16.4.15

On Keeping Up With Spanish

A few months ago, I posted on my attempts to re-learn Spanish using the mobile app Duolingo. In the meantime, I've kept at it: six days a week with at least some progress.

As the details of the language return to me, I find myself surprised that anything managed to stick.* At six months (more or less) of progress, I reached the point at which I recognized the need to now do something with my language study. Working on vocabulary exercises and verb tenses is nice but insufficient for any actual use. Consequently I've decided to supplement Duolingo with two additional sources. The first is a simple one-volume Spanish-for-reading textbook, and the other is with an actual in-Spanish version of a novel I know well in its English translation, 2666. Yes, like a crazy person I am beginning with a 900-page novel, albeit one divided into five smaller sections. The textbook is designed for people with no previous Spanish experience (thus I breezed through the first chapter in three or four days of 15-30 minutes of effort), and focused primarily on teaching one how to recognize the syntactical components of Spanish sentences: see the structure, figure out which words go together, learn what the words mean. And, indeed, there was something thrilling about making it through a page and a half of entirely Spanish text without need of a dictionary, even as I was perfectly aware of how basic the text was. For me, reading is at the basis of listening and speaking: if I can see the parts of a sentence that go together, then I can 'see' them when someone else is speaking, and I can produce them when I'm talking.

2666's purposes are more prosaic. As I learned many years ago with Latin, you can memorize all the verb tenses and noun declensions you like, but they are of little use reading and translating, because no one but Cicero ever wrote that way. The novel is a first cut of someone actually using the language to attempt to do things. I have found it to be considerably easier than I expected: after some growing pains, a couple pages a day presents no issues. The only thing hampering me at the moment, in fact, is the pedantic insistence on going over the text sentence-by-sentence in order to make sure I'm really understanding what is being said. Otherwise, I'd be worried that I relied too much on context clues to interpret the parts I couldn't directly understand. But how would that be any different than reading Shakespeare for the first time?

My goal remains reading Javier Marías' Así empieza lo malo before it is translated into English and, surprisingly enough, this looks to be an eminently plausible goal.


*I'm not convinced the textbooks we used in junior high and high school were part of the same program, and those from college were certainly different. The level of instruction was, charitably, variable, though I did benefit from two very good Spanish natives, one of whom was good at teaching us Spain's various dialects. Spanish instruction has to deal with a 'Mexico problem' in a way perhaps not comparable to other foreign languages--people who learn it primarily to be slightly better able to use it when vacationing in the culturally fraught sense of 'visiting Tijuana' as opposed to 'visiting Paris,' and instruction varies widely on how much in tolerates the also culturally fraught use of Spanglish (secondary education Spanish instruction, at least in my experience, has a lot of people whose experience of the Spanish-speaking world doesn't run much beyond visiting Mexico). Native speakers from Spain tend (again, in my experience) to be a lot less patient about all of this, and a lot more expansive in their concept of what Spanish has to offer, culturally.

6.4.15

On Henry James and Proust, Finally

I have mentioned a few times a fondness for this poem by Ezra Pound--

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

--despite liking neither Ezra Pound nor Walt Whitman, for capturing the feeling of maturing taste. Pound once hated Whitman for being too close to what he himself wanted to do, and thus making him the thing to rebel against in order to assert his own identity. It's not a rejection of his old attitude towards Whitman, just a recognition that Pound's own situation is different now, and he recognizes he should act and feel differently.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I have, finally with some measure of success, started in on Henry James and Proust. I have no difficulty, when reading either, identifying those components that made me reject them when I was younger. James is perfectly happy to write eight long sentences around a situation without ever bothering to describe it directly; Proust finds his own thoughts fascinating and follows them without seeming care to edit. In both, nothing much happens at the page or approximate-chapter level.

And yet. Ever since tackling 2666 back in 2009, I have been reading longer, more complex novels, where the action subsides in favor of Proustian digressions and Jamesian sentences. With each thing I have read where one or the other author--or both--are mentioned as points of comparison, I have drawn closer. A half-read of Turn of the Screw two years ago affirmed the point--"I will like this, but now's not the time to read it," and we've finally opened up enough reading space to bring it about.

In books, in movies, in music, there's too early and too late. I would've hated Pavement at 18, but loved them at 28; I could've gotten into Jean Cocteau's movies much earlier, but had I waited any longer for Woody Allen, or even Ingmar Bergman, they would've passed me by. My attempt to read The Fellowship of the Ring in grad school fell flat--by then I could only see the flaws in the story, which are many.*

Too early is a special kind of pleasure, though: assuming the experience with James goes well, there are a dozen or two novels waiting out there for me; assuming Proust goes well, a few thousand pages of enjoyment. Nick Hornby wrote once about discovering Jackson Browne in his middle age--a guy with a long a pretty good recording career whom he had never listened to, and could approach new--new being that rarest of things for someone who professionally listened. Reading is an adventure, a lifelong adventure for those who take it seriously. If you read quickly and seriously, the question always remains what's next. And, at least for now, I know.


*Which is not to denigrate the love or respect that other people have for it as a fictional work. I merely assert that it has considerable flaws: starting out with 50 or so pages of historical backstory, for example, before introducing characters or a plot. If one reads it with charity--which is to say, with love--then these are not flaws but essential components of the whole. That sort of reading isn't possible for me--it's not the right sort of book, and I'm not the right sort of person. But if it makes you, dear reader, feel better, I can assure you I thought equally poorly of the grand excursus on history that ended War and Peace.

Adventures in Homeownership

According to the letter of the law, I was, however technically, previously a homeowner. We are now in a new house, though, and this is the first time I feel like a home-owner. Something about being there for the inspection and walking through all the components of the house made a notable difference--I am the person who knows the most about everything. Unpacking has been a bear: we had a storage unit already, and got a second to get things out of the old house in order to show it, and both of these had to be cleaned out by the end of the month. In other words, we spent two, two and a half months slowly getting everything ready to go, and now we fight the daily battle to bring order from chaos. At least most of the furniture is in place.

Random items of interest, loosely defined:

°After believing myself to have remained bookshelf-neutral for the last two years (no mean feat), it turns out we will need at least one more bookshelf, and this after having punted out all my cookbooks to a separate location.

°We had a maddening ant problem shortly after arrival. The ants were maddening because they would only ever show up one at a time, or in groups of ten or less, and never take us to their point of ingress. Patient walking around the foundation has found two candidates, which will hopefully put us on course to solving the problem.

°I mowed the lawn this weekend, for what I estimate to be the first time since 1998. It was in the course of doing so that I discovered, appearances notwithstanding, that almost none of the yard is flat or uniform in its slope.

°Talking with one of the neighbors, I learned that the previous owner nuked the lawn last year by applying undiluted weed-killer to it. The entire (dead) yard had to be dug up and re-sodded. This is why my lawn looks better than anyone else's.

°The lawn mower came with two sets of instructions, one from the mower manufacturer and one from the motor manufacturer. They frequently, amusingly, referred me to the other manual ("there's probably something about this in the other one, I dunno"). The assembly instructions were charmingly inaccurate and very forthright about it--("we don't really know what your lawn mower will be like when it ships, so here's a guess about what you might need to do"). More amusingly they would occasionally directly contradict each other ("DO NOT USE FUEL WITH ETHANOL IT WILL DESTROY THE MOTOR RIGHT AWAY" vs. the motor manual's "Anything 10% ethanol or below is fine and doesn't need treatment").

°The neighbors are all freakishly demographically close to our family, which we would not otherwise have been able to guess. They are all nice and laid-back, very much unlike our old neighborhood. I also believe I have met this neighborhood's Bobby Cobb, and he and I will get along just fine.

16.3.15

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
There are no surprises in this film. The quiet brunette girl who looks like she has a crush on the main guy, so much that you think they'll end up together? They end up together. When the main guy and main girl sleep together, and you think she'll probably get pregnant? She'll get pregnant. When that perfectly nice guy shows up and shows interest in the girl while the guy is away in Algeria, and you think they'll get married? They get married. When the final scene takes place in the snow and the girl hasn't been seen for 40 minutes or so, and it seems obvious that they'll run into each other one last time? They run into each other one last time.

Worse, all of the dialogue is sung, opera-style.

And yet, this is an indisputably great movie, warm, not melodramatic even in its very conventional turns. The casting is perfect, the music neither overwhelming nor clichéd, the story structured to bring at least relative happiness to everyone. Evidence, if you needed it, of what good solid writing can do.

12.3.15

Ethan Hawke, doin' work:

A person can reach incredible heights of grace in art and have no relationship to that in their daily life. But what Seymour talks about is something I’ve personally found very inspiring—the idea that they could play off each other, and that you can use the things you learn not only in life in your art, but the things you learn in your art in your life. That’s something I’ve never heard people talk about. There’s a beautiful moment where one of Seymour’s students, that young man who’s playing that Rachmaninoff piece, talks about trying to listen to his friends with the same patience, understanding, and alertness he uses when he listens to himself playing the piano. You can hear so much in his playing; why couldn’t he hear the same thing in his friend’s voice? And of course he can. And all of us know we can. It’s just, are we listening? I found all that really exciting.

There's a lot that's admirable in this snippet and the whole interview: the idea that being human is a lifelong process where humility is always in order and grace is the best way to approach others, a recognition of the ways art can facilitate both, admiration of the way other people can succeed in their work, candidness in discussing his own metier. The patter of language that is warm and friendly, neither shying away from intelligence or observation nor making them central. No wonder he makes--and writes--good movies lately.

10.3.15

Easy Cases Make Bad Law

Chris Lawrence, on Facebook, brings attention to Eugene Volokh on the racist-frat-at-Oklahoma explusions. Volokh comes to the reasonable conclusion that offensive racist speech may be censured in a number of ways, but expulsion from a public institution is not one of them. This puts me back in mind of my best unrealized paper idea from my academic days: "easy cases make bad law." People who study law know why hard cases make bad law--they're idiosyncratic instances that are unlikely to repeat in a manner conducive to the generalizable form law must take, virtually guaranteeing unanticipated consequences--but easy cases do, as well.

The impetus for the idea came from studying the formation of the Nuremburg Tribunal law: France, Britain, Russia and the US get together to figure out how to improve of the then-reigning plan for dealing with senior officials in the Nazi government: summary execution. One can read the US representative's report, which includes minutes of the discussions of the four representatives, and be horrified at the way the law was put together. Sometimes standard legal procedures were followed, sometimes not; sometimes appeal was made to the basic principles of legality, sometimes they were conspicuously avoided; sometimes discussions were had in great detail, sometimes central problems are waved away. No issue is more depressing than the treatment of 'aggressive war,' a concept everyone seems to know and no one is able to define in a way that separates out Nazi from Allied actions. The IMT punts on the question, and makes little use of the category--and it's still a problem 50 years later during the writing of the Rome Treaty (that formed the ICC), where everyone once again agrees that aggressive war is a problem and no one knows exactly how to define it.

It's not that the IMT was bad--under the circumstances, it was pretty good (the frequency with which the US and the Soviet Union agree on matters of legal principle should be a little disturbing). It was certainly preferable to summary execution. No, the problem was the basic situation in which the deliberation was happening. There was no particular reason to doubt that senior Nazi officials were guilty of something, probably many things. A legal system that works provides procedural safeguards and returns the 'correct' result. But: there are a lot of different institutional arrangements that can do this. The question of the system's suitability is not whether it can produce the right outcomes here, but in other, more difficult cases. On this, the general unwillingness of international criminal law to treat Nuremberg as a legitimate precedent is telling.

Back to the racist frat case. It feels satisfying to expel people who were doing something that obviously wrong, who were doing it without shame; it feels good to be able to act with maximum force for a good cause. But it's bad policy, because it won't work as well on more complicated cases: we can't throw everyone out who says anything some people find offensive.* There's also a connection to the internet's economy of shame: it feels good, or satisfying, to make someone lose their job for posting offensive material on the internet--no one's going to feel too bad for those dudes who decided Curt Schilling mentioning his daughter was a good pretext to write vile, sexist stuff about her--but it's no solution to anything. Sustainable practices--good, fair, stable practices--need a better context, need serious thought devoted to potential long-term ramifications, the difficulties of scaling up behaviors and institutions, and the facts of human fallibility when forgiving offenses or implementing justice. Most of all, there needs to be recognition that there are always a wide variety of options in play, and sometimes it makes sense to choose one other than the most extreme, even if it doesn't feel as satisfying.


*I was teaching a course on human rights when Kony2012 broke (remember that?), fortunately over Spring Break that year. By the time classes were back in session, the ICC had just convicted Thomas Lubanga for similar crimes to Kony's, for which he is expected to serve something like a dozen years in jail. The students were confused and dismayed, but I had to remind them: you can't throw the book at everyone who does something you don't like, even if they did many bad things. If you give life in prison to someone who used child soldiers, what are you going to do with the person who commits genocide?

4.3.15

Reader, I Think She Probably Should Have Taken a Few More Months to Think Over Her Options

Jane Eyre

Though I'm generally of the view that arguing over details of the plot is not a particularly interesting way of reacting to a book,* and better analyses involve considerations of structure, pacing, voice, composition, etc, here we go:

I don't see how anyone could possibly root for Rochester.

The absolute worst thing one could say about St. John would be to make him equal to Rochester in ill-treatment of Jane. Both are attempting to use her for their own ends, and want to cultivate her responses to them without informing her about what is going on. St. John, however, reveals his motivations much faster, of his own volition, and at least has them aimed toward a noble purpose. As Jane herself admits, but for his insisting on marriage without love, there's nothing wrong with his plan. (A significant 'but,' of course, though it seems less a fault of an unforgiving nature than a crucial mistake made by someone focused on his vocation/too young to think through all the consequences involved.) Rochester, by contrast, holds his peace until he is forced to reveal all, and would implicate Jane in a crime without her knowledge or consent--I presume his requirement that she wait a year and a day after the wedding to ask about the other woman in the house to be one that would make annulment impossible. He is, in other words, willing to run her great legal and social risks without informing her. That's not to say St. John is better--I think the obvious best outcome for Jane is to live at Moor House with Diana, and never marry.**

The novel itself is lively and modern, and the direct narration a good deal more sophisticated than, say, David Copperfield. It's rather, in its own way, a good commentary on the action delivered by one of its players, not unlike All About Eve. That it unfolds as a combination of the most unlikely happenstance is not a matter of great concern to me as a reader--Jane is discovered in the end by the family she did not know herself to have, but the knowledge is not at all essential to the action as it is happening.


*Not interesting because it involves arguing over a stipulated and limited set of facts (the text), which then involves one in the equally difficult games of guessing the author's intention (as something distinct from the actual words the author chose to write, and retained after editing; for which there might be supplementary evidence in notes and letters, but for which none often exists) or reading facts and relationships not written into those stipulated, an endless game. It is also almost always an exercise in wish fulfillment or enforcement of orthodoxy--making the novel into The Thing The Reader Wants It To Be, which is flattering to their own beliefs and prejudices, rather than The Thing That It Is.

**And, yes, I get that the point of the novel is that circumstances come about wherein Jane can freely choose Rochester, and we are meant to acknowledge it as a free and unforced choice, and that is a good thing. But we've also probably all had the experience of dealing with friends who make free and unforced decisions that are nevertheless poor.

20.2.15

Two things to say about this:

1. I have, apparently, reached the age at which people who are younger than me will die tragically and unexpectedly, but having had enough time to get themselves into trouble and start trying to crawl out of it. It's not Philip Seymour Hoffman throwing away a long and distinguished acting career, and it's not quite DFW succumbing to the pressure of early success. It's someone whose career seemed to be generally on the upswing, and was well-liked by a lot of people. If that's not enough to frighten you, I don't know what is.

2. Related to that last point, I have never in my life done any kind of drug and I've never had the least desire to. When I was younger, it was out of sheer love for my brain and an aversion to doing anything that might mess with it. Now it's with a few decades of seeing that the best case scenario for use is trying it out for a short period where you're young, are not one of the demographics targeted for prosecution on drug-related charges, have no mental health issues, and have the benefit of a stable (or at least good) home life to keep whatever you do moderate and limited. I know people who had the benefit of all of these and still lost years or decades of their lives--and those are the ones who have survived.

For both of these, I credit an adolescent viewing of Trainspotting. Like Renton says in the film, they're not idiots. They just have very little control over their lives. It's not (entirely) their fault, because addiction has complicated social, mental, and physiological components that cannot be willed away. But the easiest way to avoid having to solve that later problem is never to start.