strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

the secret history: a bad review

It’s a rich enough book that you could do some decent lit crit, but I couldn’t finish it and can’t be arsed. Tartt’s obsession with class is even more obnoxious here than in The Goldfinch. She’s like a third-rate Evelyn Waugh. Where his class-worship had at least the benefit of a satirical distance that gave his books nuance and the space for some really good jokes, hers is completely uncritical. Waugh loves his rich boys and girls like a longtime resident of New York loves the city. Tartt’s like a tourist from Plano gawping at the big buildings for the first time. Ugh, just ugh ugh ugh ughhhh.

Ninefox Gambit: a disappointed review

The basic premise is really thoughtful, and politically incisive. The universe is dominated by an empire known as the Hexarchate, which has achieved galactic domination by forcing everyone to use their calendar. I know this sounds unbelievably dorky and beside the point, but trust me, it’s actually brilliant. Within the novel’s universe, physics is affected by consensus, and so the idea is that different calendars enable different kinds of weaponry. Within the real world, the kind of cultural imperialism imposed by the Hexarchate is common, and necessary to expanding a colonialist empire. Not only do colonizers for realsies force everyone onto their calendar (I am still annoyed that January 1 is the beginning of the new year, and that the whole world doesn’t use the lunar calendar instead, since that actually tracks the seasons), they force the people they colonized to use the colonizer’s languages, and to elevate the artistic works that the colonizers consider canon. In the most extreme cases, colonizers perpetuate their culture by kidnapping the children of indigenous people, cleaving them from their ancestral culture, and turning them into vessels of the colonizers’ culture. It’s the most stomach-churning way a meme has of perpetuating itself.

Unfortunately, the book is terribly tedious. I have made more progress through The Brothers Karamazov in the past week than I have in the past year, mostly because reading five pages of this book is enough to make me want to read something, literally anything else, and I have nothing else on my Kindle that remains unread, and I’m too cheap to buy more books right now, and too squeamish to pirate something else.

If you’re the kind of person who likes hard sci-fi–like, say, if you’re a big fan of Ted Chiang–you’ll probably like this book, but if you prefer something with somewhat livelier characters–well, there’s a lot of good Russian novels out there.

pet sematary: a slightly disappointed review

Spoilers abound.

The first signs that I was starting to age–not necessarily mature, or grow up, mind you, but age–were developing a fondness for the scent of lavender, and another for the faces of Persian cats. Judging by my reaction to Pet Sematary, I am now on an accelerated decline and will probably need to be put into a nursing home soon. I was never a dedicated Stephen King fan, but I used to be able to soak up his stories with a wide-eyed credulousness, an openness to taking his stories on their own terms.

Now that I am about twice the age I was when I first read Carrie, and have finally been exposed to a smidgen of actual literature, I can’t do it. I still think King is a good author, but I can’t push the line that “he’s got themes” with the same faith as before. Sure, sure he does, but he really bludgeons you in the head with them to make sure you got it.

The emotional core of Pet Sematary is the grief of outliving your loved ones, and the ensuing madness. The protagonist can’t cope with losing his toddler-aged son, and buries the child in a cursed graveyard that resurrects the dead, but in a murderous, zombified sort of way. That’s fine, great premise with a great payoff, but it’s a bit too heavy-handed that the graveyard itself is manipulating everyone in the situation–the truck driver who runs over the child, the old neighbor who tells the protagonist about the graveyard, and of course, the protagonist himself. Humans are more than foolish enough on their own without supernatural powers giving them that extra push to do evil. The thesis of Pet Sematary is that it’s better to learn to live with grief than to go into denial about death, no matter how twisted, menacing, terrifying, or final death is, but it’s really hard to believe that learning to live with grief is an option when you can blame your problems on a demonically possessed graveyard.


the goldfinch, by donna tartt–a strangely overrated and underrated book

The Goldfinch came out a couple years ago, so I’m late to the party, but Donna Tartt spent eleven years writing it. If she can take her time, so can I. I picked it up not knowing anything about the book proper, or even that that’s supposed to be a painting of a bird on the cover. All I knew was that there was a huge controversy over its winning the Pulitzer. Half of the literary establishment thought it was amazing, the new Dickens–a definite black mark, as I am a Dickens-hater–but the other half thought it was horrible, that it was a children’s book posing as literature and a sign of the decay of the modern reader. That sounded like the kind of snobby sentiment I could sympathize with, but the hater half included Francine Prose, who I hate as much as I hate Dickens. How to balance these two heuristics? So I was very excited about this book. I thought my reaction would reveal something important about who I was as a reader, as if the discovery of my feelings about it was a literary version of the Sorting Hat.

So how disappointing was it when I fell smack in the middle? I neither loved the book nor hated it. While I was reading it, I was engaged and entertained, but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about either way. Some of it, I suppose, is that my heart thrills to the tropes of bad fantasy fiction most of all–if I’d been raised on books that weren’t Dungeons and Dragons manuals, maybe I would have loved this book more.

One criticism I’ve seen of The Goldfinch is that it is a book full of ridiculous, implausible coincidences, starting with the very premise itself. The book begins with the narrator losing his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, an old man, who in his dying throes regresses back to his life in WWII Europe, rescuing priceless works of art from invaders, encourages our hero Theo Decker to steal the titular painting, “The Goldfinch,” to keep it safe from said hallucinated invaders.

Having read the book, I do not think that the psychology of the old man seems implausible. I don’t see why the combination of the shock of a large explosion, and a failing mind from mortal injury, might not scramble his brains. The old man was an art-lover who knew that works of art were under threat, he sought assistance in rescuing it–is more required? Perhaps it wouldn’t ever happen that particular way in real life, but this is what artistic license is all about. No real-life situation survives the novelist’s transcription, and to quibble too strongly about implausible coincidences would mean throwing out all of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre. (Not that I would be personally opposed to this, but a lot of the Tartt-haters really like Dickens and seem offended she’s compared to him, so presumably this argument is a gotcha for them.)

But probably the premise would have seemed more plausible, had the rest of the book been more emotionally sound. The very best part of the book is the middle, where a teenaged Theo, still deeply traumatized from his mother’s death, bonds with another damaged boy, a Russian with an abusive father named Boris. If I had to guess, Tartt was the kind of goody two shoes in school who was a bookworm after school, but she puts on a convincing and fun display of juvenile larceny and dissipation. Boris introduces Theo to vodka and worse drugs, and eggs him on in all sorts of petty theft, but nevertheless, he becomes the best friend and brother Theo could have ever wanted. It is here, in the friendship between Boris and Theo, that the true heart of The Goldfinch beats.

But then Tartt ruins it with a strange and snobbish fixation on the glory of antique furniture, and Renaissance-era painting techniques. I finished the book feeling rather cheated–the book so clearly wants to be about art, its ability to link the far past with the far future, and the possibility for grace and redemption that loving and protecting great art can offer–but the book is really about trauma, and attempting to process it. Theo spends a great deal of money self-medicating on any pill he can get his hands on, for instance, and his endless misadventures with drugs play a far greater role in his character development than keeping the painting does. I read the last thirty pages or so, a sophomoric disquisition on the beauty of The Goldfinch, the painting, and on the power of great art in general, that felt like a high-schooler’s thoughts on art–and I kept thinking, surely this is Theo being an unreliable narrator, surely this is some postmodernist trick, and there will be hints that all is not well, Theo is deluded about the role of art in helping him to heal? But no, evidently it was entirely sincere.

And that, I think, is the truth behind the accusations of “implausibility”–Tartt wrote a book about one thing, and then insisted at you that it was really about another. Much as I don’t like Dickens, his books hang together better than that, and he never had the bad manners to lecture at you.

So there you have it, I suppose. The critic James Wood accused Tartt of writing on a level fit only for children, thus infantilizing adult literature, but I suspect he felt a need to push back against the enthusiastic overreaction this book received. The truth is, The Goldfinch is a deeply flawed book, but it’s still a good, readable book, which puts it on par with most every other good book that is still bad enough that it will be quietly forgotten.

swing time, by zadie smith–a negative review

Like many others, I often worry about the effect of digital devices on the human attention span.  Swing Time is the culmination of my worst fear–that the modern world is now so full of distractions, nobody can write a decent novel any more.

This is not to say that the book is a disjointed series of tweets. Smith has a fine eye for characterization, though the protagonist is yet another one of those passive, socially awkward introverts that is so clearly inspired by the writer’s own personality. The prose is unquestionably good–at times aphoristic, it is always fresh and amusing. The problem is that Swing Time is the product of a mind that is intelligent but not wise–an observant mind, but one that is not particularly good at making connections, elaborations, or drawing implications. Just the kind of mind I’d expect to result from an age of truncated attention spans.

The central relationship of Swing Time, if it can be called that, is a My Brilliant Friend-esque frenemy-ship between the nameless protagonist, and her childhood friend, Tracey, who is a dance prodigy. Both girls are black, and grow up in council housing (that’s affordable housing for us Americans–like Section 8 but a great deal nicer, I gather). Our loathsome blank of a protagonist, while as interested in dance as Tracey, possesses only modest gifts. Regardless, their life paths diverge since the protagonist’s mother insists that she go to college, while Tracey’s mother is negligent, and poor Tracey never manages to get out of the ghetto, despite her superior talents.

You know, though, I err in saying that it’s the central relationship. Smith is one of those writers who abuses the use of broken narrative threads as a cheap shortcut to establishing verisimilitude.

This is an example of what I mean by “abuse.” Tracey and the Nameless One end up parting ways about a third of the way into the book, and we see only rare glimpses of her afterwards, mostly secondhand. Tracey is darker-skinned than Miss Nameless One, and comes from a broken home. It makes sense Tracey would remain in poverty, while the lighter-skinned narrator, with her intact family and educated mother, would escape. It makes complete sense that they would lose contact. But this consequence of racism and poverty doesn’t go anywhere–the tragic divergence in socioeconomic circumstances just happens, and there are no further implications, no emotional heft. Later, in the novel, they do reunite once for an incredibly awkward and strained conversation, but nothing happens. It’s awkward, as one might realistically expect, and that’s it.

That’s the problem with drawing too much inspiration from real life–when you part ways with a childhood friend, that generally means the end of learning anything from that relationship. You move on, you forget, it fails to affect you further. Such a development can be inevitable in real life, but it is a fatal flaw in a book. Real life is noise, books are about signal. It’s good to fuzz your book a little bit to make it more convincing, but too much, and any signal is lost. The point of a book is to unfold a story, and so, letting a character drop off the face of the earth is a waste of the time spent developing that character.

This would be excusable had Tracey’s friendship left some sort of notable impact on the narrator, but as I said earlier, the narrator is one of those passive low-reactors who feels nothing, and carries emotion about as well as a colander carries water.

What infuriates me the most, though, is that the book is trying to say something about race, but it never manages to say anything interesting. It’s like reading a series of superficially glib blog posts, instead of an actual book. We don’t need any more books on race that have no more insight than, “hurp durr, it sure is complicated!” Nor do we need any books that regard that message with no more emotion than one might feel for a funny tweet.

Crazy Rich Asians: Some cultural context for non-Asians

I don’t have a lot of thoughts about this movie, so this is going to be short. Fundamentally, it’s a rom-com, and the demands of that formula soften the keenness of whatever social commentary was buried in there. But I do want to clarify one thing for any non-Asians watching this movie. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that the movie hinges on the difficulties Asian-Americans have navigating the filial duties demanded by more traditional Asians, and that the resolution is ultimately positive and uplifting. I want to explain why, given the realities of East Asian culture, the happy ending is psychologically unrealistic.

It’s common for Western leftists to discuss these axes of oppression: gender, race, and class. Disability, fortunately, is also achieving more recognition. I’ve often thought that the discourse ought to include age as well. Because very roughly speaking, Chinese families are run as gerontocracies, and age-based oppression, where the youth are firmly under the thumb of the old, is one of the organizing principles of Chinese culture, and East Asian cultures in general. (And probably many Indian cultures too, though I intend to stay in my lane.) Any good leftist worthy of the name should want to abolish age-based oppression as well.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that children are property, in the way that enslaved humans were treated as property, and to my knowledge, there aren’t explicit laws enshrining younger people as second-class citizens. As far as I know, it’s a matter of informal custom. Regardless, older people are at the top, and people at the top have little incentive to develop empathy for their lessers, and even less reason to develop any respect for them. Imagine a white person listening to a black person’s concerns about police violence, and imagine that white person telling the black person to get over it. Or imagine a man telling a woman that she’s silly to be afraid of walking alone at night. Get on Facebook, and see all the abled people who don’t know a single disabled person, confidently expound that disabled people don’t need plastic straws and the straw ban should go full speed ahead. Take that breezy, unconscious, even unintended, contempt, take that inability to admit that the other person might know something you don’t, or have different feelings that are as valid as your own–now imagine a country full of old people doing that to their children, and any younger person within striking distance.

A happy ending for Crazy Rich Asians is even more impossible when you apply some intersectionality and account for the fact that the main antagonist, the potential mother-in-law, is a woman. Chinese culture is pretty sexist, and when I think about it, I’m quite surprised that the story of Mulan is as popular as it is. When you’re a Chinese woman, doomed to being a second-class citizen your whole life, you really, really look forward to being the mother-in-law and getting to boss around your daughter-in-law. Who else are you going to boss? Up until your own mother-in-law kicks the bucket, you’re the bottom of the totem pole. When your mother-in-law isn’t even dead yet, are you going to put up with any guff from your potential daughter-in-law? Oh hell no. At the very least, you will make her suffer. And you will believe that you deserve to do so. It’s your reward for putting up with so much crap in your own life. This is somewhat analogous to the psychological wages of whiteness, as first explained by WEB Du Bois.

Is it a bad thing that the movie didn’t address these nuances of East Asian culture? Well, Roger Ebert had a delightful sentence in his review of Shaolin Soccer that I’ll never forget–“It is piffle, yes, but superior piffle.” Meaning, that one ought not compare apples to oranges, or in this case, a rom-com to the output of an Asian Spike Lee. For what it is, Crazy Rich Asians is superior. But I don’t want anyone to mistake it for something more than piffle.

guardian angel, by jake ritari–a story about extreme introversion as a rational response to an irrational world

As a software developer born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m no stranger to odd people. It is the only place in the world where you can meet young devs who will stare into your eyes and explain, with all sincerity, that the only reason they can make as much eye contact with you as they can right now, is because they took a class at the Center for Applied Rationality. I have not been to CFAR myself, but my understanding is that if you go to the bathroom there, you will see flyers strategically positioned by the exit that say, “Have you been rational today?” So. My homeland is a magnet for quirky, shy nerds, but even so, I don’t think it has anything on Japan. Because Japan has hikikomori.

Predominantly young men, hikikomori are those Japanese people who have chosen to stop leaving the house completely, in a kind of modern monkhood–though with video games and anime in place of religious contemplation. The standard stereotype is of someone with extreme social anxiety who lives with their parents but does not leave their own bedroom, keeping the door shut at all times and communicating through notes. The technical definition, as used by the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare, Ministry is someone who has not left their home or interacted with someone for at least six months. Some half a million Japanese citizens fit the definition, though due to social stigma, and the private nature of the phenomenon, the official number is likely to be a significant underestimate. Unofficial estimates are around a million.

Guardian Angel, a novella by Jacob Ritari, has an excellent premise. Protagonist Kyouko Satsumura is a Japanese millennial laboring beneath the same burdens that curse her American peers–a poor job market, and student loans for a worthless college degree. And like any American millennial, her income is inconsistent and she has to resort to–well, I don’t know what catchy slang they used to describe intermittent piecework during the first Gilded Age, but these days we call them “side hustles.” One of her side hustles is coaxing hikikomori out of their rooms and back into the real world. She’s delightfully cynical and blunt about the job in a way that truly warms my heart. In her own words, “The best part about the job is, I get to see that there are even bigger losers than me.”

While Kyouko’s problems (and maybe some of that attitude) will resonate with any American reader of a certain age, the story maintains a convincingly Japanese feel, thanks to little touches like a school club named the Fighting Carp, or characters asking Kyouko what the proper kanji to use for her name is. It reminded me of the conversations my parents have had when meeting new acquaintances–“ah, your name is Li? Is that li like the character for ‘beautiful,’ or li as in ‘powerful’?”

The plot follows Kyouko as she accepts a job to bring out a particularly recalcitrant hikikomori, Ryoji Tamura, out of his room. What makes Ryoji a difficult case is that his hikikomiri-ness is not due to some innate mental illness, but a considered, rational response to society. And why not? Work sucks. As my friend Larry is fond of reminding me, there’s a reason it’s not called play. Being a grown-up period, sucks. If you’re sufficiently introverted and your parents aren’t willing to let you starve, why not retreat from the world?

There’s the potential for a lot of interesting parallelism and a well-matched psychological cat and mouse game, as Kyouko turns out to be just as much of a misfit as Ryoji. Both of them have failed to live up to the standard norms of what a successful adult should be, and each of them have chosen their own form of rebellion. Overall, I enjoyed the story, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend reading it, but it feels incomplete. The ending comes together well enough as Kyouko’s hikikomori side hustle unexpectedly collides with her yakuza side hustle, but it’s something of a pity that Ritari doesn’t take his premise all the way to its logical conclusion. If it’s true that Japanese society is insane enough that becoming a hikikomori is a sane response (and frankly now that I think about it, I don’t understand why more Americans aren’t doing the exact same thing), then what kind of reintegration is really possible, and on what terms? What’s wrong with Japan, and why would it be worth returning to? There’s questions enough for a thousand-page novel here, but sadly, Guardian Angel just isn’t long enough to answer them.

the buried giant, by kazuo ishiguro–an agitated review

Spoilers abound.

Like many others, I was blown away by Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Remains of the Day. And now, having read his most recent book The Buried Giant, I rather wonder if his Nobel Prize rests solely on the merits of The Remains of the Day. I should like The Buried Giant more than I do, but I don’t. Not because it’s a fantasy, my favorite genre–Ishiguro uses the fantastical elements lightly, as if he were painting a watercolor with the palest shades possible. As with Never Let Me Go, his so-called science fiction novel, the worldbuilding is practically nonexistent. From what I gather, the minimal worldbuilding is because the way Ishiguro prefers to write novels is that he starts with a big literary theme, and then he finds the set-pieces that will best help him deliver said theme.

In The Buried Giant, the Big Theme is that humanity is caught in a terrible bind–the only way to move beyond the crimes of the past is forgetfulness, and the more vile the crime, the more forgetfulness is necessary–and yet, forgetfulness means that justice can never be done. But on the other hand, the quest for justice always sours into a thirst for vengeance that triggers an unending cycle of violence. This is the kind of bleak thing I like to meditate on all the time, and it’s not like I don’t believe this is true–I do. While I started out critical, and intend to continue being critical, let me first say that Ishiguro wrote a good book. I could not put The Buried Giant down without great effort, and the morning after I started it, when I awoke three hours early from insomnia, I chose to spend the gift of the extra time on finishing the book. Despite the awkward dialogue, wan setting, and artificial style, this is an exceptionally well-crafted, hard-hitting book.

The book is set in the time after the death of King Arthur, and the aftermath of a bloody war between the Saxons and the Britons. The inhabitants of the land have been struck by an odd amnesia, and are unable to remember such things as a fellow villager’s existence, or a child being kidnapped. Axl and Beatrice, are an adorable elderly couple and our protagonists. Axl refers to Beatrice as “princess,” and throughout the book there’s nothing he won’t do for her–he carries her on his back, he rescues her from water pixies, he makes sure she’s always warm, and he’s more anxious about her failing health than she herself is.

Axl and Beatrice manage to recall that they have a son living nearby, and decide to go visit him, but their real quest is to regain their memories. After a run-in with death’s ferryman, they learn that only a couple that is truly and deeply in love can go to heaven together, and they fear that in their current state of amnesia, their love would not pass the test. Along the way, Axl and Beatrice meet and befriend a Saxon warrior named Wistan, and the elderly Sir Gawain. It turns out that the forgetfulness over the land is caused by a spell Merlin laid on the breath of the dragon Querig, which King Arthur himself commanded. The Saxons and Britons had been locked in endless war, and King Arthur made the executive decision that the best thing to do was to kill the Saxon women and children. To ensure that future Saxon generations would not take vengeance, everyone would need to forget what had happened. It worked, mostly, as Saxons and Britons live together peacefully at the start of the book, sometimes even in the same village, but Wistan is inexplicably unaffected by the dragon’s breath, and he remembers perfectly well what Arthur’s armies did. He seeks to slay Querig so that the Saxons will remember what happened, rise up, and repay the Britons in genocide.

So there are two levels at which the book is exploring this question of forgetfulness and justice–the personal, and the political. At the political level, Ishiguro seems about right to me. It’s not hard to find examples of peace made possible only through genocide and the repression of any unpleasant memories. America, for instance, conveniently forgets what happened to Native Americans. I remember reading about manifest destiny in high school, and it was only years later that it occurred to me to wonder–did the Native Americans take this lying down? They couldn’t have, could they? Or consider the case of the Texan textbook that insisted slaves were “workers” and “immigrants,” as opposed to…you know, slaves.

So I agree with Ishiguro, I think he’s put his finger on a very important phenomenon, and yet–I don’t know. When I finished reading it, I was left in a state of overwhelming sadness that it took several hours in the sun to walk off–sadness, and a sense of foulness. And that would be because I so don’t agree with this book at the personal level–at the level on which the story of Axl and Beatrice is told.

After Wistan slays the dragon, Axl and Beatrice regain their memories. It turns out that Beatrice had cheated on Axl with Sir Gawain once, and in retaliation, when their son died of the plague in a nearby village, Axl forbade Beatrice from visiting their son’s grave. When the boatman who ferries the dead to heaven questions them, it’s made clear that their love isn’t up to scratch–in fact, the beautiful state of their love is only possible because the dragon’s breath made Axl forget everything. He would never have gotten over Beatrice’s affair otherwise. Their love was a fraud built on deception, and that’s why I felt smirched–I too, was cheated into believing in it.

Smirched, and outraged, because splitting up Axl and Beatrice for all eternity seems, to me, far too unforgiving. Kings and presidents and nations may never be able to find peace, but why can’t husbands and wives? I don’t believe that peace between individuals is always possible, but neither is it impossible–so why did Ishiguro write this book as if it were? Certainly it is much easier for two individuals to patch up their problems than two nations–we all know this from our lived experiences. Economists even have mathematical models that prove this is true. But by asserting the impossibility of peace on the political and the personal level, the book’s message is too on the nose. “HURRR DID YOU KNOW EVERYTHING IS BAD,” Ishiguro seems to be saying.

Yeah, this is where the Nobel Prize winner crossed into mopey teenager territory. Sure, we’re all going to die, and not only that, we’re all going to die unshriven of the burden of countless collective sins, but even in the grand, ugly scheme of things, there’s still room for a little compassion and grace. Saying that everything is bad, nothing can be done, nothing can be better is the coward’s way out.

backbeats are the new iambic pentameter

I was thinking about why literary heavy-hitters like Shakespeare and Pushkin prefer to write in iambic instead of trochee, but I suppose before I go on to speculate why, I should explain what iambic and trochee are.

You know how when you say a word, some parts of it are louder than others? Like the word “vehicle”–the “ve-” is a hair more emphasized than “-hicle.” Try saying “veHIcle,” or “vehiCLE.” It won’t sound right.

Each of these word parts is called a “syllable.” The correct pronunciation of a word means that you have to pronounce each word with the right amount of volume. The technical term for a loud syllable is “stressed.” A quieter syllable is “unstressed.”

Iambic is a type of syllable stressing pattern. It’s one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one. Weirdly, each unstressed-stressed combo is called a “foot.” Here’s an example from Shakespeare:

“but SOFT, what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS.”

This is much more interesting than writing in iambic’s opposite, trochee, which is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Here’s some trochee:

“JACK and JILL went UP the HILL”

This is the kind of thing that gets accused of being “sing-song.” How unfair to trochee, relegated to the stuff of nursery rhymes, while iambic is immortalized by the Bard. They seem so similar, but they sound so different. Why?

And here’s my bullshit speculation. Stress patterns convey an enormous of information, including the pronunciation of the word, the speaker’s emotional state, and telegraphing natural breaks in the information being conveyed to the listener. With trochee, the strong first syllable always coincides with the introduction of a new thought. This is great for, shall we say, less sophisticated consumers of language, but too obvious and therefore boring to those with a little more taste.

Writing in iambic, whenever Shakespeare starts a sentence, the very first syllable is unstressed, even though we know that syllable marks the beginning of a new sentence, a new thought. This contrast sets up a pleasant dissonance between the stress pattern and the semantic pattern. A lifetime of conversation has set you up to expect some respect for the beginning of a sentence, and here comes iambic to trash that expectation.

The same goes for backbeats. You could put on a song with a backbeat starting halfway through, and listeners would be able to tell whether the hits are on the 2 and 4 instead of the 1 and 3. It’s the same principle at work. The melody line clues you in as to where the beginning of each musical phrase is, i.e. where the 1 is, and the backbeat plays against your expectation that the 1 is the beginning of each phrase and therefore important, by hitting the 2 and 4.

Anyway, this is just one little thought on how deeply music and language are intertwined. And a small example of how art works in general–first the setting up of a formal expectation, and then the playful dashing of it.

george orwell, woke dude

It is popular in many circles to deride political correctness as a form of oppression. Here is what the Man Himself, George Orwell, had to say on the subject:

As I Please 2
Tribune, 10 December 1943

“The coloured worker cannot be blamed for feeling no solidarity with his white comrades. The gap between their standard of living and his own is so vast that it makes any differences which may exist in the West seem negligible. In Asiatic eyes the European class struggle is a sham. The Socialist movement has never gained a real foothold in Asia or Africa, or even among the American Negroes: it is everywhere side-tracked by nationalism and race-hatred. Hence the spectacle of thoughtful Negroes getting ready to vote for Dewey, and Indian Congressmen preferring their own capitalists to the British Labour Party. There is no solution until the living-standards of the thousand million people who are not ‘white’ can be forced up to the same level as our own. But as this might mean temporarily _lowering_ our own standards the subject is systematically avoided by Left and Right alike.

“Is there anything that one can do about this, as an individual? One can at least remember that the colour problem exists. And there is one small precaution which is not much trouble, and which can perhaps do a little to mitigate the horrors of the colour war. That is to avoid using insulting nicknames. It is an astonishing thing that few journalists, even in the Left-wing press, bother to find out which names and which are not resented by members of other races. The word ‘native,’ which makes any Asiatic boil with rage, and which has been dropped even by British officials in India these ten years past, is flung about all over the place. ‘Negro’ is habitually printed with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent. One’s information about these matters needs to be kept up to date. I have just been carefully going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word ‘Chinaman’ wherever it occurred and substituting ‘Chinese.’ The book was written less than a dozen years ago, but in the intervening time ‘Chinaman’ has become a deadly insult. Even ‘Mahomedan’ is now beginning to be resented: one should say ‘Moslem.’ These things are childish, but then nationalism is childish. And after all we ourselves do not actually like being called ‘Limeys’ or ‘Britishers.'”

There you go. If the guy who took a fascist bullet in the throat, and invented Big Brother and doublethink and Newspeak and all the rest, thought political correctness was a good idea, it IS a good idea.