See It, Know It

Potter Stewart was the US Supreme Court justice who said, in the case Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), “I shall not today attempt further to define (pornography)… But I know it when I see it…”

So I was reading In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré, and he quotes Augustine: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not…” (Book XI, ~400AD)

Mr. Stewart had a bit of prior art on that idea.

Primatonormative

Word invented by my wife, Ulrika.

Derived from “heteronormative,” primatonormative refers to the perspective that human concerns are normative, or the standard from which all others species’ concerns should be judged.

Thus, referring to the stubbornness of one of our dogs, “Shoobie isn’t interested in your primatonormative agenda.”

Lost In Translation

“Such remarks don’t bear scrutiny. Did I actually say that? I do remember saying once that maybe the greatest female novelist in English was Constance Garnett. Sometimes I try to lighten the gloom of discussions but I notice that no one laughs. Instead you see a few people writing down the name.”

— Elizabeth Hardwick

==================

Related, though different: “The Translation Wars,” by David Remnick, “Tolstoy translated,” by Rosamund Bartlett, and “A Singular Woman,” by Hilton Als.

==================

“Bloomsbury is . . . like one of those ponds on a private estate from which all of the trout have been scooped out for the season. It is not a natural place for fish, but rather a water stocked for the fisherman so that he may not cast his line in vain. . . . To see the word “Ottoline” on a page, in a letter, gives me the sense of continual defeat, as if I had gone to a party and found an enemy attending the bar.”

— Hardwick in “Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf”

“Attending the bar”… And thus we see the source for “bartender.” Makes sense immediately on seeing it, but I never thought about it before.

==================

Hardwick enjoyed teaching; she finds it annoying that so many writers complain about their teaching responsibilities. “There’s nothing to it,” she told me. “You just go in and do your rap. The thing you get bored with is that you have so few ideas.”

— “A Singular Woman”

Lexicon: “The shovel broke.”

NOTE: I originally wrote this in 2010. But Ulrika and I just watched Snowpiercer, and I realized it should be resurrected.

So tonight we were watching Glee S1:D3 from Netflix, and I made an observation about how unlikely this was from choral standards — but, hey, what do I know? I only sang in grade school, high school, and college choirs for 12 years.

And Ulrika said, “I wonder when the shovel will break?”

We both realized there was a lexicon entry — because she got that phrase from me.

*^*^*

There I am living in Harwood Court, a dorm on the Pomona College campus.

I’m talking to Doug Shepherd, class of ’84, and some other folks, and I forget just how this came up, but he says, “Night of the Comet is so bad, the shovel breaks before the opening titles.”

“Oh?” I say. “What do you mean by that, Doug?”

“Well… All fiction is basically the art of throwing shit in your general direction. When you’re in the hands of a master — Tolstoy, say, or Hitchcock — they shovel the shit out of the way so quickly and so cleanly you don’t ever really notice it. Their shovels are made out of a mix of titanium and carbon fiber. But let’s face it — not everyone is that good. So, sooner or later, the shit is just so heavy their shovel breaks. Then the shit the story depends on starts piling up. I mean, it becomes a big pile. Then it starts stinking. You just can’t pay any attention to the story, because this steaming pile of shit is between the story and you, and it keeps growing, because their shovel has broken, and they just can’t get it out of the way.”

Night of the Comet starts with this text prologue on the screen. And this text is so lame, and so ridiculous… I’m telling you, the shovel breaks before the titles show up.”

“So it becomes something of a measure of quality, y’know? Just when does the shovel break in a story?”

*^*^*

This was the thing Doug told me I remember best, and have found most useful in the passage of time. And now I pass it on to you.

*^*^*

EDITED TO ADD: I was wrong. It’s not a crawl of text. Such is the world in which we live I was able to download the movie to look, check, and verify. It opens with John Carpenter-ish synth riffs, and deep, dark narration by Michael Hanks. It was tough to punctuate the following, because many times you’d think a sentence was over, and then it would go on.

Since before recorded time it had swung through the universe in an elliptical orbit so large that its very existence remained a secret of time and space. But now, in the last few years of the twentieth century, the visitor was returning.

Animated comet goes whooshing by.
Title: NIGHT OF THE COMET

The citizens of Earth would get an extra Christmas present this year, as their planet orbited through the tail of the comet. Scientists predicted a light show of stellar proportions – something not seen on Earth for 65 million years. Indeed, not since the time that the dinosaurs disappeared virtually overnight.

There were a few who saw this as more than just a coincidence. But, most didn’t.

Sumo and Argumentation

A while back, I learned something new: The main way sumo bouts end is not by one opponent pinning the other, as in Greco-Roman wrestling, but by pushing them out of the ring.

It was with a moment’s thought that I realized here was a metaphor for much in the way arguments are presented these days — particularly political arguments.

What I mean by that is, in many instances political arguments aren’t really trying to persuade the listeners to the rightness of what’s being said. Rather, they’re trying to portray opponents as being so bad, or evil, or ignorant, they shouldn’t be listened to in the first place.

They’re trying to throw each other out of the ring.

One example of this — though it pains me to say it — is the current use of Godwin’s Law. Originally intended as a restorative of netiquette to the problem of glib comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, it has come to be used by many not aware of its origins to shut down discussions even when the comparisons are appropriate.

A different example would be the McCain campaign of 2008. In the waning days of the campaign, with defeat looming, Mr. McCain started calling Mr. Obama a socialist. While the analysis at that link shows how if Mr. McCain was being consistent, he himself is a socialist as well, that wasn’t the point. The point was, since the days of the Red Scare in the 1920’s, crying “socialism!” had been a fairly good sumo move, tossing one’s opponent out of the ring. The Congressional election between Richard Nixon and Jerry Voorhis also comes to mind. Still, in Mr. McCain’s case it didn’t work, and Republican stalwarts, bewildered by the incantation’s loss of magical power, have been reciting it ever since.

But that’s the real tip-off a sumo argument is being attempted: A complete disregard for substantiation, and the fervent hope that a single word or short phrase will so discredit one’s opponent, no “serious person” will listen.

And, yes, the irony of my putting this down so I can link to it when I refer to something as “a sumo move” does not escape me. But as Molly Crabapple was recently quoted, “Essays are just l’esprit d’escalier.”