Andrew Brown: The Queen of Fairies caught me

So, it’s Hallowe’en (and Samhain). Let’s give Andrew Brown the floor.

The Queen of Fairies caught me

Halloween was once a night of real fright, when the dead and the fairies walked close to us. How did that work?

And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.

But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday,
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.

Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide.”

This from the ballad of Tam Lin, which, if you don’t know, you should go and listen to now. Now while the song is running, there is no trouble believing the story, or at least in suspending disbelief. The defiance of Janet to her father is more vivid to me than almost anything any living woman has said. But at the same time I find that modern hallowe’en, the children’s festival with dressing up and sweets, not all of them poisoned, is wholly impossible to take seriously.

So why are witches and fairies real within the confines of the song, and absurd when children play at them? It seems to be an example of a more general question: why is the absurdity of other people’s beliefs immediately apparent to us and yet entirely invisible to them? (We ourselves, of course, hold no absurd beliefs, whoever we are. Anyone who thinks otherwise is dangerously deranged.)

The best answer that occurs to me is that the difference is made by participation – if you like, by playing along. Children believe in the particular game they happen to be playing. Of course, they understand, as we do, that the world could be otherwise, and the game might stop. Hence the delicious thrill of a game that breaks that rule, and becomes real. But the point that the world might be otherwise, and that the game might end, actually testifies to its reality while it lasts.

Giles Fraser once said to me, in an entirely different context, that all sorts of people who can’t bring themselves to say the creeds will sing them happily enough. He’s right. The two activities are profoundly different. The song is not the same as the lyrics read out loud, and this is true even if it has no accompaniment. Choral or just collective singing is different again – a point that’s obvious if we look at the completely secular activity of football chanting: on Saturdays the terraces of North London are full of otherwise respectable men singing things about opposing players that they would find literally unspeakable at work on Monday morning.

So the way to understand the spread of Halloween is not as a spread of beliefs, but of a set of games, or little dramas, if you will. To get hung up on the apparent content of the game is to make a kind of category mistake: year after year, a certain kind of evangelical will announce that Halloween is a festival of evil; year after year, they fail to understand that the child who plays at being a witch is much closer to becoming a Christian or to understanding any kind of religion than the one who never plays at anything at all.

But it’s not just evangelicals who get this kind of thing wrong. I do it myself all the time, most recently when mocking the Anglo-Catholics; for the answer to the question “How can they believe these ludicrous things?” is that they act them out. They feel their beliefs are true because they are embedded in a structure of ritual, both inside and outside church. Their words are given content by their actions. Without the actions, the words mean nothing. This sounds like a vaguely moral exhortation but it is just a plain fact. Without action, we couldn’t understand the meaning of any words at all.

When the Christian says they believe in order to understand, this sounds to the atheist like an abdication of responsibility. But in fact is is a recognition of necessity. There is a sense in which we can’t understand the beliefs we don’t act on. That’s why playing is so important. By pretending to act, we gain a sort of understanding — which is why I believe that Queen of Fairies will look at Tam Lin tonight and say “Had I known, Tam Lin, what this night I did see. I would have plucked out both your ey’en and put in two of tree” — at least I will believe it while the music plays.

(Tiend is tithe.)

It’s not a pike. It’s a gaff hook.

NY Magazine is having fun with Dan Brown’s latest masterpiece. It’s a respectable lineup, and while one expects fine stuff from Geoff Pullum, I was waiting for Matt Taibbi, who comes into the game in the late innings. Mr T does not disappoint.

Vulture Reading Room

The funny thing about this whole Dan Brown exercise for me is that I agreed to do this thinking that I was going to end up writing a passionate defense of him. Two ideas guided my thinking. One is that I strongly believe that mediocrities are entitled to make shitloads of money. This is America, after all. The other is that I never thought Dan Brown deserved his fame as a terrible writer.

But in book form, Langdon is just intolerable. First of all, he spends all day thinking in italics. Even with the most banal shit, he’s adding the italic drumroll. What the hell is this smell? He thought. Maybe I just farted. Then when he wants to really emphasize, he gives his italo-thought its own line:

That was a silent one.

And I have to agree with Professor Pullum. Langdon is always shoving our noses in some encyclopedic minutiae. He’s the most irritating Harvard-educated, mullet-wearing sexless pedant of all time. The breaking point for me was at the beginning of chapter 41, when Sato asks Langdon to tell her “the meaning of these icons.” To which Langdon answers, in italics, in its own line:

They’re not icons, Langdon thought. They’re symbols.

It was at that point that my fantasies took a turn. “Please! Take that giant razor-edged pike out of my ear!” Langdon screamed.

It’s not a pike, Taibbi thought. It’s a gaff hook. Dripping with strychnine and donkey shit.

Vernon, Florida

I loved Errol Morris’s 1981 56-minute documentary when I saw it all those years ago. Finally, I see, it’s available on DVD. I thought you might like to know. Amazon tells me it’s been out since 2005…

Here’s Netflix’s blurb. I’m not sure why I’m quoting it, since it doesn’t really come close to capturing what I dimly remember, but here you are.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (famed for his quirky subject matter) stays true to form with this series of interviews with denizens of a small backwoods town. Morris mixes it up with such unique citizens as a die-hard wild-turkey hunter, an elderly couple who vacationed at a nuclear test site and returned with sand they insist is growing, a worm farmer, a 93-year-old man who thinks his pet turtle is a gopher and others.

The difference between a democratic society and a consumer society

In my last post I quoted Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, but no Hass. So here’s a bit of Hass himself. I love this paragraph, especially the last sentence, which I’m still puzzling over.

Now, I think, free verse has lost its edge, become neutral, the given instrument. An analogy occurs to me. Maybe it is a little farfetched. I’m thinking of balloon frame construction in housing. According Gideon, it was invented by a man named George Washington Snow in the 1850s and 1860s, about the same time as Leaves of Grass. “In America materials were plentiful and skilled labor scarce; in Europe skilled labor was plentiful and materials scarce. It is this difference which accounts for the differences in the structure of American and European industry from the fifties onn.” The principle of the balloon frame was simply to replace the ancient method of mortise and tenon—heavy framing timbers carved at the joints so that they locked heavily together—with construction of a frame by using thin studs and nails. it made possible a light, quick, elegant construction with great formal variability and suppleness. For better or worse. “If it had not been for the balloon frame, Chicago and San Francisco could never have arisen, as they did, from little villages to great cities in a single year.” The balloon frame, the clapboard house and the Windsor chair, American forms, and Leaves of Grass which abandoned the mortise and tenon of meter and rhyme. Suburban tracts and the proliferation of poetry magazines. The difference between a democratic society and a consumer society.

Sampling Herrick

I’ve been reading Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. I’m mostly out of my depth, but it’s rewarding nonetheless.

Hass gives us a poem from Nils Petersen. Let me remind you of the Herrick first, a fine, sly piece of work.

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!

Here’s Petersen.

Whenas in silks
Whenas in silks
My Julia goes
My Julia goes
Then, then methinks (methinks)
How sweetly flows
Sweetly flows
The liquefaction (faction) (faction)
Of her clothes
  her clothes her clothes

Sorites in the comics

Dinosaur Comics are my favorite comics. Today, anyway. If you’re not familiar with the DC conventions, go browse a few dozen; you won’t regret it.

Tomorrow my favorite may be Red Meat; it was, back on October 27, 1977, and it could be again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(If you want to see the reference from the missing panel 7 mentioned in the tooltip, it’s here.)


via Mark Liberman

District Nine

District Nine tells the all too familiar story of discrimination and oppression by the majority in an near-future human/alien (as in extraterrestrial aliens) context, set in Johannesburg it so happens. For fear of spoiling it I’ll just say it’s the best movie I’ve seen in recent memory, with cautionary note that it isn’t for the squeamish. Great original story, good acting/direction, strong screenplay, decent special effects, with nice dose of humor and insight, filmed as a faux documentary. Otherwise, go see it!

His majesty the policeman

lordbuckley.gifCurrent events bring to mind, as they must from time to the, the words of the immortal Lord Buckley. Mr Gates has been at Harvard far too long to be hip, of course (what’s too long? Buying a ticket for Cambridge?), but surely there was a time when he would have remembered Buckley’s critical piece of advice:

And if you’re really hip
You’ll never make a slip
Against Their Majesties, The Policemen

What can count as disorderly conduct in Massachusetts? Among other things, acting “with purpose to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.” Don’t annoy us, children, it only makes us cross.

Update: Robin Wells gets it just about right, seems to me.

His Majesty The Policeman

I got to thinking about His Majesty, The Policeman, see.
I figured that must be the draggiest job in the world.
And what a drag it is going out on a good day.
You’re feeling really good.
You’re riding along and your squad car is all polished up,
you know what I mean.
And you’re feeling real mellow.
Along comes some poor stud with a –
loaded with kids, like flower pots all over the place.
Going a little too fast, you know what I mean.
You’ve got to stop the cat.
You’ve got to bring him down and lay one on him.
It’s a pretty tough job
and when you walk up to him you don’t know
whether they’re going to pull out
a French seventy-five or what-the.
It’s a drag. So, I wrote a little thing called:

His Majesty, The Policeman,
He’s the children’s friend at every bend,
The Policeman
And you can bet your life,
He’s hip to Mack the Knife
That’s His Majesty, The Policeman

You should never trip a policeman
Or try to hip or even tip a policeman
Get a ticket to the ball
And you can’t fight city hall
That’s His Majesty, The Policeman

So remember their nobility
They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere it’s mobility
You can look near and far but they’ll pin you by radar
That’s Their Majesty, The Policeman

Here they come – hewbetty boop
The Man In Blue – hoobbit bop
The Sargent’s there – ribbetty bip
The Patrolman too – hahbetta bop
The Chief looks great – hahbetta bop
The Captain’s straight – ribbetty bip
Hip Hip Hurray – da da da dah
The Royal Crew – Habetta bahbetta bah

You always try to swing with a policeman
And never ring-a-ding a policeman
And if you’re really hip
You’ll never make a slip
Against Their Majesties, The Policemen

Lubbock Lights


154B79CE-FF76-48A7-8B88-E56EBBDFC5D0.jpgThe Flatlanders (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock) (isn’t that a fine photo?). Terry Allen, Tommy X Hancock. David Byrne(!).

A sweet documentary of the Lubbock-area music scene as exemplified by a bunch of fine musicians, every one a mensch. Great music making, and great movie making. You know I haven’t steered you wrong before; why would I this time?

Recovering the lituus

‘Lost’ music instrument recreated

lituusNew software has enabled researchers to recreate a long forgotten musical instrument called the Lituus.
The 2.7m (8.5ft) long trumpet-like instrument fell out of use some 300 years ago.

Bach’s motet (a choral musical composition) “O Jesu Christ, meins lebens licht” was one of the last pieces of music written for the Lituus.

Now, for the first time, this 18th Century composition has been played as it might have been heard.

Researchers from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the University of Edinburgh collaborated on the study. …

Bill Hedrington reformatted

A while back I pointed to a website publishing Bill Hedrington’s collected poems. For the last week or so, Michael Smith and I have been updating the site, and I think you’ll find the new edition a nice improvement. The PDF is redone as well. Go. Read.

The Voices

I was born on the downhill side,
late in the year, in early December,
in the light’s heavy dip and hesitation,
when the old peoples prayed for beginning
in the snow-salted fields
and scattered bitterness of corn stalks;
but though I came fatly of that gaunt race,
though it was a different end and today that day,
the fields untracked by supplicants,
the corncribs many, and full,
still I carry their disappointed dead
buried in my body,
and am the outspoken child
of the silent generations of my cells—
for O, they call with the old voices,
in a millennium length of words,
in the thousand year cries of the dead,
that their lean voices, lost to these fields,
may be gathered up and justified in me.

—Bill Hedrington, ca. 1968

This is the Internet; Ergo, Star Trek

IOZ on the new Star Trek.

This is the Internet; Ergo, Star Trek

… I would go further. The original crew of the Enterprise were types, and god help us, it was up the actors to invest them with character. Now the filmmakers have attempted to craft arcs of character that will catapult each character firmly into his typewithout throwaway scenes of child-hood bullying, less yet thirty-seven other characters foreboding, “You are a child of two worlds.” Yeah, really? Please remind us before we get to the next reel. …

Invasion of the Neutered Sprites

Say amen, someone.

Invasion of the Neutered Sprites


… The traditional habitat of the Sprites today, of course, is Nonprofitland. Finding them isn’t hard. Look for logos for organizations dedicated to community-building, or health-supporting, or any kind of relentlessly positive thinking. There you will find these little figures by the dozens, prancing around, holding hands, embracing their families, and generally celebrating the universal themes of wellness, happiness, and goodness.

Unfortunately, they have come to have the opposite effect on me. They make me sour and depressed, not least because of my dim memories of having personally contributed to their proliferation. So, I hereby take a sacred pledge: with Da Vinci, Corbu, and Otto Neurath as my witnesses, I swear I will never create another Neutered Sprite. I invite you to join me. Together, we can defeat this epidemic!

Gustavo Dudamel and the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra

Enjoy this, please.

The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra is the national high-school-age youth orchestra of El Sistema, made up of the best young musicians from throughout Venezuela. Gustavo Dudamel, himself a product of El Sistema, is the new musical director of the LA Philharmonic.

The music here is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, 2nd movement, and Arturo Márquez’ Danzón No. 2.

Ludwig and Bertie

Bertie and JeevesLudwig WittgensteinBackground: In a NY Times review of Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein, Jim Holt refers to Ludwig as “was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.” This inspired Brian Leiter to run a poll to “settle this once and for all” (answer: Wittgenstein by a narrow plurality). Harry Brighouse, at Crooked Timber, linked to the poll, and a long list of comments ensued.

All well and good, but not the point of this post. Tom Hurka, in comments, gives us this:

At the Edinburgh Festival in 1977 I saw a wonderful play called ‘Ludwig and Bertie.’ It was about Wittenstein and Russell … and Bertie Wooster. You see, Russell and Wittgenstein have agreed to meet, for the first time, in the Trinity College, Cambridge library, which happens to be where Bertie Wooster is going to meet this new man he’s hired, called Jeeves. (He’s going to the library to find an ethics book and read about this ‘categorical aperitif.’) Well, various misidentifications follow, with Russell thinking Bertie is Wittgenstein (and utterly unsuited to philosophy) while Wittgensein thinks Bertie is Russell (and the stupidest man he’s ever met). It all reaches its climax when Russell encounters Jeeves, who’s of course been the Wittgenstein family butler in Vienna and taught Ludwig everything he knows. How, Russell asks him, can the sentence ‘The present king of France is bald’ be meaningful if there’s no present king of France? ‘May I venture to suggest, sir,’ Jeeves replies, ‘that we can analyze this sentence as saying that there is one and only one x such that x is the present king of France and x is bald?’ Fantastic!

Google doesn’t yield much, but I did find this from “the cover blurb on a published version of the play” in a lit-ideas post by David Ritchie

Bertie Wooster has become betrothed to Honoria Russell, daughter of the famous philosopher and Hefeweizen expert, Bertrand Russell. Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia finding herself once again short of funds for her magazine, “Milady’s Untenaable Propositions,” asks Bertie to break into Ludwig Wittgenstein’s bedroom in dead of night and steal his priceless, gold-plated poker, a souvenir of the famous encounter with Professor Popper. Bertie bungles the burglary, escapes with the aid of Jeeves and goes to ground in underneath a ladder in the library. The action begins with Honoria discovering what Bertie has not yet understood: that the ladder, underneath which he pretends to busy himself with the works of Spinoza, is not only not unoccupied, it is festooned with yards of Hildegard Wittgenstein, daughter of Ludwig and a Brownie leader of ferocious aspect. Honoria announces that the engagement is at an end. Hildegard announces that she has been compromized and must therefore marry Bertie. The fathers square off to debate the proposition. Jeeves saves the day and puts both of them right on minor but important points.

Please, God, I would dearly love to have a copy of the play.

Leonardo’s Gran Cavallo

Leonardo horseLeonardo horse sketchLeonardo’s reputation as a sculptor rests on a statue of a horse that he never finished. His patron, who was to have eventually been portrayed on the much-greater-than-life-size Gran Cavallo, had war and money troubles and swiped Leonardo’s bronze for cannon-building.

Leonardo thought that a giant rearing horse would be cool, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work structurally, and he ended up showing the horse in a trot (left), after an antique horse sculpture in Pavia that he admired. “The movement is more praiseworthy than anything else. The trot almost has the quality of a free horse.”

RegisoleThe modern Regisole, shown here on the left, dates from 1937, as the original was destroyed in the Jacobin uprisings.

Fritjof Capra, whose The Science of Leonardo I’ve been reading, has Leonardo meticulously measuring “several superb thoroughbreds” for his design. Oops—not in the fifteenth century he wasn’t. (Perhaps a kind reader would speculate on the breeding of the horses in these pictures.)

The statue was finally cast, without a rider, which Leonardo intended to add later, in 1999 and stands in Milan.

Leonardo horse, Milan

Mit der Dummheit…

I figured I’d repost this from Paul Krugman on the strength of his title, an allusion to a Schiller line that I use from time to time over there on the left: Mit der Dummheit kämpfen die Götter selbst vergebens (“Against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain”).

Say amen, someone.

Against stupidity…

The most valuable lesson I learned from the year I spent in Washington (1982-1983, on the staff of the Council of Economic advisers — I was the senior intl economist, the senior domestic economist was a guy named Larry Summers. What ever happened to him?) was the extent to which senior government figures have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

So when I read something like this:

“Why should we reward Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with $200 billion in taxpayer dollars without first reforming these housing entities that were at the heart of the economic meltdown?” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

and people ask what on earth Boehner might mean when he talks about taxpayers “rewarding” institutions that are owned by taxpayers, I go for Occam’s Razor: Boehner doesn’t have some complicated notion in mind, he either doesn’t know that the government took over F&F months ago, or he just doesn’t get this “government-owned” concept.

Not fade away

Buddy HollyToday is, of course, the fiftieth anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death in a plane crash in Iowa. A lot of rockers have died too young, but it’s hard to believe that any of those deaths represented a greater loss to music than Holly’s.

Even with his incredibly short recording career (first single in mid-1957, first album in 1958, death in February 1959), Holly had a profound influence on rock, and his recordings are timeless. What might have been…

Rave on.