Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In the past couple of weeks, I saw two of the most popular films in the world released this year. The first one you have all heard of. The second you probably haven’t.
The first film I am referring to is obviously Avengers: Endgame, which has set all manners of records at the box office. Critics have been describing the not-so-secret secret of its success with phrases like “satisfying” and “full circle,” while fans talk about “callbacks” and “Easter eggs.” Both seem to me to be really referring to the French-Bulgarian literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov called “the grammar of narrative.” (Minor spoiler follows.)
Using examples from the Italian classic Decameron, Todorov famously proposed that for a story to be satisfying, it must conform to a certain structure. A sentence must conform to certain grammar to make sense. So it is that without the correct structure, a story feels incoherent, or indeed not much of a story at all but only a series of events.
For an atheist, I sure visit a lot of churches.
And mosques, and temples, and synagogues, and monasteries of all stripes, places of worship of all creeds.
In light of the disastrous fire at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral this week, I have been pondering my love of houses of worship despite my negative attitude toward religion.
As an atheist, all religions are vaguely offensive to my sensibilities. As far as I’m concerned, the primary function that organized religion serves is to insist on obvious falsehoods and to make the populace more gullible to even further falsehoods. Witness the bizarre belief among a great many Americans that, like Cyrus the Great, the current president occupies the White House because God specifically put him there.
Somehow I never got around to reading Shen Congwen until just recently.
Unless you’re Chinese/Taiwanese, you have probably never heard of him. And yet in 1988 he almost won the Nobel Prize in literature. The Nobel Committee had essentially agreed to give him the prize when its members made an inquiry to the Chinese government: Where was Mr. Shen, they wanted to know. And more to the point, was he still alive? The Nobel Prize, you see, could only be award to living persons.
The Chinese government responded that they knew of no one by that name. And yet he was one of the most important Chinese writers of the 20th century. Further investigation revealed that Shen had died of a heart attack a short time earlier. Committee member and famed Swedish Sinologist Göran Malmqvist pleaded with his fellow members that an exception be made for an exceptional figure, but to no avail.
“You know the Japanese word for ‘thank you’?” Ricardo asked me.
He was missing a surprising number of teeth given that he was four years younger than I. And his hair was already verging on salt-and-pepper. But he spoke with youthful enthusiasm on behalf of all things Azorean. Azorean, not necessarily Portuguese — he favored independence for the islands. His own darker skin tone he attributed to Moroccan descent. The other side of his family was Dutch, he said, reflecting the complex ethnic mixture here.
“Yes?” I said. “Arigato.”
“You know it’s borrowed from Portuguese ‘obrigado’? Apparently the Japanese didn’t have a word for ‘thank you’ until they met the Portuguese.”
In the wake of the terrorist attack in New Zealand, much of the conversation in the US has dripped with envy.
That’s right, envy.
First, a great many voices have pointed to the outpouring of empathy by the Kiwi public after the attack as exemplars of just what a “nice” country New Zealand is. Television hosts intoned that New Zealand is full of the friendliest and kindest people that they have ever met. Videos of Haka performances in tribute to the slain were posted across the Internet as evidence of Kiwi high-mindedness.
All of this, even though anyone who grew up as a racial minority in New Zealand as I did can tell you that there’s as much racial tension to go round there as anywhere else. Kiwis have mostly been helping along this idealization of New Zealand, at least Kiwis who are Pakeha. I suppose we all want to think the best of ourselves. But Americans have been pushing it as well, because they have long idealized New Zealand.
Some of you may have seen my jeremiad last week against the preferential treatment of so-called “legacies” in US university admissions. Legacy: one whose parent(s) or some other relative(s) attended the institution to which he or she is applying. As longstanding practice, most elite US colleges admit legacy students on a much more lenient basis than non-legacy ones. At Harvard, it is statistically nearly six times easier to get in as legacy than non-legacy.
I’ve been chewing over this idea of legacy. Of course the very idea offends many of us, offends our sense of fairness. Certainly it offends me.
On the other hand, the notion of heritage, of being who we are and accomplishing what we accomplish because of who our parents are, seems to me fundamental to human nature.
A few weeks ago, the world of young adult publishing was up in a tizzy over a then-forthcoming fantasy novel by a French-born Chinese author. Essentially, a few influential voices in the world of American YA literature read advanced copies of the book and accused the author of racist depictions of Africa-Americans.
Despite protesting that she had not grown up in the United States and took inspiration from indentured servitude in Asia rather than American slavery, and despite some readers pointing out that the allegedly black character isn’t black, the author asked her publisher to withdraw the book.
This storm in a teacup got me wondering: Should we not read literature by racist authors? Should we not read literature that condones racist attitudes? Naturally, considering this question led me to go back to another author, one whose racism was not in doubt: H. P. Lovecraft.
In July 1518 in the city of Strasbourg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire but now in France, one Frau Troffea started to dance.
The hours went by. Then the days. And Mrs. Troffea wouldn’t stop. Then others joined her. Hundreds of Strasbourgers were dancing within a few weeks. None of them cared to stop. They danced until they collapsed or — in many cases — died.
I’ve been reading about the “Dancing Plague” over the last few days, perhaps in part due to my interest in plague narratives from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Camus’s La Peste to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Those zombie movies and shows that are your guilty pleasure? Plague narratives.
Years ago, when I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a passage instantly jumped out at me.
Dostoyevsky tells a fable through the mouth of one of his characters. But it wasn’t just the story itself that struck me. It was also the fact that I had heard it before.
In Dostoyevsky’s telling, the story is of Russian Orthodox origin, and it goes like this:
Despite my atheism, sometimes I read the Bible.
Over the holidays I started rereading my favorite books, Job and Ecclesiastes. Then I turned to the Gospels. And some passages in Matthew struck me as they never had before — how did I miss them the first time?
For example, did you know that Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech takes its central metaphor from Matthew 12:25? “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” (All quotations are from the King James Version.)
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."