like sustainability (please note my helpful boost on that last one).
    Other than that, I just wait for... what? Godot? A literary prize? A good-paying gig at Esquire magazine? And while waiting, I neurotically tweak the article, trimming a word here, adding a phrase there, restructuring a sentence for more punch, etc. And double-check those "funky monks" that I cited from memory. Hm, seems that while Mankind is anonymously written, it is knowledgeable enough that a university-educated author is suspected. Were monks university-trained? Where did I hear about those monks anyway? Is it just false-memory syndrome??
    And is David Bevington still around?--heck, yes, and in 2015 even issued or re-issued a book he edited of essays on Henry IV Parts 1 and 2! Appallingly heavy on documentation, like his Arden edition of Troilus and Cressida. Wow, it even features a scholar named Ronald MacDonald! Seriously! Not doing fast-food Shakespeare but something called "speech act theory" which apparently postulates that Shakespeare can adjust his literary style. Oh yes!
    No word, however, on the significance of Henry V talking about his horse in tones reminiscent of his tavern hijinx, as he woos Katherine after Agincourt. Yep, first let's kill all the theorists.

PPS: And you could well describe the play Mankind as "the parcel of a reckoning"--a metaphor that fits Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy too.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Cookies, cookies, everywhere, and lots of data to drink...

    The routine check of the blog this morning reveals a couple of visitors, a normal statistic (a few weeks ago there were 40 or 50 one day, wildly unusual). Click a button and I can see where my recent visitors hail from--the last few weeks (which is the time-window if I recollect) it has been the U.S., Germany, France and Portugal, in that order if my eyesight for shades of green isn't failing. The Blogger Stats page also tells me of the latest post(s) viewed (just the previous "Ass in Gear" today) and "Traffic Sources"--today just something called http://theculturaluniverse.blogspot.de/ ...whatever the heck THAT is (the "de" I'm guessing indicates Deutschland).
    Even bigger heaps of data for its own nefarious uses, I'm assuming, are reaped by Google, the cyberfeudal e-Lord of your quasi-trusty blogserf. No doubt Google also knows your name, age, medical health, marital status, criminal record, bank balance, credit rating, political parties, charities and NGOs supported, promptness in washing your dishes, thoroughness in getting them really clean, and exact amount of time spent surfing for online porn. And likely this blog is accomplice or at least accessory to this info-harvest.
    All of course made possible by cookies, those cutely-named data-collection algorithms which comprise roughly 83% of the average hard-drive, as your personal computer is now so infested with cookies it's as if your hard-drive was caught in a Girl Guide-factory explosion.
    And now of course the government, which is always looking out for the welfare of its peons... er, citizens, wants to clearly let us know that cookies exist, and what they are doing. No, no not the Canadian government, because the Harper Conservatives view the interweb as just another field of profit-dreams, and because the CRTC is so pedantically clueless that it is still trying locate its gluteus with a gyro-compass (it's last great spasm of activity, you will recall, was an irony-free attempt to launder Dire Straits "Money for Nothing" because the song asserted, "The little faggot has his own jet-airplane/ The little faggot is a millionaire"). Nor is the Obama administration launching any cookie-control or cookie-awareness legislation, perhaps because of Republican stonewalling, or because the CIA and national-security agencies need room to plant a few zillion cookies per year themselves.
    No, it is the EU, the good old European Union, that now requires cookie-disclosal and cookie-permission (wait... is disclosal a word??) to the surfers of internet sites. So, for the freedom-loving and privacy-hugging explorers of Cyberia, or for Europeans anyway, rest assured that the situation is under control! Even this blog, Google tells me, now carries some sort of Euro-caveat. All hail Brussels!
    As for me, I'm still reactionary enough to yearn for a return to just newspapers as a universal medium (okay, a thin gloss of TV too). And police physically tapping into phone lines with alligator-clips. And just tell the damn internet to just go bake itself.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

On shifting one's ass into gear

A little quote from the eminently quotable T. H. Huxley:

It is when a man is free to do as he likes that he encounters his worst difficulties.

It now sits as part of the pre-fab signature at the end of my e-mails, although I fear it pins me to the specimen-board like a gonzo butterfly. For there is an hour or two in the morning when the laws of Canada and the general economy of things allows me an hour or two to write whatever I damn well please; furthermore I am now enjoying a few weeks vacation allowing me even more time, and... well, the results, as they say, are not pretty.
    Firing up the laptop, I am more likely to drift over to Facebook and Twitter, checking what other folks are up to, browsing the topics du jour, dropping a mere quip or ten just to prove I'm sociable. Actually I am quite anti-social, and getting decidedly crabbier with age, as seems normal. Hey, the unexamined life is not worth grousing about, right?
    What I should be doing is attacking the horribly overdue book of poetry criticism I've contracted for, although that project too has it's snares and fetters, like dredging up a lost essay from the 90s to reprint, avoiding the impulse to devour just one more poem or item about poetry under the guise of doing research, or mustering the Muse for actual writing.
    Most days I accomplish little or nothing, and then it's time to head to work (the money-making kind in the taxi) and/or walk the dog, and/or attend to a dozen or more domestic chores. At least with these things it's a fairly cut-and-dried application of time and effort. But the long-lingering backlog of writing? Nothing but an empty arena populated with question-marks.
    And it's too late to become a lawyer or a machinist. Writing is what seduced me and writing is what I'm married to. Now the only option is to make like an automaton and go. And if that requires a cup of coffee after the morning bowl of cereal, so be it. Although, oddly, I've found that half a teaspoon of the instant stuff seems to kick better than a full teaspoon.
    Whatever works...

Friday, June 12, 2015

On the cover of the poesy tome! Blurb plus!!

Yes, Virginia, there IS a book of poetry and poetry-criticism (mostly the latter) blurping like bitumen though the constricted pipelines of my brain, blurping, blorping toward publication. As I have joked elsewhere, a guaranteed worst-seller! Anyway, here's the back-cover blurp... er, blurb, unless the publisher thinks of something better:

Questions, questions, questions...

So does Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” actually MEAN anything? What about Jonathan Swift’s “Verses on the Death of Doctor Swift”? Why are the profligate professors flapping all over the map about THAT poem? And how does it happen that after four centuries the same damn professors STILL don’t have a clue about Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle”? Okay, admittedly a clue or four about this part of the poem, or that little bit. But no general idea whatsoever about the poem as a whole. Nothing at all. Nada. Zilch. When will our theory-infested, jargon-ridden Blithering Class muster the brainpower to decipher it? Never? Or maybe when they read this brilliant book? Again, what’s the deal with all those ultra-weird Bob Dylan songs on the Basement Tapes?  Uh, let me guess, did Bobby plagiarize those hillbilly-flavored goofs from somewhere? What?—from Shakespeare?? Are you joshing me? Hillbilly Shakespeare??? Wait a minute, how much Shakespeare is in this book anyway? Quite a lot? Maybe 30% or more? Shakespeare... wow... seriously boring.  Worse than frigging high school! What?—and this book has some of Andersen’s own poetry too? There's poetry wafting in from nasty, redneck, tar-tarnished ALBERTA? From a cabbie??! LMFAO! C’mon, admit it, this is a really, really boring book, right? Total snooze-button, right?

Tedious answers inside!

     *     *     *

Ah yes, have some fairly definite ideas about the front-cover too, but your alleged critic will be coy about THAT. Hey, it'll be a bit cartoonish, with a teensy pic of John Lennon in one corner, saying, "...and for those of you who want to know why Old Flat-Top has feet down below his knees, that'll be answered inside too..."

Heh.  =]

Thursday, April 23, 2015

On bewailing the "public intellectual" shortage

Most days it is hard to flip open the laptop, even to merely slap together a tweet.
    Age. Cynicism. The daily drudgery of existence. The futility of launching another fart into the sulfurous hurricane of the internet.
    But fetching the morning papers today, presto!--here we have the National Post with "Culture Wars: Where have all the public intellectuals gone?" p.1 on the mast-bottom. An arrow to my heart!--although not exactly an untackled question. Moreover, don't we already have a few public intellectuals in Canada? Jonathan Kay, Colby Cosh and Dan Gardner spring immediately to mind, and there are others, although you may object that most are too tainted with journalism and reality to qualify as genuine beard-stroking thunkers. Worse, you could argue that despite their mediapodia, they don't have a great deal of of traction in the Canadian mind. And whatever happened to Mark Kingwell? Did our ivory-tower eminence get tired of mud-wrestling in the journals of lower learning? How grubby is this public-intellectual thing anyway? What exactly is involved in the mainstream-media cleanup after our crappy educational system has dumped its load?
    As it turns out the Post article is Yankee-sourced, concerning a new documentary film Best of Enemies, centred on the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley on ABC during the August 1968 Republican Convention (heavy topic the Vietnam war of course). Total buzz-kill for this blogger, instantly suggesting two hotheads: Vidal calling Buckley a Nazi, Buckley snapping back "you faggot" at Vidal amid otherwise over-familiar and inconclusive platitudes.
    Or is this just a media-distortion now filtered through my lousy memory? (Fact-check: it was actually "crypto-Nazi" and "goddamn queer"--an exchange now captured online like pretty much every other sorry fragment of intellectual history).
    But the National Post story, Calum Marsh's "When the culture wars were worth fighting" mentions this hot exchange not at all, perhaps as being unseemly for Public Intellectuals of the Golden Age--his theme and the film's appearing to be our society's supposed loss of high-level punditry nowadays. He does note that "the network (ABC) didn't anticipate the vigour of their chosen conversationalists," alleging that "millions were held rapt by Vidal and Buckley's nearly half-dozen debates."
    Actually, I suspect that if Nielsen had been monitoring the audience closely, it would have found hundreds of thousands were actually reaching for beer and/or snacks during the more tedious parts, and significant numbers missed the minute-long Nazi/queer exchange during a bathroom break. Certainly it is notable, perhaps astonishing that in an article on Big Thunkers wading through five debates, Mr. Marsh fails to dredge up a single witty quip (or any other kind) by either Vidal or Buckley, nor does he even give much of a summary of the duo's ideas (dully left-right, i.e. painfully ideological, truth be known).
    If you check back to the YouTube clip, you will find, embedded in the name-calling, Vidal positing Europe's sympathy to the legitimate aspirations of the Viet Cong for national unity, and Buckley tut-tutting the temerity of the Cong in daring to shoot at U.S. Marines, but whether these two banalities are better, worse or typical of the general debate is left for us to guess (I'll conjecture no better). Or perhaps Marsh just wants to avoid any spoilers for the HotDoc a-coming.
   In any case, it is hard to muster any enthusiasm for Marsh's and the film's manufactured discrepancy between today's cheap pundits and the "literary pedigree" bred into the "iconic" Buckleyesque-Vidaloid intellectuals of yesteryear. Buckley I managed to plow through in depth eons ago, yielding a deep-seated dislike for the man. Like Vidal he oozes that erudite mid-Atlantic accent, but his ideas are a threadworn patchwork of mean-spirited sophistry. Vidal I know less well, but on the basis of his introduction to The Impossible Mencken I'd venture that while he might be a seven-foot intellectual giant, he falls well short of America's ten-foot colossus. The Sage of Baltimore is a fine measuring-stick for public intellectuals of any era, and both heirs to his artillery would have benefited from reading his essay "On Controversy."
    Finally, keep in mind that the Buckley vs Vidal confrontation was television, mere impromptu cut-and-thrust. I close my eyes and imagine two bespectacled junior-high achievers, suddenly facing off in the schoolyard while surprised students gather round, shouting, "Nerd fight! Nerd fight!"
    Durable works of the intellect are produced by more leisurely contemplation, and committed to the printed page. Buckley and Vidal may seem like ancient history now, but 1968's two perishable eggheads have also been left in the dust-up, quite remote from the Socrates and Aristotle of The School of Athens.
    As the Bible says: "Ask not why it is that former days were better than these--for it is not from wisdom that you ask this."

Monday, March 9, 2015

It's really about... Mencken? Utah???

Got a dozen writing projects at CRUNCH TIME (or past) so what do I do? Answer the National Post's call for 100-word or less suggestions to solve the problem of Iran's nukes.
    Hey, I'm a professional thunker, a professional digressor and a professional oddball too. So really, why isn't Obama dragooning me to be Secretary of State? Eh?
    Note that the following version comprises the FULL letter--the Post trimmed a few items from it when they printed it today, like "funky farmer-ambience" and "Sunni Arabia"--possibly to make me look like a normal human being. Nice try, guys!

In 1938, immediately after Kristallnacht the notorious American anti-semite H. L. Mencken demanded that the U.S. government quickly accept German-Jewish refugees (it didn't) and suggested western Canada could take thousands too, where they'd improve the funky farmer-ambience. The solution to Iran's nuclear schemes today is the same: evacuate Israel (incl. any gay/straight Arabs who wish to tag along) and transplant them in Utah, partitioning it to create a 51st state. Then blow Iran a goodbye-kiss with two or three tactical nukes into their facilities, lest they get Plan B ideas about Sunni Arabia. Problem solved. Easy as borscht.

      *       *       *That's it. Lets slip this one into my writing dossier and see if anyone will now hire the Western Wacko...