“A fan base primarily comprised of people who got to the store after Mad sold out”

Contrary to the cover, it is very unlikely that anything funny was going on there.

I just stumbled on the Wikipedia article for the late, unlamented Cracked magazine.  It’s hilarious, 10,000 times funnier than anything that ever appeared in Cracked magazine, on a par with the best material that appears on that magazine’s descendant, Cracked.com.  Who could fail to laugh out loud at an article that includes this sentence: “In Germany, there were three publications that included Cracked reprints. First was Kaputt, which ran from 1974 to 1983; it was followed by Stupid, which ran from 1983 to 1984, and, finally, Panic.”

Considering what happens to interesting writing on Wikipedia, it will probably be deleted and replaced with something unreadable by the end of the morning, so I’ve preserved its text here, after the jump.   (more…)

Ange Mlinko burns a Norton

Ange Mlinko (photograph: Poetry Foundation)

Ange Mlinko wrote  a bracingly stern review of Norton’s new edition of its anthology Postmodern American Poetry for the 15 April 2013 issue of The Nation.  Ms Mlinko includes a promising bit from the introduction by the anthology’s editor, Paul Hoover: “Hoover is at pains to define [postmodernism] in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: ‘It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.'”  What programmatic statement could set out a worthier goal for a collection of lyric poetry?  History is an entire dimension of experience, and our age systematically obscures that dimension.  We urgently need poetry that can pick us up, turn us around, and set us down with our eyes facing history.

Yet as Ms Mlinko tells it, this book loses sight of that or any other worthwhile goal.  Most of it is given over to poems whose chief merit is that they bear some “marketable label” such as “Flarf, ‘Newlipo,’ and ‘Googlesculpting,'” “‘Conceptualist‘ and ‘postlanguage lyricist.'”  The review closes with the last six lines of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles“; my favorite bit of the review is this half-paragraph in which Ms Mlinko brings her own axe down on Professor Hoover’s book:

The traditional anthologist gathers good poems according to his sensibility; the postmodern anthologist, eager to jettison sensibility, has only fashion and popularity to guide him. Poets become mere representatives of their niche, with no relation to their neighbors in the table of contents. Pity G.C. Waldrep, “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish”*: he’s sandwiched between Vanessa Place, whose Dies: A Sentence is one unrelenting 130-page sentence (only five pages of which are on offer here), and Catherine Wagner, who offers the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….” There is no transcendence in poetry anymore, according to Hoover. But I assure you, some Hells are real.

Ms Mlinko mentions some of Norton’s other anthologies, among them Bernard M. W. Knox’s Norton Book of Classical Literature.  I used that one for years in one of my classes; Professor Knox was the perfect example of Ms Mlinko’s “traditional anthologist [who] gathers good poems according to his sensibility.”  Professor Knox was perhaps the last major Classical scholar to practice “taste criticism” of ancient Greek and Latin literature.  He was a throwback to the days when schoolboys started Latin at five and Greek at six, coming to university having read each of the canonical works of classical antiquity two or three times, so that by the time they emerged as university dons there was a non-trivial probability that they might have something of value to say about them.  Professor Knox’s erudition, and the taste it underpinned, formed a monument on the order of a great public building.  Reading his books is like visiting the Acropolis.  Yet even his anthology was profoundly eccentric.  The principle of selection seems to be an illustration of the roots of lyric in other genres of Greek literature and the influence of Greek lyric on Latin literature.  Greek lyric poetry is not very much represented, however.  So when I taught from it, I used to bring in translations of Greek lyric poems from outside the book and assign them in conjunction with the Greek selections to which they responded and the Latin selections which responded to them.  The students were always quite interested to see the influence lyric had on Roman prose writers, especially on the way that an historian like Livy develops a focus on individuals.  I really ought to write something about that someday.

Anyway, Professor Knox had a great advantage over Professor Hoover.  Ms Mlinko asks why any professor would assign a class a textbook like Postmodern American Poetry.  Her answer: “Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you.”  All of Professor Knox’s authors had been safely dead for many centuries before he assembled his book, freeing him from any temptation to give preferential treatment to authors who are in a position to place orders for large numbers of books.

*Ms Mlinko’s description of George Calvin Waldrep as a poet who is “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish” and who deserves our pity for his placement in this book may lead one to imagine a latter-day Whittier, who contrasted his rustic Quakerism with a bewildering urban sophistication, but that isn’t quite what Mr Waldrep is like.  Here’s a set of five poems of his that appeared in Typo in 2004.  I think they make it clear that he was aiming for just the spot in which Professor Hoover has placed him.  On the other hand, his sequence “The Batteries” (published as a chapbook in 2006, then built into his 2007 book Disclamor and reviewed here) is sensational, and lives up to the programmatic statement “an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.”

Friday links

Thanks to the Trafford Senior Netball Club

Some funny stuff from Cracked: “14 Photographs That Shatter Your Image of Famous People“; “5 Dismissive Arguments You Only Use When You’re Wrong“; “6 Famous Things From History That Didn’t Actually Exist

Stan Carey tells an old joke.

Something that would be true if it were true that “empathy is the source of ethics” (SMBC.)

Thomas Nagel drives some people so crazy that they’re willing to endorse statements like this: “The view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics must be true unless you’re religious.” (The Weekly Standard)  A hundred years ago, it seemed that only supernaturalists could doubt that arithmetic was in principle reducible to formal logic.  Then along came Gödel, and it became obvious, first, that arithmetic was not reducible to formal logic, and, second, that such irreducibility implied absolutely nothing about the supernatural.  In those same days, Free Will and Determinism was a big debate, with Determinists claiming that only in a perfectly predictable universe could rationality function.  Then physics demonstrated that the universe is far from perfectly predictable, and rationality didn’t seem any the worse for it.  Indeed, over the years so many reductionist theories that were once proposed as the only possible worldview for a rational person have been exploded that anyone saying “The view that x is in principle reducible to y must be true unless you’re religious” at once bears the burden of proving that s/he is not a dumbass.

How people talk about the secrecy that surrounded the Manhattan Project (Nuclear Secrecy)

Why do some politicians recover from scandal, while others are ruined?  Noah Millman has a theory: “We are willing to forgive our politicians for a multitude of private sins, because really what we care about is that we come first. They can treat their spouses and children abominably if we know that at the end of the day all they really care about is winning. Because to win they have to do what we want. Or at least convince us that they have.”

Why you shouldn’t earn a doctorate in the humanities (Slate.)

Incompleteness: “It turns out that much of this common law of contracts was specifically designed around a particular standard-form contract. When the economist junked the standard-form contract and wrote a whole new one, he also (perhaps inadvertently) junked the common law that went with it. The result was that the gaps became a lot larger, and litigation more probable. The very act that was meant to reduce contractual incompleteness ended up increasing it.” (Volokh)

Anglo-American rightists have been writing love letters to General Augusto Pinochet for almost forty years.  This article starts off like one of them, then runs into some actual Chileans who introduce the author to the ghastly realities of the general’s regime.  (Takimag)

The group of researchers who coined the acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) (Pacific Standard)

Worshiping coitus

Sacred art

One of our recurring themes here on Los Thunderlads is the remarkable weakness of arguments against gender-neutral marriage.  The law-courts of the world are full of lawyers advancing ingenious arguments in support of the most ludicrous propositions; wealthy business interests can suborn economists and other social scientists to make very impressive cases for any policy that will increase their profits; sectarians and enthusiasts of all sorts can build formidable intellectual defenses for even their most far-fetched crochets.  Yet the idea that the title of “marriage” should be granted exclusively to heterosexual pairings, a familiar idea throughout human history and one that enjoys the support of many extremely powerful institutions and of solid majorities of public opinion in much of the world today, seems to find no rational backing whatever in contemporary public discourse.  Opponents of gender neutral marriage have noticed this circumstance; I can recommend theologian Alastair J. Roberts’ recent note, “Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad.”  Mr Roberts doesn’t convince me that gender-neutral marriage is a bad idea, but he does come up with a number of interesting remarks to make as he goes along his way.

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed advocates of gender neutral marriage making themselves look almost as silly as their opponents routinely do.  First up was an article in Slate magazine by Mark Joseph Stern, one subtitle of which is “Why do defenders of DOMA and Prop 8 worship coitus?”  Mr Stern reports on legal briefs recently submitted to the US Supreme Court in defense of measures that seek to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples only, briefs in which penis-in-vagina sex is presented as an essential defining characteristic of marriage.  Mr Stern seems incredulous that this is in fact the premise of arguments presented to the US Supreme Court.  “This argument puts gay marriage opponents in an awkward position. For years, they said gays were too libidinous and licentious to create stable marriages. Now, as proponents of gay marriage emphasize love, fidelity, and commitment, the right is fetishizing coitus,” he writes.  He goes on: “In [Professor Robert] George’s primitive understanding, marriage isn’t about love or raising children. It’s about copulation.”

Mr Stern’s piece went up a couple of weeks ago.  Yesterday, Tom Tomorrow reminded me of it.  Click on the image to go to the strip:

I’m not an expert in comparative religion, but it does strike me as rather odd that there might be cultures which do not “fetishize coitus” and grow elaborate institutions around penis-in-vagina sex.  After all, penis-in-vagina isn’t just another arcane sexual practice, but is the act of procreation.  Among animal processes, only eating and death compare to it in the range and gravity of their consequences.   If you’re going to worship any events in nature, it would seem that penis-in-vagina sex would be first on the list.

Now, the institution of marriage in the West has evolved in such a way that “love, fidelity, commitment,” romance, and other abstract  considerations are more important than anything so concrete as penis-in-vagina sex.  The religious life of the Protestant West has evolved to emphasize the purely abstract over the concrete to a remarkable degree.  Throughout the Western world, same-sex couples are usually treated by their relatives and neighbors as the equals of opposite-sex couples in every way; the exceptions come in legal formalities and in random acts of hostility.  I believe that laws should reflect and sustain the actual practice of society, not assert transcendent standards that would revolutionize that practice, so it seems reasonable to me that marriage as an institution should drift free of its last formal links to penis-in-vagina sex.  However, it is no more “primitive” for Robert George to hold to an understanding of the nature of institutions that precludes such a development than it is for Hindus and Buddhists to revere lingam-yoni symbols.

The whole debate, left and right, strikes me as an example of the modern West’s inability to take sex seriously as a moral concept.  Moderns can be quite calm and serious when discussing the legal standards of consent to sexual behavior, but characteristically respond to moral questions about other aspects of sexual behavior with one of two avoidance strategies.  Either they try to laugh the topic off, or they refer it to medicine, psychology, or some other therapeutic discipline.  This is a real problem with modernity.  Since sexual behavior is such an important part of life, people who try to follow a moral code which has nothing serious to say about sex are likely to become unserious people.   Yet it seems to be an insoluble problem.  Modernity appeals to the formal, abstract rationality of the marketplace, of the courts, of science, of bureaucratic organization.  An institution built to support, celebrate, and commemorate penis-in-vagina sex jars with this formal, abstract rationality; but so, eventually, does everything else that makes life possible and enjoyable.

Again, I hold that the function of the law is to affirm society as it is, not to remake it according to some abstract plan; it is because many same-sex couples in fact operate as married couples in the USA that I hope the law will change and recognize the actually existing reality of our society.  As I pointed out here four years ago, to change that fact and the social conditions underpinning it would require a very far-reaching restructuring of US society.  Modernity, with its attachment to abstract theoretical schemes,  might endorse some such restructurings, and people with a romantic hankering for the premodern might wish they could recreate a world in which the concrete and particular take precedence over the abstract and general.  But as a student of the works of Irving Babbitt, I see in such impulses nothing but the drive to assert one’s own power over the world and the people in it, a drive that can never be satisfied, but that grows with each success it encounters.   If we are ever to recover the sense of the sacramental as something inherent in particular actions, particular things, and particular places, it won’t be the law that leads us to that recovery, but a much broader social development that the law will notice only after it is already so far advanced that few people can formulate a coherent argument for or against it.

A variant of poker

One morning years ago, I woke up from a dream in which I was playing a card game by the following rules:

  1. Each player is dealt a five-card hand (face down) and a five-card tableau (face up.)
  2. The remaining cards are placed face down in the center of the table.  These cards form the stock.
  3. The player to the dealer’s left takes the first turn.  Play proceeds clockwise around the table.
  4. Each turn begins when the player draws a card into his or her hand.
  5. On his or her first turn, the first player may draw the top card of the stock or any card of his or her tableau.
  6. During a player’s turn, s/he must direct another player to discard a specific card from his or her tableau.  The first card to be discarded goes face up next to the stock.  This is the first card of the discard pile.
  7. During a player’s turn, s/he may bet.  Betting proceeds according to the usual rules of poker.
  8. During a player’s turn, s/he may knock, indicating that play will proceed around the table just once more.
  9. A player’s turn ends when s/he discards a card from his or her hand.  If there are five cards in the player’s tableau, s/he discards to the discard pile.  If there are fewer than five cards in the player’s tableau, s/he discards to his or her tableau.
  10. When there is a discard pile, any player may begin his or her turn by drawing either the top card of the stock, the top card of the discard pile, or any card of his or her tableau.
  11. When the stock is exhausted, the discard pile is turned over and becomes the new stock.  The discard pile is not shuffled.
  12. Hands are ranked in the usual order of poker hands.

I’ve played this game a couple of times.  It works pretty well, for something that came to me in a dream.  Play is comparable to Whisky.