November 2, 2012
On a recent visit to New York City, I took an excellent podcast tour of the Washington Square area, as well as a National Park Service podcast tour of lower Manhattan. (Free podcasts can be found at the Weekend Explorer section of the New York Times website, and free trail guides, made by users, can be found at AllTrails.)
While I was in Washington Square, I visited Judson Church, which was built around 1890, and is known for its social activism. It’s a Baptist church, named after a Baptist missionary (Adoniram Judson), and financed by Baptist John D. Rockefeller, Sr.1 It was situated downtown, to minister to the working classes.
At the church, I met an 84-year-old man who had cycled to the church that morning from his Brooklyn home. He said that, years ago, he and his wife had bought a house in one of Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods. He had cycled in various parts of the world, and even across the U.S. When crossing the U.S., he followed a route mapped out by Adventure Cycling, which maps bike routes throughout the U.S. (A bike route might make an interesting driving route — more interesting than a long, straight highway.) Sometimes he arranged lodgings through churches. If he wanted to stay with an affluent family, he would contact an Episcopal church; if he wanted to stay with a poor family, he would contact a Pentecostal church, etc. He also arranged lodgings through Servas Open Doors, an international hospitality association.
One of the most charming buildings I encountered in my wanderings was the India House in lower Manhattan. The India House was built around 1850 as a bank and is now a social club. The architectural style is called Renaissance, and the building has an effortless variety: rounded window hoods on the first floor, pointed window hoods on the second, and smaller, unadorned windows on the third.
Another New York social club, also in the Renaissance style, is the Metropolitan Club. Built on 5th Avenue and 60th Street around 1890, the Metropolitan Club is more ornate, but less charming than the India House. Like the India House, its top-story windows are smaller and simpler than its other windows.
Unlike the India House, its corners are quoined and its first floor is rusticated. What bothers me most about the Metropolitan Club is the extremely ornate top of the building, which I suppose should be called the cornice and frieze. On the whole, I like the architecture of the Metropolitan Club, I just think it lacks the simple charm of the India House. (In an earlier issue, I discussed another New York social club, The Montauk Club, which is built in a Gothic style.)
One of the most impressive buildings in New York is Grand Central Station. The huge lobby, whose ceiling is adorned with constellations, is often praised. Perhaps even more impressive is the facade, which is topped with a sculpture of Mercury & Company. This sculpture gives life to the whole facade, changing its shape and outline. There are many sculptures adorning many buildings, but few as effective as this one. Grand Central was built around 1910 in the Beaux-Arts style.
A. Google Sky, and similar apps, allow you to point a smartphone at a star/constellation, and get information about it. Why not an architecture app that allows you to point your phone at a building (or a group of buildings), and get information about it? It should be possible to make such an app for Manhattan or Paris or any city of architectural interest.
B. I discovered an English travel writer, Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane was born in 1976, attended Oxford, and now teaches at Cambridge. He wrote Mountains of the Mind, which Wikipedia describes as “an account of the development of Western attitudes to mountains and precipitous landscapes.”1B He also wrote The Wild Places, which consists of “a series of journeys in search of the wildness that remains in Britain and Ireland.” Macfarlane has been called “the inheritor of a tradition of nature writing which includes John Muir, Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas.”
C. I discovered an American novelist, Nathanael West. His real name was Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein. He was born in 1903, and died in a car accident at age 37. His death may have been a “willed death,” a quasi-suicide, prompted by the recent death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Fitzgerald, West spent part of his career in Hollywood, writing screenplays. He attended Brown University, where he was friends with the comic writer S. J. Perelman. West’s writing has been described as “a sweeping rejection of political causes, religious faith, artistic redemption and romantic love.” Perhaps his best-known works are the novels Miss Lonelyhearts (set in Manhattan) and The Day of the Locust (set in Hollywood); both these novels have been made into movies.
D. I discovered an American mystery writer, S. S. Van Dine (real name: Willard Huntington Wright). In his early years, Van Dine had literary ambitions, writing serious fiction and a study of Nietzsche. In the 1920s, he made an exhaustive study of detective fiction, and wrote a detective novel called The Benson Murder Case. He followed this with eleven more novels, all featuring the detective Philo Vance. Vance shared his creator’s intellectual and artistic interests. Van Dine’s novels were initially popular, but the later ones weren’t well received by the public or by critics. His career is foreshadowed in one of his characters, Stanford West, who begins by writing serious literary works, then later becomes a popular author of light literature. Van Dine once wrote an article called, “I used to be a Highbrow and Look at Me Now.”
E. Will the Taliban (and other such organizations) flourish or die out? Their most valuable asset is truth, philosophy. If they have truth on their side, they will continue to gain adherents; if their philosophy is more attractive than competing philosophies, they will prosper. Our strongest weapon against them is a philosophy that’s both true and attractive, though such a philosophy would take decades to have an effect.
F. In an earlier issue, I discussed the decline of Christianity in Europe, and I quoted an English cleric who said, “Europe is no longer Christian.” A recent article in the New York Times discussed the decline of Christianity in the U.S. — more specifically, the decline of Protestant Christianity. Whites are especially prone to abandon Protestant churches, and “when they leave, instead of switching churches, they join the growing ranks who do not identify with any religion. Nearly one in five Americans say they are atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’” This is “a seismic shift from 40 years ago, when about 7 percent of American adults said they had no religious affiliation.” I regard the decline of Christianity as a positive trend, and hope to see similar declines in other monotheistic creeds, like Judaism and Islam. The decline of such creeds will encourage the spread of new worldviews, worldviews more in tune with modern life and modern knowledge, worldviews that bring people together instead of dividing people.
G. Remember the Oxfordian movie, Anonymous, that came out a year ago? The director, Roland Emmerich, is backing a new Oxfordian documentary, Last Will. & Testament. Click here for the trailer. For more info about the documentary, click here or here.
H. Jacques Barzun died recently at the age of 104. Perhaps his most popular book was a book he published at age 93: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.
I. I’m now reading a history of the 20th century: Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World. It’s hard to put down, a good blend of popular and scholarly. Ferguson has broad knowledge and fresh ideas. He writes a bit hastily, his books don’t have the literary merits of George Kennan’s, but who describes modern times better?
J. As I explained in an earlier issue, I use MicrosoftWord for word-processing partly because of its AutoCorrect feature, which can function as a shorthand system. By typing py, for example, I get “philosophy,” and by typing fe I get “for example.” If you have 50 or 100 of these shortcuts, it makes typing easier. GoogleDocs (also called GoogleDrive) now offers this feature (under Tools ==> Preferences); they call it “Automatic substitution.” But Gmail doesn’t offer it yet, and even in GoogleDocs, you can’t import your list of shortcuts. So Google is moving forward, but slowly.
[Update 2016: GoogleDocs also has a “Script Editor,” under the Tools menu, but for someone accustomed to VisualBasic, it seems quite difficult.]
I found several literary websites. One is part of Commentary Magazine; it’s a blog called “Literary Commentary.” [Update 2017: this blog appears to be defunct.] The author is D. G. Myers, who wrote a book called The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Amazon describes the book thus: “Myers explores more than a century of debate over how writing should be taught and whether it can or should be taught in a classroom at all.” As for the title (Elephants Teach), it comes from this anecdote: When Vladimir Nabokov was up for a chair in literature at Harvard, the linguist Roman Jakobson protested: “What’s next? Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?”
Jacques Barzun wrote a foreword for the Myers book, calling it “an astonishing piece of work.... Under the author’s magic it becomes the story of a great part of our culture since the turn of the century.” In his blog, Myers argues that fiction should have a moral element; the reader should care about the characters — admiring some, disapproving of others:
Another literary website I found is called The Millions. Its motto is “Who says lit coverage can’t survive online?” The site was started by Max Magee. The site’s name is a play on Magee’s first name, Maximilian.
Consider also goodreads.com, which has quizzes, recommendations, etc. I’m proud to say that I got 13 out of 14 questions on the Walden quiz. (The question I missed was “What is the title of the second chapter of Walden?” I put “How I Lived” but the correct answer is “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.”) I won’t mention my score on the Passage to India quiz.
And finally, I found the website of the National Book Critics Circle.
David Brooks says, “I have to again recommend the website The Browser, edited by Robert Cottrell, which gathers eloquence from far and wide day after day.” According to the Weekly Standard, Futility Closet is “one of the most interesting websites on the internet.” A popular economics blog is Marginal Revolution.
In the last issue, I discussed the first debate, and said that Obama would be better prepared for the second and third debates. I predicted that the second and third debates wouldn’t affect the polls much, and Obama’s slight lead in the polls would persist until election day.
This analysis implied that Obama was likely to win. It also implied that nothing could move the polls except debates (since TV ads would cancel each other out, and stump speeches would cancel each other out). Of course, an external event, such as an Israeli strike on Iran, could move the polls, but such an event is unlikely.
I overlooked a key factor: momentum. Romney not only enjoyed a bounce from the first debate, he also acquired momentum, and soon Obama’s slight lead evaporated, and Romney had a slight lead. Some undecided voters seem attracted by momentum; momentum seems to feed on itself. Hence Romney was eager to claim momentum, and to say he was optimistic, while Obama supporters insisted that Romney’s momentum wasn’t genuine, but was a creation of his campaign.
Romney seemed to have an “enthusiasm advantage.” His supporters hoped for better days ahead, while Obama’s supporters could only look forward to four more years of the same; Romney was the candidate of change, Obama the candidate of the status quo.2 The Gallup poll, which is sensitive to enthusiasm, gave Romney leads of 6%, 7%, etc. The Republican strategist Karl Rove predicted that Romney’s momentum would continue: “Undecided voters generally swing the challenger’s way.”
So it appears that Romney is likely to win, at least in the popular vote. But momentum is intangible — “such stuff as dreams are made on” — and Obama supporters may well doubt whether Romney really has momentum. Even David Brooks, who probably supports Romney, would say only “there seems to be a whiff of momentum toward Mitt Romney.” And even if Romney wins the popular vote by 2%, it may still be possible for Obama to win the electoral college.3
The polls vary widely. Each side believes the polls that support them, so each side is confident of victory. On election night, one side will be not only disappointed, but surprised. Has there ever been an election like this — an election where both sides are so confident that they start to pity the other side, where both sides can point to polls and statistics that support their belief? The poll expert for the New York Times, Nate Silver, gives Romney only a 21% chance of winning the electoral college, and only a 24% chance of winning the popular vote. The prediction market Intrade gives Romney a 34% chance in the electoral college, and a 40% chance in the popular vote. With these odds, I think Romney is a good bet.
Perhaps the country’s biggest problem is the debt/deficit problem. Romney may be the perfect person to deal with that, since he spent his career trying to turn around failing businesses, trying to bring them from the red into the black.4 The country’s other big problem is the rising cost of healthcare. Here again Romney seems to have relevant experience: as Governor of Massachusetts, he passed more revolutionary healthcare reform than any other Governor. Conservatives are troubled by its high costs, but it’s certainly a bold experiment, and the current Governor of Massachusetts is hopeful that costs can be brought down, and the system can become a model for the nation. Perhaps what the country needs most is structural reform of entitlements, and no American politician has worked on this more than Romney’s running-mate, Paul Ryan. So after prolonged deliberation, Phlit is giving its coveted endorsement to Romney-Ryan.
I recently read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (e-text here). The plot is somewhat confusing, and the novel has a sordid atmosphere, but on the whole, I enjoyed it. There were times when I felt, like one of Chandler’s characters, that “The smart thing for me to do was to take another drink and forget the whole mess,” but the ending is good, and there are many good critical essays on the novel. As you’ve heard me say before, the essays were more interesting than the novel itself — you should read the novel in order to understand the essays.
Chandler can’t be dismissed lightly. Writers like Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh had a high opinion of Chandler, and even called him the best American novelist of his time. Chandler’s protagonist, the detective Philip Marlowe, deals with various moral questions; The Big Sleep has been praised by business schools as offering a model of professional ethics. Chandler still has fans today, and I’ve received e-mails telling me that I should try him. Many academics are interested in Chandler.
Chandler was a successor of Dashiell Hammett, for whom he had high praise, and Chandler inspired younger mystery writers like Robert B. Parker. (While Chandler’s work is often set in Los Angeles, Parker’s is often set in Boston.) Chandler and Hammett are the chief representatives of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction.5
The hard-boiled school is a sharp departure from the English school of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, etc. The English school depicts a peaceful, orderly world, often a country house, and a lone criminal who disrupts this Eden. The clever detective unravels the mystery with no risk to himself, exposes the criminal, and restores peace.
A Chandler novel, on the other hand, is usually set in a messy urban environment, an environment that has “a smell of fear”; evil spreads its tentacles far and wide, and can never be entirely eradicated. The detective confronts evil at the risk of life and limb. Chandler was a harsh critic of the English school, and wrote an essay called “The Simple Art of Murder,” describing the differences between the English school and the hard-boiled school.6
Chandler regarded Hammett as part of a broader movement, a movement in modern fiction as a whole, a movement toward gritty realism and colloquial language, a movement exemplified by Hemingway, Dreiser, etc. The English school was satisfied to create an entertaining puzzle, Chandler had vaster ambitions. Dorothy Sayers had said, “The detective story does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement.” Chandler responded, “[Hammett] demonstrated that the detective story can be important writing. The Maltese Falcon may or may not be a work of genius, but an art which is capable of it is not ‘by hypothesis’ incapable of anything. Once a detective story can be as good as this, only the pedants will deny that it could be even better.” Of course, Chandler aspired to make it “even better.”
Just as Chandler was scornful of the English school of mystery, so too he was scornful of literary writers with literary ambitions. His own work was somewhere between the popular and the serious; he aspired to the popularity of Christie, and he also aspired to the realism of Dreiser. After observing how popular mysteries are, Chandler wrote
Chandler had a lively sense of humor. After watching him mimic Hollywood personalities, his friends agreed that, if he weren’t a professional writer, he could have been a professional entertainer.
Chandler was born in the U.S., but his family moved to London when he was 12, and he attended private school in England. Though he didn’t go to college, he studied French in France, and German in Germany. When he was 24, he returned to the U.S., moved to Los Angeles, and married a woman 18 years older than himself. After taking a correspondence course in bookkeeping, he began working for an oil company, eventually becoming a high-paid executive. Soon, however, he was fired for “alcoholism, absenteeism, promiscuity with female employees and threatened suicides.”7
He became intrigued by pulp fiction, studied it closely, and began writing short stories for a penny a word. In 1939, at age 51, Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep. He published six more novels before his death in 1959. His novels were commercially successful, and his screenwriting work in Hollywood was even more lucrative. “By 1945 Chandler was earning enough that he paid $50,000 in income tax.”8
When his wife died in 1954, Chandler’s drinking got out of control, he attempted suicide, and was placed in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. After his release, he went to England, where he was greeted as a literary star. Chandler met Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, and encouraged him before his books became popular. (Fleming’s books became bestsellers after President Kennedy expressed a liking for them, just as Tom Clancy became well-known after Reagan praised his Hunt for Red October.)
If one considers Hammett’s novels and Chandler’s novels as one body of work, an interesting pattern emerges. Hammett’s first two novels feature a detective who works for a firm, but his third novel features a detective who owns his own firm, and has no employees except one secretary. Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, takes this trend one step further; it features a detective who has no employees at all.
This trend toward independence mirrors a trend in the lives of the authors. Hammett worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, then later became a self-employed writer. Likewise, Chandler worked for an oil company, then later became a self-employed writer. In The Big Sleep, Marlowe is hired by an oil tycoon, General Sternwood, whose life has become complicated as a result of his two daughters. But Marlowe himself is independent, and has no romantic entanglements. So Hammett and Chandler are presenting a picture of the American male as free and independent in his professional life and his personal life. Is this freedom part of the allure of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction?
As Chandler grew older, independence seemed to become less attractive to him. After his wife’s death, he tried to find a relationship that would alleviate his loneliness — like Poe after his wife died.
This shift from loner to suitor is mirrored in Chandler’s fiction. In his last completed novel, Playback, Marlowe becomes romantically involved. “Time and loneliness have finally worn him down, turning the hard-boiled Marlowe, so it seems, into the hero of a Harlequin romance.”10
The Goncourt brothers said that Poe, with his stories about the detective Dupin, shifted the focus of fiction from the heart to the head, from romance to ratiocination. The hard-boiled school shifted the focus from reasoning to working,
Poe focuses on plot, as does Agatha Christie and other representatives of the English school. Hammett and Chandler focus more on character, and explore moral questions such as what the detective is willing to do for a client, when he will accept payment, etc.
Chandler said that the English school emphasizes plot, and how the story is resolved at the end, but the hard-boiled school is interested in scenes, and believed that you could have a good crime novel even if the end were missing. Perhaps the most memorable scene in The Big Sleep is the gambling scene in which Vivian Regan is winning at the roulette table.
But even this scene can’t match the gambling scene in Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades.” Pushkin explores the power of fate, the power of occult forces, unconscious forces, but Chandler stays closer to the surface, and doesn’t explore the depths. Chandler may do a fine job of exploring the ethical choices faced by his protagonist, but he doesn’t explore the murky world below consciousness, below ethics.
At the end of The Big Sleep, Vivian offers Marlowe $15,000, as a kind of bribe or blackmail. Marlowe refuses the money. Marlowe often puts principle over profit. Since he’s a single man who lives frugally, he doesn’t have to make lots of money. Both his apartment and his office are spartan. Marlowe has much in common with his employer, Sternwood: “Both proud, both insubordinate, one financially independent because he has all the money he’ll ever need, the other because he’s willing to adjust his lifestyle to his income.”12 Chandler insisted that the protagonist of a crime novel should be a modern hero, a modern knight:
Like a medieval knight, Marlowe is loyal to his liege lord (i.e., his employer, Sternwood), and he chastely refuses the sexual favors offered by Sternwood’s daughters. Marlowe has firm principles, but he doesn’t have a high place in society. In The Long Goodbye, a mobster mocks Marlowe: “No dough, no family, no prospects, no nothing.”
A writer’s first book often expresses what he cares about most.13 His later books often ring changes on the theme of his first book. In an earlier issue, I said that “Proust saw in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, The Well-Beloved, and A Pair of Blue Eyes the same nucleus. He recognized the same basic content in all the work of any one artist.” It has been argued that Chandler’s Long Goodbye repeats the basic structure of The Big Sleep:
In an earlier issue, I discussed Conrad’s influence on Hemingway — more specifically, the influence of Conrad’s novella “Youth” on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Conrad probably influenced Chandler, too. One critic, Peter Rabinowitz, says that Chandler may have named his detective Marlowe after Conrad’s protagonist (Marlow). Rabinowitz says that The Big Sleep and Heart of Darkness have the same “general drift”:
Rabinowitz says that The Big Sleep ends on a pessimistic note, like Conrad’s “Youth.” Chandler’s hero asks,
Conrad’s “Youth” also ends on a dismal note:
We saw such pessimism earlier, when we discussed the American novelist Nathanael West. It seems to be common among the writers of this period.
Some readers find anti-Semitism in Chandler’s description of the owner of a store that sells jewelry on credit: “a tall handsome white-haired Jew in lean dark clothes, with about nine carats of diamond on his right hand.” Anti-Semitism is often encountered in the literature of the early 1900s. In an earlier issue, I discussed anti-Semitism in the work of D. H. Lawrence. The main villain in The Big Sleep is Eddie Mars, whom Marlowe describes as “a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops.” Is it not significant that Mars is described as having a “hooked nose”? Isn’t Chandler insinuating that Mars is Jewish?
|1.|| Adoniram Judson graduated from Brown University, which has long been affiliated with the Baptist Church. Brown has been called “the Baptist answer to Congregationalist Yale and Harvard; Presbyterian Princeton; and Episcopalian Penn and Columbia.” Brown University was founded by (among others) the Brown brothers (Nicolas, Joseph, John, and Moses). The Brown brothers were descended from Chad Brown, a Baptist minister who, along with Roger Williams, was one of the original settlers of Providence. Both Providence and Brown University have a long tradition of religious toleration, and a long connection to the Baptist Church. back|
|1B.||Marjorie Nicolson wrote a similar book, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite. back|
|2.|| I saw a yard sign, “Obama: Hope, Action, Change”. Was this sign leftover from the last campaign? Does anyone still believe that Obama represents hope, action, and change? An Obama sign from 2008 can serve in 2012 as a Republican sign — what Democrats really believed about Obama in 2008 (hope, action, change) can now be used by Republicans sarcastically. back|
|3.|| If I were to venture a prediction, I would predict Romney will win the popular vote by about 2.5%, and the electoral vote by about 25. back|
|4.|| Conservatives like Bill Kristol were initially cool to Romney, and said they’d prefer Ryan-Rubio. Do they still feel that way? Or did Romney’s performance in the debates persuade them that he’s the best possible Republican candidate? back|
|5.|| Chandler and Hammett met, and seemed to like each other, but didn’t stay in touch. back|
|6.|| The typical crime novel ends with the capture of the criminal, but in The Big Sleep, Eddie Mars is alive and well at the end. Hollywood couldn’t accept this, so in the film version of The Big Sleep, Mars gets his just reward. back|
|7.|| Wikipedia back|
|8.|| http://www.detnovel.com/Chandler.html back|
|9.|| “Being boss: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep,” by John T. Irwin, The Southern Review, Baton Rouge: Spring 2001. Vol. 37, Iss. 2; pg. 211. “Anyone who has lived past a certain age in this country,” Irwin writes, “knows that philosophies of self-sufficiency are one thing at high noon in bright sunshine when you are twenty-five or thirty but a far different thing at three A.M. when one is about to be jettisoned into the penultimate void of retirement.” back|
|10.|| “Being boss: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep,” by John T. Irwin, The Southern Review, Baton Rouge: Spring 2001. Vol. 37, Iss. 2; pg. 211. As Chandler grew older, his fiction became more cynical. “The increasing cynicism, weariness, and disillusion, not to say bitterness, that critics have noted in Marlowe as the novels progress seem more characteristic of a man’s transition from his early fifties to mid-sixties than from his early thirties to early forties.” In other words, the increasing cynicism seems to reflect Chandler’s own aging process rather than Marlowe’s. back|
|11.|| “Being boss: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep,” by John T. Irwin, The Southern Review, Baton Rouge: Spring 2001. Vol. 37, Iss. 2; pg. 211 back|
|12.|| “Being boss: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep,” by John T. Irwin, The Southern Review, Baton Rouge: Spring 2001. Vol. 37, Iss. 2; pg. 211 back|
|13.|| As Josephine Tey says in The Daughter of Time, “Most people’s first books are their best anyway; it’s the one they wanted most to write.” back|
|14.|| “Being boss: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep,” by John T. Irwin, The Southern Review, Baton Rouge: Spring 2001. Vol. 37, Iss. 2; pg. 211. See also the remarks on Kafka in my book of aphorisms. back|
|15.|| In earlier issues, we’ve often discussed the modern tendency to see interdependencies rather than independence, “inter-being” rather than being; this tendency is apparent in literary criticism, physics, etc. back|
|16.||The Hiney biography says that Chandler was a big fan of a novel called Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper (1943), by Donald Henderson. Wikipedia calls it a “psychological thriller” and says it “got considerable critical attention in wartime Britain.” Henderson also wrote Goodbye to Murder before his death at age 42. back|