Sunday, December 31, 2017

Fourteenth Annual Ralphies

It was the best of times, it was ... nope.  It was not the best of times. Only time will tell if A.D. 2017 was the worst, or simply the beginning of more travails.  It was Amok Time.

MUSIC: I consume most music these days during my commute, while listening to the satellite radio.  When I hear something good I haven't heard before, I jot it down on whatever piece of paper I can grab. Unfortunately, I've misplaced most of these random notes.  Some that remain mention songs like the following (not all are new, but they're new to me):  "On the Level" (Mac DeMarco), "Road Head" (Japanese Breakfast), "Shouldn't Happen to a Dog" (Thee Headcoats), "Ghost" (Tiny Fireflies), "California" (Rogue Wave), etc.  One song that stuck in my head without a written note is my Song of the Year: "Edge of Town" by Middle Kids.  Most effective one-note guitar solo ever.

FICTION: So porous is my memory that I only remember the most recent things I've read.  The most fun was certainly Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible, a modern re-imagining of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in modern-day Cincinnati. Very smart and funny.  As a resident of Cincinnati for 20 years, I can vouch for the authenticity of the local color. Also enjoying Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, although it is not new.  What else?  I am re-reading David Copperfield.  It's good. I read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time.  Overall good, but the mannerisms annoyed me.

NON-FICTION:  Read, enjoyed, and reviewed L'aramaico antico by F. M. Fales and G. Grassi.  I didn't know if I could remember Italian well enough to do it, but it came back rapidly.  I think the one I learned the most from (for a project I'm working on) is Klaas Bentein's Verbal Periphrasis in Ancient Greek. Extremely perceptive.

TV:  Once again, I am not a watcher of the latest TV.  I will watch movies, some basketball games, and a few re-runs.  My favorite re-run this year was the old sitcom Barney Miller, which I loved back in the day and still do. (This is what old people do.  You should know this. They are not up on the latest anything.)

MOVIES:  Gee, what did I see? Very little.  I did see The Last Jedi (c'mon, I'm not going to link that.  Just stick a toe in the internet and it will bite.). I'm still up in the air over whether I liked it or thought it was incoherent.  We'll have to wait and see whether the hares that were flushed out in this movie will be caught in the next one or will turn out to be mare's nests ... or red herrings ... or wild geese.  Wait, what? Also saw Get Out, which was widely praised, but by the time I saw it, had been spoiled by TMI on the web.  It was OK.  No award this year.

SPORTS:  Once again, enthralled and disappointed by the Nationals, and this is routine for all sports in DC.  NBA-wise, I have some glimmers of hope for a Laker renaissance.  I legitimately like Lonzo Ball's play, although a lot of people hate him for a stupid reason (his old man is insufferable).  And Kyle Kuzma is a revelation.

OK, just getting this in under the wire.  See you next year! (Namely tomorrow.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What is an Evangelical? (II)

A long time ago, I wrote in this space about "What is an Evangelical?" Reading it today, I am amazed at my own perspicacity, and I generally still agree with myself -- although I'm surprised that back then I didn't know who Rick Warren and Joyce Meyers were; and Michael Gerson has since become a valuable conservative pundit. Richard John Neuhaus has since died.

But the question of "what is an evangelical?" gains added steam today because of the election of 2016, in which a large majority of self-identified evangelicals voted for D. Trump.  Because of this, there are some among the minority who didn't who are no longer willing to call themselves evangelicals.  (Roy Moore of Alabama, running as an ultra-conservative evangelical but accused of sexual misconduct, also comes in for some blame for this.)

But this is the logical outcome of the political identification of evangelicalism with conservatism -- and not just conservatism, but specifically anti-abortion/pro-life conservatism. If a candidate is on the "right" side of the single issue that concerns you, then no other trait of his can be of any relevance.  The result is that we have Donald Trump, who is willing to gut healthcare, give tax breaks to the already wealthy, trash the environment, break up and deport families, and give barely-coded support to white supremacists -- but who will appoint judges who might someday in the future make abortions somewhat harder to get. (Gay marriage, too. Evangelicals today are very supportive of government control of what people do with their reproductive systems.) This is totally aside from his rebarbative personal qualities.

So a lot of people are saying, finally, "count me out." I was already out of evangelicalism in that sense, but I'm glad to see the scales falling from many people's eyes.  I would love to see evangelicals move away from the right, and cease to be running dogs of the Republican Party. Unfortunately, I don't see this happening in anything like the degree I would welcome.

LATER: Some additional thoughts from Timothy Keller in the New Yorker (!).

Monday, December 19, 2016

Annual Ralphies: Lucky 13th

My, what an inactive year for Ralph.  This reflects what an active year it was outside of Ralph.  The first half of the year was devoted to writing lectures and then delivering them – most notably in Cambridge (a splendid and sumptuous event, for which I am eternally grateful) and in Jerusalem (ditto).  The second half of the year was less spectacular and more dismaying; I refer to the recent presidential election, which is the most disturbing one in my lifetime.  Some of my Facebook statuses reflect my growing sense of foreboding:

Amy and I will be voting for the same person this year for the first time ever. #nevertrump (July 22)

Only Trump could make "Merry Christmas" sound like a threat. #nevertrump (July 30)

Evangelicals supporting Trump have permanently lost credibility to speak on public policy or public morality. But hey, good for Albert Mohler. #nevertrump

I really hope that the white male middle class, its spurious Herrenvolk aspirations in jeopardy, doesn't elect the most grotesquely unqualified Presidential candidate ever. (Sept. 26)

Come back, baseball. Don't leave us to face next week without you. (Nov. 3)

Kitchen dialogue in the a.m.:
"I'd like to punch Trump in the face."
"Oh, that's a real Christian attitude!"
"The heart wants what it wants." (Nov. 7)

Haven't felt this grieved since 9/11. (Nov. 9)

And that about says it.  On 9/12/01, I felt that the foundations of society were fragile; now I feel the same way.  Now the Ralphies are more important than ever.

MUSIC:  There has been a lot of good music this year – none of, regrettably, from our newest Nobel Laureate in Literature.  I've heard a lot of great female voices, like Angel Olsen, Mitski, and that gal in Sylvan Esso, and that other gal in Tennis.  But my favorite music came from a bunch of guys, namely Foals.  Can't decide what their best track is, but I'll go with "Birch Tree." They're supposed to be awesome live, which I regrettably can't confirm by experience.

FICTION:  I've read some really good sci-fi this year, with super thumbs-up to Lavie Tidhar's Central Station and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (about which more below).  Also, I was surprised to find out how good C. S. Forester's Hornblower series is.  The rumor was that the Aubrey-Maturin series (which I love) was far superior, but this turned out not to be the case at all.  Forester's prose is superb, the stories are terrific, and Hornblower, in his own way, is as compelling a character as Jack Aubrey.  But my book of the year award goes to Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (c'mon, you don't need a hyperlink for this, do you?).  I've never been ready to read this book before, but this year I was, and it was enthralling.

NON-FICTION:  There was a lot, good and bad.  The most stimulating for me was Kees Versteegh's Pidginization and Creolization: The Case of Arabic, which gave me tons of ideas.  

TV:  I was an indifferent consumer of TV this year, with two exceptions.  One was the series Law and Order: SVU, which is in more or less continuous re-runs on a variety of channels. I figured it was junk, but I watched a few, and found the series as addictive as potato chips.  Pretty good plots, interesting characters, decent acting (especially Mariska Hargitay). It ain't Breaking Bad, but it ain't bad.  But the Ralphie has to go to Stranger Things, which I binge-watched during a free month of Netflix.  So much fun.

MOVIES:  We saw exactly two in the theater, namely The Secret Life of Pets (it was OK) and Arrival, based on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (see above). Arrival takes the prize, just for making a linguist the hero, but a high runner-up is Hail Caesar, which I watched on the plane twice going to and from Israel, then I bought the DVD, which is a rare event indeed.  A knee-slapper, for sure, and Ralph Fiennes' scene with Alden Ehrenreich is not to be missed. 

SPORTS:  Sports was pretty meh this year, with one exception: the Nats' playoff drive, which fell short.  Better luck next year, guys, but thanks for making the summer and early fall a lot of fun, and a great distraction from the collapse of the republic.

OK, see you all next year, if there is a next year.  Not that I'm pessimistic or anything. :)                                                                                                                          

Sunday, October 09, 2016

A Third Party in 2016?

It has been noted and repeated many times that this year's Presidential campaign is almost without analogy in American history.  The Republican candidate is hilariously, grotesquely, unfit for high public office, while the Democratic candidate, despite her credentials in public service (which are not without blemish), bids fair to continue many of the highly questionable policies of the incumbent.  She herself has a somewhat rebarbative personal style – irrelevant, I know – but it makes it hard to build up a big enthusiasm for her.

For these reasons, many people in the country are considering voting for a third-party candidate.  I am one of them.  For years, I have kidded people that I am a member of the "Green Tory" party, which is nonexistent, but which would include, if it existed, strong pro-life and pro-traditional marriage planks (traditionally associated with Republicanism), as well as strong support for environmental protection (including limiting greenhouse gas emissions), universal health care, opposing torture as a tool against terrorism, and pro-gun control (traditionally associated with the left). I distrust both Big Government and Big Business.   But since there is no Green Tory party, I have been forced, every four years, to vote for a candidate whose views I consider in part repugnant.  This is the price of being a citizen in the US.

However, this year I will be voting for a party whose platform I believe in, namely the American Solidarity Party.  The ASP is an American version of the European-Latin American Christian democracy parties, and its platform, as you can see, has a great deal to recommend it to Green Tory members.  For the first time in – well, ever – I can vote for President (the ASP ticket is Maturen-Muñoz) whole-heartedly.

But I need to defend this choice against two charges. The first charge is, "Everyone has a duty to keep Trump out of the White House, and only a vote for Clinton will ensure that." I do agree with this up to a point.  Indeed, if Maryland were a swing state, I would probably vote for Clinton for exactly that reason.  However, Maryland is solidly Democratic and my vote for Clinton is not needed.

The second charge is, "You are wasting your vote on someone who cannot win." However, the value of a third party does not rest on electoral success or failure.  Politics is concerned not only with elections (who holds power), but also with policy (what the government should do).  A third-party platform can express certain ideals of public policy and will represent a unified political and social worldview, that is an alternative to the inadequate views of the two big parties.  To the degree that the third party gains votes and, with them, a higher public profile, the more attention will be paid to these ideals and this worldview, and the more traction they stand to gain in the society at large.  This seems to me to be a goal worth working toward. 

For these reasons, I am voting for the ASP in 2016, and I recommend their platform to those looking for an alternative.  See you at the polls!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Twelfth Annual Ralphies

It’s time for the Twelfth Annual Ralphies.  Once again, I can’t believe I’ve been blogging this long.  When I started, blogging was a cutting-edge thing to do, now it seems kind of passé. Nevertheless, I still enjoy doing it when I have time.

BOOKS, Fiction:  Even in the midst of the academic year, I have to have a novel to read; it’s a lifelong habit that I’m not likely to break now.  I have to have a fictional world to escape to.  This year I re-read some old favorites, and finally finished the last book of the Aubrey-Maturin sea novels by Patrick O’Brian, Blue at the Mizzen.  There are no bad books in this series, but the last few (including this one) are notably weak.  I’m glad to see Aubrey get his admiralship, though.  As I write this, I’m reading the last book in Ian MacDonald’s Everness trilogy, Empressof the Sun (2014).  Great science-fiction of the YA variety.  But this year’s Ralphie goes to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995).  This is a long, strange book in the tradition of magic realism, originally written in Japanese; not my regular cup of tea.  But for some reason I couldn’t put it down.

BOOKS, Non-fiction: Most of the year I was on sabbatical, and read quite a few things of considerable interest.  One book I picked up in Moe’s Bookshop in Berkeley galvanized my thinking in new directions: Sarah Thomason’s LanguageContact: An Introduction (2001), for which I shall be forever grateful.  But it was John McWhorter’s LanguageInterrupted: Signs of Non-native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars (2007) that provided key insights that I can use in my next research project.

MOVIES:  I only saw three first-run movies this year: The End of the Tour, Ex Machina, and The Force AwakensTour was an odd little movie, based on the sort-of memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky (2010), which I read after seeing the movie.  I love the writing of DFW, but I don’t know if this movie (or book) would make the uninitiated want to read him.  The performances were good.  The Ralphie goes, of course, to The Force Awakens, just for not letting us all down. 

TV:  TV is no longer about “appointment viewing,” except for sports.  My only non-sports appointment in front of the TV this year was for PBS’s magnificent Wolf Hall.  Someone should really try once again to film the Aubrey-Maturin books, because Mark Rylance (who played Cromwell) would be the perfect Stephen Maturin.

COMIX:  I’ve let reading comics slide lately; too much else to do, and they are too expensive.  But I have kept up with Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga series, which continues to be awesome.  I gather the series will be on hiatus for a while, unfortunately. 

MUSIC:  Good music is where you find it, but sometimes you have to look pretty hard.  This was one of those years.  My favorite album of the year was Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, a nice return to form with an emotionally draining record.  My drive-time commute was immeasurably improved with the addition of Tom Petty Radio to the Sirius XM lineup.  TP just hasn’t ever put out any lousy music.  My sabbatical theme song (and default Song of the Year) was an older song of Sufjan’s.

SPORTS: My motley collection of allegiances provided mixed results this year.  The Nationals were my favorite, despite an underachieving year.  The Lakers and Longhorns have had to be content with fading memories of glory in the course of horrible seasons.  The Bengals? The jury is still out.  The Spuds have had an overachieving, and satisfying, year; yay! for Kirk Cousins.

OK, kids, see you on the flip side! Happy New Year to all.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A View of DFW From Israel: Assaf Gavron on David Foster Wallace

I’ve been thinking about David Foster Wallace a lot lately -- catalyzed by the release of the movie End of the Tour, reading David Lipsky’s book on which it is based, and re-reading some of DFW’s pieces, both fiction and non-fiction.  When I read about Wallace and his all-too-short life, I feel sad -- but when I read Wallace himself, I don’t feel that way at all; rather, intensely stimulated by his intellect and humor. It was natural to me, given my other interests, to wonder if Wallace had ever been translated into Hebrew. He would be a challenge to translate into any language, since his style incorporates so much idiomatic American speech.  Judging from this article,  a few books of his have indeed appeared in Hebrew translation (all after his death), though no one (apparently) has yet taken on the task of rendering Infinite Jest into Hebrew.

That doesn’t mean that DFW has no admirers in Israel, however.  The above cited Wikipedia article has a link to an appreciation of Wallace that appeared shortly after his death, written for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth by the novelist, musician, and translator Assaf Gavron, which appeared on October 3, 2008.  Since we have a natural interest in views of American letters from abroad, I have undertaken to render this piece of Gavron’s into English, which I give below. Occasional short comments from me are in square brackets.  Footnoted comments by me are signaled by asterisks.


David Foster Wallace has not been translated into Hebrew [no longer true--EMC] and it is reasonable to assume that he never will.  For this reason, his suicide two weeks ago, in contrast to the flood of eulogies and memorials overseas, passed here in complete silence. 

For several years I tried to interest at least five publishers in Israel in putting out his long article “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again,” from the collection of the same name. I called. I had meetings.  I sent the book. One of the publishers, it doesn’t matter which one, even lost my copy, so I bought another one. I said, “This is the funniest thing you will ever read in your lives.” I said: “You will cry, it’s so funny.”  I said: “This guy, you just don’t ....” They didn’t go for it. No one other than me (and I don’t have the means, although I swore that I would do it when I did) wanted to bring out in Hebrew David Foster Wallace’s impressions of his voyage in a luxury cruise ship in the Caribbean, impressions written originally for the periodical Harper’s and published there serially [actually not serially-EMC] in the ‘nineties.

For starters, allow me to give you a short paragraph, footnote 53 of the text, and it doesn’t matter what the footnote refers to: *

53 This is counting the Midnight Buffet, which tends to be a kind of lamely lavish Theme-slash-Costume-Partyish thing, w/ Theme-related foods--Oriental, Caribbean, Tex-Mex--and which I plan in this essay to mostly skip except to say that Tex-Mex Night out by the pools featured what must have been a seven-foot-high ice sculpture of Pancho Villa [the Hebrew translation actually reads “a famous Mexican general”] that spent the whole party dripping steadily onto the mammoth sombrero of Tibor, Table 64's beloved and extremely cool Hungarian waiter, whose contract forces him on Tex-Mex Night to wear a serape and a straw sombrero with a 17" radius53a and to dispense Four Alarm chili [Hebrew paraphrases as: “spicy chili”] from a steam table placed right underneath an ice sculpture, and whose pink and birdlike face on occasions like this expressed a combination of mortification and dignity that seem somehow to sum up the whole plight of postwar Eastern Europe.
53a (He let me measure it when the reptilian [rendered as “lowly”] maitre d' wasn't looking.)

This is just a small sample, but it is pure David Foster Wallace. The footnote, the footnote-within-a-footnote, an entire paragraph which is only one breathless sentence, a description of a static scene that somehow, from buffet meals on a luxury cruise, gets to the political situation in postwar Eastern Europe -- and, most importantly, the humor.

I first encountered (the works of) David Foster Wallace in January 1997, in a big bookstore in New York. On a table there was a giant pile of copies of a giant book by the name of Infinite Jest. This was the edition in soft cover of the book that had come out in the previous year. The picture of the author, 34 years old at the time, the pure chutzpah of a writer at such an age putting out a 1079-page novel, the flood of reviews from all the important newspapers, and several sentences that I sampled at random from the book -- all these convinced me to buy it.

I don’t remember a lot from that first reading. I remember that it continued through some long nights. I remember superfluous pages, arcane descriptions, but I remember most of all excitement and amazement. I remember laughing out loud. What is certain is that the experience of reading Infinite Jest was enough to cause me to buy and read every word that Foster Wallace had published.

Infinite Jest is a funny novel, full of imagination and excitement, about a tennis academy in North America in the not-too-distant future (if I am not mistaken 2011, that is, 20 years from the time that the novel was written). It is also about Alcoholics Anonymous, Quebecois freedom fighters, differential equations and more. It is a parody of an America addicted -- to drugs, alcohol, sports, sex, entertainment and more, bubbling with humor and creative energy.

Infinite Jest tested the infinite possibilities of the novel.  Wallace broke down the format and put it back together again in unexpected ways.  He wrote sentences several pages in length.  He switched from style to style.  He turned the footnotes (which take up almost 100 pages of the 1079) from a tedious academic tool to a creative and sexy technique.

The contemporaries of Foster Wallace, like Jonathan Franzen (who was his best friend), Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Michael Chabon and others, noticed these experiments , used them as a template, and refined them,  for novels which were more coherent, more accessible, and shorter, easier for people to buy and easier for literary juries to award prizes to. I would like to think that I too learned a thing or two from Infinite Jest, both in fiction and in experiential journalism.

Infinite Jest was to be his last novel**. He had published a novel before it, as well as a collection of short stories, and after it two more collections.  Although his rare talent was evident, the last story collections (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion) were uneven, and went in darker and gloomier directןons. They include, along  with flashes of brilliance, some absurd stories that were in part unreadable. Other than fiction, Foster Wallace, as noted, published a few collections of essays that had previously appeared in all of the important periodicals in the US.

He maintained that journalism was not suitable for his style (for example as a writer who does not believe in limitations of space and word count), but evidently he was wrong.  Among his brilliant essays there are profound analyses of cooking lobsters, tennis (he was a professional*** player at the youth level), mathematics, and a visit to the State Fair in Illinois, the place of his birth.****

Concerning the experience of watching the tennis player Roger Federer he wrote for the New York TImes, “It was impossible. It was like something out of ‘The Matrix.’ I don’t know what-all sounds were involved [rendered in Hebrew as “what sounds came out of my throat”], but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs [rendered as “eyeballs from the all-for-a-dollar store”].”

David Foster Wallace was not the greatest or most successful writer of his generation.  But he was perhaps the most impressive.  Daring, intellectual, pure, uncompromising, exciting, and a comic genius. His experiments were a catalyst for many writers who were very distant from him.

Foster Wallace suffered from clinical depression.  Last summer he stopped using a particular medication because of severe side-effects, and from that point on his condition grew steadily worse. On Friday, September 12, he hanged himself.

*All quotations from DFW are given in the original English. The footnote from “Fun Thing” is from page 296 of the paperback edition.

**The Pale King was published posthumously in 2011.

***He was not a professional,but was a regional youth league player.

****Actually, he was born in Ithaca, N.Y., but was raised in Illinois. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The grammar of "Dylan goes electric"

As many have noted, this past week saw the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan's famed electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, preceded by the publication of Elijah Wald's book Dylan Goes Electric (which sounds like a good read).

While I am interested in the subject itself, I also have to confess an interest in the grammar of the short sentence "Dylan goes electric." My first idle question to myself was, What grammatical role does the adjective "electric" play in the sentence? My first idle answer was that it was functioning as an adverb, but a moment's thought demonstrated the wrongness of that answer. "Dylan goes electric" is not synonymous with "Dylan goes electrically"; i.e., "electric" doesn't describe how Dylan went.

But it's also not where he went, although the verb "to go" typically takes a complement indicating location. "Dylan goes electric" is not the same type of sentence as "Dylan goes home."

The key is that "to go" in the sentence is not functioning as a motion verb, but, as it often does, as a kind of linking verb, like be (prototypically), become, appear, seem. "Dylan goes electric" has a family resemblance to "Dylan is electric," "Dylan becomes elecric," "Dylan appears electric," "Dylan seems electric," or to non-Dylanesque sentences such as "Maggie went native" or "The lake goes flat when the wind subsides." NOUN + GO(linking) + ADJECTIVE means "NOUN adds property ADJECTIVE."

"Electric," then, is a predicative complement. But also the word "Dylan" requires a certain amount of semantic unpacking. In the sentence it is straightforwardly a Noun used as a Subject.  But it can't be interpreted straightforwardly as a proper noun, denoting the person Bob Dylan, who did not become electric. Here "Dylan" refers via metonymy to "Bob Dylan's music."

But "Dylan" = "Dylan's music" is not so simple, either. There is an overtone to "Dylan goes electric" that is not found in the paraphrase "Bob Dylan's music changed to electric (=using amplified instruments)." Some people blame or praise Dylan for going electric, which would make no sense if Dylan, the person, was not volitionally involved in the process. The thing is, "Dylan" has to refer simultaneously to the performer and the music.

The linguist James Pustejovsky has a name for words that display this kind of two-sidedness: dot objects. Dot objects display "inherent polysemy," that is, entities that can simultaneously be interpreted as two different types of entity.  One example is "book," which can be simultaneously "tome" and "content": "The book with a green cover [physical object] is interesting[story]."

This is signified by a dot: tome•content. One of the dot-object types is performer•product, which licenses "Dylan [performer•music] goes electric." The "performer" facet licenses the volitional feature of "goes," while the "product" licenses the predicate complement "electric."

By the way, judging by the video, the most "electric" part of the set was not Dylan's Stratocaster strumming, but the late Michael Bloomfield's face-melting Telecaster licks. In my opinion, the wrong guitar gets all the credit. Where is Bloomfield's Telecaster now? (EDIT: here.)

BIBLIOGRAPHY: James Pustejovsky, The Generative Lexicon (MIT Press, 1996); Elijah Wald, Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties (Harper Collins, 2015).