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17 March 2010


Matins: At the end of this very well-titled piece, "Waiting For Something To Turn Up: Europe's Looming Pensions-based Sovereign Debt Crisis," Edward Hugh writes a paragraph that describes Americans just as well, even if the foundation of our nightmare is more manifold. (A Fistful of Euros)

Public opinion has yet to assimilate the seriousness of the issues involved here. As Pimco Chief Executive Mohamed El-Erian said in a recent FT Opinion article, the importance of the shock to public finances in advanced economies is not yet sufficiently appreciated and understood. With time, this issue will prove to be highly consequential. The latest Fitch report is simply another warning shot. The sooner we all recognise the, the greater the probability of our being able to stay ahead of the disruptions this adjustment to reality will cause. It is time to stop simply waiting around to see what is going to turn up, since if we do continue like this we won’t like what we eventually find.

It's time that we all started talking about just what "highly consequential" might look like — and listening, as well.

Lauds: Anne Midgette writes about the varieties of excellence in artistic performance. (Washington Post)

I don't think relaxing standards is a good idea: that way lies the provincialism of which much of the Mariinsky’s work smacked. But I do think it’s true that some works are served by a less-than-stellar production, and that sometimes the rough-hewn has more to offer than the polished. There’s the student effort that has lots of flaws but also whole-hearted effort and excitement. There’s the rehearsal that allows you to watch the actual process of music-making, before it’s turned into a hard, fixed surface to be presented to the public. There’s the night when a tenor who sings bit parts around the world comes to a small-town company to try out the romantic lead for just a few nights. Then there are the works that may actually flower with a bit more provincialism to bring them to life. (August Everding, the German director, used to say, rather condescendingly, that it was everybody's right to fall in love with bad opera, or bad theater.)

The performance that fails to transport may yet be supremely interesting.

Prime: The fall of Lehman Brothers (the second fall of Lehman, actually; there was one in the Eighties as well) was marked by a weird offset of desperately shambolic accounting with what Chris Lehman calls a "Foucauldian regime of total marital surveillance." (The Awl)

One can’t help but be struck by how starkly these closely monitored pecuniary displays contrast with the haphazard state of the books that Lehman was nominally expected to treat as its main order of business. Clearly, the most effective way to signal your playerhood status to a Comstock-minded boss like Dick Fuld was to pile up your domestic holdings to a potlatch-style scale. But the tragic plight of the Lehman executive, of course, was that the transactions financing these suburban fortresses were, in market terms, the very kind of nonstarter that Joe Gregory’s first marriage proved to be. Still, you have to give this much to Dick Fuld: even as he presided over the gruesome Lehman endgame, he still hewed to his high ideals of domestic order. In Lehman’s final swoon in fall 2008, he’d imposed an inhouse gag rule forbidding comment on rumors of the firm’s impending sale, and he still had a female executive tasked with monitoring the condition of the flowers in the company meeting rooms. It would be a fitting gloss on his keen interest in the inner workings of marriage had he recalled that Lady Macbeth was scouring her hands not so much to remove the stain of blood as to mask its smell.

Tierce: Both Jonah Lehrer and David Brooks approach Washington from an acutely anthropological angle, in "Personal Narratives" and "The Spirit of Sympathy." One hopes that the cognitive lesson that both men touch on — with regard to almost anything that you choose to name, the specific/individual and the general/collective trigger entirely different psychological responses — will quickly pass into common understanding. Mr Brooks: 

As a result of this sympathy and these sentiments, people are usually pretty decent to one another when they relate person to person. The odd thing is that when people relate group to group, none of this applies. When a group or a nation thinks about another group or nation, there doesn’t seem to be much natural sympathy, natural mimicry or a natural desire for attachment. It’s as if an entirely different part of the brain has been activated, utilizing a different mode of thinking.

Group-to-group relations are more often marked by calculation, rivalry and coldness. Members of one group sometimes see members of another group as less than human: Nazi and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shiite.

Political leaders have an incentive to get their followers to use the group mode of cognition, not the person-to-person. People who are thinking in the group mode are loyal, disciplined and vicious against foes. People in the person-to-person mode are soft, unpredictable and hard to organize.

Sext: The fun thing about Lady Gaga, we think, is the alacrity with which so many writers accept her status as a performance artist worthy of a museum installation — or at least of catalogue-gravity prose. What we'd really like to hear more about is Ms Germanotta's education, formal and otherwise. How has a young woman come to seem so knowing? Oscar Moalde swoons. (The House Next Door)

What are we to make of a Gaga who clothes herself in the American flag and dances among a roomful of corpses after serving poison to the people? One of the beauties of Gaga's work in both musical and video forms is how much of it is pop music tinged with a pervasive morbidity and sense of self-reflection. The songs are about love and romance, but they're also about the love affair between pop musicians and their audiences. "Monster," for example, is a track that's about a one-night stand gone awry. But if you've seen "Who Shot Candy Warhol?" then you know that monsters and hearts also mean something entirely different in Gaga's world. In this way, to contemplate the logic and meaning behind "Telephone," it's useful to view it alongside Gaga's other recent work—the videos for "Paparazzi" and "Bad Romance."

Nones: Christopher Hitchens on Benedict XVI: predictably but enjoyably sulphurous. (Slate; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Very much more serious is the role of Joseph Ratzinger, before the church decided to make him supreme leader, in obstructing justice on a global scale. After his promotion to cardinal, he was put in charge of the so-called "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture. The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church's own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated "in the most secretive way ... restrained by a perpetual silence ... and everyone ... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication." (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble. And this is the church that warns us against moral relativism!

We bear in mind that Mr Hitchens doesn't have Mother Teresa to kick around anymore.

Vespers: At The Second Pass, Alexander Nazaryan interviews Donald Pease, the Dartmouth Professor who has just written a Life of Theodor Seuss Geisel. Who knew that Dr Seuss went to Dartmouth? That he drew Jewish caricatures to compensate for having been thought (erroneously) to be Jewish by a Dartmouth fraternity. Who knew? Well, we didn't.

Geisel discovered the true source of his aesthetic in 1954 when John Hersey wrote a big piece for The New Yorker in which he speculates about “why Johnny can’t read,” and he said the reason Johnny can’t read is because those Dick & Jane readers make it deadly dull, when kids could be watching cartoons or tearing around the house.

So when he was challenged to write a children’s reader using no more than 225 words from a list of 348, and constructing a story that children couldn’t put down, he began to correlate the relationships between words and images with a process of interconnection that resulted in his creating the figure of the Cat in the Hat, which is simultaneously an image and a word. The Cat in the Hat is the process of reading itself personified.

Compline: Glenn Kenny has a good winge about the non-future of (paid) film criticism. (ARTicles; via Arts Journal)

Instead of Sarris and Kael marshaling their disciples and polemicizing from relatively secure battlements, or what have you, it's dozens upon dozens of small, mobile, putatively intelligent units jockeying for advantage, following each others' Twitter feeds, getting drunk with each other at open bars, social-climbing with indie filmmakers (it's as if the slightest consideration of journalistic ethics concerning fraternizing is just a joke, even while the resultant loss of integrity is utterly transparent) and talking the nastiest shit about each other behind backs. It's an environment where a wrong remark to the wrong person, or taking a public stand against some egregious stupidity or another, can literally mean money out of your pocket. 

How any kind of critical thought, let alone process, can take root in such an environment is, frankly, beyond me. 

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