Monday, May 31, 2021

not a Big Mac kind

Matthew Yglesias goes on an extended rant in which he believes - or affects to believe - that there isn't anybody who hasn't tried a Big Mac. (Unless they're "a lifelong vegetarian" or "profoundly uncurious.")

I haven't tried a Big Mac. Why should I? It's clearly something I wouldn't like. A Big Mac is a McDonald's hamburger with a lot of extra crap on it. I like my burgers simple: maybe some steak sauce, perhaps a little onion. That's it. I've had burgers with a lot of extra crap on them. I don't like it.

And I've had McDonald's hamburgers, plain. I don't like those either. They're lousy hamburgers.

So why should I try a Big Mac? I've already triangulated it: two things I don't like put together, and not in a way that might make it unexpectedly good.

But I will agree with Yglesias on this: that if you're a food writer who's going to review a burger that's designed to be like a Big Mac done right - in which case you surely do like that extra stuff on your burger - and especially if you're going to directly compare it with a Big Mac, then you should have tried a Big Mac. Confessions of rank ignorance are rarely a good look on reviewers. Look things up, or try to write around your ignorance, not straight through it, or at the very least just say, as I might at a new-music concert, "Composer X is new to me." Don't boast of it.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Tolkien in time

A couple years ago there was a Newsweek special edition issue about Tolkien. Now there's one from Time. Call out the collectors again, because they (well, we, because I need a copy for the Year's Work) are undoubtedly the biggest potential audience for this.

Next to the Newsweek one, it's a little thin. It's focused on The Lord of the Rings, and that indeed is its title. There's a brief bio of Tolkien, reasonably accurate, a separate piece outlining the factual events behind the bio-film (it doesn't criticize or correct the movie), a collection of quotes from Tolkien's letters and interviews, and a couple more articles on Tolkien near the end, which I'll get back to, but the rest is on media: the Jackson movies (just of LR, not The Hobbit), the abortive Beatles film (which paints Lennon as the driving force), a piece on Stephen Colbert as fan, a piece on the post-Jackson legal wrangling, and a piece on the Amazon series (summary: we don't know any more about it than you do).

What's at the end are: a 30-question quiz, 25 of which are dead easy, 2 of which state they're from the movie so I skipped them, 2 of which are too trivial for me to care about, and 1 of which they get the answer wrong;

And a list of the order to read the books beginning with The Hobbit, which may seem obvious but can be problematic for some readers who find it too lightweight, then LR, then The Adventures of Tom Bombadil - well, maybe - then The Silmarillion, which conversely can be a doorstop preventing some readers from getting further, then the new editions of the three Great Tales - why not those first, and The Silmarillion after? - then Unfinished Tales - which is the book anyone stopped by The Silmarillion is most likely to prefer instead - and then, if you're up for it, the History of Middle-earth series;

And lastly there is a brief but toxic article by Ruth Davis Konigsberg titled "Why Are There No Women in Tolkien's World?", helpfully illustrated with photos from the movies of Galadriel and Arwen to prove the assumed premise false, plus Tauriel who isn't from Tolkien but we'll let her in just this once. Konigsberg repeats a bunch of inadequate rebuttals to her premise so that she can brush them off, but clearly she knows absolutely nothing of the Silmarillion which has more than a few significant female characters, and a comment that LR has few women because it's "a story in which the primary activity seems to be chopping off each other's body parts for no particular reason" is more than adequate proof that she hasn't read that either: you could hardly come up with a less accurate summary of the book. I suspect she just saw the movie and slept through half of it, waking up only when there was a lot of noise. On top of which her complaint that the male characters are not even known to have any female relatives is just stupid as well as inaccurate.

If Newsweek gets an A in the category of fluff magazine tie-ins, this one gets a C.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Tolkien Studies 18: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 18 of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and on Project MUSE later this year. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 18 (2021)
  • John D. Rateliff, "Richard C. West, 1944-2020"
  • Douglas A. Anderson, "Richard C. West: A Checklist"
  • Yvette Kisor, "'The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun': Sexuality, Imagery, and Desire in Tolkien's Works"
  • Curtis A. Weyant, "'A translator is not free': J.R.R. Tolkien's Rules for Translation and Their Application in Sir Orfeo"
  • Josh B. Long, "Faery, Faith, and Self-Portrayal: An Allegorical Interpretation of Smith of Wootton Major"
  • Magne Bergland, "'This gift of freedom': The Gift of Ilúvatar, from Mythological Solution to Theological Problem"
  • Douglas C. Kane, "Túrin the Hapless: Tolkien and the Sanctification of Suffering"
  • Joshua T. Parks, "Speculative Mythology: Tolkien's Adaptation of Winter and the Devil in Old English Poetry"
  • Stentor Danielson, "'To trees all Men are Orcs': The Environmental Ethic of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The New Shadow'"
  • Michael A. Moir, Jr., "'What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!': Gandalf the Wandering Deconstructionist in The Hobbit"
  • Dennis Wilson Wise, "Depth, Globalization, and the Domestic Hero: The Postmodern Transformation of Tolkien's Bard in Peter Jackson's Hobbit Films"
Notes and Documents
  • Amber Dunai, "Wið or mid? A Glimpse into Treebeard's Diachronic Perspective"
Book Reviews
  • The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth, by John Garth, reviewed by Matthew A. Fisher
  • Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages, by Holly Ordway, reviewed by Zachary D. Schmoll
  • Utopian and Dystopian Themes in Tolkien’s Legendarium, by Mark Doyle, reviewed by Jay Rimmer
  • Tolkien’s Cosmology: Divine Beings and Middle-earth, by Sam McBride, reviewed by Alyssa House-Thomas
  • Music in Tolkien’s Work and Beyond, edited by Julian Eilmann and Friedhelm Schneidewind, reviewed by David Bratman
  • J.R.R. Tolkien: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Toby Widdicombe, reviewed by David Bratman
  • David Bratman, Kate Neville, Jennifer Rogers, Robin Anne Reid, Jason Fisher, John Wm. Houghton, and John Magoun, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2018"
  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (in English) for 2019"

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

D.C. statehood

Here's the letter from 39 law professors saying that D.C. statehood is perfectly constitutional and in practical terms acceptable.

Here's my additional thoughts.

Congress has the right to make any qualifying territory a state that it wants. That it would happen to give the Democrats two more senators is just a good fortune they're taking advantage of. It's been done before. Collectors of the state quarters may have noticed the cluster of six northwestern states that were admitted in 1889-90. It would have been five, except that Dakota Territory was split into two. The reason for that is the Republicans had just reclaimed control of the Congress and Presidency, and wanted to take advantage of these Republican-leaning territories to improve their prospects. And, indeed, 12 Republican senators from these states did change the party balance of the Senate in some upcoming years.

The Federal District isn't necessary. Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress exclusive power "over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government." Notice first not exceeding: it can be smaller than that. Notice also as may. It does not read to me as if we're required to have such a district.

Needn't the District go back to Maryland if dissolved? No. When the Virginia portion was retro-ceded in 1846, that was voluntary on both the federal and state parts. Both Virginia and Maryland gave up all rights on ceding. D.C. could go back to Maryland, but Maryland doesn't want it and the inhabitants of D.C. don't want to go there, so in practice that's out.

What about the 23rd Amendment? The 23rd Amendment is what gives D.C., though not a state, electoral votes for President. The (legally: see below) uninhabited rump federal district would retain this right when the rest of D.C. attained the vote by right as a state. What then? Well, as the letter points out, we could repeal the 23rd, the way we repealed Prohibition. In the meantime, the letter says that Congress could just revoke the enacting legislation, because Section 2 of the 23rd gives Congress the "power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." True, it does, but it seems to me that Section 1 requires Congress to enact such legislation. For it says, "The District ... shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct: a number of electors ..." Shall appoint. That seems to say there must be such electors. But also in such manner as the Congress may direct, which means Congress may direct the choosing of electors required to vote for the national electoral vote winner or popular vote winner or whatever.

Wouldn't the President and his family, who live in the White House, be voters in the rump District? Not unless they chose to be. They never have in the past. Members of Congress, though in practice living in or around D.C. due to the length of Congressional sessions, are representatives of their states and keep their voting residences there, and Presidents do the same thing, partly so that they can be photographed at polling places. The Obamas voted in Chicago; W. in Texas. DT was registered at Trump Tower until he moved it to Mar a Lago.

There is no city in D.C. called Washington. There used to be; but when the city was expanded to be coterminous with the district, the city government was dissolved. When home rule was granted, it was still under the name of the district. The mayor's official title is Mayor of the District of Columbia, not of Washington. The current statehood bill would make it the "State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth." The rebranding of the "D.C." part is brilliant, but including "Washington" is unnecessary and only would increase confusion with the other state of Washington, which is bad enough already.

Monday, May 24, 2021

two events

Somehow I wound up with tickets to two online performances at exactly the same time. Fortunately both remained online for a short period afterwards (though only to ticket-holders, I think), so I was able to partake of both. This wouldn't have been the case had they been in person, when I would have been forced to eat the first ticket if deciding that the second-arriving one was the one I really wanted to go to, never to learn that the first one was actually more enjoyable.

This was a chamber music concert by members of the Berkeley Symphony, made visually intriguing by placing the musicians around various spots in the stark and vaulting, but apparently not echoing, Berkeley Art Museum. I signed up for this one for an Andante for string quartet by Florence Price, which proved to be performed in a lush and tender manner which suited Price's style excellently. But I was familiar with all the composers and they all gave good offerings: a solo horn piece by Messiaen (Appel Interstellaire), plus an outstanding string quartet, Strum, by Jessie Montgomery, and a riveting suite for violin, viola, and percussion by Michael Daugherty, Diamond in the Rough, I think the best piece of his I've heard.

The other performance was a production by the Lamplighters, the local Gilbert & Sullivan company, of Cox and Box. This is the only non-G&S piece in the typical G&S company standard repertoire, having been composed by Sullivan before he ever met Gilbert, and suitable for pandemic work because it has only three characters, but despite its turning up from time to time, I'd never seen it before. Judging from this, it'll be quite a while before I see it again.

Sullivan's music is very capable and reasonably attractive, though he had not yet reached the supreme melodic gift he'd achieve in his fourth collaboration with Gilbert, H.M.S. Pinafore, and thereafter. The libretto by the justly forgotten F.C. Burnand, however, is tiresome and the wit, compared to Gilbert's, is infantile. The premise and plot are extremely silly, but they're not Burnand's; he adapted someone else's farce about a penny-pinching landlord who (without telling them) rents one room to two tenants, one who works at night and one by day so they never meet until one has a day off, at which point they also discover they're engaged to the same woman, whom neither of them can stand so they each try to push her off onto the other. No, it doesn't make any sense, and the opening scenes in which each unknowing co-tenant wonders why he keeps running out of things like coal and matches are wearying, but perhaps it was the fact that, for pandemic reasons, the performers were only interacting via video trickery that made the show fall flat.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

English suites and others no. 44

Antonín Dvořák, leading Czech nationalist composer and devoutly dedicated to his homeland - he'd refused offers to move to Vienna, capital of the Austrian Empire within which the Czech lands then lay - spent three years in the 1890s living in the United States. Why was he here?

He'd been invited by a philanthropist who was founding a music school. The idea was that Dvořák would teach American composers to do for American nationalism in music what he had done himself for Czech music. How well that worked out, we'll see whenever this vaguely organized-by-country survey gets to the U.S. But Dvořák himself, though homesick enough that he eventually abruptly resigned and went back to Prague (lack of salary also played a part: there was a depression going on) found the U.S. an interesting place, not least because, after teaching in New York all year, he could spend a summer in a Czech-settled village in Iowa.

While in the U.S., Dvořák wrote a fair amount of what might best be called American tourist music, rather like Russian and French composers writing Spanish tourist music, incorporating what the composer himself heard as an "American" sound. Several of these pieces, like the Symphony from the New World and the "American" Quartet, have become among Dvořák's most popular works. Some listeners say they're indistinguishable from his Czech-flavored music, but I hear a distinct difference: brighter harmonies and emphatic cadences, a more plain-spoken and regular construction than the more relaxed and rhapsodic Czech style. Try comparing his Czech Suite, the previous work on this program, with his American Suite:

There's five movements: Andante con moto (0.00), Allegro (5.02), Moderato alla polacca (9.11), Andante (13.47), Allegro (17.25).

(Normally I try not to subject you to videos with the score, though I like them myself, but this is definitely the most crisp and incisive performance available online. It should be; it's conducted by Antal Dorati.)

Friday, May 21, 2021

no longer a Shavian mystery

A couple weeks ago I wrote of a letter than Winston Churchill had sent to King Edward VIII, just before the king's abdication, encouraging him to fight against it, and including the comment "For real wit Bernard Shaw's article in to-night's Evening Standard should be read. He is joyous."

What did Shaw write? I wondered. I consulted Michael Holroyd's massive 4-volume biography of Shaw, which said nothing. Academic library sources that could give further info are unavailable right now. But a couple of commenters on various iterations of this blog had some clues. One of them had access to the letter in Martin Gilbert's books of Churchill documents, which provided a source reference. Another Googled (using what terms? they didn't say) and got the same info.

The piece was called "The King, the Constitution and the Lady," and is reprinted, apparently nearly in full, in Hesketh Pearson's Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality (first published 1942, last revised 1961). This is a far shorter and more entertaining biography than Holroyd's, consisting largely of quotations from Shaw's works and from letters to Pearson. Where Holroyd concentrates on what Shaw did, Pearson is more interested in what Shaw thought and what he was like.

Together with an introduction, the piece consists of a "fictitious dialogue." Though in play format, it's not considered one of Shaw's plays in any list I've seen, even though some that are included are very short. In it, the king cleverly outmaneuvers the stolid prime minister and archbishop of Canterbury. He says that if the church won't marry him, he'll have a civil wedding. (Yes, but he'd still be Head of the Church, so that doesn't solve the problem.) He says that "the people are behind me" and that a King's Party would win an election called on the issue. (Utterly mistaken.) He says nobody would accept his brother as a 'real' king as long as he himself was around. (That didn't turn out to be true, either.) He demands that if the PM and archbishop forbid his marrying Mrs. S., that they name who he should marry. (That demand doesn't follow at all.) They say it should be someone of royal blood (pretty much an obsolete expectation after WW1) and not an American. (Contrary to some ideas, nobody objected to Mrs. S. being an American; it was her serial divorces that bothered them.)

Fortunately for the British polity, the real prime minister was far more savvy than the sap in Shaw's dialogue, and convinced the king that if he insisted on the woman he'd have to abdicate, and this conclusion had already been reached by the time this piece was published.

Holroyd's one comment on the abdication is that Shaw made "an approving reference" to it in the play he was writing at the time. I checked on this too. The play was Cymbeline Refinished, and it says the opposite of what Holroyd implies. Guiderius refuses to accept heirship to the throne, saying that as king he would be, among other things, "Not free to wed the woman of my choice." So that's the same position Shaw takes in the dialogue.

But then, Shaw's political instincts were not always of the best. According to Pearson, where everybody else was terribly frightened of the Nazi-Soviet treaty, Shaw was convinced it was proof of a long peace to come. To the fact that everyone disagreed with him, Shaw replied, "Am I mad?" Evidently.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

venturing out

Tuesday I went out to a convenient town, a few miles away, to check out some Italian restaurants for an upcoming special dinner. What kind of seating do they have, outdoors or (in a couple cases) indoors? Is the outdoor seating shaded? Is there traffic passing immediately by? How big are the tables? That sort of thing that's best checked in person.

Wednesday I judged that, virus transmission hereabouts having receded to a dull roar, it was safe to go back to the east side, where the disease had been at its most virulent, to the little shop that makes and sells the most authentic local tamales, to bring some home for dinner.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Theodore Roosevelt for President

Reading a book that happened to deal with Theodore Roosevelt, I was intrigued to learn something I hadn't known before about his campaign for and election as Vice President in 1900.

It's well-known that he'd been eased into this position by Thomas Platt, the Republican party boss of New York state, who'd wanted to kick TR upstairs from Governor into what he considered a harmless position. Of course, this backfired on Platt when President McKinley was assassinated and TR inherited the position of President. One question is why, both on such grounds and simply for security, did officials tend to ignore the possibility of assassination? It was in the air. McKinley's assassin was inspired by the assassination of the King of Italy the year before. Two US Presidents had been assassinated within the previous 40 years.

But what I'm dealing with here is the prospect of being Vice President for four years. TR was an active man; it would have been a stultifying job for him. Indeed, although he was riding a crest of popularity from his (overblown) exploits in the Spanish war of 1898, he knew he could be entirely forgotten by the time his term was over, and he took steps to get tutored in the law so that he could earn his living that way after leaving office. (Private tutoring was still a common avenue for legal training then.)

However, TR's initial receptivity to being run for VP was the idea that he could use it to position himself to run for President in 1904 when McKinley's second term as President ran out. That's what was new information to me. And what I wondered was, was this feasible? No incumbent VP had been elected President since Martin Van Buren in 1836, and he - not incidentally - had been the last VP up to that time, or for a considerable time thereafter, who was the President's right-hand man and not a ticket-balancer.

But when I looked it up, I found that the idea of a VP running for President when the incumbent stepped down was not unknown post-Van Buren. It's easy to forget that one other such VP had run a full campaign, and that was John C. Breckinridge for the Southern Democrats when the party split in 1860. I found on checking that two other such VPs had attempted presidential runs, George M. Dallas in 1848 and Adlai Stevenson (the elder) in 1896. They didn't get very far with them, and Breckinridge didn't win either, but the idea was in the air. And it remained so, as several other VPs in upcoming years attempted presidential runs (Fairbanks 1908, Marshall 1920, Garner 1940, Barkley 1952) before Richard Nixon finally achieved nomination, and near-election, in 1960. Since then three more VPs have been presidential nominees, of whom one won election, and two more ex-VPs have run in subsequent elections, of whom one won and he's in office right now.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Sunday online

Kalamazoo is over, but I had two online events today of other origin.

My old library school, the University of Washington Information School as it's now named, held a festive gathering as a memorial for its most famous alumna, Beverly Cleary. This was the second Cleary-honoring event I've attended there; when I was a student, she came by for a visit and gave us a talk. This time, the bulk of the event was a set of children's librarians from around the state of Washington, each reading a selection from a Cleary book. My favorite bits were the ones from Ramona novels: she's definitely Cleary's best character.

Menlo had another one-hour online concert. This one was the Calidore Quartet, a quite fabulous group I didn't want to miss, especially with tempting repertoire like the Barber Quartet and Schubert's Death & the Maiden. Very satisfying performances, especially the Barber, where the Calidore found a way to integrate the spikier outer movements into the idiom of the romantic flow of the famous Adagio that comes between them.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Saturday at Kalamazoo

This was the last day of the online congress, and while I've enjoyed it, I'm also relieved it's over. In-person Mythcons last three days, Friday noon-Monday noon, and they always seem too brief, but better a little too short than a little too long. This one has been occupying the better part of my attention for 7 or 8 days, not counting previously figuring out logistics and finding the sessions I wanted to attend, nearly half of which I missed anyway.

Today's one session was on Tolkien's paratexts and related materials. Kris Swank gave some examples of marginalia and ephemera to be found in surviving books on Celtic studies that Tolkien bought during a flurry of attention to the subject in the early 1920s. Eileen Moore recounted her attempts to create a complete Elvish dictionary covering all the languages and dialects and versions in the published material, which will help draw connections between related material that wasn't visible unless you knew all the sources. Unfortunately Eileen's source list only goes up through Parma 12, so there's more to add later.

Most provocatively, Luke Shelton took issue with, or at least queried, Tolkien's statement in the Lord of the Rings foreword that the work is not an allegory. That depends on what you think an allegory is, Luke said, and he cited readers who have ignored Tolkien on that point. Then he went on to say that, since Tolkien accepted "the freedom of the reader" to interpret but that what he objected to in allegory was "the purposed domination of the author," isn't an author who objects to his work being considered allegory indulging in purposed domination? And he said it as if he'd caught Tolkien in a giant "gotcha." In reality it's a Gödelian category error, like saying the barber can't shave himself if he shaves just the men in the village who don't shave themselves. The only domination Tolkien is showing here is expecting readers not to make declarations as to what they think his allegorical purposed domination is.

Meanwhile, back at work - neither of my co-editors showed up, though they usually attend when the congress is in person and I don't - we're doing the final final editing for the next issue of Tolkien Studies before turning it in to the publishers, at which point I can announce what's in it. Minimum amount of salivation when I reported this at open chat sessions, but we're going ahead anyway.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Friday at Kalamazoo

The day didn't begin well. I was up in time for an early session I was passingly interested in, but then my browser crashed, I lost all my tabs, and by the time I dug out the proper link to the conference and got logged in again, I had missed most of the session.

But I did see the entirety of the Tolkien session later in the day. John D. Rateliff uncovered more of the dilemmas Tolkien created for himself when he tried to turn his mythology into something scientifically plausible; Jeremy Byrum compared Sauron with Thanos (a character I only heard of when Josh Brolin appeared on Stephen Colbert and read Trump tweets in his Thanos voice, the way Andy Serkis had read them in his Gollum voice); Perry Neil Harrison found tremendous echoes between Túrin and Robin Hood; and Luke Shelton attempted to analyze how different people's images of Tolkien's work are by asking a bunch of kids which of several photos they thought looked most like Lothlórien, a question I doubt I could answer.

More Zoom came my way in the evening when a local theater company put on a Zoom production of Lauren Gunderson's play The Revolutionists. I'd liked her The Book of Will onstage, but found this dramedy about women in the French Revolution rather tiresome, overlong, repetitious, and overly self-referential. (One of the characters is writing a play, apparently the one that you're watching, and constantly fretting about it. This ought to be funny, but is just annoying.) Frequent momentary popouts and freezes in the Zoom feed did not help. The presenters recommended watching this on gallery view so you could see all the performers who were "onstage" at the same time, which was a good idea, except that there were also several dozen of us watching muted and with cameras off, and it took me about ten minutes to find Zoom's "Hide Non-Video Participants" button, which was not where they said it was.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Thursday at Kalamazoo

I was not feeling too well this morning, and only got to one and part of another sessions of the online medieval studies congress. Both were on Tolkien, a nice change from Wednesday.

Tolkien and dragons. 1) People over the centuries have thought that auroras were signs of distant but large fires, and that meteors were dragons. So Tolkien made them so in his fiction. An aurora that turns out to mean that Morgoth's armies are invading you from the north ... talk about chilling.
2) You know which Austrian psychotherapist's couch you're on when the presenter keeps calling a dragon "the penetrating phallus." The problem is that, if the cave is the womb-like "feminized space," that's where the dragon lives and comes out of, not what he invades, so the whole metaphor is off.
3) Traditional English dragons, including the one in Beowulf, are poisonous, and may have venomous breath, but breathe no fire. So where do Tolkien's fire-breathing dragons come from? Presenter suggests it's from Leviathan in the Book of Job, who breathes fire and also has legs, which traditional dragons (worms) often don't. Presenter leaves audience wondering if this has anything to do with earlier warning that most people don't know what's genuinely Catholic about Tolkien's work.

Tolkien and illness and healing. Less medicinal than it sounds. Two papers, one on dancing, one on singing, and how in Tolkien they heal the soul, fulfill desire, and act to express and share cultural identity. E.g. Bilbo begins to feel dwarvish and adventurous when he hears the dwarves' song, but that's only the first of many examples. Dance-paper presenter points out that, despite long religious disapproval of dancing, Dante was also pro-dance.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Wednesday at Kalamazoo

A quiet day at the medieval studies congress, with no Tolkien on the schedule. In the morning there was a very tempting-sounding session on medievalism and anti-semitism. This turned out to be somewhat fuzzier than I'd hoped. Two of the presentations were on current right-wing movements using pseudo-scholarly medievalist tropes with, inter alia, some anti-semitism in it: racist black-metal bands, and groups that think knights are cool, not because of chivalry of course but for their violence. Another speaker mentioned the dispute in Spanish historiography over whether to derive the nation purely from Visigothic roots or from multi-cultural ones including Jewish and Muslim influences, and then discussed contemporary Spain's greater readiness to make amends for its anti-Jewish past than its anti-Muslim past, without connecting the two points although the thesis was that there was a connection. Another speaker made a cursory survey of medieval anti-semitism without connecting it to the Carmina Burana poetry, her ostensible topic, and being even less connected, if possible, when turning to the Carl Orff version. So I didn't feel I learned much here.

Later on I had to choose between a C.S. Lewis session and one on women and Beowulf. I wound up at the former, and heard about derivations of The Last Battle from Piers Plowman and of Out of the Silent Planet from Bernardus Silvestris, that latter of which took its garbled time to finish up, and two papers on Ransom's moral development in the latter novel, one of which engaged in vigorous Social Darwinist-bashing.

Not as effective a day as Tuesday. I'm hoping for better tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Tuesday at Kalamazoo

This was the most interest-filled day of the online medieval studies congress, and despite bouts of itchiness and tiredness I managed to sit through the better part of five sessions.

The first and most Tolkien-related session, sponsored by the new fantasy studies center (sorry, centre) at the University of Glasgow (where it was 2 p.m. instead of 6 a.m. as here), was on the late Christopher Tolkien as a medievalist. Multiple manuscripts of the same medieval text all differ, and medievalists learn not to consider any given one authoritative but to consider all for their points of interest, so Miriam Mayburd showed how CT brought that principle to the editing of his father's multifarious manuscripts. Perry Neil Harrison considered JRRT's creative works based on medieval sources (The Fall of Arthur, The Legend of Sigurd, his translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain), and how CT used editing these as an opportunity to write accounts of how they fit into the medieval tradition. (This being a celebratory session, there was no consideration of how these accounts are often clotted and hard to understand.) Eileen M. Moore treated CT as a calligrapher, following JRRT's practice of including, on the title pages of books, descriptions in tengwar of their contents. Though Eileen's sole interest in the presentation was on analyzing the mode CT developed for this (English was not made for the tengwar, nor the tengwar for English), when asked, "For those of us who don't read tengwar, what do the inscriptions say?", she shot us a link to a file in the chat. And Erik D. Mueller-Harder discussed CT as cartographer of the maps in JRRT's books, not claiming skill nor aiming at originality but simply trying to reproduce the style as well as the content of his father's messy working maps as cleanly as possible. A very productive session.

After that, I thought it might be related to go on to a session on the accuracy of medieval manuscript copying. Unfortunately I didn't get all the way through this one, though I did hear an account of how a later copy of a medical treatise had revisions reflecting changes in society in the interim (if the presenter said either when or where either copy was produced, I missed it) and a description of a chain of transmission of a popular compendium of saints' lives.

More sizzling was a session on the ethics of a field that actually has a name, fragmentology: the collecting and study of manuscript fragments. I'd thought this would be about crumbling parchment like the Dead Sea Scrolls, but no: "fragments" are leaves torn out of intact manuscripts by dealers and sold separately to make more $$$. (These people have a name too: they're called book-breakers.) The question was, is it ethical for libraries to collect the broken leaves? Some say absolutely not, but they weren't at this session. The panelists all stoutly defended the practice: leaves are less expensive than full codices, so more affordable to institutions with limited budgets; they're more portable and less fragile than the codices, so they give more students a chance to handle real manuscripts in person; they really are still useful for research.
Yet I still began to feel uneasy. The way most of the panelists try to discourage the practice of book-breaking is by buying only fragments that were broken a long time ago. One person actually compared this to ivory: you shouldn't buy new ivory, but ivory hundreds of years old should be OK. But it isn't. The US has a prohibition against the importation of ivory, period, no matter how old it can be verified to be. The Stanford Music Department discovered this when they tried importing some old player pianos from Australia (piano rolls are model-specific, so if they had the rolls they needed the specific pianos) and had to leave the keyboards behind in Australia. I heard about this years ago, and never learned if they ever got a waiver. I didn't dare mention an even clearer case, child pornography. Possessors of that, even second- or third-hand, are considered every bit as guilty as those who actually produce the stuff, and the reason is, acquiring it encourages the production of more of it. Of course, no children are abused nor elephants killed to break a manuscript, but that only means the penalty is less: it shouldn't change the principle. Either the one of these cases should be more like the others, or the others more like the one.

I skipped a session on Tolkien and Chaucer, even though I liked what Chaucer I've read, because I don't know that much about his work, in favor of one with the truly tempting topic of whether the Society for Creative Anachronism is "a problematic medievalism." Especially as the program listing typoed it as "Anarchronism." This was more like a science-fiction convention panel, in that nobody had written out their presentation, and in winging it made a lot of detours and asides, and references to things they didn't explain, which is how life is at SF con panels.
Yes, there was a lot said about the white supremacists, and the coronation coat with swastikas on it, but the panel also addressed the problematic way that medievalist scholars often look down on re-creators. Groups like the SCA are a way of bringing medieval studies to people who'd never get into an academic classroom. In some fields, like fabric arts, original material and even written accounts of making it are rare (the presenter discussing this didn't say anything about pictures), so re-creation is the only way to study it. On the other hand, amateurs should stop marching into museums and telling the curators that we know how it's done and you don't.
Some of the speakers were members of the SCA and some weren't, but they all pronounced it as an initialism, which is how I learned it, and not as a word like "ska" which has apparently become widespread. One speaker described his disappointment with a series of groups, but then he was attracted by a Viking society which clearly abjured white supremacy. Yeah, he quoted the society's literature as saying, the original Vikings looted and took slaves, but they weren't all racist about it.

Last I got to a session on inclusion in musical pedagogy. This was about what I expected. Two scholars designing basic music-history survey courses with more non-Western music in them. One trying to figure out how to get his students to appreciate the non-Western music he teaches, in this case medieval Chinese music. And one Asian-born grad student of an intensely Western genre, medieval Church music, trying to find her place in the scholarly community. Naturally, the last speaker's PowerPoint included a slide with a dictionary definition of "microaggression."

Monday, May 10, 2021

Monday at Kalamazoo

Today's Tolkien session, sponsored by the Marquette University Archives where many of his papers are kept, was on Tolkien and manuscripts. I expected something esoteric, and was delighted by the lucidity of the papers. One was a fairly light overview of racial and class dialects of English in The Lord of the Rings, viewed as if it were a historical manuscript; the other was a particularly virtuosic account of particularly viruosic actual medieval scholarship, showing how Tolkien used scribal letterforms and spellings to demonstrate that a particular Anglo-Saxon text was a 13th-century copy of a work composed around the 9th century. That he could analyze both composition and scribal dates at once without getting muddled was particularly impressive.

After that I hung around for part of a session on King Lear, because at least that's a work I know, and, indeed, if I had not known it I would not have been able to follow the papers. You'd think Shakespeare would be outside of the borders of medieval studies, but apparently not: there's a thriving Shakespeare track here. One of the papers had actual medieval leanings, though: it was on the Fool's prophecy with its mind-tickling final line, "This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time." The author showed the prophecy as deriving from a tradition of Merlinesque prophetic texts.

After that I had to get off for other things, but I'll be back tomorrow.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

beheld, a Tolkien conference

So, the Tolkien fringe event to the Kalamazoo medieval studies congress yesterday. Nine papers, not organized into sessions but with half-hour slots each, and I managed to hear at least part of all of them. I didn't take any notes and this is from memory. Among them:

The prospectus of a plan to take Tolkien's working map of Middle-earth that he used during the writing of most of The Lord of the Rings and deconstruct it into all the various revisions and overlays, some of them literal as Tolkien made some of his revisions by sticking new pieces of paper on top. (Not, I hasten to add, taking apart the original map: this project is based on Christopher Tolkien's published descriptions of the map, including uncovering lower layers by peering through it with a strong light.)

A discussion of "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son" in its capacity as a work of drama and of alliterative verse. This is rare, since most considerations of "Homecoming" are of the scholarly essay it's embedded in. The alliterative verse part is especially interesting, as Tolkien was almost solely responsible for reviving into modern English this poetic form that had been obsolete for about 500 years. Tolkien wrote lots of alliterative poems, but this is one of the longest and most elaborate.

Twins in Tolkien, and their common characteristics. What struck me as more interesting than the main thrust of the paper is that one of these common features - echoing names - appears even in sets of siblings who aren't twins, like Boromir and Faramir. Plenty of others among the hobbits too: Belladonna/Donnamira/Mirabella.

Shared themes and poetic phraseology between Tolkien and G.B. Smith, one of his close friends who died in WW1. Could be mutual influence, could be shared inspiration from common sources. Smith's middle name was "Bache" and it turns out nobody knows how to pronounce this.

Results of survey asking young readers to name the most and least favorite, and most and least relatable, characters among the nine members of the Fellowship. Boromir was among the least favorite but the most relatable; I don't quite follow that line of reasoning. Apparently no attempt was made to zero out the influence of the movies on these ratings.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

behold, a Tolkien conference

Thanks to the magic of Zoom, I got to attend a conference today that I'd never been to before.

The Tolkien scholars invaded the International Congress on Medieval Studies about 20 years ago, initially under the leadership of Prof. Jane Chance. This event is held annually in May by Western Michigan University, which is in the town of Kalamazoo. As a result, the congress is never called by its name. It is called "Kalamazoo." As I found as soon as I heard of it, you just have to know what the metonym means.

Kalamazoo is an appropriate place for Tolkien scholars to be: Tolkien was himself a medievalist scholar, and medieval influences and styles are all over his fiction. There'd been occasional papers on Tolkien in earlier years, but now there were several full sessions - a paper session at an academic conference is 3-4 papers by different people on putatively related topics, stuffed into a 90-minute time slot. And for several years, there were more sessions every year, not all of which were all that medievalist; there were panel discussion sessions; and also there were play readings, there was music, some serious and some satiric. Tolkien began to take over Kalamazoo.

But all did not remain well. A few years ago the conference organizers blew the whistle and limited the formal Tolkien group to a few, like 3, sessions per year, although they also began accepting Tolkien sessions proposed by others. So the Tolkien group started up its own annual fringe conference. That's what was today. The main show starts on Monday.

I've never been to Kalamazoo. Two main reasons: one is that, unlike many Tolkienists, I'm not much of a medievalist. Most of the rest of what goes on is outside of my expertise. The other is that Kalamazoo is cleverly located far from major airports. It's difficult and time-consuming to get to if you're from far away. My priority is Mythcon. It's tricky to add a hard-to-reach congress of huge scope (it lasts a week, longer if you add the fringe) and limited personal interest to that if your budget or time is restricted, and mine has been.

But this year, after being wholly cancelled last year, Kalamazoo moved online. I don't have to leave home to attend, and I'm not stuck at the conference when there's nothing on that I want to hear. So I signed up. I also signed up for the Tolkien fringe, likewise online.

And I've said enough that I think I'd best leave the actual fringe conference for a later post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

a shavian mystery

Looking through the biography of Winston Churchill by Roy Jenkins (2001), and reading the part about Churchill's truly unfortunate involvement in trying to prevent the abdication of King Edward VIII, I find a transcript of a strange letter - Jenkins mentions "the rashness of content and the jauntiness of tone, in sharp contrast with the note of measured respect in which he normally addressed his sovereign" - encouraging the king to hold out against pressure to abdicate and naming some potential allies he should enlist.

It's not clear if one of these is intended to be the person named in point 5 of the letter: "For real wit Bernard Shaw's article in to-night's Evening Standard should be read. He is joyous."

I wonder what Shaw said, and indeed whether it had anything to do with the abdication at all - it could have been "oh, you must read this funny article," irrespective of anything else Churchill was saying. I'm still wondering.

There's nothing about this letter in Frances Donaldson's biography of the Duke of Windsor (1975), which I happen to have - the inscription shows it was a high-school graduation present from my aunt - but Donaldson does give context, that Jenkins doesn't discuss, that reveals how futile Churchill's intervention was. By the date of the letter, 5 Dec. 1936, Edward had definitely made up his mind to abdicate, though Donaldson says that Churchill's influence "temporarily weakened the King's resolution." (Churchill came to dinner with the king - Jenkins says the previous day, Donaldson says on both days.) Donaldson even says at one point that the king had already rejected the participation of Lord Beaverbrook, one of Churchill's suggested allies ("He is a tiger to fight. A devoted tiger! Very scarce breed").

But what of Shaw? Donaldson never mentions him; Jenkins says nothing else either. I consulted the monumental biography of Shaw by Michael Holroyd (v. 3 of 4, 1991). All he says of the abdication is that Shaw made "an approving reference" to it in the play he was writing at the time. Holroyd does, however, devote a couple of pages to recounting Shaw's rather peripatetic friendship with Churchill.

If the research libraries were open, I might be able to track down the original article - I doubt there will be microfilms of the Evening Standard (which was one of the papers of Lord Rothermere, another megalomaniac press baron like Beaverbrook), but if there's a collected edition of the complete journalism of Shaw it might be there. But they're not open, so it's moot for now.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

remembering the cold war

I was reading historical accounts of the earlier decades of the Cold War, and remembering what it was like to live through it.

We really did have drills at school in which we huddled on the floor underneath our desks for a specified period, 60 or 90 seconds, while our teacher patrolled the room to ensure we were doing it properly. I doubt that, as a small child, I really understood what it was for, but in retrospect to protect yourself from the Bomb that way seems pathetic. I suspect it was drills of that sort which generated the exchange in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,
'I thought,' he said 'that if the world was going to end we were meant to lie down or put a paper bag over our head or something.'
'If you like, yes,' said Ford.
'Will that help?' asked the barman.
'No,' said Ford.
Of course, what we were afraid of, that might bring these bombs, was Communism. So what was Communism, and why was it bad?

We were told that Communism imposed totalitarian control over life, and that specifically it was a politico-economic system that abolished private property.

This was perhaps a misleading way of explaining it to a small child. I knew that our house was my parents' property, but the only form of private property I was actually familiar with was my own, which consisted of my clothes, and my toys and books. If Communism abolished private property, it therefore seemed to me that, under it, I would have to live in some sort of dormitory with strange boys, and we would get all our clothes out of a communal drawer. Yech!

I had never had to share my clothes - as the oldest child in the family, I never even wore hand-me-downs, though my brothers did - but I had lived, at camp, in dormitories with strange boys, an experience I found utterly unappealing. So I was firmly anti-Communist.

Which reminds me that I had read somewhere that Barry Goldwater supported making school year-round. I was 7 years old, so that was enough that I was opposed to Barry Goldwater too.

Monday, May 3, 2021

the pandemic that (perhaps) never ends

One on my reading list has pointed out that, the more the virus flourishes in - at the moment - India and other Asian countries, the greater the likelihood that a new genetic variant will emerge that is immune to and unaffected by our vaccines, either completely or partially enough to be significant. The actual likelihood of this happening is uncertain, because we don't know enough about the virus's evolutionary patterns, but it's certainly more than zero and becomes higher the more transmission is going on.

This is not a point I'd previously directly considered, though I certainly know that it's possible.

In which case, the person points out, we'll have to start all over again with the lockdowns and the development of a new vaccine.

And what I say is: if we get to that point, then the pandemic will never end. Because there are three reasons why it's dragging on as long as it is, and only one of those reasons is slowness and inefficiently in the distribution of vaccine. The other two are 1) failure of a sufficient number of people to abide by lockdowns and other safety procedures; 2) failure of a sufficient number of people to get the vaccine.

And if we have to start all over, the number of people too weary of all this to either abide by safety procedures or to get the new vaccine will only increase. What they can't grasp is that rigid adherence for a long enough period is the only way to end this. If you give up because you just want it to go away, it never will.

I've been reading, for instance here, that countermeasures are being dropped too quickly and not enough people are getting vaccinated. A few more weeks should do it, the writer says, but it's not happening. And yet, as the writer doesn't say, that applies only to the U.S. and assumes nothing more virulent comes from overseas, which of course it will if it exists at all.

The original writer says that, considering the possibility of a renewed pandemic, we should therefore take advantage of our newfound freedom to do things, because it may not last. And to an extent that's good advice. But everything I've read about "so what can we do now?" talks about balancing: the risks - because the vaccine isn't 100% protective and there's too many unvaccinated still spreading virus around - against your personal need to do these things. The risk seems constant; it's the extent of the need that allows you to take greater risks.

Those needs are usually expressed in psychological terms - there's a limit to how long you can stand being cooped up at home all day - and here, as an extreme introvert, my needs are low. Back last fall, when the virus transmission increased dramatically, I cut out the few things I was going: supplementary grocery shopping (in addition to our weekly pickup order) in person, and getting takeout meals from indoor restaurants. Once I was vaccinated, I resumed those things. And I'm also going back to the gym, which I ceased when the pandemic started last March, not in the fall (to be fair, that's when the gyms closed).

But not much more. I've had exactly one outdoor dine-in restaurant meal. My brother and I are planning a day's travel expedition when he visits next month, and that will involve more meals. I'm prepared to attend socially distanced, preferably outdoor, concerts when they resume, like Menlo's potentially in July. (The San Francisco Symphony just now got around to telling me, as a subscriber, something I already knew from news reports, that they're going to start a few indoor but distanced concerts in May and June, but I doubt I'll go: too much nuisance getting there.)

Two more things I am definitely not attempting until and unless things markedly improve. 1) overnight car trips: too much still shut down, and too many logistical hassles also involving my advancing personal health issues. 2) Airplane flights. That's the one area where I don't trust the conventional assuring wisdom, in this case that the air circulates so it's OK to be cooped up with strangers for hours. I don't trust it because I have too much personal experience of catching nasty colds and flus from airplane rides.

John Oliver read my mind

"The Covid vaccines: the end result of the world's greatest scientists working around the clock to save countless lives, immortalized in a card we'll all definitely lose in a month. Vitally important, but also too big to fit in any standard wallet. Way to fumble at the one yard line, science." - John Oliver