gall and gumption

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Kingpins and Deportees

I'd sure like someone to explain to me why it is that some people get summarily deported back to the Caribbean, like this poor fellow, who was deported to Jamaica six months ago and is sitting in prison there still. And who also happens not to be Jamaican, but a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, i.e., a U.S. citizen. They shipped him out, apparently, without bothering to ascertain this.

Do you have a passport?

But while there's no such thing as too much haste in deporting people to the Caribbean, I am at a loss to explain why the U.S. spent close to 10 years trying to bring two Kittitian citizens to the U.S. as international drug traffickers. Glenroy Matthew and Noel "Zambo" Heath fought extradition the whole time, with their case going all the way to the Privy Council in London. They lost their last appeal last year, and U.S. agents went to St. Kitts to pick them up, against the very strong feeling of the country. Matthew has just been sentenced to 135 months in prison in the U.S. I haven't been able to find out what Heath's sentence was. I'll update with that once I do a bit more searching. There's a long history to this which I won't retell here. But I'll point you to this press release from the DEA about what they are pleased to call the "capture."

I did not know these two guys personally; I did use to see Noel Heath around St. Kitts from time to time. He doesn't look like this. This is a picture of Takoo the murdering black savage who wants to rape your daughter.

He was not "captured." He lived his life in St. Kitts wide out in the open and defended himself against extradition with what means the law afforded him there. And that is what Glenroy Matthew did too. His lawyer, who I knew very well, fought the fight for them both as long as he could. So that red lettering stamped across his face is meant to convey this impression of the drug war as this sort of Rambo business. And that's why they brought him back, it's politics, he's literally a poster boy for the War on Drugs. I have no idea whether he is guilty. Those were very strange times in St. Kitts, in the mid-late 1990s, when the country was almost held hostage by Charles "Little Nut" Miller, a former leader of the Shower Posse. You may remember the Jamaican Drug Posses that ran up the east coast? Miller, a Kittitian, had grown up in Jamaica and got into political gangsterism which is connected to the drug (cocaine) business. He turned state's evidence in the U.S. against some of his even scarier associates and went into a Federal Witness Protection Program, from which he unexpectedly emerged in St. Kitts, where he started transshipping cocaine from Columbia up the islands to the East Coast and going slightly mad.

You can get a minimal sense of it here. This all ended two years before I got there. But here's a little more background to the background, with a bit of detail. But it hadn't quite ended. While I was there the young man who was charged in the killing of this blogger's uncle, a police officer, was set upon by a gang of boys and stabbed to death outside a nightclub about three blocks from my house. He had at least two trials and had hung juries in both. The mystery of who actually pulled the trigger has never been sorted out. And who knows if it ever will. Politics (local politics) and rank evil is so deep in this whole business...

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Peace March

I started feeling like I ought to go and then it became increasingly difficult to talk myself out of it. It seemed to me that the point of it was to show up in numbers, that numbers would say as much as anything, so I thought that's what I'd bring to the party. One more body. It was the biggest crowd I have ever been in in my life, but that's not saying much. It was hard to get a sense of the scale of anything, I don't have very much of a sense of the scale of anything in DC anyway. I took some pictures -- here are a few.

These members of SEIU traveled by bus from Indiana to be in the march. The Service Employees International Union is, well, just what it says. They work in places like nursing homes. In other words they have some of the least appealing low-wage jobs and have had to fight really hard to be allowed to unionize. These folks probably left work Friday night, boarded the bus, rode all the way to Washington. Then after a day of standing around, waiting, marching, chanting, and beating their plastic-paint-bucket drums (really well!) they would get on that bus for the long ride back to Indiana. One day of rest then back to work.

Here are a couple hippie freaks.

Here's another one of those pinko fringe radical outfits.

Speaking of radical outfits, check out this lady who was there all by herself, carrying a sign, in this magnificent full-length mink coat and a chic little hat. How splended and brave of her to come out alone, dressed like no one else in the whole place.

I'm not sure what the point of the devil was, but I imagine that someone had fun making him. He was with a group that called itself the "Rhythm Workers' Union." They had a guy on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam, with a long nose, like Pinocchio's when he's lying. They all looked like they had been doing this for years.

Once the march started moving it took about half an hour to get from 3rd street to the department of Labor (about a block and a half), and I was up near what I thought was the front of the body of the crowd. I was up front in the sense that there was a much bigger mass of people behind me, but the front was far, far ahead of me, out of sight. There was no way, from inside the crowd, to gauge the size of it. You were surrounded by bodies, and you couldn't see very far. By this point my back was killing me. I had my purse with me and it was heavier and heavier (coins, two paperback books, camera). I wanted to go the whole way but my back was playing the devil. I had been standing around for three going on four hours. So I cut out of the crowd and went up on the steps of the Department of Labor, where I tried to get a sense of the crowd's size. This photo does it best of the ones I had. You can see the people right in front here, but there is another mass at least that size moving up the middle of the mall and another moving on the far side as well. The front of this group has already reached the Capitol, about 2-3 blocks away) and disappeared around the back of it. Bear in mind that this stream, which is the smaller part of the huge mass I was in, on the north side of the Mall, was only one of about three streams of people that were all this size, extending from I suppose somewhere near the Washington Monument, at least.

Monday, January 22, 2007


“God in the Machine” sends his readers over to look at the web site Gawker’s list of blog clichés, and then invites them to come back and look at his own list.

The apologies are a reference to Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, a compendium of utter banality. It is, I think, the only funny thing Flaubert wrote.

Here are a few samples.

ABSINTHE Extra violent poison: one glass and you're a dead man. Newspapermen drink it while writing their copy. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouins.

ACTRESSES The ruin of young men of good family. Are terribly lascivious, engage in orgies, run through fortunes, and end up in the workhouse. 'I beg to differ: some make excellent mothers!'

APRICOTS 'We shan't have any again this year.'

BANQUET Always 'a festive occasion'. Nobody will ever forget it, and the guests never leave without promising to meet again at the one next year. Some joker must refer to 'the banquet of life'.

BLONDES Hotter than brunettes. (See BRUNETTES.)

BRUNETTES Hotter than blondes. (See BLONDES.)

CARTHUSIANS Spend their time making Chartreuse, digging their own graves and saying to one another: 'Brother, you too must die.'

CROSSBOW A good excuse for bringing up the story of William Tell.

DOMESTICITY Never fail to speak of it with respect.

ERECTION Said only of monuments.

ETRUSCAN All antique vases are Etruscan.

You should look at the whole thing, because it is an impressive list of symptoms of many kinds of banality – false sentiment, perfect cluelessness, boringness, witlessness, the weird things people say when they don’t have anything to say but feel compelled to say something, totally wacky attitudes about sex, blissful unawareness of self-contradiction, and just plain old daffy constructions, and my personal favorite, that mysterious thing where people like to speak in clichés. My favorite, from personal experience, is the deaathless and crusty one that I get when I’m out walking the dogs: “Now, who’s walking who?” I swear, the people who say this thing to me think they are being very funny and original. It totally mystifies me. But it does amuse me, I mean, not the statement itself, but the idea that they think it's funny; I think that's funny. So I always take it nicely and smile back as if I too think it’s a funny, original, clever remark. No point being churlish, you know. When you look at it all you don’t know whether to feel disgust or a sort of pitying affection for the human race, including your own self. Except for the boiling frog atrocity, which, by the way, would fit right into Flaubert's Dictionary. I have never stooped that low.

These two dictionaries of blog clichés are a little bit of “cleverer than thou,” I think. You know how at the end of every year magazines come out with the expressions that everyone is sick of? Like “think outside the box” or “You go girl!” or “Get a life!” I will be really happy when the word “paradigm” achieves total oblivion. It is a word that, for me, comes packaged in a great mass of excelsior, wadding, Styrofoam, and utter bullshit. But it keeps coming back every year, it is the Undead of vocabulary.

But I’m not so sure about these blog clichés. I’ve been reading blogs now like a complete addict for about two and a half years, and I have seen all these expressions and gags in use. I am inclined to think that they are like the expressions you get in almost any popular non-highbrow art form.

For instance, in the Scots ballads of the Middle Ages, like “Sir Patrick Spens.” There are many versions of it, but in the best one there is an economy of storytelling that rests completely on what you really could call stereotyped imagery. In many ballads you often get things coming in threes. Challenges, three times, for instance. The hero of the ballad, if he is a knight or a nobleman, has a hawk, a horse, and a hound that are part of the narrative, as in “Edward, Edward,” and “The Twa Corbies.” Or in various ballads that reliable time-frame in which any situation develops: “a twelvemonth and a day.”

Of course these are the highbrow ballads. They may have started on the street but someone (or possibly a few people, from time to time) upgraded them in the course of writing them down. When poetry in modern English began to get on its legs in the Elizabethan era, it was the lyric that really took off, not the narrative poem (Yes, yes, I know about The Faerie Queene but I’m really talking about all the varieties of innovation and importation and adaptation of forms from Italian literature, and in any event The Faerie Queene isn’t a ballad, and when people started writing epics again they looked absolutely nothing like it.) Ballads didn’t die out for a long time; they kept being written and circulated among the poor and illiterate just as, say, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” circulated among the better-off who could read. And in the ballads, just like in those “True Accounts” of the life of crime, the capture, and execution of some criminal (that was one of the uses of the ballad form), you had to present details and the expected moralizing reflections in a compact form that would be remembered, and that would also call on the reader (or listener’s) reserve of common symbols, tropes, or ready-made sentiments. It was meant to be familiar, which meant it had to use familiar tropes. Because it was appealing to an illiterate audience, who had to be able to catch and remember details and ideas without too much difficulty.

Moreover, there's another thing; there is a whole idea of competence in language that rests on the use of familiar tropes. You all think that Dickens made up the speech of characters like Mr. Pecksniff or Mr. Micawber, that they are creations of fantasy. But I have heard people speak like that, proudly, possessed with a sense that they are standing on the stage of history and speaking their part in the most sublimely artful language. The effect is appalling, it has a sort of ghastly fascination for me. When, for example, someone in St. Kitts or Nevis dies, his compatriots almost always refer to him as "a son of the soil." They love this expression. That it is a cliche troubles no one at all. It is what is apt for the occasion, and to say what is apt for the occasion is all of speech.

The great poets of the English Renaissance thought so too. The poems themselves were types: the carpe diem poem; the "flea" poem; the "one day you'll be sorry you betrayed me" poem (still going strong); most of Herrick's poems are based on old Roman models that had come back into circulation largely from Ben Jonson's adaptation of them. When I was teaching the Renaissance poems there were always a couple of students who mistrusted the sincerity of the poetry because it used so many pre-existing forms. A poem didn't come howling up out of the depths of the poet's soul, raw and pure. So I'd have to explain that there was a very different notion at work of the making of poetry. And I had to persuade them that it was actually an interesting notion. Which, indeed, it was; it was taking accepted forms and putting them to work with wit, copiousness of invention, vitality, subtlety, and intellectual force, achieving a kind of density with the medium; four lines of Donne or four lines of Shakespeare's sonnets have a lot of thinking in them. It's as though each sought to outdo his predecessors. And with someone like Ben Jonson you have the idea of what you feel and the idea of what you ought to feel. The idea of there being a feeling you ought to have is so different from the post-romantic conception which people have, without thinking, that a poet is a chaotic being who emits the pure truth of existence because he can't help it. Kind of like being a member of the Rat Pack or of a heavy metal band. Well, there's another received idea about poetry, anyhow. Or from our belief, derived from psychology, that if we don't express what we truly feel we're being in denial and/or crazy. Whereas the Renaissance poets didn't worry much about whether they really felt some version of "time's winged chariot hovering near"; they were going to make you feel it and imagine it as you had never felt or imagined it before, in some new, startling way. And in any event there is real feeling, and plenty of it -- it's just not where you expect it to be, and it isn't the feelings you expect. They were very sly and subtle, those guys.

Gospel music is another place where the repetition of clichés is somehow very satisfying. Think of all those invocation of the Jordan River, so chilly and cold (“Chilled my natural body but it didn’t chill my soul.”) Traveling on a journey with a heavy burden, laying down the burden, crossing to the other side, getting your robe, your shoes, your crown; "When I get to heaven gonna jump and shout,/Nobody there gonna turn me out." Actually the freshness of really original gospel music is spun off of these old tropes in new and clever ways:

Will the Lord be standing somewhere round my bedside
When the doctor shakes his head and walks away?
Will I hear him whisper, “I am with thee?”
Will he lead me to that land of fadeless day?”


How far am I from Heaven?
Well the angels singing and doorbells ringing in glory…

Wake me, shake me, don’t let me sleep too late,
I’ll wake up Judgment Morning,
Swinging on the Golden Gate.

The same purpose is at work. These old things are given, but what is original is the new ways in which they are used. And then there are all those blues songs that open with the indispensable phrase, “Woke up this mornin.’' Even Robert Johnson, the most eerily original blues singer, uses it.

The same practical considerations that made ballads use stereotypes are at work with the blues. Coming out of an oral culture, they need to be remembered, and they have to be familiar, i.e., quick to comprehend and retain, and because the art is the expression of one person who shares a culture with the others, and that sharing is richly taken for granted..

Time is a factor in all of these forms. I think it's a factor among blog writers also, and that the familiarity works in the same way. Any one of these blog gags is a short cut, but there are situations in which short cuts are needed. Even though the form stays the same, the variations occur in the new situations that arise daily to which it can be applied, and it's the combination of sameness and newness that makes the zing. It's like a running gag, for the bloggers who use that kind of humor. Not all of them do, by the way. Works, doesn't work? Used this one or that one one time too many? Well, that's all right, in a week it will be in the archives.

So I give them a break. Or else possibly it's rotting my brain.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Econ for Lit Majors Parte Dos

You may recall a few weeks back the nifty editorial collaboration between me and my mother. Well, I had one that required a quick turnaround and she was so disgusted by the one previous to that that she was quite happy to work on a sort of consultant basis. So I sent her three sentences which arrived just as she had staggered out of bed with a migraine and a really whopping case of indigestion all partly due a [walks to door, peeps up and down hall, closes door, lowers voice] h-a-n-g-o-v-e-r [resumes normal voice] that she picked up at a small family party celebrating the 90th birthday of her sister-in-law's (my aunt's) mother. Champagne was involved.

She read the three sentences, emailed me little more than a nauseated groan and retreated back to bed, but not before she took, in her words, "...some of that stuff they give third world children suffering from diarrhea." Then, feeling better, she wrote again:

Spare me the ghastly writing until I've recovered.
Such works should be buried in a tomb in Egypt and
sealed with a massive stone door with a curse on
whoever should open it and reveal them to humanity.

Steadily improving, a day or two later she directed me to this story, as an instance of how developing country finance gets done. it is a classic. There's so much more transparency now, and the real greedheads like Mobutu or the Duvalier outfit-- ah, we'll never see the likes of him for conspicuous rapacity -- this guy is an amateur. But it's evocative nonetheless. They just don't make Big Man like they used to.

Monday, January 15, 2007


For some reason each year I feel things like this a little more. I actually do spend a good part of each MLK Day thinking about this man and his life and sacrifice. I love MLK because I can turn on the radio and catch a bit of one of his speeches and marvel at what an incredible speaker he was, what a teacher he was. I listened to my little bits today and I thought, "The world needs people who can teach the things that he had to teach." Of course in the course of a day like this I have to put up with a lot of King-related blither. I try to be charitable about it, people don't always express themselves in a way that corresponds with the core of their feelings. I mean, sometimes the expression -- silly, boring, cliched, trite, whatever -- falls short of a real feeling. And if there's one day when I'm disposed to think that it's this one. He has become a mythical figure in the lives of people who did know him, and I am uneasy with that too. All that goes to rest for me when I listen to his voice or read his words. It seems to me that everything you need to get from him is there. Which is great, he can still teach.

His papers are available via Stanford's web site, for reading only. Here's a link to a pdf of his last speech, the famous "mountaintop" speech, the one he made to the sanitation workers in Memphis the day before he was killed. Yes there is that famous, darkly prophetic and yet so spiritually exalted and fearless ending.

But if you read the whole thing it brings to mind that he was a thinker. That he didn't just have a gift to work up a crowd. I mean, he had that, he had presence that meant so much to people when he merely showed up, but he was thinking, he was working, he was teaching.

And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"

But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" That's the question tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?" Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them? That's the question.

He said, "Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness."

I Am Asking a Favor

Do not tell me about the boiling frog experiment. I already know about the boiling frog experiment. I hate hearing about the wretched boiling frog experiment and I already get the concept that it is trying to explain. It is a very old idea and it was old when the boiling frog experiment was new and now the boiling frog experiment is old. I do not need to hear about the boiling frog experiment any more, I got it the first time. Now I can just go right to whatever you are trying to tell me about that is illustrated by the boiling frog experiment. There may be people who need to be helped out by having the boiling frog experiment explained to them in slow painful detail. I am not one of those people. I am one of the people who already gets it. I have moved on. I don't need to linger there. You will bore and piss me off if you tell me about the goddam boiling frog experiment, OK?

In fact, don't tell me about any psychological experiments, period. I hate them all. I ask you this favor with a heart full of love.

Thank you.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


I've just posted a longish thing that I was working on for a while and had saved in draft form on Blogger. It's now up but it is below the story about the man throwing the stones at the preacher in Trinidad. And if you just want to go directly there you can follow this .

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ledes I Wish I Had Written

As the gospel song says, "You Ought to Been There."

No, truly, if it had been given to me to cover this incident, and to write a lede like that, I would have felt completely fulfilled as a journalist.

All hell broke loose at a Trinidadian church in the sugar cane village of Basta Hall, Couva, when a man, angered by the racket of worshipping parishioners, stoned a pastor in the pulpit.

Naturally with such an opening the reader has a right to expect that the story will deliver.

Pastor Narad Rajoo said he ducked, but two of his congregants, a blind man and his wife, were reportedly hurt in the fracas that followed last Sunday's Service.

The man who came fuming into the church was Selwyn Sookdeo, a heavy-equipment operator who lives next door to the Temple Worship Church in central Trinidad.

Sookdeo said on Wednesday all he wanted was peace and quiet. He argued that the noise emanating from the church's loudspeakers was unbearable, as he awoke to the screeching of the band playing out of tune.

Sookdeo said he threw a rock when he was called the Devil. "I am a son of God, not no Devil," he said.

But Pastor Rajoo denied calling Sookdeo the Devil.

"I told him, 'I rebuke you in the name of the Lord'," Rajoo said he told Sookdeo when he came to complain.

Sookdeo said: "I got up that morning to the noise. I try pushing the pillow in my ears. I couldn't take it no more. I went to the church.

The Devil coming

"As soon as the pastor saw me, he said, 'Look, the Devil coming. Everybody start with the Devil talk. I really pelt the stone. But not at anybody."

Sookdeo said he left the church, but two men claiming to be police officers beat him and tried to push him into a car. He refused to go and ran away.

I don't know what you think but the preacher ducking the stone and the blind man taking it is the sort of low comedy touch that could never be allowed in a work of fiction.

I met a longtime White House correspondent at a party here several months ago. He seemed to take the attitude that I was looking for a job like his. I can't think of anything more boring, frankly, in journalism. Or nauseating at this current juncture. Well, let me put the word out here among all twelve of my small but select audience. This is the sort of thing I want to write. It doesn't have to be in the Caribbean, though I admit, they (we) talk funnier there.

By the way the reason all the names in this story sound so odd is that this is a community of East Indians, descendants of the laborers the British brought to Trinidad and Guyana to cut cane in the late 19th century. This particular group has converted to Christianity but not everyone did. (I saw Guyanese people holding a Hindu service in Nevis, it was lovely and unexpected, they were sitting on the ground under a tarp in an empty lot, singing this wonderful music. And I just saw them that one time.)

The best source of reading about the world of these Indian West Indians is in the early novels of V. S. Naipaul, before he went sour. Read The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street, or the still ranking greatest head and shoulders above the rest Caribbean novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. If you are really taken with them you could also even read The Mystic Masseur, though the sourness is beginning to be evident.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Perils of Peer Review

Here’s one scientist suggesting that peer review might not be all it's cracked up to be.

Historically, it seems that gentlemen-scientists with an elevated social position and independent means, fared the best in science. In the 16th century, at the dawn of the modern era, one such individual, the son of a middle-class family, holder of the respectable office of Canon of the Frombork Cathedral, published a book on the revolution of celestial bodies that revolutionized understanding of our place in the universe. The man was Nicholas Copernicus. His accomplishment was simple: he moved the Earth from the center of the world onto an orbit around the Sun. Being supported by the endowments attached to his post and having received a thorough education at Polish and Italian universities, he had the time and knowledge to conduct astronomical observations and to write a lengthy manuscript in relative peace. He realized the revolutionary nature of his work and dreaded the opinion of many learned colleagues as he clearly spoke against the then accepted views. And yet the book was published. It would not be possible today to publish a book full of minor errors and simplifications and arguing something so ludicrous as a complete reversal of a consensus of well-established authorities. Would it also be possible for a modern scientist to obtain a grant for a proposal based on the supposition that the major publications on the subject are wrong and that he will prove it by conducting observations from the roof of his residence? Absolutely not. Peer review protects us against such lunacies.[emphasis mine -- ed]

Hmm. Well. With enough money, a good education and time, people can think and produce interesting, original work. I notice that. I'm not sure how our culture worked around to the idea that that life path ought to be for an educated and privileged few while other people can just pick things up off the floor at Wal-Mart all day and hope thereby to eventually buy a Playstation. But there we are.

Pardon that little socialistic digression. I have a lot of thoughts about this passage and the little socialistic digression is one of them.

I got this email from Norman, a regular reader, with that quote in it. It's something he's been thinking about.

One thought I had, when Norman first wrote me about this subject, I wrote back to him. It was how Marvin Mudrick encouraged the free use of generalizations. One of the weird things that happens in my life is the way people will be shocked or made nervous by something I say that's really just an observation thrown out to be kicked around and banged into shape via conversation. Vigorous conversation.

Well, first of all I come from the Caribbean, Jamaica especially, but I would say that most of the English-speaking Caribbean conducts its life in a constant state of imminent shoutingness. Except possibly Antigua, where they have perfected the art of tautology. They sound like Jamaicans, but, as my mother says, "What's missing is the feeling that anything could happen at any minute." In Jamaica, especially, this feeling of imminence can be quite breathtaking: maybe because what could happen could involve the firing of guns. Caribbean people get into shouting arguments, they call each other (sometimes quite filthy) names, in some parts of the Caribbean a person who gets angry will just stand on the street corner and bitch for like 45 minutes. It is a very rhetorical culture, where the words you say are not you, exactly, and you aren’t using them to create yourself, you’re using them in swordplay.

They aren't the sincere effusions of your trembling soul, you know, unless you are trying to get laid. Talk is recognized to be play, in which insight can sometimes come breaking through. One of the things I love about the Caribbean is how people will kick a subject around.

When I met Marvin Mudrick, about 8 months after I moved to California to go to college, I recognized in him a similar use of talk, but more focused. He used talk to get somewhere. That is, if he threw out a generalization about, say, the 18th century, you could check it against your observations in the 18th-century literature that you were reading at the time. A generalization was a place from which you launched out into a subject, with the assumption that your observations -- or the observations of other readers in conversation with you -- would correct the generalization. That was what it was out there for, to be corrected, to be filled with content, or to be discarded as not sufficiently descriptive or for any number of reasons that resulted from investigating the questions it raised.

He would tell us to make generalizations because they helped us to think; they weren’t statements of dogma, they were really just guesses, conjectures, rough statements. The thing was not to be too attached to any of them, no matter what their source, until we really knew that we knew the subject enough to make an informed judgment.

Popper, cited in the article linked to above, said that it was by making and discarding generalizations (conjectures) that scientific knowledge actually advanced. See Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.

Einstein's theory of relativity is something to understand because for one thing, it's really hard to see how that could have come out of any inductive process of gathering evidence and only inferring the theory from accumulated observations. It's this tremendous work of imagination, the way Cosi Fan Tutti is a tremendous work of imagination. When Einstein first suggested that light waves were bent by gravity there was no way to test whether this was true -- the technology did not yet exist. If it was false it wasn't going to be half false (or half true): it would be totally demolished. (One of the best accounts of all this is Richard Feynman's The Character of Physical Law.

There is no knowing without vigorous imagining. Anything else is just rote memorization, it's not integrated with the rest of your experience, it's bloodless, it can't create anything. And if you want people to imagine vigorously they have to be able to imagine freely. Which means having the freedom to speak unimpaired by the thousand gazillion little status-related anxieties and obsessions that rule conversation in this yer land of the free. It is very simple; to the extent that your personal status defines what you can say in a particular field, that field is corrupted – now we are humans in an imperfect world so status anxiety will sneak up on us individually, and we hope to become wiser with time and honest effort – but when it is totally integrated into an institution’s thinking, radioactive poo has leached into the system.

It takes vigorous imagination to take hold of the facts. We screw this up as humans all the time. And so we have a kind of rudimentary provision against totally screwing up hard-wired into us. Suppose I'm looking for my keys, trying to leave the house. I look in my jacket. Nope, not there. I've established that, at least, I've eliminated one bad theory. So I go look on the bathroom counter, maybe it's there. If I kept looking in the same jacket pocket because I had seen them there last week -- how stupid would that be? Well, we would never have evolved. We'd all still be in caveman days, stretched out dead in various stages of decomposition next to the bush with the poisonous berries.

Another interesting thing about being human is that we seem to have some choice about whether we will use this handy provision or not. I’m guessing that the choice is adaptive; the most adaptive thing about us is our adaptability, after all.

So we find that we have another out, which is making our theories and conjectures what Popper calls immune to criticism. Well, it looks like an out. You can't do this in anything where the outcomes matter to anybody. You can't do it in medicine for very long, you can't build bridges. I said that you can't do it in medicine, but in fact medicine used to do it. The Duc de Saint-Simon records how one after another of the heirs of Louis XIV died at the hands of doctors, who treated them for every ailment by bleeding them with dirty lancets, and then, wow, they died. Who would have guessed? They killed off almost all of them, and it was one duchess who hid Louis XV, the grandson, from the doctors or they would have done away with him too. But while this was going on nobody questioned it. The doctors would have been deeply offended if anyone had. They had this theory that the blood was impure, and what could this woman know about it? Every observation of a patient's symptoms would refer back to this theory of the blood, and an explanation could always somehow be found that would be further "proof" of the truth of this business about the impurity of the blood. That the doctors themselves were introducing fatal impurities into the blood was a mere empirically based conjecture, not like those profound and subtle theoretical things that lay people cannot possibly understand, and it was a sort of impertinence to suggest otherwise. Which reinforces the theory in spite of the evidence. So the theory was always right, there could be no evidence outside of the theory. Except, Popper says, (and this is my example, not his), the infallibility of this “theory” is the surest proof that it is not scientific.

Somehow, though, the critical attitude can get turned, not inward to look at one’s own practices and assumptions, but outward, to ward off interlopers. (Not hard to see why, it’s so comfortable, especially when you are a mediocrity.) That’s the situation Henneberg is describing. Now, you do have to ward off interlopers, but there is simply no safer way to do it than on the merits of the content. If you do it on any other basis it is an invitation to the totally venal careerists, to the out-and-out loonies, the gormless toadies, to come in and loot the place. Because if your content is not positively asserted, you are simply sitting on an asset, and someone sooner later will demand to know why you get to have this and not give them a piece. The whole endeavor becomes a battle over spoils and privileges and soon there is no other subject, and the discourse gets more and more degraded.

If you want to see what that state of affairs looks like, look in English departments, because for one thing almost nobody cares what academic literary theorists and critics do, so they’ve been able to immunize their activities against all criticism by a number of strategies, none of them new or original. In science at least the content is still there. Sooner or later any conversation about issues in literary study becomes a conversation about status. If you criticize a piece of New Historicist criticism, for instance, you can only criticize it as being good or bad of its kind. If you say that you think New Historicism isn't very interesting or useful, well, you're one of the Unwashed -- unless you are a member of one of the other constituencies that have all agreed to sort of mutually and uneasily tolerate one another. And if you are a total non-subscriber to any of the parties to this truce, if you say that there is something about all of these theories that is intellectually unsatisfying, well, you're a freak. Not a serious person. Because you don't have an "approach." And if you haven't adopted one, you aren't behaving. Well, you can see how self-reinforcing that is, it's a closed loop. And it is based on nothing. Absolutely nothing. The work of literary scholars and theorists is no more scientific than The Dunciad. "Well, it's not claiming to be scientific," someone protests. Well, then, like almost everything else that is written, it's poetry. (It’s poetry in the sense meant by Sir Philip Sidney, that is, it is “fictive,” yes, even when it’s nonfiction; “fictive” doesn’t necessarily mean “untrue” but that's a discussion for another day.) Which is fine, but then why does it have to be such bad poetry?

The Fourth Program

That's what my stepfather calls it. He always cites it as one of the many things that the British do right. Well, damn it, he's right. He also never pollutes his lips with the Americanism "radio." He is always bringing it up, usually in some context where I can count on being mildly irritated. It's BBC 4 and it is radio for eggheads. Via Wolcott. Melvyn Bragg hosts a show called In Our Time and you can download past episodes into your iPod or listen to them sitting at your desk as I did today. His program on Alexander Pope was the most intelligent conversation I heard all day. Check out the other topics. Worth listening to just to see how this kind of thing can actually be done. Now that I do the commute from hell in the mornings my plan is to load up the iPod and listen on the road. Thank you James Wolcott for proving my stepfather right but we won't mention it to him.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Philosophy and Public Life

When Martha Nussbaum talks about these things it's worth dropping in.

SV: Now if I may ask you about your work on the novel, I mean literature, your work related to philosophy and literature. Do you feel that your line of ethical criticism or of using literature for ethical philosophy has succeeded in moving people towards this direction? And is the fashion for deconstruction and for very post-modern approaches somehow losing its force today? Am I right in this perception or am I being too optimistic?

MN: I think you are right. I am on the board of the School of Criticism and Theory, which is the leading, cutting edge literary theory organization in the US. When I taught in their Summer School at Cornell a few years ago I was struck by the fact that all the students were interested in law and ethics. And so were the people that founded some of these deconstruction movements. Jonathan Culler gave a lecture in which I didn't hear anything about post-modernism. It was actually mostly New Criticism, but it had an ethical element as well. I think English Departments always have problems in America, because they always feel they have to have a gimmick. Because English used not to be an academic subject – in England it was always something you were expected to know because it was your language; when you went to university you studied classics. Because English has to defend itself against people who say it's not a proper academic subject, it's prone to fads. I think we're not at the end of the fads, there'll probably be some other fad that will be again rather annoying and we'll have to fight against that one. But at present, at least, I think the post-modern one is on the way out. Whether ethics in its serious sense will become central in English departments I am not sure, because I think very few literary scholars have the patience to do the sustained hard philosophical work that's needed. Whenever they talk about philosophy, with the exception of Wayne Booth, for example, they'll talk about it in a way that seems to me quite embarrassing and amateurish. [Oh, Martha, that's how they talk about everything, including and especially literature... -- ed] So I feel uncertain whether in English departments we are going to get revealing first-rate work of an ethical sort. [emphasis added because that's hilarious -- ed]

I meself think the problem she's describing here could be put in much more forceful terms.

By way of wood s lot.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Like the Corners of My Mind

Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat is erupting again. It sent a plume of ash five miles high yesterday. Here are some photos from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which has monitored it constantly and closely ever since the big eruption in 1995 that destroyed the island's beautiful capital city and sent nearly half its population into exile.

The last time it had an event, in 2003, I woke up at my friend Margaret's house one Sunday morning in St. Kitts and found every horizontal surface in the house covered with fine dust, and a greyish haze outside like what you get when there's a wildfire not too far away in California. I was staying at Margaret's house because of the attack. On weeknights a reporter from the paper, Rita, stayed at my house, but on weekends she went to Nevis and I went to Margaret's. I drove into Basseterre that morning and the fine dust was all over everything, it looked like a dusting of snow almost. I stayed at home that night because I was expecting Caroline, who was on her way for a visit, with a stopover in San Juan. I was to pick her up that night. But at 10 p.m. she called and said all flights from San Juan to the Leeward Islands had been cancelled because of the volcano. They put her up in a hotel along with the bag of very stinky cheese she was bringing for me. By the time I got the call it was too late to go back to Margaret's, so I had to sleep in my house alone for the first time. I did all my usual things, reading, writing, feeding the dogs, mooching about, ate a little, etc., checked the front door lock and the back door lock and then checked them again, and then cleaned up the kitchen before bed and tried not to be scared. I tried to coax the dogs to stay inside, but three of them were basically wild and the other two thought I wanted to spoil their fun. They wouldn't come in. When I finished cleaning up the kitchen, without any forethought I picked up the big kitchen knife and took it to bed with me. It just seemed like a good idea. I placed it on the floor on the far side of the bed, next to the wall, under a book on British watercolors of the 18th century. And I made up my mind that anyone who got as far as the bedroom door would be dead.

Caroline arrived the next day with the bag of stinky cheese. So then there was company for the week. I still kept the knife by the bed, though. But nothing scary happened except about the third or fourth night of Caroline's visit I woke up in time to see a centipede crawl out from under my pillow and bite me on the arm. It got away, and as I had only heard the scariest things about centipede bites I got up and thought about calling Jamie, my doctor. But it was about 3 in the morning. So I got on the Internet and read what I could about centipede bites, and was satisfied that even if it had broken the skin I wasn't going to get horribly sick from it. And it hadn't broken the skin.

That was in early July. By September I had moved to another paper, in Nevis. I would not have had a job at this paper had it not been for the 1995 eruption of Mount Soufriere. It brought the wonderful Mr. Bramble of Montserrat to Nevis, with his printing press and his Nevisian wife. He set up a newspaper there and ran it almost single-handed and mostly at a loss for years. A lot of people didn't even know it existed. A group of investors bought it and hired me to run it under the new ownership. That's why I moved to Nevis. At first I lived in a poky little apartment in the capital, Charlestown. The yard was susceptible to flooding, and it was a sheer hell for mosquitoes. Also there were giant grey spiders. As soon as I could, I rented a little house in Gingerland, up in the northern part of the island, a green, lush, cool area at the foot of Mount Nevis. There, after a rather shaky beginning, I began to be happy.

From the back porch of my house I could see Montserrat, with the wispy steam of the volcano always present. The sun at certain times of day sent gleams from the tin-roofed houses along the coast of Montserrat. At night I could see the lights of cars in Antigua. If I walked up the hill a little ways from my house, through a little village, I could get to a plateau where I could see St. Bart's and St. Maarten. St. Kitts would have been visible but there was a hill in the way. My neighbor Elmo, who took me to see this view the first time, told me that on certain days of particularly good weather you could see a bit of Guadeloupe, just the far side of Montserrat. I hoped to see it but never did. My landlord, being an old-fashioned man of agricultural background (he kept sheep in my back yard for weed control) had planted a mango tree in the back yard that obscured the view of Montserrat. I think his idea of something nice to look at was a mango tree, he was completely innocent of any notion that a view like that would have added at least 50 percent onto the price of the house in California, for example, and I liked it that he had no clue. Peering round the tree seemed a small inconvenience. I had to peer around it or walk down to the fence to get a look at the volcano. And along with the volcano was the amazing show of the sea on the windward side of Nevis, the clouds constantly traveling across the sky, while a silvery light chased their shadows over the water and caused it to change to every possible shade of blue. There was always a wind blowing on that side, so there were no mosquitoes and the air in my little house (a somewhat ugly little house it must be said) was always fresh and cool, the greenery sparkled outside. On Sundays domino games went on all day and into the night at the rum shop across the street, and I could drop in there of an evening with my downstairs neighbor Mike, or, if I was feeling lonely, stop by the Bee Man who lived just round the corner and who always cheered me up. (He tells me he captured two wild hives this week.) Much kindness, much sweetness, all around there. It was easy to understand, living in Gingerland, why so many Nevisians live to be 100 years old.

So what I miss about Nevis is all bound up with the volcano.

The number of volcanoes, active and dormant, in the Caribbean, would really surprise you. I was growing up in Jamaica, and I remember that I was always afraid of things like earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and vampires, just a few items on a long list. By which I mean that if I woke up in the middle of the night and started thinking about them I'd have to go sleep in my brother's room, or I would not sleep at all that night. And I also remember feeling that nothing remarkable existed in the Caribbean. We didn't have a Krakatoa East of Java (thank God!), or glaciers (also vaguely scary), or a Statue of Liberty, or any of the big Anythings of the world. Everything that you read about in the world was somewhere else. We had had a catastrophic earthquake -- two, actually, one in the 17th century and one in the 19th -- but that was not the sort of big event I wanted to experience so as to feel part of the rest of the world.

And somehow I never quite put it together that I lived in a region that is puncuated with volcanoes. Granted, the education I received did not include a lot of information about the Eastern Caribbean, those dinky little islands where people talked with weird accents. But as you can see from this nifty but not quite complete interactive map of the Eastern Caribbean, the Leeward Islands could just as easily be called "The Leeward Volcanos."

Most of them have volcanoes. A surprising number of these volcanoes are considered active, though active means a lot of things. The St. Kitts one, for example, is considered active. Nevis has one, as you can see. (Mr. Bramble used to refer to Nevis as "36 square miles with a volcano in the middle.")

That map is produced by the University of the West Indies's Seismic Research Unit. One thing that you cannot see from it is how clear it is, when you are looking along the chain of the islands, flying south from Antigua, let's say, or standing on top of the tallest hill in St. Maarten and looking south and west, how they are so clearly a geological family. The islands that make up that volcanic chain are distinguished by these steeply sloped mountains and, often, a lack of good anchorages (Nevis, St. Kitts, Saba, St. Eustatia, and Montserrat are not places to keep your boat if there is any kind of heavy weather coming). They are separated by sometimes quite narrow channels of water -- people actually do a swim from Nevis to St. Kitts once a year -- that can't disguise the fact that they are related, you are looking at the same mountains. But what a difference a little water makes!

The three best known volcanoes are Soufriere Hills in Montserrat, Soufriere in St. Lucia, and Mt. Pelee in Martinique. The eruption of Mt. Pelee in 1902 was the most horrible. I mean, it was so horrible that I am thankful that I knew nothing of it as a child.

Here's a little geographical unmuddling. On this map of the region you can see that the big islands, that extend west from Puerto Rico, are the Greater Antilles, and the little islands that curve south from Puerto Rico are the Lesser Antilles. (pron. AnTILLeez). So then I thought I should tell you all which islands are the Leeward Islands. I realized that my definition is rather casual and ambiguous. I picked it up off the streets while I was living in the Leeward Islands, which are those islands of the Lesser Antilles that point to Leeward when you look at the map and that are also on the Leeward side of the chain. (Remember the prevailing "trade" winds blow from the southeast.) So I thought I'd better clear up this point. I looked that up just to check it. Apparently term has meant different things to different people at different times. Take your pick.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I took Sweetie for her first ride in the new wheels today. We drove to Fredericksburg which I recommend to dog owners, it has a place where you can get a dog massage, that is, the dog gets the massage, as opposed to giving you one. I went into a deli to get a sandwich and left Sweetie tied up by the door and this nice lady who owned a dog salon offered to watch her so she wouldn't chew through her leash. Chewing through her leash is Sweetie's idea of "taking initiative and owning the solution." Fredericksburg has a nice bookstore too, where I bought a stack of good things including Rebecca West's letters and three novels by Susan Hill.

Susan Hill is an English writer of rather light novels. I read one of them called, I think, "The Woman in Black," a ghost story that was really really creepy without being the least bit gory, sort of old-fashioned. Then some years ago I went with my mother to see a stage play of it in the West End. It had three actors, that's all, and it took some doing to stage it, as the whole play is set out in the country in this coastal village with a sort of tidal marsh connected to an island and all these details are key to the story. And obviously you couldn't have the sea flooding causeways etc. on stage. So it is mostly narrated by the two male actors, on an almost bare stage. And let me tell you it worked. There was one moment in it when the audience, including me, screamed with fright.

Fredericksburg is on the Rappahannock River, for your information. The old town itself is now a tourist trap (Cf signs in every store window announcing that restrooms are for customers only), with lots of stores selling antiques and things, and just barely managing not to be what my mother calls "twee." Carmel is twee, for sure. And a lot of English villages. You get the idea.

It took about an hour and a half to drive there from where I live in Maryland, and on the way home I decided that now was as good a time as any to see a bit of Virginia. So I turned off Highway 95 early and went up through Manassas and past Dulles airport/Centreville, towards Leesburg. Most of it was depressing, farmlands turned into subdivisions all brand new and named after the things that they had paved over. The reason I aimed for Leesburg was because I could cross the Potomac there. If you look at a map you will notice that once you get out of Washington DC there aren't a lot of places to cross the river. I do not know why. One person told me that the rich along the Virginia shore of the river didn't want the traffic. Anyway you can cross at Leesburg. At Leesburg there is a bridge, but I was headed for White's Ferry, the only actual operating ferry on the Potomac, according to a sign. I drove down this little lane skirting some estates and joined a queue of cars at the end. The ferry was just this big metal platform that is pulled across the river by means of some sort of cable arrangement. You drive onto the back of it and it goes slowly and soundlessly across the river and then you drive off the front of it. Then the queue of cars that is waiting on the Maryland side drives onto it and the whole thing works in reverse. White's Ferry, the Maryland side, looks like a place where you could happily waste some time. It has a bait shop. Then it was less than half an hour home from there. I didn't really save any time by going this way. And except for the ferry experience I didn't really see anything either. I just wore myself out.

I wore Sweetie out too. Unlike your basic average sensible dog, she has not grasped the idea that you can just curl up and go to sleep in a car. She stands at attention the whole way, stepping up between the front seats to give the driver or any passenger a kiss on the cheek, or she sits up and just sort of stares at me so I have to ask her, "Why are you staring at me like that?" Well, dogs actually need a lot of snooze time. And if we spend the better part of a day driving around she is of course exhausted and when we get home she just sort of staggers up onto the sofa or the bed and conks right out.