Sunday, June 16, 2013

Book Review: A Dash of Style

by Noah Lukeman. 2006.

A Dash of Style is an exciting book on grammatical punctuation. Yes, that's right: exciting. It's not a history of punctuation and it's not a compendium of every which way you may use a comma. Instead, it's an introduction to a troupe of players who are going to help you put on your show. You meet the magician (the colon), the advisor (parentheses), and the bridge (the semicolon), and liberally spiced with examples of their greatest performances from Poe to Forster, Lukeman shows how the dozen or so points of punctuation can really make your work sing.

Lukeman's greatest strength here is his ability to define these strange little symbols in clear and memorable terms. He doesn't tell us how we're allowed to use it or even how we ought to, but rather he tells us what these marks do and how they'll affect our sentences: the dash interrupts, the colon "pulls back the curtain." With a crystal clear definition in place, Lukeman then gives examples of various combinations and uses, some contrived to make a point and some quotations from the greats. The quotations are generous and choice, creating a miniature anthology not of do's-and-don'ts, but of, well, style.

That's not to say Lukeman has thrown all the rules to the wind; he's clear about what constitutes strict and loose use of a punctuation mark. Yet Lukeman approaches from the point of style, that is, the expression of thought, not from rules. The result is a book which empowers you to refine your process, unlike textbooks which can paralyze you with conditionals. The happy result is that A Dash of Style is less admonition and more invitation, a book you can return to both for example and inspiration. In fact, the author concludes each chapter with a dozen or so questions for examining one's own writing. For example, take something you've written and take out all the semicolons, or try to find a moment to use a colon. What did it do? Do you want more or less of that effect?

It's a rather culinary approach, a pinch of this and a dash of that, and as such it respects the authority of the author. On the other hand you may feel more pressure to do well in the shadow of the masters than you do following the prescriptions of a rule book. Not quite pressure to punctuate well, though, so much as pressure to give proper expression to one's ideas. In this respect A Dash of Style is a challenge to know thyself by mastering that process of putting thought to page.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Accio Style!

Following up our analyses of Cicero and Melville, it's time to look at a less successful, though not wholly failed, selection of literature. From J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

As the pain from Harry's scar forced his eyes shut, his wand acted of its own accord. He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury. The remaining Death Eater yelled; Voldemort screamed, "No!": Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button. He punched it with his wand-free hand and the bike shot more flames into the air, hurtling straight toward the ground.
I would first like to note that there's a lot to like in the Harry Potter series, but the style and clarity of this passage are lacking. Second, I'm not suggesting the whole series or even book are as uneven as this passage.

Right out of the gate, describing the scar so literally is a missed opportunity: because the scar is synonymous with Voldemort it should seem to act as Voldemort. The pain shouldn't be doing the action of the verb, with scar shunted away to a prepositional phrase.

Why as here? It's not the simultaneity of Harry closing his eyes and the wand acting that is important, but the contrast of his impotence and the wand's power. For that reason, it was a good opportunity to personify the wand instead of literally saying that it acted of its own accord, which tells us very little.

He felt it drag is unnecessary: we'll imagine what Harry felt because we empathize with him and his intense situation. Simply it dragged will do. Also, the scene seems to be unfolding quickly, so is dragged the proper word? Let's take a peek.
  1. to draw with force, effort, or difficulty; pull heavily or slowly along; haul; trail
  2. to search with a drag, grapnel, or the like: 
  3. to level and smooth (land) with a drag or harrow.
  4. to introduce; inject; insert
  5. to protract (something) or pass (time) tediously or painfully (often followed by out or on )
  6. to pull (a graphical image) from one place to another on a computer display screen, especially by using a mouse.
Does any of that seem like it fits? Maybe the wand had difficulty dragging his hand? If so, why? And what of the sloppy simile, like some great magnet. Is his hand metallic? Couldn't we find something more original? And his eyes are half-closed now? Why? Also, who cares about his eyes? It's a jejune thought that because Harry is doesn't know what's going on his eyes must be closed, or that because the author needs Harry incapacitated, the easiest way to do that is to close his eyes.

The structure of the sentence continues the same problem of telling instead of drawing.

He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury.
It's structured around the verbs, but there's this layer of narration between us and the action. Just tell us what's happening without telling us how Harry's experiencing it. Again: we'll empathize. This was a good opportunity for short, declarative sentences, which we get next, but. . . let's see what happens.

The remaining Death Eater yelled; Voldemort screamed, "No!": Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button.
What is this? What's going on? Which Death Eater are we talking about? Yelled? What did he yell? Why? Is he yelling because he was hit or what he saw? Yell is also much too vague.

The punctuation here is also problematic. The first two clauses are not unreasonably edited together with a semicolon, appropriate on account of their similarity and because a comma might have been to little a pause while a period too much. It's a debatable, but not outrageous, punctuation. The problem is the climax and use of that colon. The colon should herald the big reveal of the sentence and instead it confuses: are the bad guys screaming because of what Harry did, or what he was about to do?

Somehow, Harry found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button.
Somehow implies improbability. What was improbable, though: Harry finding himself in that spot or him actually being in that spot? Also, why are either of those circumstances improbable? The event is also a bit of a cheat, because on the one hand the author has painted Harry as incapacitated, and on the other hand he's the only one on the bike so he has to do something. The wand can't do everything.

The next statement isn't awful but it doesn't work because it's too long and sounds preposterous until fully unraveled.

He found his nose (what?)
He found his nose an inch (what?)
He found his nose an inch from the dragon-fire button (ohhhh!)

And what's all of these iambs? u- | u- | u- | u-

he felt it drag his hand around [like some great magnet]
found his nose an inch from the [dragon-fire button]
he punched it with his wand-free hand [and the bike shot]
We're in narration here: why this rhythm? It's a curious move even as a pacing device, because the following phrase neither continues nor contrasts the pattern, and thus there is no climax to the thought. The use of dragon seems to work, but dragon is dependent on the next two words thus its effect is diminished.

He punched it with his wand-free hand and the bike shot more flames into the air, hurtling straight toward the ground.

His wand-free hand? How about free hand? I haven't forgotten that Harry has two hands and is holding a wand in one of them, especially because she made such a big deal about the wand "acting of its own accord" three sentences ago. Why more flames? More than when? And into the air? OK, but where else were the flames going to go? If the author had said into the night or darkness or black, then we'd at least get an image out of the observation. Who cares about the air? Did we forget that he's flying?

None of this is horrific, but it's vague and sloppy, turning a thrilling moment into an mushy, unsatisfying read. With all humility: an alternative.

A hiss in the darkness: Harry's scar seared his eyes in flash of pain. Something of that sinister spite awoke the phoenix core of Harry's wand which, eyeing its twin across the sky, streamed gold and fire through the night. A deathly crack. Silence. Now the other Death Eaters howled, but one beastly bellow swallowed all their cries. The wand released Harry's hand and he lunged across the seat, jabbing around for the fire button. At last he punched it and the bike hurtled straight down toward the ground. 

What do you think? I can't claim to know Rowling's story better than she, so I'm not sure this is better or more appropriate, but I tried to make it vivid, clear, and specific. What I had in mind:
  1. Open with a clear image with a clear rhythmic profile: hiss in the darkness (zippity-do-da)
  2. Evoke Voldemort's presence with sibilance: hiss and -ness
  3. The colon is the deep breath before the plunge of the sentence paragraph, and also emphasizes the powerful, causal, dangerous nature of the brief opening statement which preceded it. I chose the colon over the dash because we know what follows the colon will be caused by what preceded it, not just interrupting it.
  4. Connect the idea of the hiss and the pain by personifying the scar. Use more sibilance to continue the idea. 
  5. End with a clear, contrasting image: flash of pain (contrasts and fulfills hiss in darkness)
  6. Sibilance continues Voldemort's presence: something...sinister spite
  7. Indefinite pronoun something implies that Voldemort's hatred is wider than the way in which we are discussing it and links the previous idea of pain to the subject of this sentence, spite.
  8. Making the spite the subject of awoke continues Voldemort's agency.
  9. Phoenix core 1) finally conjures a new, positive, colorful image, 2) plays into the idea of its verb, awake, since the Phoenix rises, 3) allows me not to use the word wand yet and save it for the end of the clause, where it emphasizes the relative pronoun.
  10. eyeing its twin harkens to the relationship of the wands, and their owners, without having to describe it, and explains what's happening without being boring and literal. 
  11. Making the wand the subject emphasizes Harry's passivity by not mentioning him. 
  12. sibilance with sky and streamed links the words over the comma.
  13. hendiadys with "gold and fire" instead of "golden fire" emphasizes both color and shape, instead of just color
  14. the iambic (u-) concluding clause to the sentence 1) puts emphasis on the important words (gold, fire, through, night) by placing them on the long beats, and 2) disappears into the darkness like the stream from the wand.
  15. That long sentence A) contrasts the ones which come before and after it and B) emphasizes Harry's daze by mimicking the slow-motion, hyper-acuity which people experience when shocked and afraid
  16. Two more short images: deathly crack and silence, contrasting the opening images, hiss and darkness. Tit for tat.
  17. Contrast of deathly and Death Eaters emphasizes that one of the self-styled death-dealers has himself been killed
  18. howled emphasizes the animalistic nature of the Death Dealers, and is a cliche of nighttime spookiness
  19. light assonance of l with howled, beastly, bellow, and swallowed, subtly unifies the bad guys.
  20. alliteration with beastly and bellowed unites the ideas and suggests Voldemort is, as their leader, the most beastly. 
  21. rhyming of bellow and swallow 
  22. contrast of bellow and swallow: bellowing goes out and swallowing goes in, also reinforces Voldemort's dominance and power-at-a-distance.
  23. cries contrasts bellows both in pitch and insofar as cries, like howls, conveys lamentation whereas bellows conveys anger. Even the Death Eaters feel for their companion whereas Voldemort is enraged only by the effrontery of the act.
  24. trochaic (-u) conclusion to the sentence contrasts the previous long sentence which, describing the deed of Harry's wand, was its opposite, and concludes with a pattern-breaking long to emphasize the conclusion.
  25. Finally the wand returns control to Harry, who finally reappears in the story.
  26. With Harry awake, the action speeds up again: lunging, jabbing, punching, hurtling
  27. Never mention Voldemort by name, adding to his allure and fear of his agency at a distance.
  28. Five distinct parts of the story: A) the cause of the action, B) the reaction of the wand, C) the bad guys' reaction, D) Harry's reaction, and E) Where the action's going next.
  29. Those five parts come in five sentences, split up between B and C into two parts, by the lacuna of the heavily elided "A deathly crack. Silence."
  30. Simple conclusion tells you where you are and where you're going.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Warm Welcome

Dear Everyone Who. . .
  • wants a powerful government
  • wants to "reform" government
  • wants to fix government by putting "good people" in charge
  • wants just to "trim a little fat" from government
  • can't imagine how life could go on without the government
  • is thrilled  by the idea of "energetic" government
  • doesn't hold "their guy" accountable in office
  • thinks it "would be even worse" if the government didn't do x,y, or z
  • holds statist beliefs of varying kinds
Thanks for following the whole NSA Spying Scandal.

Please consider applying the lessons of this scandal to your other ideas about government.


Libertarians and Other Non-Statists

Word Power III: Die, Word, Die!

Words are powerful, and because of this sometimes they die iniquitous deaths. Verbicide, the twisting of an ancient, honest word to a new, nebulous purpose, is an ugly crime. C. S. Lewis catalogued [1] the types of verbicide: inflationary, of verbiage, politicizing, and approbatory. Inflation occurs when a word takes on many other meanings, verbiage when you set up an idea but never complete it, politicizing when you use just part of a word or redefine a word, and approbative verbicide occurs when you use a word only for the purpose of praising something, disregarding the word's descriptive power. Today I would like to take a look at some words that died on the political battlefield.

The first is that infamous word itself, politics. The Greek πολιτεία carries the senses of citizenship, a body of citizens (a polity), and a constitution. Helpfully, πολιτεία, along with πολιτεύω, the word for being a citizen, and citizen, πολιτηΐη, are similar, forming a happy little family of ideas which describe man's fate as a political animal. So what on earth do we mean when we say that someone is playing politics? Chiefly, we seem to mean that he's getting what he wants and we're not, and that his intentions are somehow nefarious. The business of living together and administering government is messy because men have conflicting interests and power seems to degenerate the character of men, but that's no reason to debase the very idea of living together in society and administering services. Too, we need not restrict political to describing activity centered around the state. Instead we ought with politics to reflect the free living and associations of free people.

Speaking of the state, our usage of the word borders on the ridiculous. From the Latin sisto it can mean appointed, fixed, or regular, and from sto it can mean positioned, arranged, or ranked. In both cases, one's status, i.e. situation, is relative to something. That something may very well be the government, but to use the word state to refer to the government is unbecoming because the government is not the nexus of being around which all life turns.

In fact, government isn't such a fine word either. The Latin verb guberno, even when used to mean govern a polity, retains its sense of to steer, as the gubernator steers the ship. Today's connotation of government, regardless of whether you want it big or small, is that of a large, monolithic or at best tripartite, entity. That doesn't seem to be the best fit for the metaphor, steering the ship of state. Ship implies swift, light, and maneuverable–if you want a big government, I humbly suggest a related name: leviathan.

The last word I'd like to reconsider is right. As an adjective it's just fine, meaning just, correct, or fair, or more literally, straight or set straight. The modern sense of right meaning a guarantee of something, stems from English legal notion of having a just claim or title. These words succeed, though, where rights fails because they are specific. Claim retains its root of clamare, Latin for to shout, and the notion that you are yourself claiming something for yourself. Likewise title, or entitled, retains the idea of a written document, a title, declaring your ownership of real property. Both claim and title are preferable to the nebulous definition of rights as "something I get because it's right," a notion at best a misdirection of natural law.

In conclusion, our goal should be to protect all ideas, not just the ones we like, so that they remain distinct and comprehensible. One step toward such a goal is to express them with as much clarity and precision as possible, and that requires from us both study and honesty.

[1] Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words. Cambridge University Press. 1960.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Please Stand Up

The Atlantic is running another boilerplate encomium to our beloved 16th president, but above the heaping praise dangles a tantalizing question: how do you get to know a president? That's not how the author asks it, of course, but that's the bottom line. In private life we're pretty cautious about declaring that we know someone. This is simply common sense, owing to the fact that it takes us a long time to feel comfortable around someone. In public life, though, we hop aboard the political bandwagon at the slightest coincidence of feeling. We love them, we hate them, we vote for them, seldom do even the most scrupulous actually research them. And when we do our homework, what do we learn? What can we? By the time they've taken office, most politicians have held every conceivable position and grabbed dollars from every possible pot. Look at our current chief executive: we're finally at the point where every conceivable opinion of him is held by someone.

Among his supporters, he is or has been, a messianic figure who'll heal the nation and the planet. Among his detractors, he's an antichrist who is actively trying to ruin the United States. He's a radical leftist, a moderate, and too far to the right. He's too Christian, he's an atheist, and he's a Muslim. He's too agressive and too conciliatory. He's the philosopher president with Moby Dick in one hand and Thomas Aquinas in the other, and he's just having a beer with the guys. He's the peacemaker who hasn't bombed Iran or North Korea, and the warmonger waging a drone campaign. He's a pragmatist and an ideologue, a bona fide American and a foreigner, he's too formal and too casual, too cold and too folksy. He's everything to everyone.

Now I'm not saying President Obama's character is an indecipherable enigma, but I'm saying it's awfully hard to tell precisely what he believes and what he'll do in a given situation. When he acts is the deed for or against his principles? Is it the ideologue or pragmatist, and in what degree?

As we try to judge him now, we also contend with our own prejudices as well as those of the news sources, the opinion the president himself wants to convey, and the general static of life. Nate Silver has recently argued that although the information revolution has spread facts, it has amplified the noise too. Will it be any easier then, as the author of that Atlantic piece suggests, to judge President Obama in hindsight? I don't think Lincoln is the best example of a man vindicated by history, but his criterion is revealing: success. Is that the only standard? What about consistency, or the Hippocratic principle of doing no harm? How easily do we shift into relativistic judgment, and how unconsciously do we do the dirty math of calculating means and ends.

Again, though, does hindsight help us distinguish anything? Other than by success, what differentiates Marius, Sulla, Catiline, Pompey, and Caesar? Is it any clearer to us now than it was for their contemporaries? In some ways it was surely clearer and others muddier.

Of course there's no easy solution to this epistemological conundrum, save the bromides about diligence, skepticism, and reason, which are true enough. The more useful question is perhaps about the American people. What do we really want from a leader and government? Does our schizophrenic policy simply reflect a schizoid people? I can't say, but I've noticed one thing during the administrations of Bush and Obama, and that during both tenures there were seemingly substantial groups of people who just couldn't acknowledge the man as the Commander in Chief. He was always an interloper, a fraud, Bush because of the irregularities of the 2000 election, and Obama because of doubts about where he was born.

There was of course much emotion and little reason behind any of the sentiments, but in both cases, each side quieted down to a deafening silence once "his guy" was in office. I think now, perhaps, that people are genuinely afraid of the government, and only the thought, however misguided and misconstrued, of a friend at the helm, lets people sleep. I'm reminded of the famous passage from Xenophon:
The Paralos arrived at Athens during the night, bringing news of the disaster at Aigospotamoi, and a cry arose in the Peiraieus and ran up through the Long Walls and into the city itself as one man imparted the calamitous news to the next. As a result, no one slept that night as they mourned not only for the men destroyed but even more for themselves, thinking they would suffer the same catastrophes they had inflicted on others. –Xenophon, Hellenica 2.2.3
We want power, we want technology and energetic government, then we abuse it, and then like any guilty man we make excuses, and then we grow afraid, and we turn to a protector.

Or is it the politicians or pundits who whip up fervor? Most people seem pretty busy with work and life, and if left alone wouldn't have much cause to stir up trouble. Likewise the news, if it informs at all, still primes people for delusions of superiority.

Maybe, as a new account argues was the case before the civil war, that we just plain don't like one another. If that's true, a powerful and energetic government is unlikely to ameliorate relations.

There doesn't seem to be golden bullet, either, no perfect policy or system which is both energetic and incorruptible. It might be a start, though, to stop admitting leaders to the pantheon of presidential immortals, and praising citizens who do things apolitically, that is, themselves. Unlike the presidents, we really do know people like that; they're called friends, neighbors, and generally, good people. Maybe they should get a monument instead, or better, our esteem and affection.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thinking 9 to 5

Teacher, gardener, cat.
A short time after my first year of teaching I discussed the upcoming term with another teacher, who intimated that I'd completed the curriculum and wouldn't need to do much, if anything, the next time around. My reaction was a moderated version of, "Away, fool!" I was and remain simultaneously flattered and offended by the notion that I've completed anything, seemingly an odd position for a conservative, who by nature looks askance at progress and seeks more to conserve what already exists. Yet while life is not led by the arrow of progress, it is neither sustained by curating hoary antiquity. Instead, living is cultivation in a cycle of renewal. It's about growing, staving off entropy and ennui, and then adding what you can. Nothing is perfected and there are no revolutions, life is the slow, steady mixing of effort, virtue, and whatever comes your way.

I seldom consider what I've done as completed or perfected because I don't think of myself as perfected or, at least in the foreseeable future, ending. Sure, in the short term, things end. Projects have deadlines, payments are due, and other concerns arise, but I'll be back to everything at some point, hopefully bringing something new and finding something buried. This sounds very discursive, very unsystematic, and maybe it is, but I can't imagine having my head in the sand for so long. Maybe it's unprofessional too, but I think students would rather learn from a living person than a fossil who has "completed" his studies. In fact I think the whole educational system of the country would collapse forthwith if students knew their teachers and professors were 9-to-5 intellectuals.

In fact, I've often thought the teaching world would benefit from what's usually and idiotically called professional development, but not of the curriculum-planning, rubric-writing, box-checking, mandate-fulfilling variety. Instead, teachers should, wait for it, study their disciplines. I suggest this not so much to keep up with new developments but for education's salutary effect on the character.

Teacher in summer. url
First, it's exciting to learn, and I'm certain teachers get numb and dumb teaching the same thing over and over. Second, that repetition gives them a false sense of their expertise. It'd do the Gradgrind of an English teacher some good to have some red ink spilled over his own precious prose. Too, maybe the music teacher could put the brakes on his singing and tear out a few tufts of hair while he tries to write a fugue. Maybe everyone in the humanities could actually learn Latin so they could know what they're talking about. Third, teachers should study things outside their discipline, yes because life is bigger and more complex than any one branch of study, but also to feel some sympathy with students who are compelled to switch gears ever 45 minutes. Most of all, the ossified teacher brain will learn that it too must work slowly over time, and that neither 45 minutes nor a day nor a week nor a month nor a year nor is the divinely ordained span of time during which learning must begin and flourish.

Unfortunately the academic calendar, with it's short days and numerous vacations, fosters the opposite of a desire to cultivate slowly over time. In my experience, the less your job requires of you, the less you do, and the less you do, the less you want to do. At the bottom of the spiral you grow to resent the little that you have to do because it feels like an encroachment on your time rather than the focus of it. On top of this, the defined beginning and end, rigid track of courses, and clockwork exams press everyone to perform in a limited time, so everyone grows miserable. The remedy is simple: more work, more learning. In approaching the job this way, summer vacation comes less like the desperately needed crash onto the couch or beach, and more like a shifting of responsibilities from the external and quantifiable to the internal and perennial.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: Sherlock

Directed by Paul McGuigan. Written by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat.
Seasons 1-3

The Holmes stories aren't rich or full of significance. The characters don't have that Dickensian ability to walk right off the page. The vocabulary is fine but workmanlike, without the bubbly perk of Woodhouse or the twisting of Joyce. Superficially, of course, the appeal is the plot. We like trying to figure out the mysteries. True enough the first time through, they're pretty absorbing, but why read, or watch, them again and again? Why remake them decade after decade?

Sherlock, of course. He's not the most fascinating of characters, though. His knowledge and activities are limited. He's not prone to passion and "has no vices," Watson tells us. How exciting. The appeal of Holmes, I think, is an attraction to his relentlessly logical reasoning and fantastic powers of perception.  We follow along and feel the thrill as Holmes reveals his astute observations to the mere mortals around him, from the flatfooted police and his capable-but-humble partner, Watson, to the criminals he's just outwitted. Even more, we like to fancy ourselves just as rational as Holmes.

If that is indeed the appeal of the famous detective, then the BBC's first three seasons of Sherlock deliver. Seldom has watching Holmes churn through facts, sifting the significant from the peripheral with superhuman speed, been so fun. Indeed, the driving forces of the show are the scenes of Holmes breathlessly narrating his conclusions to the mere mortals around him and we viewers, like poor Watson and Lestrade, simply get whisked along in Holmes' intellectual whirlwind. As we follow the keen perceptions of the self-declared "consulting detective," the camera zooms in on the minute objects of his inquiry. This not only emphasizes the superhuman degree of Holmes' powers, but balances with dynamic visuals the talky explanation and exposition which otherwise can grow tedious. It's more inventive, though, the way Sherlock handles the flip side of Holmes' insistent perspicacity: that' he's beyond bored when not stimulated by a tough case. In fact, here Holmes is in thrall to his senses, endlessly jonesing for his next kick that will only come from a near-uncrackable case. Cumberbatch's Holmes less the professional sleuth, more the boy genius. Less Bohemian, more curmudgeon.

Indeed, it's all Watson can do to stop Holmes from offending everyone in sight and he usually plays Holmes' buffer or gopher to the outside world. Watson's no fool though, and unlike previous incarnations of the solider-doctor-sidekick, he doesn't exist simply to be wrong and showcase Holmes' smarts. The first three seasons give Watson a meaningful arc as he moves from traumatized veteran to, well, Sherlock Holmes' sidekick. And what a pair, with the indefatigable Holmes striding off after some obscure clue and Watson scrabbling along after him. One lanky, the other short. One with the soldier's brevity and the other who's a plain old showoff. One indifferent to romance, the other unlucky. They're more than an Abbott and Costello, though. There's some substance to the duo, for we see Holmes move from a total indifference toward anyone's feelings, to a subdued respect for the plucky doctor, finally to caring for him as a a friend. These details aren't overplayed though, and we don't venture into buddy-cop territory.  Holmes is still irascible and Watson is always playing catch-up, but they're friends.

If Watson's the everyman and Holmes his boy genius, then Moriarty is the enfant terrible. Just as mad, just as brilliant as Holmes, the gawky, mousy Moriarty wants his complementary nemesis to come out and play. Their parallels aren't superficial, either. Where Holmes has buried his emotions and runs on the adrenaline of the case, Moriarty's rage fuels his plans. Holmes is the consulting detective, Moriarty the consulting criminal. They're both in it for themselves, though, and perversely each needs the mad, inverted brilliance of the other to satisfy his own mind's lust for challenge. The writers tried to throw in some bits about how Holmes isn't "really" on the "side of the angels," i.e. law and order, but it wasn't so persuasive. Perhaps the authors thought it a betrayal of Holmes' curmudgeonry to let him identify with any group, but he's not a psychopath. Eccentric misanthrope, yes. Murderer, no.

The six episodes of the first two seasons neatly thread these characters through some interesting variations on the Conan Doyle mysteries, which were updated just enough for my liking. Most of the updates are sensible reactions to the technology of today, whether it's genetic engineering or digital cryptography. At last, we don't have to pretend to be fooled by phosphorescent paint and forged signatures. This is also the first mainstream programming, in film or television, that really seemed at home in the digital world.  People talk about blogs and databases and what have you, without introducing them to the audience. As if that's not refreshing enough to satisfy my inner geek, finally some fine producer decided just to overly onto the tv screen the content of text messages and computer screens in the show: no more close ups of generic operating systems and characters reading their messages aloud. Finally, we and Holmes are on an adventure in the 21st century.

Each step of the way we're treated to a pitch-perfect score from David Arnold and Michael Price. With it's boomin bass line, The Game Is On superficially resembles Hans Zimmer's score to the Guy Richie  films, but the blend of plucked, bowed, and percussive instruments here is even more pleasing, a clever and complementary mix of interiority, drama, and good old fashioned adventure. Just like the show.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On A Passage from Melville

I came upon here today this passage from Moby Dick, a work I've not read in toto for some years. How much richer it seems now! So much that I'd like to look at the selection in detail. The passage is from Ch. 96 in which the narrator describes the fat rendering furnace of the Pequod.

I'll reproduce the passage in miniature and then selections in bold followed by commentary.
The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship's stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.
The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship's stokers. 

What subterranean and alien imagery with Tartarean shapes and pagan harpooneers, which also share the same rhythmic profile (-u -u -.) Notice also the merging of the s in ship's stokers, as if the two are one.

With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. 

Here we have the alliteration of p in pronged, poles, and pitched, as well as assonance of s with hissing masses and scalding pots. Also note the prolepsis: the blubber wouldn't be hissing until it hit the pot. What shapely diction follows: snaky and darted and curling, and then the personification of the flames, as if they jump out of the oven to chomp at their provocateurs. You can feel the searing heat and crackling activity.

The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. 

What a gloomy pair: sullen heaps. Then the parallelism of to every pitch... there was a pitch and the assonance of boiling oil. Eagerness being predicated on oil may throw the modern reader, but the effect of all eagerness is not simply of personification but of amplification, as if the flames are not just eager, but the essence of pure eagerness. Then more alliteration of w with works, wide, wooden, was, and windlass, and of s with sea-sofa. Note here the verb preceding the subject, lounged the watch, to connect the ideas of sofa and lounged.

[A] Their tawny features, [B] now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, [C] their matted beards, and [D] the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, [E] all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. 

See the structure here: B modifies A, then D both modifies B and C and is parallel to them relative to E, and finally A, C, and D do the action of E. It reads easily enough, but to write...

What a great word, too: tawny. Notice begrimed and not grimy, the former emphasizing the cause of their grunge. The following phrases are similar yet contrasted: on the one hand begrimed and smoke and sweat have parallel syllable-lengths and on the other they have different aural profiles, the former consisting of mutes and nasals and the latter of sibilant liquids. What pleasing variety.

Next we see the alliterative barbaric brilliance of their teeth contrasted against the earlier imagery of their sooty faces. Melville finally ties up the pictures by telling us it was the strange light of the works, its capricious emblazonings, which revealed out these features. Can you not see their faces in the flickering flames?

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; 

This section begins the climax of the passage and is structured on polysyndeton of as giving way to same with and. Within we have:
  • Rhythmic parallelism in unholy and adventures: u-u
  • Alliteration: tales of terror told
  • Contrast of terror and mirth
  • Simile: laughter forked... like the flames
  • Contrasting imagery of forking upward and dipping downward
  • Metonomy of hell for fire
  • Personification of the wind with howled and sea with leaped 
  • Personification of the ship with groaned, steadfastly, scornfully champed, mouth, and viciously spat.
Notice how the action moves from the men on the ship to the ship on the sea, and how the personification of the Pequod makes the ship's activity on the sea a contrasting parallel to the men's activity on the ship, contrasting because the men are carousing while the Pequod is straining. What an image here: the Pequod, rending her meal and spewing its fire round herself in defiance of the blackness and thrashing sea. Wow.

then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and 
plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.

Now the climax with the subject followed by four descriptive phrases and then its predicate.

then the rushing Pequod
---freighted with savages, 
---and laden with fire, 
---and burning a corpse, 
---and plunging into that blackness of darkness, 
seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.

That the interior phrases are parallel in structure yet so different in tone gives them an added punch, and what brutal imagery of savages, fire, and corpses. Melville ends the descriptive phrases contrasting the fire in the pleonasm of blackness and darkness.

Having deftly shifted focus from the ship, to the men, and back to the ship, Melville comes round to Ahab, likening the vengeful, flaming ship in the blackness to her monomaniacal captain's own roiling soul. This is not only a striking image, but an ingenious narrative shift from describing setting and plot to describing character and foreshadowing the intertwined fates of the vessel and her captain.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Several weeks ago I enjoyed a delicious piece of cake. Exquisitely layered and textured, it exploded a starburst of sweet delight. The other day I ate a piece of cake which looked very much the same, with its creamy exterior and fluffy innards. This piece, I soon discovered, was an elaborate forgery! It had the appearance of cake, but none of the depth or detail, thus eating the dull concoction was akin to watching a cheap magic trick. I say cheap trick and not simply one whose secret you've figured, because even when you know how a trick is maneuvered, if the performer has enough skill and panache, if he can sell it, you're entertained.

So which cake is Star Trek Into Darkness?  I'm sorry to say it's not the real deal. Like it's rebooted predecessor from 2009, Into Darkness is a Trek forgery, albeit a polished one. Yet where Trek '09 succeeded because of its simplicity, clarity, and sheer verve, the flimsy plot of Into Darkness falls under the weight of its incongruous parts.


It's not even that there's so much wrong with the plot, about a rogue Federation operative, but rather that throughout it, nothing important happens. Since nothing happens, the movie's just an elaborate manhunt. What do I mean when I say that "nothing happens?" Well, I mean that nothing happens in the development of an idea. Let's look a few examples.

First, the opening sets up the theme that Kirk doesn't follow orders, so you would think this might become the theme. Instead, Kirk saves they day by continuing not to follow orders. Even that lack of movement might have been justified if the script had set up a principle which Kirk subsequently vindicated, which it did not.

Second, nothing happens in any relationship. Kirk saves Spock twice. So? Spock didn't change at all except to get angry, which he had done before anyway. It's not as if Spock didn't care that Kirk saved him the first time, but rather that Spock thought following orders more important. At the end of the film, it's not as if in chasing down the bad guy Spock has decided to break any orders. So what's the point, other than catching him?

Third, the Khan reveal was a big let down. The fact that the rogue agent turns out to be Khan has no weight in the movie because it's unsupported by the rest of the story. When we learn of Khan's plan to free and awaken his crew of supermen, the news doesn't feel important, and for a few reasons. First, the character, either as the "rogue agent" or as Khan, has not been developed. So who is this person? Should we empathize with him for being manipulated by Starfleet and Admiral Marcus or is he really a bad guy? Is he crazy or just vengeful? Second, the only motive which Khan himself declares is that he wants revenge on Admiral Marcus. As far as his motives qua Khan from previous Star Trek incarnations, these are announced by another character in only one line, which is neither followed up nor elaborated. Then based on this one line, not even from Khan himself in a traditional bad-guy monologue, we're supposed to fret that these people we know nothing about are going to take over the entire federation and kill anyone they deem imperfect. Why would they do this? Are they crazy too? Why? Besides, if Khan is any indication, the genetically enhanced people are going to be better than everybody. Are they going to kill everybody, by themselves? I guess it's more likely that they'd take over and rule, a possibility which could have made for some interesting political possibilities, but that's not what the writers put in the movie. I'm not asking for heady philosophy here, just a little something about the motivations of the main characters.

So the plot's virtually meaningless: what's left? Today's cliches: the enemy getting captured on purpose, a big bad enemy ship, a surprise reveal. For the Trekkies we get reference after reference to the original Trek: aggressive redshirts, womanizing Kirk, tribbles, Khaaaaan! Finally we have the elements that writers have to throw in to get the booboisie in to a nerdy Trek movie. So we get the completely undeveloped and implausible quasi-pseudo-relationship between Uhura and Spock for the ladies, a blonde in her skivvies for the frat boys, and a ridiculous chase scene for the teenagers. That J. J. Abrams was at all able to direct these cheap ingredients into a popular movie is a testament to his status as the new Spielberg. 

Even the technical elements flounder this time. We've already seen the swooping views of the Enterprise inside and out. We've already seen a big bad ship. Yeah we're on a Klingon planet, but it doesn't feel different because it doesn't look unique and no one does acknowledges the change in setting by what they do. They just start shooting again. Yes, we're on the border of the Klingon Empire, but there's no frisson of danger because we again only get one line of dialogue establishing the Federation-Klingon tension, and because the movie moves so quickly that it doesn't build suspense. Worse than this indistinct sense of setting, though, is the finale's indistinct sense of narrative. No climax builds up to the end so who cares about the big action set piece?

So on its own terms, Star Trek Into Darkness is flat and vapid. How does it fit in the Trek tradition?

Well, it's a soggy hodgepodge of half-a-dozen other Trek movies, peppered with nostalgic bits from the television shows, and larded with the junk du jour. Only Michael Giacchino's soaring, dauntless take on the classic score retains a sense of wonder and grandeur for the promise of the stars. The fate of everything else from Star Trek is pretty sad. What began with Gene Roddenberry as a romantic, even foolish, vision of a future in which technology and peace have liberated the best of man and sent him from home in the hope of finding himself and his brothers amidst the stars, has degenerated into noisy pop culture claptrap spliced together by technicians and packaged for the popcorn munching masses just to gross a buck. How bold.

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