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).

Friday, July 03, 2015

A Response to Kaufman's Review of DQA

S. A. Kaufman has taken in hand to offer some critiques and corrections to my recently published Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic.  Some of his remarks deserve consideration, while others reflect plain misreadings of the book or of the texts in question.  While I am grateful for the attention paid to the book by such an eminent Aramaist, and for the occasional faint praise, I deplore the overall snide and bullying tone of the piece, as well as the liberal, and unwarranted, use of the rhetoric of certainty, wherein Kaufman, speaking de haut en bas, frequently attaches “clearly” and “surely” to his own unsupported pronouncements.  

One of the drawbacks to Kaufman’s review is that he evidently failed to read the introduction, in which he would have found discussions of some of the issues he raises.  For instance, he regrets that I did not include the vocabulary of the Geniza Aramaic Levi Document, a decision that I discussed on page xviii.   I still believe that this is a reasonable choice.

He also has no use for or, apparently, comprehension of, some of my remarks on prepositions (he uses the word “gibberish” at one point), although I briefly discussed the rationale for including them on p. xix.  The problem with prepositions is that their meaning is typically vague (in the technical semantic sense),  highly dependent on context for their construal, and therefore dictionary entries of them tend to be long lists of contextual senses or translation equivalents.   I find this unsatisfactory, and I look with favor on semanticists who attempt to find some unity in the multiple uses of a preposition. Some do this by the identification of an invariate core, others by tracing the ramifications of metaphorical extension.  My brief characterizations of some of the prepositions in DQA were at least a gesture toward this semantic project, and an attempt to bring them into practical lexicographical use.  None of these issues are on Kaufman’s radar at all.

He also apparently did not read, or take to heart, my explanation of why Greek and Hebrew equivalents were included (p. xvii).  In no case are they used, or appealed to, as determining the sense of a particular word (except for rare words or problematic cases).  He believes, for some reason, that I translated דרתה in 4Q197 (Tobit) as “courtyard” simply because the LXX uses αὐλῆς for דרתה; and that context favors simply “house.”  But private houses at that time, even small ones, were typically built around a central courtyard through which entrance was gained; so that when Reuel is found sitting “before the gate of his courtyard” it means exactly the same as sitting “before the gate of his house.”  Presumably in later dialects (such as the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic appealed to by Kaufman) דרה came to denote “house” simpliciter via metonymy. But evidence is lacking to show that this was the case in QA.

Another case of Kaufman’s misconstrual of my purposes is also found in Tobit (4Q196), [ולא ]בר לה אחרן, which I translated as “he has no other child.”  Kaufman believes that I included the gloss “child of either sex” for בר with this citation, solely because the LXX translates it by τέκνον.  But this is not so.  In context (Tobit 3:15), Sara, Reuel’s daughter, is speaking, and she says, “I am the only child of my father; and besides me, he has no other  בר.” Since Sara is a female, she must be included in the wider meaning of בר.  This is clear without appeal to the Greek, and in fact I made no appeal to the Greek.  

Finally, I shall address Kaufman’s characterization of DQA as a whole, namely, that it is not an “academic lexicon” because it lacks “an indication of the vocalization and morphological structures of well-known words, lists of derived forms for verbs, or even a guide for students as to what words are common elsewhere in Aramaic and what are relatively or extremely rare.” This suggests that Kaufman has not fully understood the purpose of a specialized lexicon for a very small corpus such as QA, which contains only about 20,000 word tokens and about 1,500 word types. With such a small corpus, it is possible to include most of the occurrences in the entries, but it is not possible to provide, say, “lists of derived forms for verbs” because the occurrences of all but extremely common verbs are too few for such a list -- as pointed out on p. xix of the introduction that Kaufman ignores, where the question of vocalization is also addressed. With respect to “morphological structures,” I am not sure what Kaufman is referring to, or what information in addition to the headword, root, and exemplification might satisfy him.   As for the last point, I fail to see the purpose of providing a guide for what words are common or rare in other Aramaic dialects; DQA is not a textbook for introductory classes in Aramaic.

It should also be pointed out that the Qumran Aramaic corpus is different from other, larger, Aramaic corpora, in that each text in the corpus has been published in DJD with detailed notes and concordances,  collected and re-collected in a variety of anthological publications, and several have been the subject of encyclopedia articles, commentaries, and popular books. There are at least two book-length grammars of QA (by Schattner-Reiser and Muraoka), a separate printed concordance with full line references, and a variety of electronic publications, including CAL, which makes retrieval of all the data quite straightforward.  Therefore Kaufman’s complaint about the lack of “an index to cited passages” is captious in the extreme.  (The forthcoming electronic publication of DQA will also make such an index superfluous.)

As for the rest, it would be tiresome, and tiring, to register counter-comments to each of Kaufman’s comments, nor do all of them warrant opposition.  I shall limit myself to a few cases, especially those where, in my opinion, Kaufman has overlooked evidence or committed an egregious error.

For זעק, Kaufman says that the Aphel “makes no sense morphologically or semantically” and says it must be Pael; and yet in CAL s.v. zʿq the root appears only in the G, C (Aphel), Gt, and Ct stems. The root does not appear to be used in the D stem (Pael) at all in Aramaic.

In connection with a citation under the root חלם II, Kaufman says, “This reading and interpretation of לבר is impossible”; but he offers no reasons for this opinion and no alternative.  I would readily accept, by the way, an emendation of  המון to מנהון (in the phrase לבר המון) although it is drastic.

With regard to the entry חתף, Kaufman says, “But since when does a Qumran Aramaic imperfect express the general present as in SBH [Standard Biblical Hebrew]?” Well, two possible examples are in the Genesis Apocryphon: ‏כל בתולן וכלאן די יעלן לגנון לא ישפרן מנהא, “no virgins or brides who enter the bridal canopy are more beautiful than she” (20:6), although these could be construed as modals. But חדה לחדה ידבקון, “each clings to each” (11QtgJob 36:1-2) is an undeniable example of an imperfect used as a general present.

Kaufman’s note on יאש is to the point; if the opportunity arises for a second edition, I shall incorporate it.

Kaufman says “ ‘chastisement’ [יסור] elsewhere is always a plural form.” Always? Not in Tg. Jeremiah 30:14 יִסּוּר אַכְזְרָאִין, “chastisement of cruel men.” If Mishnaic Hebrew is relevant, then we also have אין ייסור גדול מזה (b. Sanh. 45a).

For נגד I and II, he says baldly, “This is a single root.”  I would like to see some justification for this, since prima facie there is no semantic connection between “pull, lengthen” and “scourge.”

For נחיר, Kaufman says the lemma should be plural or dual. In response, I can do no better than to cite CAL s.v. nḥyr: “normally in the pl. (originally: dual!), but with some major exceptions, especially in poetry.” In general, words for body-parts (such as יד or רגל) are not given dual forms in dictionary headwords, although in use they may be predominantly dual or plural. (This is also relevant for Kaufman’s remark on חלץ.)

For סגר, Kaufman says “it only acquires the connotation ‘to hand over’ when used with ביד.” And that is how it is used in the cited passage (1QGenAp 22:17)! Kaufman’s remark is inexplicable.

For the preposition על, Kaufman claims that English “over” can be used as a translation equivalent in “virtually” every case.  Really? For עלת על בתאנוש, for instance, what is better, “I came to Bitenosh” or “I came over Bitenosh” (1QGenAp 2:3)? This is a silly suggestion.

Kaufman makes the following remark: “קץ n. m. time; end: The examples of ‘end’ (קצוי) are from קצה not from קץ.” In DQA the forms קצוי are in fact booked under קצה, so Kaufman’s “correction” is to an entry that does not exist.

*Edited later to remove personal expressions of pique, which I regret.