The Disney version is devoid of any moral teaching whatsoever

Saturday, October 1st, 2022

The last four generations of Americans have been swimming in a sea of feminist propaganda our whole lives, Rachel Wilson argues:

We don’t even notice the feminist themes and messaging bombarding us daily. They feel like universal truths because that’s all we’ve ever known. A fish doesn’t know it has always lived in water until it somehow ends up on dry land. De-programming feminism works much the same way. This analogy is a brilliant segue for me to ruin one of people’s favorite childhood movies, Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

[…]

The Little Mermaid was originally a Danish folk tale which told of a young mermaid who lived under the sea with her widower grandmother and five sisters. She rescues a handsome prince from drowning and falls in love with him. She learns from her grandmother that humans have a much shorter lifespan than the mermaids’ 300 years, but that humans have eternal souls and can enter heaven, while mermaids become seafoam and cease to exist upon death. The longing for an eternal soul is just as much a part of the Little Mermaids’ longing to become human as is her infatuation with the prince in the original story. In the folk tale, The Little Mermaid does gain human legs in exchange for her beautiful voice, but she always feels as if she is walking on knives. She also is only able to gain a human soul through union in marriage to the prince. If not, she will die with a broken heart and turn to sea foam. In this version, the prince does not marry the Little Mermaid, but chooses to marry a princess from a neighboring kingdom. The Little Mermaid despairs, thinking of how much she sacrificed and her imminent demise. She is offered one final chance when her sisters bring her a dagger from the sea witch. If she kills the prince and lets his blood drop onto her feet, she can become a mermaid once more and return to her life in the sea. The Little Mermaid can’t bring herself to do this and instead throws herself and the dagger into the sea. Because of her selflessness, she is granted an afterlife as an earthbound ghost. She can earn an immortal soul by doing 300 years of good works for mankind and watches over the prince and his wife.

[…]

In the Disney version, Ariel is a little girl with big dreams. She has a stern patriarchal father who wants to keep her under lock and key for the sake of tradition, societal expectation, and safety. Yes, she falls in love with Prince Eric, but her main motivation for wanting to live on land are her dreams of independence and liberation from her father’s rules. She is a privileged princess who has everything, but only wants the one thing she can’t have- life on land as a human. When she expresses this to her father, he ruins her secret trove of human treasures and forbids her to return to the surface, knowing that it would likely spell her demise.

[…]

This song was an anthem for rebellion against the patriarchy. In fact, that is the central theme of the Disney version of the story. Ariel disobeys her father, uses witchcraft to do exactly what her father warned her not to, and ends up getting herself kidnapped by the sea witch. Her father, King Triton, then has to intervene and save her by allowing himself to be captured in her place. Because of this, the whole sea kingdom ends up under the dominion of the evil sea witch, spelling certain doom for the merfolk. Eric risks his own life to kill the sea witch and frees King Triton. The king then (absurdly) apologizes for trying to stand in the way of his sixteen-year-old daughter’s foolish dreams. He forgives her disobedience and recklessness which almost got the whole kingdom annihilated. Ariel gets everything she wants, and the message sent to young girls everywhere is that your dad is a big meanie head who just doesn’t want you to be independent and have fun. All the men in your life must sacrifice their very lives and even all of society if that’s what will make their little princess happy. Also, there is no negative consequence for being disobedient, lying, deceiving others, or practicing witchcraft as long as it makes you happy. The “happiness” of young beautiful women is all that really matters. The men will rescue you from all the trouble YOU are responsible for causing because that’s all they’re good for. The End.

In contrast to the original Danish folk story, we see that the Disney version is devoid of any moral teaching whatsoever. The original story teaches that the most moral path possible, the one that leads to eternal salvation, is self-sacrifice for the love of others. It teaches young women that a life of service to those they love and to humankind is what saves them. The original Little Mermaid was willing to sacrifice her own life and even her chance at a soul to prevent harm to the man she loved, even if he married someone else. There was nothing in it for her whatsoever. Her motivation couldn’t be purer, and this is what saved her in the end, even though she did not receive temporal reward in this life. This is in line with Christian morality, which is probably why Disney, run by Jeffrey Katzenberg at the time, completely inverted it. The meaning and moral of the story was turned into the polar opposite of the original.

The misogyny and cruelty behind many of the gags are as striking as the black comedy

Thursday, September 29th, 2022

When I saw the TV show M*A*S*H as a kid, I don’t think it even occurred to me that it might be about Korea; it was obviously about Vietnam. Apparently the original movie had the same issue:

Because of the context of the film being made — during the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War — 20th Century Fox was concerned that audiences would not understand that it was ostensibly taking place during the Korean War. At the request of the studio, a caption that mentions the Korean setting was added to the beginning of the film, and PA announcements throughout the film served the same purpose. Only a few loudspeaker announcements were used in the original cut. […] The Korean War is explicitly referenced in announcements on the camp public address system and during a radio announcement that plays while Hawkeye and Trapper are putting in Col. Merrill’s office, which also cites the film as taking place in 1951.

I didn’t really watch the show, but when I finally watched the movie, I realized the theme music had been burned into my memory — or, rather, its melody had. The TV show doesn’t include the lyrics to “Suicide Is Painless“:

Director Robert Altman had two stipulations about the song for composer Johnny Mandel: it had to be called “Suicide Is Painless” and it had to be the “stupidest song ever written”. Altman attempted to write the lyric himself, but, upon finding it too difficult for his “45-year-old brain” to write something “stupid” enough, he gave the task to his 15-year-old-son Michael, who reportedly wrote the lyrics in five minutes.

Altman later decided that the song worked so well he would use it as the film’s main theme. This more choral version was sung by uncredited session singers John Bahler, Tom Bahler, Ron Hicklin, and Ian Freebairn-Smith, and was released as a single attributed to “The Mash”. Altman said that, while he only made $70,000 for directing the movie, his son had earned more than $1 million for co-writing the song.

Several instrumental versions of the song were used as the theme for the TV series, but the lyrics were never used in the show. It became a number-one hit in the UK Singles Chart in May 1980. The song was ranked No. 66 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs.

Its opening lyrics:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it
If I please

The movie struck a nerve:

The film won the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, later named the Palme d’Or, at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. In 1996, M*A*S*H was included in the annual selection of 25 motion pictures added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and recommended for preservation.[3] The Academy Film Archive preserved M*A*S*H in 2000. The film inspired the television series M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O’Reilly, was the only actor playing a major character who was retained for the series.

From my perspective, it wasn’t a black comedy so much as a depressing, meandering drama full of unsympathetic characters — with the exception of Radar O’Reilly, I suppose — combined with a low-brow sports comedy. The “ringer” they bring in to beat the other units football team is a black NFL player known as “Spearchucker” Jones. Yeah.

Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film four (out of four) stars, in a review I can respect and understand, even if I don’t share his assessment:

There is something about war that inspires practical jokes and the heroes…are inspired and utterly heartless…. We laugh, not because “M*A*S*H” is Sgt. Bilko for adults, but because it is so true to the unadmitted sadist in all of us. There is perhaps nothing so exquisite as achieving…sweet mental revenge against someone we hate with particular dedication. And it is the flat-out, poker-faced hatred in “M*A*S*H” that makes it work. Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren’t really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they’re not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry…. We can take the unusually high gore-level in “M*A*S*H” because it is originally part of the movie’s logic. If the surgeons didn’t have to face the daily list of maimed and mutilated bodies, none of the rest of their lives would make any sense…. But none of this philosophy comes close to the insane logic of “M*A*S*H,” which is achieved through a peculiar marriage of cinematography, acting, directing, and writing. The movie depends upon timing and tone to be funny…. One of the reasons “M*A*S*H” is so funny is that it’s so desperate.

In a retrospective review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum characterized the film as “a somewhat adolescent if stylish antiauthoritarian romp…. But the misogyny and cruelty behind many of the gags are as striking as the black comedy and the original use of overlapping dialogue. This is still watchable for the verve of the ensemble acting and dovetailing direction, but some of the crassness leaves a sour aftertaste.”

Overlapping dialog wasn’t its only innovation:

In his director’s commentary, Altman says that M*A*S*H was the first major studio film to use the word “fuck” in its dialogue. The word is spoken during the football game near the end of the film by Walt “Painless Pole” Waldowski when he says to an opposing football player, “All right, Bud, your fucking head is coming right off!” The actor, John Schuck, said in an interview that Andy Sidaris, who was handling the football sequences, encouraged Schuck to “say something that’ll annoy him.” Schuck did so, and that particular statement made it into the film without a second thought. Previously confined to cult and “underground” films, its use in a film as conventionally screened and professionally distributed as M*A*S*H marked the dawn of a new era of social acceptability for profanity on the big screen, which had until a short time before this film’s release been forbidden outright for any major studio picture in the United States under the Hays Code.

There is nothing revolutionary about Robin Hood

Monday, September 19th, 2022

How long has it been since you’ve thought about Robin Hood?, Alexander Palacio asks:

He’s not around as much as he used to be; an odd absence for him and the venerable set of characters and stories that orbit him. Robin and his Merry Men seem underrepresented in modern media. The few big Robin Hood films made recently have flopped. And where is he on television, in video games, in the cultural consciousness? The great outlaw has vanished into the depths of Sherwood, while Nottingham’s forces are at their strongest.

[…]

The disappearance of Robin Hood can be stated simply. In the last few decades, writers keep making one or two mistakes when writing Robin Hood. First, they take a grim, gritty, realistic approach to the tone of the story and characters. Second, they interpret Robin’s outlaw status to make him transgressive in a way that is opposed to the medieval social order itself. These approaches are not compatible with Robin Hood as he exists in his archetypal form. They violate the valid expectations people have for a Robin Hood story.

In fact, they directly contradict two fundamental elements of Robin Hood. First, Robin Hood is a lighthearted hero whose personal reward for his actions is having fun. Second, Robin Hood is a defender of the traditional medieval social order against a transgressive nobility. The first point should be obvious. Robin Hood leads the Merry Men.

[…]

The second point needs a bit more explanation. It’s not the social order itself that Robin Hood opposes, but the burden of men who abuse their high station. Thus, Robin’s allegiances with Friar Tuck, the good man of the Church, and with whichever good king the story uses (often Richard Lionheart). In the symbolic, associative world of writing, Robin’s ties to Church and Crown simply do not bear interpretation as a revolution against the social order itself. It is the abuse or absence of the social order he fights, not its use or presence.

It’s important to note that in these tales, it’s the common people who support the medieval social order and the nobility and their lackeys who distort it.

[…]

These seemingly-trivial new approaches to Robin Hood are critical writing errors. They contradict some of the most foundational elements of a Robin Hood story. When you make your Robin Hood story dour and grim, you obviate the role he has in combating the sorrow that comes from the failure of the nobility to meet its obligations to the people. That’s why Robin always engaged in fun, in contests, in jokes at the expense of the overly earnest. The humour is essential to depict and understand the setting and social dynamics of the story.

When you oppose Robin Hood to the social order itself, you turn him into a mere revolutionary, instead of a defender. Which makes little sense, given his association with the twin bastions of the old order, the Church and the Crown. There is nothing revolutionary about Robin Hood — he is among the most reactionary characters going. But because Chesterton’s point about nobility and novelty is little understood, ideologues perform sleight of hand to reinterpret him as a Marxist class hero. You are left with a story that not only doesn’t make internal sense, but also doesn’t meet expectations for a story about Robin Hood. Nothing about it sings, so the movie flops and nobody reads the book.

Notable among the names of heroes of the British race is that of Beowulf

Friday, September 16th, 2022

I was recently shocked to realize that I didn’t own a single copy of Beowulf, except for a recent graphic novel adaptation and the short summary provided in Bulfinch’s Mythology. Bulfinch’s introduction is from another era (1867):

Notable among the names of heroes of the British race is that of Beowulf, which appeals to all English-speaking people in a very special way, since he is the one hero in whose story we may see the ideals of our English forefathers before they left their Continental home to cross to the islands of Britain.

It was perfectly natural for an American who lived through the Civil War to refer to the British race.

Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell below his very feet

Thursday, September 15th, 2022

No English child will ever again experience, as Peter Hitchens did, the joys of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great historical romances The White Company and Sir Nigel, set in the far-off fourteenth century:

The remaining copies of these once-popular works now molder, unopened and slowly softening into pulp, in attic rooms in the houses of the elderly.

Conan Doyle explained something very important about the Middle Ages to his original Edwardian readers:

In those simple times there was a great wonder and mystery in life. Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell below his very feet. God’s visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind. The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying sinner, pounced on the ­unbaptized babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic.

George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world does not share this Christian outlook:

As far as I can find out, ­Martin is a lapsed Roman Catholic and has quite banal views about how religion causes wars and God is a “giant invisible guy in the sky.” I do not think he has set out to make an attack on Christianity. I do not think he especially likes it, but I suspect he has discarded it, and so he has written an account of a world in which it simply does not exist. His fantasy greatly disturbs me, because it helps to normalize the indifference to Christianity which is a far greater threat to it than active atheism.

The effects houses bend over backward to keep Marvel happy

Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

An anonymous VFX artist notes that working on Marvel shows is really hard:

When I worked on one movie, it was almost six months of overtime every day. I was working seven days a week, averaging 64 hours a week on a good week. Marvel genuinely works you really hard. I’ve had co-workers sit next to me, break down, and start crying. I’ve had people having anxiety attacks on the phone.

The studio has a lot of power over the effects houses, just because it has so many blockbuster movies coming out one after the other. If you upset Marvel in any way, there’s a very high chance you’re not going to get those projects in the future. So the effects houses are trying to bend over backward to keep Marvel happy.

To get work, the houses bid on a project; they are all trying to come in right under one another’s bids. With Marvel, the bids will typically come in quite a bit under, and Marvel is happy with that relationship, because it saves it money. But what ends up happening is that all Marvel projects tend to be understaffed. Where I would usually have a team of ten VFX artists on a non-Marvel movie, on one Marvel movie, I got two including myself. So every person is doing more work than they need to.

The other thing with Marvel is it’s famous for asking for lots of changes throughout the process. So you’re already overworked, but then Marvel’s asking for regular changes way in excess of what any other client does. And some of those changes are really major. Maybe a month or two before a movie comes out, Marvel will have us change the entire third act. It has really tight turnaround times. So yeah, it’s just not a great situation all around. One visual-effects house could not finish the number of shots and reshoots Marvel was asking for in time, so Marvel had to give my studio the work. Ever since, that house has effectively been blacklisted from getting Marvel work.

Part of the problem comes from the MCU itself — just the sheer number of movies it has. It sets dates, and it’s very inflexible on those dates; yet it’s quite willing to do reshoots and big changes very close to the dates without shifting them up or down.

[…]

The main problem is most of Marvel’s directors aren’t familiar with working with visual effects. A lot of them have just done little indies at the Sundance Film Festival and have never worked with VFX. They don’t know how to visualize something that’s not there yet, that’s not on set with them. So Marvel often starts asking for what we call “final renders.” As we’re working through a movie, we’ll send work-in-progress images that are not pretty but show where we’re at. Marvel often asks for them to be delivered at a much higher quality very early on, and that takes a lot of time. Marvel does that because its directors don’t know how to look at the rough images early on and make judgment calls. But that is the way the industry has to work. You can’t show something super pretty when the basics are still being fleshed out.

Too muchee pidgin?

Monday, June 27th, 2022

I enjoyed the Shogun mini-series when it came out, and I enjoyed the novel, too, years later, so I read and enjoyed the next book in his Asian Saga soon after. Tai Pan does not take place in feudal Japan, but in Hong Kong at its founding. I recently bought and listened to the audio version and must admit that I had forgotten a lot.

One element that stands out is the pidgin spoken between the Chinese and English:

English first arrived in China in the 1630s, when English traders arrived in South China. Chinese Pidgin English was spoken first in the areas of Macao and Guangzhou (City of Canton), later spreading north to Shanghai by the 1830s.

[...]

The term “pidgin” itself is believed by some etymologists to be a corruption of the pronunciation of the English word “business” by the Chinese.

[...]

The majority of the words used in Chinese Pidgin English are derived from English, with influences from Portuguese, Cantonese, Malay, and Hindi.

catchee: fetch (English catch)
fankuei: westerner (Cantonese)
Joss: God (Portuguese deus)
pidgin: business (English)
sabbee: to know (Portuguese saber)
taipan: supercargo (Cantonese)
too muchee: extremely (English too much)

[...]

Certain expressions from Chinese English Pidgin have made their way into colloquial English, a process called calque. The following is a list of English expressions which may have been influenced by Chinese.

  • Long time no see
  • Look-see
  • No this no that
  • No go

No one’s writing such children of Shogun anymore, so enjoy the originals.

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan

Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

The insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu preferred using “pythons and cobras…fungi and [his] tiny allies, the bacilli…[his] black spiders” and other peculiar animals or natural chemical weapons to kill his enemies:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan,… Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present… Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man.

Sax Rohmer, the novelist who created the character, died after succumbing to Asian flu in 1959.

Liking it is not a matter of bad taste but of some sort of failure of political and moral sophistication

Sunday, May 29th, 2022

The crowd, Freddie deBoer reports, has turned from performatively hating David Foster Wallace to performatively hating The Catcher in the Rye:

For the record, I think The Catcher in the Rye is… OK? It’s fine. It’s definitely a book of an earlier era and it felt as such when I read it as a teenager. I was hoping to connect with it on a deep level (uh, not a Mark David Chapman level) the way some adults in my life had, and I didn’t and was kind of bummed out. But it was fine. As is so often the case with these things, there’s a really dumbass reading of the book lurking in the discussion about it, which is that you’re somehow commanded to identify with Holden Caufield and to want to act like him. This is… not a good interpretation. You certainly can identify with him, but I don’t think that’s suggested very strongly, let alone mandated. As with Fight Club, another boy story for boys about boys being boys, you are invited to empathize with the alienation and loneliness of the main character while recognizing the juvenility and pointlessness of his reaction to it. But, well, now I’m actually engaging with the book, which is more than social media critics of books ever do. They never seem to want to go deeper than saying “TOXIC MASCULINITY” or whatever, which is particularly bizarre here. (Is the idea that Holden Caufield is supposed to be some sort of symbol of an idealized man? What?) It’s all uselessly Manichean — I know this headline is partially a joke but it makes me wince anyway. The important work is always to say a) this book/author is bad and b) liking it is not a matter of bad taste but of some sort of failure of political and moral sophistication.

[...]

Have you never imagined reading a book without wanting it to be a signifier of your entire personality? Do you know how many books I’ve read specifically because I hate the author and their outlook? Or, quelle horreur, you could consider reading a book without knowing what you think about it until you’ve read it! You know, the generative state of being open to forming a summative position based on the gradual aggregation of myriad minor judgments formed along the way? That would seem to be a major part of the point of reading.

[...]

It’s a sickness, the assumption that we must always tightly control every last aspect of our self-presentation, no matter how distinct from our true self, because someone on the subway with a $300k education and zero opinions they didn’t steal from podcasts might silently judge us. And as (this philosophy presumes) no one has a durable sense of self worth, being judged by strangers must be terrifying instead of meaningless.

Many have lamented the fact that professional criticism these days is often just a recitation of ways that a work of art does or does not conform to the childish moral calculus of “social justice.” And mountains of worthless reviews and recaps have been produced under these terms. But it’s important to say that this tendency is not solely or even mainly the product of ideological discipline and the desire to evangelize. Rather it stems from insecurity about one’s own subjective opinions. People who don’t trust that they are sophisticated readers or cinephiles or whatever gravitate towards tedious political checklisting because those political claims seem more transcendent and defensible and real than their own claims of taste. But this fundamentally mistakes the purpose of a review, and it’s very hard to understand why someone who is so afraid of standing by their own opinion would think to write one.

[...]

And it must always be remembered that, not that long ago, most media elites were not woke, but rather sneering neoliberals who mocked leftists as losers; the fact that media culture turned on a dime to embrace social justice fads makes it a certainty that, when that politics goes out of fashion in the coming decade, the media will flip flop right over again. No, the problem with media culture is not the politics but rather where those politics come from — not just from elite colleges or privileged childhoods lived in affluence, but from insecurity.

For the record, I found The Cather in the Rye phony and lousy.

I haven’t read any of David Foster Wallace’s novels, but I do keep going back to The String Theory.

In The Sum of Small Things, David Brooks points out, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

She is one of the handful of books that Tolkien explicitly acknowledges as an influence

Sunday, May 22nd, 2022

It is worth remembering that Tolkien was not simply channelling Beowulf, the Eddas, and the Kalevala in his creative work, a Phuulish fellow notes, but that he was also interacting with more recent material, like H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novels:

By good fortune, She is one of the handful of books that Tolkien explicitly acknowledges as an influence. In a 1966 interview with Henry Resnick, Tolkien remarked:

I suppose as a boy She interested me as much as anything — like the Greek shard of Amyntas [Amenartas], which was the kind of machine by which everything got moving.

The shard of Amenartas is a purported ancient text, included by Rider Haggard as a means of providing some exposition to the story. Well and good. It is the incident that incites the start of the adventure. But the shard is no ordinary ancient text, at least in terms of presentation. Rider Haggard gives facsimiles of the fragment, in actual Greek.

[…]

Don’t worry. Rider Haggard helpfully transcribes and translates the text. But the sheer effort the author went to, in terms of making the artefact look real and believable is noteworthy. It rather recalls the One Ring inscription, and the inscription on Balin’s Tomb, not to mention in-universe Tolkienian texts like The Book of Mazarbul and Thror’s Map. In terms of actual historical exposition, there is also a decent comparison between Rider Haggard’s protagonists puzzling out the Shard, and Gandalf learning about the Ring via the forgotten Scroll of Isildur in the archives of Minas Tirith.

(Yes, I am aware that Rider Haggard did not invent this trope. Jules Verne provides a runic manuscript in A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1871). But Tolkien cites Rider Haggard, not Verne).

Perhaps the single cheekiest Tolkienian shout-out to Rider Haggard is the city of Kôr. In She, the city of Kôr is an ancient ruined city, so ancient that it was already long abandoned when Ayesha turned up, thousands of years before the narrative begins. Kôr predates the Egyptians, in terms of antiquity, and it adds some glorious atmosphere to the setting.

It may therefore interest you to know that Kôr was the original name of the great Noldorin city, Tirion upon Túna. The home of Finwë, Fëanor, et al. Moreover, in Tolkien’s initial conception – found in The Book of Lost Tales – the city ends up abandoned. An early Tolkienian poem, titled Kôr: In a City Lost and Dead, describes the scene, after the Elves have left it.

Spengler was not so humble

Thursday, May 19th, 2022

It is easy to pick out the most significant figures of ancient history — say, Socrates or the Buddha — and pronounce that these were comparable figures of similar historical weight, T. Greer suggests, but how do you pick out which of your contemporaries deserve that honor?

One day a few men of your generation may be vindicated by history. But that history has not happened yet. Humility demands that we decline to declare what only time can prove.

Spengler was not so humble. He repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.

Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition—which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St. John’s curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series—and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin.[2]

Now Erskine’s list is not perfect; it has not perfectly weathered the centuries. The fame of William James has sunk with time; today we usually think of Joseph Conrad, not Thomas Hardy, as the supreme English novelist of that era. But the broader point holds: only a decade or two after these men’s deaths intellectuals confidently spoke of them in the same breath as Shakespeare and Plato. And not just subjectively, in the sense we might today (“I think Urusala LeGuin is as good as Shakespeare” or “I think Hayek is better than Plato”) but with full knowledge that the broader public already knew that these people and their works belonged on the list. It was obvious to even those who disliked Nietzche that he was a seminal figure in Western thought; it was obvious even to those who disagreed with Ibsen that he claimed a similar place in Western literature, and so forth. Their ideas might be argued against, but their genius and their influence was undeniable.

Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for?

How about for the last two decades?

The last three?

Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?

In the realm of science, perhaps. But in the world of social, historical, ethical, and political thought, no one comes to mind. Most “great books” curricula stop right around World War II and its immediate aftermath. St. John’s recently added Wittgenstein and de Beauvoir to their curricula, but their works are almost 70 years old. Michel Foucault is the next obvious candidate, and he died 37 years ago.

They took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

Pop-punk was created in the late 1980s and early 1990s at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, an all-ages venue normally referred to as “Gilman”:

This is where Bay Area bands like Rancid, Operation Ivy, the Mr. T Experience, and, especially, Green Day all started to get attention. Bay Area pop-punk is a kinder, gentler variety than either the nihilist Londoners or the hardcore California bands like the Circle Jerks and the Dead Kennedys that preceded them. The Gilman bands obviously worshipped the Clash, whose songs showed more craft, hooky melodies, and subtlety than, say, the Sex Pistols. Some of the bands, like Rancid, were responsible for amping up the Clash’s combination of punk and reggae into what’s now called the Third Wave of ska music.

The Bay Area community was goofier, sillier, more suburban, and more inclined to make happy, poppy music than any punk community that came before it. As an ode to the Clash, a lot of their singers adopted a sort of faux-British accent. “I’m an American guy faking an English accent faking an American accent,” Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong told Rolling Stone in 1994. Tim Armstrong, the (unrelated) lead singer of fellow Bay Area band Rancid, sings with an accent that varies song by song; sometimes it’s nearly featureless, other times it’s a Strummer-esque Brit inflection, other times it sounds nearly New York.

The pop-punk accent really became smooth and polished a little bit later, in the mid-1990s, with bands like Blink-182 and the Offspring, both hailing from Southern California. Their singers (Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge from Blink-182, Dexter Holland from the Offspring) totally abandoned any pretenses of Britishness. Instead they took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up, pushed it to new extremes. It was almost exactly what happened in London. Pop-punk singers became more Californian than the Californians.

Penelope Eckert, a linguistics professor at Stanford, is one of the foremost scholars examining what’s known as the “California Shift.” The California Shift is a linguistic theory covering the particular changes in dialect that affect the Pacific coast of the United States. Eckert was nice enough to humor me and listen several times to a song I chose based on its particularly egregious “pop-punk voice,” Blink-182’s “First Date.” I love the song, but am aware others may find it horribly annoying. “It really does sound like someone’s messing around,” she told me.

A key change in the California Shift is what’s called the cot/caught merger. Northeasterners and Midwesterners pronounce those words differently, giving the former an “ah” sound and the latter an “aw” sound. “Californians do not,” says Eckert, who is originally from New York. “They have no idea. That vowel is almost completely merged. Think ‘mawwm’ instead of ‘mom.’”

Vowel sounds work like those sliding puzzle games where you have to unscramble a picture by sliding one piece of it at a time. As soon as you move one piece, you’re left with an empty space behind you, which has to be filled by something else. Californians dropped the “cot” vowel sound, pronouncing it like “caught” instead. So something had to fill that space. “The California Shift is this kind of combined change in the pronunciation of short vowels,” says Kennedy. The easiest way to think about it? Look at the words kit, dress, and trap. In the California Shift, “kit” becomes “ket”, “dress” becomes “drass”, and “trap” becomes “trop”.

Linguists talk about this shift in terms of directions; to talk with a California accent is sometimes called “trap-backing,” or “trop-bocking.” Your mouth functions like a resonating chamber. You can alter the frequencies of the sounds you make by changing the size of the chamber and by moving your tongue around. Your tongue’s placement is a major factor in dialects; it can be raised, lowered, moved to the front, or moved to the back. Californians move their tongues back, hence “trop-bocking.”

But there are some more complex things going on in the pop-punk voice. Eckert walked me through the Blink-182 song word by word, pointing out places where DeLonge was playing around with accent. “When they say ‘to pick you up on our very first date,’ the interesting thing about ‘date’ is that he renders it as a monophthong ‘dehhht’ instead of ‘date,’ says Eckert. “In most American English it’s a diphthong.” A diphthong is a vowel sound with two simpler sounds in it; for most Americans, “date” is a kind of compound vowel made up of the “eh” sound and the “ee” sound. Not so much for Tom DeLonge, who eliminates all but the “eh,” making it a single sound, or a monophthong.

The monophthong “date” surprised Eckert, as she says it’s not part of the California Shift. Except! “I’ve heard that some in Chicano English, but not so much in Anglo English,” she says. Chicano English is spoken by native English speakers of Mexican descent—it’s not a Mexican accent, because Chicano English speakers are native English speakers, but sort of their own English dialect. And that goes along with one of DeLonge’s most obvious vocal tics: changing short “ih” sounds as in the work “think” to a long “ee” sound, turning it into something like “theenk.” “Chicano English raises the vowel I to ‘ee’ before nasal consonants,” says Eckert. “So ‘theenk’ is very Chicano. And you have a lot of Anglo wannabes saying that too.”

Another very distinctive element of the California accent that’s extremely present in DeLonge’s vocals is the long “oo” sound in words like “room,” which DeLonge pronounces as something more like “rehm.” That’s almost an efficiency move; the particular combination of shapes your lips have to make to move from the first consonant, R, to the last consonant, M, plus the moves your tongue has to make to form the “oo” sound, are pretty difficult. If you move your tongue closer to your front teeth, it’s a lot less work, but you’ll change the pronunciation of “room” to “rehm.” It’s called “oo-fronting.”

There are plenty more things Eckert taught me about DeLonge’s delicious accent, but one last example would be the way Californians pronounce the letter R in certain words. In a word where the stress falls on a vowel one syllable before a word ending in R, like “whatever” or “over,” most of the country, but most noticeably those in the New York/New Jersey area, stress the consonant in the second-to-last syllable extra hard. But Californians lengthen the R. So a New Yorker will say “whatevah,” but a Californian will say “whateverrrr.” “We talk about New York/New Jersey accents as being ‘R-less’ and California accents as being ‘R-ful,’” laughed Eckert. (Linguistics jokes are pretty good.)

DeLonge does some weird, non-Californian stuff, though. His pronunciation of words like “light” and “spider” come out somewhere between the vowel sound from “rye” and “roy.” “His pronunciation of it is striking, and different from Californians generally,” says Kennedy. “It may be another attempt at projecting British punk vocals, but if I recall correctly he does this in speech as well, and so it might actually be a skate/surf/punk subculture linguistic feature.”

Many modern productions try to make Lysistrata a drama

Saturday, May 14th, 2022

Ben Espen recently cited a Twitter thread by Aristophanes’ Skinner Box on Lysistrata as a Comedy, and Aristophanes’ Skinner Box has since been banned:

One of the commenters down thread pointed out that many modern productions try to make Lysistrata a drama, when it is in fact a comedy. You are supposed to laugh, but a comedy is about more than that.

The art he included in his post reminded me of Willy Pogany’s work, but it was made by Norman Lindsay — who sounds like quite a character:

Norman Alfred William Lindsay (22 February 1879 – 21 November 1969) was an Australian artist, etcher, sculptor, writer, art critic, novelist, cartoonist and amateur boxer.[1] One of the most prolific and popular Australian artists of his generation, Lindsay attracted both acclaim and controversy for his works, many of which infused the Australian landscape with erotic pagan elements and were deemed by his critics to be “anti-Christian, anti-social and degenerate”.[2] A vocal nationalist, he became a regular artist for The Bulletin at the height of its cultural influence, and advanced staunchly anti-modernist views as a leading writer on Australian art. When friend and literary critic Bertram Stevens argued that children like to read about fairies rather than food, Lindsay wrote and illustrated The Magic Pudding (1918), now considered a classic work of Australian children’s literature.

Apart from his creative output, Lindsay was known for his larrikin attitudes and personal libertine philosophy, as well as his battles with what he termed “wowserism“. One such battle is portrayed in the 1994 film Sirens, starring Sam Neill and filmed on location at Lindsay’s home in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. It is now known as the Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum and is maintained by the National Trust of Australia.

[…]

In 1895, Lindsay moved to Melbourne to work on a local magazine with his older brother Lionel. His Melbourne experiences are described in Rooms and Houses.

In 1901, he and Lionel joined the staff of the Sydney Bulletin, a weekly newspaper, magazine and review. His association there would last fifty years.

Lindsay travelled to Europe in 1909, Rose followed later. In Naples he began 100 pen-and-ink illustrations for Petronius’ Satyricon. Visits to the then South Kensington Museum where he made sketches of model ships in the Museum’s collection stimulated a lifelong interest in ship models. The Lindsays returned to Australia in 1911.

Lindsay wrote the children’s classic The Magic Pudding which was published in 1918.

Many of his novels have a frankness and vitality that matches his art. In 1930 he created a scandal when his novel Redheap (supposedly based on his hometown, Creswick) was banned due to censorship laws.

In 1938, Lindsay published Age of Consent, which described the experience of a middle-aged painter on a trip to a rural area, who meets an adolescent girl who serves as his model, and then lover. The book, published in Britain, was banned in Australia until 1962.

Lindsay also worked as an editorial cartoonist, notable for often illustrating the racist and right-wing political leanings that dominated The Bulletin at that time; the “Red Menace” and “Yellow Peril” were popular themes in his cartoons. These attitudes occasionally spilled over into his other work, and modern editions of The Magic Pudding often omit one couplet in which “you unmitigated Jew” is used as an insult.

Lindsay was associated with a number of poets, such as Kenneth Slessor, Francis Webb and Hugh McCrae, influencing them in part through a philosophical system outlined in his book Creative Effort. He also illustrated the cover for the seminal Henry Lawson book, While the Billy Boils. Lindsay’s son, Jack Lindsay, emigrated to England, where he set up Fanfrolico Press, which issued works illustrated by Lindsay.

Lindsay influenced numerous artists, notably the illustrators Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta; he was also good friends with Ernest Moffitt.

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The mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility

Sunday, May 8th, 2022

Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers includes an attack on Momism:

During World War II, Wylie went to work for the Office of Facts and Figures (later known as The Office of War Information) in Washington, DC, but resigned when his superiors rejected his plan to tell Americans about the Bataan Death March and other atrocities committed by the Japanese, in an effort to stir their patriotic commitment to the war effort. Dispirited by this experience, Wylie returned home to Miami Beach, where, from May 12 to July 4, 1942, he hammered out a series of splenetic essays that comprised “a catalogue of what I felt to be wrong morally, spiritually and intellectually with my fellow citizens.” These essays would eventually be gathered into Generation of Vipers, whose 18 chapters skewered a range of supposedly sacrosanct American beliefs, groups, and institutions, such as organized religion, business, Congress, doctors, and the supposed goodness of the common man. But the chapter that ignited a firestorm of controversy and rocketed the book to bestsellerdom was “Common Women,” Wylie’s caustic attack on Americans’ sanctification of motherhood, a cultural syndrome Wylie dubbed “Momism.” This was tantamount to spitting on the flag.

Generation of Vipers (whose full title is Generation of Vipers: A Survey of Moral Want • A Philosophical Discourse suitable only for the Strong • A Study of American Types and Archetypes • And A Signpost on the two Thoroughfares of Man: the Dolorosa and the Descensus Averno • Together with sundry Preachments, Epithets, Modal Adventures, Political Impertinences, Allegories, Aspirations, Visions and Jokes as well as certain Homely Hints for the care of the Human Soul) sold terrifically when it hit bookstores in January 1943, thanks to the endorsement given it the week before publication by popular columnist Walter Winchell. The first printing of 4,000 copies sold out in a week, and the book just kept selling. Vipers went through 11 printings in 1943 alone and went on to sell 180,000 copies in hardcover by 1954. In 1950, the American Library Association named Generation of Vipers one of the 50 most influential and important books of the last 50 years.

“Mom,” Wylie begins the chapter “Common Women,” “is an American creation. Her elaboration was necessary because she was launched as Cinderella.” Here Wylie refers to an earlier chapter in which he explained how American women were inculcated in a distorted version of the fairy tale that conditioned them to expect material wealth, not because of virtuous activities but merely because they were female. “The idea women have that life is marshmallows which will come as a gift — an idea promulgated by every medium and many an advertisement — has defeated half the husbands in America,” Wylie wrote. “It has made at least half our homes into centers of disillusionment. […] It long ago became associated with the notion that the bearing of children was such an unnatural and hideous ordeal that the mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility.”

I haven’t read Generation of Vipers, but I have read Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator, which many argue is the original inspiration for Superman, The Savage Gentleman, which likely inspired Doc Savage, and When Worlds Collide, which he co-wrote with Edwin Balmer, which (along with Armageddon 2419 AD) inspired Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon.

The hypothesis was proposed as an explanation for the presence of lemur fossils in Madagascar and India but not in Africa or the Middle East

Friday, May 6th, 2022

I was recently reminded of the Theosophists and their belief in the lost continent of Lemuria, which I had only ever seen mentioned in old science fiction and fantasy:

Lemuria was a continent proposed in 1864 by zoologist Philip Sclater to have sunk beneath the Indian Ocean, later appropriated by occultists in supposed accounts of human origins.

The hypothesis was proposed as an explanation for the presence of lemur fossils in Madagascar and India but not in Africa or the Middle East. Biologist Ernst Haeckel’s suggestion in 1870 that Lemuria could be the ancestral home of mankind caused the hypothesis to move beyond the scope of geology and zoogeography, ensuring its popularity outside of the framework of the scientific community.

Occultist and founder of Theosophy Helena Blavatsky, during the latter part of the 19th century, placed Lemuria in the system of her mystical-religious doctrine, claiming that this continent was the homeland of the human ancestors, whom she called Lemurians. The writings of Blavatsky had a significant impact on Western esotericism, popularizing the myth of Lemuria and its mystical inhabitants.

Theories about Lemuria became untenable when, in the 1960s, the scientific community accepted Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, presented in 1912, but the idea lived on in the popular imagination, especially in relation to the Theosophist tradition.

Science-fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp wrote a book, Lost Continents, about Atlantis and other sunken lands — which had to be revised when the theory of continental drift gained acceptance.