Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review of Hamlet

The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke by William Shakespeare, ca. 1604. Glossy's rating: 4.5 out of 10.

When you get so sick of liberal imbecility that you want to flee to an age before the poison had spread, what greets your eye first? A sincere belief in ghosts. Humanity never liked thinking straight, so moralizing fairy tales are probably the best ideology with a chance.

I probably shouldn't have expected to like Shakespeare's stuff. I frequently found his lines elegant, but not elegant enough to deserve one thousandth of the praise they've received. And sure, a lot of the original beauty and wit must have been obscured from me by time. It's not just the archaic vocabulary and allusions, although they certainly tripped me up - the pronunciation must have changed enormously. Most of the verse here is blank, but in the few short passages where it obviously isn't he rhymed words like moon and done, love and move, speak and break, propose and lose, try and enemy. This implies that modern readers are seriously mispronouncing most of his lines. It's a wonder that any of the intended elegance is still discernible.

To me the most surprising feature of his language was the abundance of shortenings that have since disappeared. Do't for do it, saw't for saw it, e'il for evil, 'gins for begins, fay for faith, wi for with, ope for open, hap for happen, 'havior for behavior and many more. Does this mean that the language in which I'm writing this review descended from some sort of a cousin of Shakespeare's English and not from the thing itself? Why would a dialect that was already well on its way to losing the v in evil and the i in it ever willingly pick them up again?

There is a lot of laconic wisdom here  - "neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry", etc. All of this wisdom is sound, but that's still not why I read plays or any sort of literature. "Show, not tell" really does work best. When a character announces another's death here he almost invariably adds a few timeless observations on loss, the transience of life and similar topics. Even when I was young and stupid enough to be able to find a lot of such wisdom wrong, encountering it in apothegm form did not help me see the light.

I've always been curious to find what the past knew about its own past. Shakespeare was definitely aware that centuries before his birth England used to pay tribute to the Danes. Yet he also mistakenly thought that there were already cannons and universities in Europe at that time. And why do so many Danes in this play bear Romance names?

The most baffling point for me didn't involve any anachronisms though. It's stated here several times that one of Claudius's motives for killing Hamlet's father was lust for Hamlet's mom. Claudius is now king, he could have anybody he wants, and yet he marries the mother of a 30-year old man? And not for any political or financial reasons, but out of lust?

I was surprised by the amount of sexual innuendo in the play. After one of his double entendres to Ophelia Hamlet describes the bawdier of the two possible interpretations as "country", i.e. countrified. I think that the point when coarseness becomes associated with urbanity instead is as good as any to mark the start of cultural rot. It would be interesting to compile a table listing the dates of earliest literary references to the connection between urbanity and coarseness for different cultures. This doesn't always have do be due to racial change. I would guess that in 1850 Paris was already less wholesome than the French provinces. But when exactly did it become so?

There are long disquisitions on theater in Hamlet. That reminded me of the long critique of contemporary books in Don Quixote, of the critique of great books in Candide. I have a feeling that literature only finally grew up when writers stopped putting that sort of thing in their works.

I'll end by saying that in general I found this play much more interesting as a window onto another time (Shakespeare's of course, not Hamlet's) than as literature.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fancy Food

Steve Sailer's post about Brooklyn hipsters finally made me try Mast Brothers chocolate. I've been seeing it for years at the Whole Foods near my job, but it took the electronic image of the brothers themselves - the beards, the gravitas, the icongrousness of their puritanical earnestness with dessert - for me to finally pay for it.

I'd put it at about the 70th percentile of all the chocolate I've tried up till now. I got two bars for $9 each - hazelnut and black truffle. The first seemed a little too bitter, with a taste that wasn't boring or unpleasant, but not particularly wonderful either. The second was similar, but salty, with a faint medicinal feel. The thing that both of them reminded me of most was cocoa powder. My mom used to make hot liquid cocoa out of it when I was a kid, and I must have licked a spoon of the actual powder once or twice in those years - if I hadn't, how else would I know this taste?

The place of Lindt's Raisin and Nut Bar at the top of my personal preferences wasn't even remotely challenged by this, which is a pity: who doesn't like to be surprised?

I've been shopping regularly at Whole Foods for a while now and have been positively surprised by it many times. Fancy cheeses, for example, really are better than the cheap kind. Many of them have tastes that seem completely unique. And these tastes tend to be far stronger than those of mass-produced cheeses. It's as if the cheap stuff was seriously watered down.

Roquefort is my favorite among the blues, Saint-andré among the Brie-like cheeses. I love Manchego's texture and would eat it more if it didn't make me nauseous the next day. Tomme de Savoie is good, as is real Cheddar.

All of the cereals I've tried at Whole Foods were worse than the Kellog's and Post kind, but the Applegate Smoked Pork Bratwurst sausages I buy there are the best sausages I've ever had. And I've got to do a shoutout for Thursday Cottage Lime Curd - really good stuff.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review of The Surgeon's Mate

The Surgeon's Mate, 1980, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.3 out of 10.

It seems unfair that most of my reviews of these novels are filled with criticisms. I'm having a lot of fun reading this series and have recommended it to real-life friends. Patrick O'Brian was far better at writing novels than I will ever be at anything in my life, so why all this nitpicking?

I agree with those who say that art is entirely to be found in how things are done, never in what those things happen to be. If you're passionate about political ideas, the honest thing is to write them up in some editorials. The value of novels, paintings, songs, etc. is properly judged by a different metric. But just as it's harder to work on the how than on the what of writing, it's also harder to describe it, to praise or criticize it intelligently. The lazy critic (hi there, folks) inevitably falls back on criticizing the what - mostly politics, morals and technicalities. And having neither been on a sailing ship nor read a thousand volumes of primary materials on the Napoleonic period, I can't even nitpick O'Brian's technicalities.

If I could understand what exactly made O'Brian's writing so entertaining, if I knew how it worked internally, and consequently what exactly I should be praising here, then I could probably write as well as he did. But I know that I can't do that. Plus there's the possibility that even he couldn't have talked about his methods cogently, that his gift worked mostly on the intuitive level. Since I don't want to end up typing "man, that was so cool!" next to thousands of page and line references, I find myself falling back on criticizing the politics and commenting on the sociology.

Today I'll start with Maturin's bastardy. At one point in this novel Stephen pleads with Diana to marry him so that her unborn child (by a real man of course - she would have never let someone like Stephen impregnate her) could have a legal father.

"Reflect, my dear, upon the condition of a bastard. His state is in itself an insult. He is born with heavy disadvantages under all the codes of law I know; he is penalized from birth. He is debarred from many callings; if he is admitted to society at all, he is admitted only on sufferance; he meets the reproach at every turn all through his life – any tenth transmitter of a foolish face, any lawfully begotten blockhead can throw it in his teeth, and he has no reply. I speak with full knowledge when I say that it is a cruel, cruel thing to entail upon a child."

What about the cruelty of misinforming the world, innocent bystanders, about who exactly the hijos de putas in it are? If I've learned anything at all in life, if I could impart any sort of wisdom on the younger generation, it is to avoid bastards.

All the legal sanctions and some of the social stigma that Stephen describes have now been laboriously scrubbed, but bastards are still far more likely to murder, steal, cheat and rape than those who come from real families. This implies that the sanctions and the stigma were not the cause of their awfulness. I'm so sure about the differentials in crime, in all categories of it, in all countries, that I'm not even going to look up the relevant statistics - it would be like going to the Wikipedia to find out if night is still darker than day.

By Stephen's "logic" truth in advertising laws are cruel. If bastards weren't indeed bastards, that word would be an honorific, or at least neutral. They themselves, by their behavior, have given it negative connotations.

The shunning Stephen describes is just a shocked, brutalized world's meekly defensive reaction. Didn't he himself institute a quarantine when the Leopard was beset with gaol-fever in Desolation Island? How selfish of him to deny the need for a quarantine in cases of the maladies from which he suffers himself.

I've read that in centuries past bastards were not permitted to attend many universities. I'm a live-and-let-live sort of person, so if they set up a university of their own that did not admit people born within wedlock as either students or professors, it would never occur to me to object. Having dealt with what I suspect is a representative sample of bastards in my life, I can easily imagine what this university would look like, as well as the quality of education it would offer, but if bastards desired to pretend that it was an equal of real universities, I wouldn't much care either.

No woman from any but the most gloomily uncivilized background ever starts out wanting to become a single mother. And no woman of any background that I am aware of starts out wanting to become a fully-realized slut like Diana or an actual prostitute. Even Diana herself vocally disapproves of other sluts in this book. So single motherhood can normally be seen as an utter failure to achieve one's life goals, almost like homelessness in men. Perhaps having been born to a single mother is an even worse sign than having a criminal father because, let's face it, some guys do start out wanting to become criminals.

O'Brian frequently tells us that Diana is extraordinary, and not just in her looks, but in her "spirit", nobility, etc. The reader can't see her face, but her behavior and conversation seem commonplace, petty, selfish, utterly unremarkable to me. She complains about being called a slut many times, in several novels, all the while continuing to behave like one. She complains about others gossiping maliciously about her at a ball while maliciously gossiping about others at the same ball, and having great fun doing it. It's even worse than "tell, not show" because the things we're repeatedly told about her fail to line up with what we're shown.

A reader may think that I'm just being bitter about women here in a typically nerdy fashion. Perhaps there's some of that, but bear in mind that the people who made a big Hollywood movie out of the Aubrey/Maturin novels did not mention her in it at all, even though up till this point (the 7th volume in a 20.5-volume series) she's been the third most important character in the books. Perhaps the screenwriters agreed with me that hers were the weakest storylines in the series.

Everyone who's both read the books and seen the movie will think that Russell Crowe was a better match for his part than Paul Bettany for his. Heath Ledger could have played the younger Jack, which reminds me of how much I liked Bettany in A Knight's Tale. He's a good actor, just not pitiful enough to play Stephen.

Some NFL quarterbacks possess Aubrey-like qualities. When at the end of a victorious action Jack single-mindedly seeks out the other ship's captain, one can think of a QB wading through the post-game mayhem to shake his counterpart's hand. In both cases the default emotion is the desire to show one's respect to a worthy opponent.

It's made clear throughout the series that the Royal Navy experienced a great oversupply of officers and a dearth of sailors. The admiralty had to turn down captains and lieutenants all the time, and a great number of them were unemployed. Sailors had to be pressed (conscripted), even from jails, yet there was never enough of them. I doubt that officers made more money than men of their class would have made as civilians. I'm assuming that sailors' pay wasn't inadequate by lower class standards either. I'd guess that the two classes' different attitudes to military service had to do with the ancient warrior/peasant split, made biological by millenia of selection.

The English proles of that time couldn't have been all that bad though: when Jack comes home after years of absence he doesn't need a key to enter his rather opulent house. It seems that there is no lock. That reminded me of the scene in Madame Bovary where Emma clearly enters Rodolphe's house without a key. Rodolphe was a country gentleman, a man of means. These are just two data points: England and Normandy in the first half of the 19th century. Were doors being locked in any other parts of Europe at that time? What were those parts? What about China and Japan?

Are there any places left on Earth now where house keys aren't needed? How about North Korea? Of course I can't think about this issue without being reminded of the evil effects of liberalism, of its hatred of exclusivity, which I mentioned in my previous review.

It's sad for me to report that we did lock our apartment when I was growing up in Moscow, as did everyone we knew. Of course bikes did not have to be locked and were never stolen, and one could enter the Kremlin without as much as showing one's ID or stopping at a checkpoint. I can vouch for the latter because I did it many times myself. In the 1980s we spent some of our summers in the countryside right outside Moscow, in a village house owned by friends of our relatives. I definitely remember that we never needed a key to enter it. When I asked my mom about it recently, she said that perhaps the owners locked up for the night, though that's pure conjecture. Neither of us actually remembers them doing so.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Review of The Fortune of War

"The Fortune of War", 1979, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.3 out of 10.

The background of this volume is The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. Russia's War of 1812 gets a mention here too when one of O'Brian's characters talks about a subscription for the victims of the fire of Moscow, a disaster prominently featured in War and Peace. One point of agreement between O'Brian and Tolstoy is in their characterization of Napoleon as an ungentlemanly, unscrupulous, dishonorable, base individual. Both thought that during his wars the Emperor of the French had fallen far shorter of the aristocratic ideal than his enemies. In the Aubrey/Maturin novels this attitude is expressed by Stephen, but I've read an interview in which O'Brian confirmed that Stephen indeed spoke for him, the author, on this topic.

There definitely are other opinions on Napoleon. Nietzsche, who attached a great deal of importance to the aristocratic ideal and to its accompanying code of morality, actually said that Napoleon did a lot to revive those two after the drubbing that they took during the French Revolution. I don't know who's closer to the truth on this, but I will say that in my view Stephen Maturin has very little leg to stand on in criticizing a decrease in gentlemanliness in politics. This isn't because Stephen is portrayed as being dishonorable himself, far from it. But his liberalism, when taken to its logical ends, cannot but ensure the death of aristocratic notions of honor everywhere in life.

If every member of a group, let's say the officer corps of an army, or the scholars working in a particular area of what was then called natural philosophy, is able and willing to adhere to a strict code of honor, then the group can be spectacularly successful. If nobody has to worry about cheating, stealing, lying or any other manifestations of selfishness, the group benefits enormously and so do the members.

But if a caste of gentlemen is penetrated by those unable, unwilling, or both, to be gentlemen, then honor becomes a liability. Those who display it are quickly taken for chumps and victimized. The willingness of those who survive this to behave honorably within the group decreases. The group's efficiency falls.

Since liberalism is in theory against all sorts of castes, all kinds of exclusivity, and in practice very much against aristocratic exclusivity, it cannot be anything but harmful to honor.

In this book we see Stephen appalled by the whites-only policy of a Boston tavern-owner - I think that's typical of his general attitude to such things.

By the way, one doesn't even need to be a gentleman to root against liberalism on this. I can't imagine myself ever fighting any duels (if challenged, I'd surely back down), but I still consider it a tragedy that they're gone. I suspect that many fat, frumpy readers of Star magazine would be devastated if all female beauty were to forever vanish, if there were never to be any more Angelina Jolies. And I'm just as sure that many morons would be greatly saddened if humanity's production of geniuses were to suddenly cease. Lefties always assume that everyone is moved by envy 100% of the time, but it's not true. In some circumstances and moods we're capable of wanting our betters to be even better, and not just in such irrelevancies as sports. This is because in some sense the best represent us all.

Back to the book: an American Indian appears in it briefly, and in a very predictable way. A porter at a hospital where Jack and Stephen stay in Boston gives a speech straight out of the Native American Heritage Month (I just looked it up and it's November). The most remarkable thing about that speech to me was that it was delivered in the sort of English usually spoken by naval and intelligence officers and Stephen's scientific colleagues in these novels. Those who work with their hands usually speak very, very differently in O'Brian's fiction. But for 20th century political reasons he wanted the porter to sound especially dignified, and so the suspension of disbelief was violently dropped. That sacrilege makes me think of Stephen's words on p. 181, spoken about something completely different: "...but even honourable, humane men were capable of almost anything for unselfish motives."

A bit more on class: it's mentioned several times in these novels that bosuns (supervisors of the deck crew) often stole ships' supplies. No captain or lieutenant is ever shown stealing or breaking his word for selfish reasons. When O'Brian shows officers in a bad light, it's usually for flogging his sailors too much, which is very different. Simple sailors deserted on occasion, which involved breaking an oath, and in one scene some are even shown attacking their captors after surrendering - utterly unimaginable in Jack or in any of the other officers depicted here. When Jack physically attacks a bosun for stealing in an earlier novel, the bosun doesn't challenge him to a duel, as a gentleman would have.

So how does one become a gent? It seems that most of the officers described here are themselves sons of officers or of other kinds of gentlemen. The ones who are not, like Pullings, were promoted by their captains for, among other things, possessing gentlemanlike qualities.

Since this book is to such a large extent about America, the American Revolution is discussed, and with it the relative merits of monarchy and republicanism.

Stephen's American colleague Evans says 'But surely mere birth without any necessary merit is illogical?’

‘Certainly,' says Stephen, 'and that is its great merit. Man is a deeply illogical being, and must be ruled illogically. Whatever that frigid prig Bentham may say, there are innumerable motives that have nothing to do with utility. In good utilitarian logic a man does not sell all his goods to go crusading, nor does he build cathedrals; still less does he write verse. There are countless pieties without a name that find their focus in a crown. It is as well, I grant you, that the family should have worn it beyond the memory of man; for your recent creations do not answer – they are nothing in comparison of your priest-king, whose merit is irrelevant, whose place cannot be disputed, nor made the subject of a recurring vote.’

If I were to defend monarchy, that wouldn't be my first argument. I'd say that the person at the top should feel like a rightful owner, expecting to pass on to his children what he inherited from his parents, and not like a CEO-type temporary custodian of other people's stuff. Who but an owner will be motivated enough to fight corruption, laziness and indifference of the hired hands? Not another hired hand. In the end someone has to be outraged that they're stealing his stuff. Even public corporations are usually at their most dynamic while still being run by their founders - we can think of early Ford, early Walmart, Apple during Jobs's stints there. Ceteris paribus, a mere founder wouldn't be as effective as an owner, but he'd be certainly better than a stranger.

Of course Stephen can't use this argument to defend George III because in Britain of that time the king was already largely a figurehead.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Review of Desolation Island

"Desolation Island", 1978, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.2 out of 10.

I enjoyed this volume greatly, but since I've already written about O'Brian's virtues as a writer in earlier reviews, I'll skip directly to the minor problems:

The Wogan-Herapath relationship excessively resembled the Stephen-Diana pairing. You could say that the odds of two such similar couples coming across each other aren't any slimmer than the odds of Jack cheating death at sea so many times in a row, but at least O'Brian's battles are insanely captivating. Since he was just as unwilling to make fun of Wogan as he was of Diana, the passages that featured her were a reliable drag. Worse, he was less willing to make fun of Herapath than of Stephen. Herapath's lengthy recounting of his history with Wogan seemed to belong to the early 19th century not just in grammar and vocabulary (as everything in this series does) but in storytelling style too, and I don't mean the latter as a compliment. Yes, it would have been inauthentic to have him tell his story in a much more interesting way himself, but this information could have been imparted to the reader by other means, or at least in smaller bursts.

I did not really understand why this book had to be called Desolation Island. The landmass so named is first mentioned only on p. 296 of 350. It's not central to the story. The scenes by which I'll remember this work decades from now are actually the ones that describe the Leopard's flight from and then battle with the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid. From p. 296 till p. 303 there is supposed to be an uncertainty about whether Jack's ship will reach Desolation Island at all. But the title kills the suspense - since the book is called Desolation Island, of course the Leopard is going to make it to Desolation Island.

I'm curious about the dos and don'ts of nobility, about the exact limits of honorable behavior. At one point in this book Stephen, working in his capacity as a British spy, asks Jack for permission to open a letter written by an American spy on board. Jack has to hide his displeasure:

"Captain Aubrey would do his utmost to deceive an enemy by the use of false colors and false signals, by making him believe that the ship was a harmless merchantman, a neutral, or a compatriot, and by any other ruse that might occur to his fertile mind. All was fair in war: all except for opening letters and listening behind doors. If Stephen, on the other hand, could bring Buonaparte one inch nearer to the brink of Hell by opening letters, he would happily violate a whole mail-coach full. 'You will read captured dispatches with open glee and exultation,' he said, 'for you concede that they are public papers. If you value candor, you must admit that any document bearing on the war is also a public paper: you are to rid your mind of these weak prejudices."

Jack's seems like the default attitude of a gentleman. Stephen's ideas are tainted by leftist ideology. Also, Stephen isn't as masculine as the average man (his attitude to Diana proves this), and far less masculine than Jack. Honor is an inherently male concept.

What's the substantive difference between Stephen's and Jack's attitudes? It's true that sea captains always expected their enemies to play games with national colors, but shouldn't a spy always expect other nations' spies to try to get at his correspondence? There must be something else at work here.

Right before battle a captain always hoisted his true colors. When a letter-opener attacks, the other side isn't even present. Shying away from direct confrontation is both feminine and dishonorable. An open challenge is masculine. Another captain could have only read Jack's official letters after beating him in battle, after putting his own life on the line in a fight.

Interestingly, the American spy here is a woman. Jack disapproves of reading her letters even though he must know that she would have read his without a second thought. Women aren't expected to be constrained by honor, but a gentleman is still bound by it while dealing with them. To me an absence of reciprocity is a deal-breaker, but that simply shows you that I'm not a gentleman.

Jack has no illusions about women in general or the American spy (Mrs. Wogan) in particular:

"Oh, the odious wench. How I wish I were rid of her. I have always loathed women, from clew to earring; hook, line, and sinker; root and branch." ... "Damn her for a flibbertigibbet, the hussy."

And yet he won't have anything to do with lieutenant Howard, a talented flautist, because of Howard's negative remarks about Mrs. Wogan:

"I could take no pleasure in playing with a man who could speak so ill of women."

What could Howard have possibly said about Mrs. Wogan that would have sounded much worse to Jack than "a hussy?" O'Brian doesn't tell us this directly, but I think it's quite likely that when Jack confronted Howard about his illegal attempts to arrange a tryst with Wogan, Howard defended himself by saying that she came on to him herself.

"Contemptible, sir, contemptible! The most disgraceful mean shuffling ungentlemanly defence I have ever heard in my life. The most infernal sneaking scrub ever whelped in a gutter would be ashamed..."

In Jack's eyes respect for women isn't shown by praising their gender or any of its representatives for virtues that they do not possess (compare this with modernity), but in manning up, taking the blame, taking the burden of an unpleasant situation away from a woman even if she is actually to blame. It seems that Howard, truthfully or not (neither Jack nor the reader knows this), blamed the woman instead. One of the gender differences acknowledged by pre-feminist societies is that men are more expendable than women, and that they should therefore take the fall, the blame, the brunt, the burden, etc. every single time they see those.

When Jack desperately needs to borrow a forge from an American ship in order to save his men, he tells the following to Herapath:

" a gentleman you will understand that I am extremely reluctant to ask a favour of the American skipper, extremely reluctant to expose the service and myself to a rebuff. I may add that he is equally reluctant to come a-begging me, and I honor him for it. However, on reflection he may feel inclined to exchange the use of his forge for our medical services. You may give him a view of the situation, but without committing us to any specific request. - harkee, Mr. Herapath, don't you expose us to an affront, whatever you do."

I'm very reluctant to ask people for favors too, but this is entirely due to aspiness, not through any gentlemanly notions. Stephen calls Jack's unwillingness to beg foolish, which is pretty discreditable in him, though not as discreditable as the giant chip he carries on his shoulder with regards to the English. At one point he complains about their "disinclination for intellectual pursuits." Really, Stephen? Of all the things you could have picked... He happens to be half-Irish and half-Catalan himself. There's nothing English or Irish in me whatsoever, so perhaps I can be somewhat objective about this. Far be it from me to condemn anyone for sticking up for their own, but yes, that can become pathetic when combined with jaw-dropping delusions and extreme hypocrisy (Stephen fancies himself a universalist liberal). Every single time he is shown thinking about the English as a group, it's in negative terms. He even maligns their famous sense of humor, their tendency to not take either themselves or their problems seriously.

The occasional glimpses of the abyss that separates modern sensibilities from those of the Napoleonic era always add to the fun of reading these books. This is what the captain of the foretop tells Harepath after he volunteers to climb up: "You want to take care of your hands, though: the premier don't like blood on the standing rigging."

When a nearly-fatal leak in the Leopard's hull finally gets partially plugged, the crew's spirits surge: "...from having to encourage, threaten, beat or even cajole the exhausted hands, the officers had to restrain their zeal, for fear that the pump-chains would break or choke yet again..."

I just love the place occupied by cajoling in the list of tools available to management. And finally, here is Jack talking about his midshipmen in a letter to Sophie:

"There are ten of them altogether..." "...and I am responsible to their parents: it makes me feel like an anxious hen. Not that some of them are in much danger, except of a beating. The boy I rated captain's servant for Harding's sake, is an odious little villain - I have already had to stop his grog - and there are a couple more among the oldsters, nephews of men who were kind to me, that are more like vermin than anything I like to see on my quarterdeck."

Grog's active ingredient was rum. In general, honesty and cheerfullness often have to push in opposite directions. Their collision in Jack's letters and conversation sometimes results in a particularly touching sort of humor.