Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Goodbye, Naughts

January 2, 2010

I’ve enjoyed the little spate of articles about what to call the decade that’s just ended now that it has, well, ended. I’m also impressed that apparently we mostly haven’t needed to call it much of anything at all (although a reliable expat friend assures me that in England they really do call it “the noughties.”)

Insofar as I called it anything myself, it was “the aughts.” I think that’s mostly because of fond but dim memories of Jethro Bodine as a double-aught spy. Very dim, as it turns out. Jethro was actually a double-naught spy.

For higher culture, here’s a Language Log piece on how we might pronounce the coming year. I think I had planned to alternate between “twenty-ten” and “two thousand ten.” It would not have occurred to me that anyone would have thought there was and Official Way. So thank you for setting us straight, National Association of Good Grammar!

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And a Happy Boxing Day to you, Garrison Keillor!

December 26, 2009

I must have been doing a spectacularly poor job wasting time over the last week, because only today did I see Garrison Keillor’s Christmas rant:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Golly. For the record, he also says bad things about Lawrence Summers and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and unaccountably refers to the good people of Cambridge, MA, as “Cambridgeans.”

One has to wonder exactly how serious this is intended to be. On the one hand, Keillor is a professional humorist and satirist. He’s also an inveterate rewriter of lyrics, Christmas lyrics not excepted. On the other, well… it isn’t very funny, now is it?

I’m leaning towards thinking it’s satire, or at least thinking that he thinks it’s satire. I am hardly Garrison Keillor’s biggest fan1—I find A Prairie Home Companion both precious and grating, not to mention endlessly, mindlessly, numbingly repetitive—but I don’t think he’s stupid. I can easily imagine him being sufficiently egotistical to blast the UU’s for rewriting lyrics even as he does it himself (possibly by distinguishing “serious” and “humorous” rewrites). I can’t imagine him being so ignorant of musical tradition as to think that lyrics haven’t been rewritten continually since there were lyrics to rewrite. Or that Christmas music was universally wonderful and timeless until those Unitarians and Jews had to go and spoil it all.

I think he’s adopted a sort of vaguely anti-Semitic (and anti-Unitarian (and heck, while we’re at it, homophobic)) curmudgeonly Andy Rooney persona, full of misty nostalgia for those good old days that never existed. Perhaps he’s also kidding on the square.

And this wouldn’t be the first time Keillor’s attempted satire was taken more seriously than he claims to have intended. Here’s his apology, in the context of Dan Savage’s response to same, for the above-linked column.

FWIW, I looked up the offending Godless Silent Night. I’m not sure which of the two versions in the UU hymnal so offended Garrison. The first is just like the one he’s used to, except that it replaces “son of God” with “child of God” and ends each stanza with “Sleep in heavenly peace”—no Sons or Lords here. The second is a much more literal translation of two of the original German verses, very mildly Unitarianized so as to avoid the word “savior.”

Lots of responses to this on the internets, of course. Here‘s one from folk-singer-(pretty good folk singer, in fact)-turned-Unitarian-minister Fred Small, whose church it was that Keillor was talking about. This piece includes links to other Unitarian-Universalist responses (some of which seem angry and wounded—UUs, like “Cambridgeans,” are natural Keillor fans). Here‘s something pretty icky from Powerline, the gist of which is that Keillor must be sublimating his anger at the Jews (isn’t it really the atheists, and those who like the First Amendment?) who have so rudely driven Christmas from the Public Square.

 

1. Garrison Keillor’s biggest fan is Garrison Keillor.

David Foster Wallace, RIP

September 15, 2008

I just read that David Foster Wallace committed suicide last Friday.1,2 The world is a less interesting place without him.

 

1 I am ashamed to say I have never read Infinite Jest, despite having borrowed a copy from someone at least once.

2 Wallace wrote the single best magazine article I have ever read.3

3 Interestingly, the multiply nested footnotes work better in print than they do as hypertext links.

Oral Cultures and Us

May 17, 2008

On their respective blogs, April DeConick, Mark Goodacre, and Loren Rosson are having a discussion of orality, “secondary orality,” oral and literate cultures, and how our era of chaotic electronic communication might compare to the world that produced the New Testament (the area of study of the aforementioned scholar/bloggers). It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I won’t let my complete ignorance of the subject keep me from making a few random semi-related comments. Please do bear in mind that my only claim to expertise here is that I, you know, read and talk, so I’m pretty sure I’m way out in left field here. Oh, and I think my most interesting point as the last one, so you might just skip to that.

It’s not entirely clear to me that Professors DeConick and Goodacre and Rosson don’t actually more or less agree—Goodacre says so, respecting DeConick’s first post—and that the apparent disagreement is really over terminology and nuance and emphasis. Is that typical of oral or literate cultures? 🙂 . Insofar as I understand the issues here, I’m entirely with April DeConick (always a safe bet, as far as I can tell).

Rossen, citing this, argues “that our hypertext/internet subculture shares remarkable similarities with oral biblical culture.” I don’t buy it. The analogy is certainly interesting, but I don’t think it’s more than, well, an interesting analogy. It would be at the very least misleading to draw conclusions about the culture that produced the New Testament. Maybe when I have more time and energy I’ll respond to all the points there in detail, but for now I’ll just mention two very obvious things:

  1. Our pseudo-oral electronic communication shares one crucial feature with good old books, and not with truly oral culture—you can always look up sources. You can click on those links above and see what I garbled in this post. You should, actually, if you have the slightest interest. Then you can go to a library and read the references they cite. I should do that myself.
  2. As April DeConick comes close to pointing out, people in oral cultures had skills we don’t—our memories suck. We have no need to remember very much; we can look up anything we need, and just haven’t needed to practice memorizing things. The internet has made looking stuff up even easier, come to think of it, moving us still further away from truly oral cultures.

This does have me thinking about “oral transmission” and what it means for various ancient texts. How do the gospels compare in that respect to the Pentateuch, or to the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Homer seems a very different case from the Bible here—the Greek epics were (apparently) pretty direct transcriptions of oral versions of the story. Hence all the mnemonic devices and stock phrases: “strong-greaved Achaeans,” “bright Achilles,” “gray-eyed Athene,” “wine-dark sea.”

The gospels and the Old Testament, at least the part of the OT I find most interesting—the J sections of the Pentateuch and the story of David—also strike me as fundamentally different in origin. The gospels were apparently written down in part to preserve circulating oral tradition, and although (unlike the Homeric epics) they were certainly not mere transcriptions, their authors presumably thought of themselves much more as reporters than as poets or novelists. On the other hand, I tend to think that the Yahwist and the “Court Historian of David,”—who may have been the same personwere essentially novelists. They used oral (and maybe written, for all we know) tradition as source material, but just as modern fabulists and historical novelists do they turned them into new, creative works. I think the Court History of David (including one of its prequels in I Samuel) is in fact best characterized as the first historical novel. Or at least the first one that survives.

Back to the modern world. I think the only example of an actual oral culture that we modern Americans are exposed to is that of elementary-school children. All of you out there sang “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, I bit my teacher’s toe,” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school,” didn’t you? In the days before Bart Simpson those spread (mostly) orally, all over the country, with all the attendant versions and variations that you’d expect. “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes“—maybe New Testament scholars should consider visiting some elementary schools…

Robert Fagles, RIP

March 30, 2008

I see that Robert Fagles has died. In my admittedly limited experience, Fagles’ translations are among the best at capturing the power and raw beauty of the great Greek poets and playwrights, something which I can experience only in translation. From his Eumenides:

You younger Gods!–you have ridden down
the ancient laws, wrenched them from my grasp–
and I, robbed of my birthright, suffering, great with wrath,
I loose my poison over the soil, aieee!–
poison to match my grief comes pouring out my heart,
cursing the land to burn it sterile and now
rising up from its roots a cancer blasting leaf and child,
now for Justice, Justice!–cross the face of the earth
the bloody tide comes hurling, all mankind destroyed.
…Moaning, only moaning? What will I do?
The mockery of it, Oh unbearable,
mortified by Athens,
we the daughters of Night,
our power stripped, cast down.

In the Onion AV Club

March 13, 2008

The Onion A.V. Club is chock full o’ things I like: an interview with Naomi Watts (my favorite hot actress), a piece about Miami Blues (my favorite obscure and off-kilter neo-noir crime film), and an “primer” on the works of Alan Moore (my (and everyone else’s) favorite comic book auteur). Check ’em out–