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Linkdump: Cultural and Literary

First, I am reading and very much enjoying Steven Moore’s landmark book on the Novel: An Alternative History. (Read this review by Steven Donoghue which is extensive and critical though somewhat fair):

If authors had any genuine talent for categorization, they’d be accountants. Authors are nitwits – that’s what makes them holy; it’s the critic’s job to determine categories. And a critic like Moore, who’s so lost in his pet theory that he’s willing to throw all categories to the wind, does neither writers nor readers any good service.

I read books for a living, and a hefty number of those books are novels. I know what a novel is, and I’d bet my last basset hound Moore does too (at one point, when discussing an obscure Buddhist text – after once again scorning Buddhism itself, of course – he disqualifies it for ‘novel’ status, saying “we have to draw the line somewhere”). It’s not hard, but it does exclude medieval falconry manuals and ancient Egyptian recipe books. A novel is a coherent prose narrative that’s too long to be read comfortably in one sitting. Eighteen words instead of 700 pages – anticlimactic, I know, but there’s such a thing as making a mountain out of a molehill. If the book in question doesn’t tell (or want to tell) a coherent narrative, it isn’t a novel

AP story about dog concert being organized by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.

Multimedia artist Anderson said the inspiration for the canine performance came while she was backstage before an event and thought: “Wouldn’t it be great, if you were playing a concert and you look out and you see all dogs?

Letters of Note reprint some famous or important letters. Faves: Steve Martin’s reply to a fan, Frank Sinatra’s letter to George Michael to chillax, Harlan Ellison’s requirements for giving a blurb, John Lennon’s letter to a clueless art critic and the poignant letter to FDR from a war widow.

Linda Kirkpatrick writes about the Texas legend of Emily West (who some claim distracted Santa Ana at the Battle of San Jacinto and inspired the song Yellow Rose of Texas).  This comes from the Texas historical webzine Texas Escapes.

Did  you know North Korea kidnapped one of South Korea’s best directors and actresses  and forced them  to make a North Korean horror film? (Film Review here). The complete movie is on Google Video.  From an IMDB comment:

The backstory to this movie is pretty darn incredible – made in North Korea by the country’s dictator – the director and two lead performers were actually kidnapped from S. Korea after they refused to work on this movie with the dictator. Seriously – not kidding. As for the movie itself – it is pretty good in many ways. The story itself works as an old village myth – an iron eating monster comes to life to save poor farmers and villagers from a cruel warlord. The effects are cheesy and silly but some of the battle sequences are impressive for no other reasons then you can tell there are literally thousands of people fighting in these scenes. After all the CGI effects of recent time – it was refreshing and stunning to see so many actual people being used in a big battle. Then again, they probably didn’t have much choice. I guess if the dictator of a country tells you to be in his movie, you don’t refuse.

Ursula Lindsey on how Egyptian bookstores are having problems selling Arabian Nights.

Salem was the victim of a hisba case — what has become the legal weapon of choice in the arsenal of would-be censors. These are cases — based on a principle in Islamic law — in which an individual may sue another on behalf of society, alleging some grave harm has been done it. Several Islamist lawyers specialize in hisba lawsuits and use them with alarming frequency against writers, intellectuals, and professors whose opinions they deem to have denigrated Islam. Egypt’s minority Christian Coptic population also has its self-appointed moral guardians, eager to take novelists to court. And while charges against a book, author, or publisher are being investigated, the book is usually confiscated from the market.

My god, I wish someone could file a suit against Glen Beck for bad taste!

Merrill Markoe has a humorous video Something Extremely Important about her dog. I crack up every time I watch it. Other vids here and here. Markoe was the David Letterman writer who created Stupid Pet Tricks. Oh, imagine having that on your tombstone!

Similar: Lost as reenacted by Cats in 1 minute. and Viral Video Film School on Adorable Puppies.

From Thomas Leupp’s scabrous review of Sex and the City 2:

By this point, King has clearly lost his perspective, unaware of how monstrously self-absorbed and entitled he’s allowed his film’s four protagonists to become, or how their unapologetic opulence might appear to a world still struggling to emerge from economic armageddon. He’s too preoccupied with mounting his female version of Ishtar — replete with awful puns involving camel toes and “Lawrence of my labia” and an atrocious karaoke performance of the feminist anthem “I Am Woman, Here Me Roar” — to notice how badly things have gone awry, and how badly his film reflects upon women.

And it gets worse. Before leaving Abu Dhabi, the increasingly loathsome quartet become involved in a mishap that ends with Samantha (now effectively reduced to a walking hormone joke) in the middle of a busy town square, holding up a package of condoms, thrusting her hips and shouting, “I have sex!!!” as the Muslim call to prayer is sounded. Sex and the City 2 won’t win any awards (save for a few Razzies), but it could become an effective inspirational video for suicide bombers — provided they can endure the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time, of course.

This singles map shows the gender ratio of single people in selected cities.  The most interesting thing here is that almost all cities have a higher ratio of males for all age bracket under 40; then it starts to even out and by the time you reach 45-49, females predominate. (Heck, what is killing all those males!?)  This makes me wonder about how the skewed gender ratios are affecting the dating scene in China.

Patricia Gutman writes about how evolutionary biology is changing literary criticism and vice versa.  The comment section is amazing – populated by bitter academics and people generally frustrated by the drivel coming out of English departments.  The comment section makes clear that the real issue is not the latest trend coming out of English departments, but the futile attempt by English departments to embrace the social sciences as a way to improve their prominence in academia. Or to put it in another way: English departments are underfunded, teachers are woefully underpaid and they need alternate funding sources.  Here’s one comment that attempts to rebut this charge:

There are several kinds of internet trolls conjured forth by internet discussions about English Departments and their internal workings:

1) The math and science Philistine trolls: while most science types have a healthy respect for the humanities, there is a vocal minority that will seize any opportunity to mock and belittle that which makes them feel insecure: intellect used in the service of something other than the empirical and the rational. Art. Literature. Maybe this is their revenge for that “B-” in Classic Modern Novels. I’m not sure, but it would seem that these trolls would rather see humanity evolve into the Borg cube than the Federation.

2) Bitter, rejected English department grads who feel rejected by the mother they love because she can’t find them a job. This group is perhaps the most transparent. Most are in fact aware deep down that their spite is motivated by ego bruising and rejection, but they just can’t help spitting on the nipple that once nursed them.

3) Cultural conservatives. These people hate literature because it is a “liberal” art. They know that if their sons and daughters read, they may might become more empathetic, might become bleeding hearts who want to do terrible things like provide health care for those in need. They are driven to troll these threads by the same motivation that drives them to troll science and environmental threads: hatred of the intellect, fear of that which they don’t understand, and provincialism.

4) Overly romantic creative writers: most creative writers have healthy understanding of the role of critics and scholars (who are also teachers of literature, after all). But there is a vocal minority who wish to maintain a hostile divide between creating and reacting to art. These people are mostly art purists, anti-intellectual romantics who just don’t understand why universities pay people to teach literature rather than pay them to finish their sonnet cycles and slam poems.

5) Undergrads who received a low grade in a literature class. It can’t be that I wrote an obvious and vague paper! Look! The whole field is messed up! It wasn’t me!

Strange bedfellows, no?

All of these groups share some common misunderstandings: for one, that English departments are dying (they are not, statistics show enrollment has been fairly steady and the long-term enrollment trend is up). English departments continue to dominate almost all university humanities in terms of enrollment and student interest. Another misunderstanding: that intellectual restlessness and diversity in a field somehow amounts to intellectual death. The opposite is true. English departments versatility, prolixity, and openness to change comprise a strength, not a weakness.

(By the way, I clearly reside in camps 2 and 4! See my thoughts about grad school here).

Peter Gutmann is a lawyer who writes a lot of criticism about classical music. Here’s a great profile he did of the German composer Wilhelm Furtwangler (who stayed in Nazi Germany even though he kept it at arm’s length):

Despite his valid cultural intentions, he unwittingly bolstered the German war effort.

For example, Furtwängler accepted the Vice Presidency of the mandatory performers’ union and served on a commission that approved the programs of all public concerts. He assumed these positions of leadership in order to maximize his impact upon preserving cultural integrity and assuring exposure to composers and artists of quality. But his constant visibility also served to legitimize and lend credibility to the Nazi regime, not only in the eyes of foreign observers, but to the citizenry as well: after all, how could the Nazis be thoroughly depraved barbarians if someone like Furtwängler could coexist with them?

Similarly, after the War many asserted that Furtwängler concerts had served to rally Resistance members. These events succeeded in assembling a core group of cultural leaders for a post-war Germany who would vaunt humanism over militarism. Even outside Germany, many emigrants were inspired by Furtwängler as a symbol of their dissent. Thus, Furtwängler’s wartime activities may have produced lasting humanitarian benefits. In the short run, though, they had the opposite effect.

As biographer Sam Shirakawa aptly notes, Furtwängler may have offered his art for the sake of “true Germans,” but he had no control over its dissemination. Thus, his concerts were broadcast to bolster troop morale. Worse, Hitler and his top henchmen often attended Furtwängler concerts to bask in his musical balm. That same balm may have lulled the frustrations of intellectuals and artists into indifference and diverted their energies from actively opposing the ongoing war and genocide. Furtwängler only saw music as a force for moral redemption. He once told Toscanini: “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works.” But the hearts of Nazi soldiers did not melt and the souls of their leaders proved impervious to aesthetic redemption. Were those responsible for (or at best indifferent toward) the liquidation of innocent millions really entitled to have their consciences set free by the liberating glory of music?

Nor was Furtwängler’s personal outlook free of paradox. Indeed, even his attitude toward Jews was inconsistent. One of the axioms of Nazi social engineering was that Jews were incapable of being true spiritual Germans and therefore were less than fully human and a social pollution. Nowhere was the absurdity of this assumption more apparent than in classical music, as many of Germany’s finest performers were Jews. Indeed, the pianist Artur Schnabel, a Jew, was universally hailed as the preeminent exponent of Mozart, Schubert and especially Beethoven, the quintessential German musicians. And yet, although he was ideally equipped to reject the Nazi racist view, Furtwängler often drew distinctions between two classes of Jews.

On the one hand, he ardently supported Jews who had arrived at the top of their musical, artistic, scientific or academic professions. Furtwängler vehemently opposed Nazi efforts to oust such individuals, as they had become an integral part of, and significant contributors to, German culture. The vast majority of Jews whom Furtwängler assisted were professionals (or their families or acquaintances).

On the other hand, though, Furtwängler apparently felt that Jews outside these exalted ranks were potentially subversive and therefore expendable. He endorsed attacks upon alleged Jewish domination of newspapers because, in his view, this supplanted the development of a truly “German” press. Similarly, he seemed to indulge boycotts of Jewish commerce, protesting only the resultant adverse foreign publicity and the threat of a spill-over that could deplete the arts.

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