Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A brief note on the prefix 'alt-'

The other day, failing to notice that the blog on which I'd left a comment (and now can't even find) about "alt-", is puzzling: unless it means nearly the same as "neo-" did several years ago in political discussions, it would be a truncated form, as "lumis-" and "paci-" frequently are and as such easily confused with the German "alt-", meaning old, and too similar to Latin "altus", referring to height but doubly unclear when truncated.
The author of the now-defunct blog post explained with several current, published examples that it means alternate or alternative.  My comment suggested that between German and Latin look-alikes, familiar to older readers, this confusing one should be abandoned.
Then, one of those dawnings that happen when one is about to fall asleep:  it's not "alt-" but ALT on the PC keyboard.  And as such it may be useful, to rid us of those strings of asterisks or hyphens ; it would be unambiguous when undergraduates or political candidates or comedians used words that networks bleep and the print media replace with those century-old asterisks, thus: ALT+F, et al.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Paperbacks, eBooks, and Me

At the University of UC Corner
Originally UC Corner on Telegraph Avenue was an international newsstand; that was why it had clocks on the Durant Avenue side window with all the time zones; indeed, it did still have international papers and magazines through at least most of my student years.  But it became the best stocked and best organized of the stores of paperbacks and then of LP records.
Of course, there had always been paperbacks, but they were all pulp, such as crime and other non-literary, and one called them Pocket Books, as A Pocket Book of Boners.  The exception was Penguin, the categories color coded: turquoise blue for non-fiction, dark green for mysteries, brown for Greek classics, purple for Latin classics, orange (?) for Scandinavian, orange for, well, respectable fiction, and others—a wonderful system.  Then, of a sudden alongside the rows of Penguin paperbacks on the shelves of UC Corner, there were Anchor Paperbacks from Doubleday, almost all of them of permanent value and, one noticed, most of them pre-War, out of print.  Not just otherwise unavailable but great.  At the back of one of the first that I got, Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, was a list of those available in 1957.  My first paperback was a turquoise Penguin, Civilization by Clive Bell.  I got it at the little bookstore of the College of Arts and Crafts (N.B., before I'd even heard of his famous sister in law).  For several years his little essay was like a bible to me!  But my systematic acquisition of quality paperbacks began when I moved to Berkeley and to the University of California.  I searched out one after the other and read them eagerly.  Some of them have been acquired now by the New York Review of Books, such as Lionel Trilling's, but more were such as Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages and before long, when Harper (Torchbooks) joined the movement, E. R. Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.  By then my mentor professor had also had me read Virginia Woolf's First and Second Reader.  Needless to say, by the time that I graduated with a BA in Art, specializing in History of Art (for that was how it was administered then), I had worked my way through college, and mostly working in the Loan Department of the UC Library, with a good-looking transcript, yes, but also virtually with an extra major in all the subjects I hadn't been able to take for credit.  I did have, by the time I finished the requirements for the PhD, almost a real complete major in Classics.  Being able to read Latin and Greek, I see in retrospect, was probably the most useful thing I did, apart from art and architecture per se.
I'll try to concentrate in this blog on some of the value of all the reading that, in retrospect, I see that Berkeley gave me, specifically the south of campus (now utterly changed, since the 1960s and 1970s) alongTelegraph Avenue.  Everything I stole time to read added up to another education in its own right, and it centered on the jam-packed but by no means junky establishment of UC Corner.  By the 1980s that was no longer what it had been, and, if the internet serves me aright, today it no longer exists at all.
Today, indeed with a touch of presbyopeia and living hundreds of miles from Berkeley, anyway, it is Amazon that feeds my hunger for self-education; another revolution has replaced the paperback revolution as such.  That is good, because the Telegraph Avenue with its UC Corner that I took for granted would exist wherever there was a university no longer exists for avid students hardly anywhere.  Yet so long as the avid learners exist, well, if Erich Auerbach could write Mimesis in wartime Istanbul, young scholars will take advantage of what we have now.

P.S. The choice of a picture for the cover of the original paperback (and I have in this case treasured the original) is wonderful.  It is a detail from the North Porch of Chartres and the sculptor has found the means of showing God envisaging the creature that in his love he is making in his own image.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Deplorable Atrocity
I like to listen to interviews on C-Span's Book TV, but sometimes I wonder whether the interviewer was aware of what he or she said and, even more, whether author, whose new book was in his hand, had had the services of a competent editor; it seems very often that he hadn't.  In any case he was unconscious of the effect of his (or her) speech on the meaning of what he meant to say.  For example, one author habitually ended most sentences with "etc.", over and over, as if periods or any other meaningful punctuation were unavailable.  And he gesticulated a lot with his hands, though without any apparent special emphasis.  If he writes as he speaks, reading his book will be a dreary, irritating experience.
I started fussing this way after Hillary Clinton was made to regret saying "deplorable".  I understood her meaning that the positions held by her opponents made her unhappy.  But commentators of both parties seemed unanimous in accusing her of calling him deplorable.  First, her syntax made clear that she meant that the state of discussion in the campaigns had become deplorable, and, second, that it is conditions, opinions, and the like,  that are fit to make one weep.
Of course, even half a century ago (even, in fact, a whole century ago), it was emphasized that languages change, so that a Latin original might have changed its meaning.  Certainly!  Just as our remote ancestors who walked out of Africa had skeletons fascinatingly different from ours, both from regular evolution and in response to different environments (and Dobzhansky was certainly right to go to the trouble of proving that we continue to evolve—it was less universally realized half a century ago than it is today), so, too, our speech.  If not, all the ancestors of modern speakers of Romance languages would have transmitted their Latin to them unaltered.  Indeed, philologists of the Enlightenment had already sorted out the descent of Indo-European tongues pretty well.
Thus, "deplorable", it seems, first came to us in its French form (though we have to rely on texts as evidence), but no matter: deplorare already meant in Latin "to weep bitterly", and Roget gives us many alternatives for use as context and style may demand, of which "lament", "bemoan", and "bewail" are only three.  Now, don't let me get started on the misuse of Roget as a source of 'synonyms' to stuff into bad sentences as ornaments.  It's too late now, and hardly anyone would care, but Hillary was exactly right that the level of the political exchanges last week was 'fit to make one weep'.
Atrocity is much harsher.  On the News someone was trying to explain how, legally, ever since Nuremburg, acts of war, atrocities, terrorism, ... I forget the fourth one, ought not to be used interchangeably, just for emphasis.  I do agree that they ought to be used thoughtfully, but he did not succeed in enlightening me.
Anyway, atrox is a more specialized and interesting word, even having a possible Greek cognate, and having the same stem as the ater of atrium, originally the sooty, ashy, fire pit in the center of the primitive round hut.  Anyhow, in classical Latin atrox, atrocis (3rd decl. adj.) means 'cruel', 'fierce', and also 'savage' and 'brutal'.  That last may suggest the bridge to the primitive fire pit?  It is not so commonplace a word as deplorare.
For that reason, 'atrocious' seems to have entered modern English, like most of the 'worsened words' (those that have been demoted to cheap overstatement) to mean, colloquially, 'very bad', 'abominable', as it appears in the margin of a student paper or in an impatient book review of a lousy novel.  You can look up 'abominable' for yourselves.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Occasional Flowers

One of the occasional gifts of wind and/or rain
What I cannot claim to have planted, neither can I identify
In the course of thirty years, this almost spectacular lily (?) flower has come up overnight, bloomed (lasting several days), and disappeared .  Once a friend identified it until (unless) it came again late in summer.  But after my Picasa files lost their classification, of my own devising, among so many thousand images I cannot find the earlier one, in whose caption ("title") or File Info (not come over from Photoshop!) the data for this plant is lurking.  What is worse, I cannot find it in Wikipedia.

Yet these are seen all over town in Baton Rouge, LA.

The current snapshots were taken on the last day of August.  I opened the back door to feed the cat, and, like red lamps that had shot up overnight, there they were, and I hastened to document them and, this time, post them in the blog, rather than just asking all my friends what they are.

I am, as you must realize, no gardener, but I am grateful for whatever I get.
And I thank anyone who can identify this (otherwise than as "firecracer") for me.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Industrial Pennsylvania

 STEEL: Pittsburgh and Bethlehem in Literature
Walker Evans, 1935, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from hill, across cemetery, to steel mills and furnace chimneys.  Large negative.

Retired persons, especially if they are not just tempted but compelled to use eBooks for their zoomable fonts, have the time and open schedules to follow ideas and motifs and recall novels and pictures that made an impression fifty and sixty years ago.  Sometimes it seems that motifs recur significantly.  For example, the adolescent girl, bound to become a protagonist, goes into service or takes a wearisome job, at only fourteen or so.  Even Isabel Allende uses this Type and I noticed it emphasized in the campaign film as the key idea in the youth of Hillary Clinton's mother.  Surely, in real life, it was not always the most important fact in a whole adolescence.  To me, as I'm sure to many others, the necessity to do whatever one could find at that age was commonplace and belonged to melodrama, as in the plays produced by David Belasco.  A real Girl of the Golden West, however, had plenty of self respect.  Early in this blog I wrote about San Pablo Poultry Company; I rather gloried in it.
Immediately I remembered Mary in Marcia Davenport's The Valley of Decision.  This novel made a great impression on me, though I never saw the movie.  I remembered the steel mill at night (though the photo that I chose, and it's only a little less than a decade earlier than the novel, and is of Bethlehem rather than Pittsburg), which is wonderfully described.  Ever since wherever I was traveling in the vicinity of steel-working I thought of Davenport's verbal picture.  I know that she did live in Pittsburg before writing about it.  She may not have been our greatest novelist, but her firsthand knowledge and sound research are pervasive in this book as in her first success, Mozart, and in her operatic novel, Of Lena Geyer (her mother being the soprano Alma Gluck).
But I need the electronic edition to re-read so long a novel, and having read The Valley of Decision while myself a teenager, and before I even was self-supporting, apart from the steel industry, the parts that remain vivid are the love interest!  I am certain that Davenport did all her homework, but the Kindle, for the first time, cannot help me.  I don't know why it is available only in hard copy, since it is, at least, as good as Gone With the Wind, and far more valuable for all its background. I'm sure it's worth reading, though I've moved on to George F. Kennan and Julian Barnes, which are really more rewarding!
But have you noticed, e.g. in the 1930s,  that there seem to be 'meaningful' recordings, usually Gramophone Society, and usually of Bach?
And I do think that the Poor Little Match Girl stereotype in political footage has been overdone (not that I hold it against the candidates themselves).

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Again, fixation on Light as the Photographic Medium

Three of a handful taken the morning of August 23, 2016
These are not pictures, such as would illustrate a catalogue, of cheap porch chairs, but of the light that the late morning sunlight happened to create, so that I can only apologize for the burnout at lower left of the second one.  Photography has been for me, from my first permission to work, under the red safelight, over the development trays in my father's darkroom, the art whose medium is light itself, just as its early practitioners realized in calling it Photography.  The objects themselves are not its interest, just as line drawings in an early mail-order catalogue are not at all the same thing as drawings and prints made in their own right are not the same thing.
If I were a better photographer, let alone a great one, the images would be more interesting—but I continue to take them anyway, the reason for continuing to own cameras.
The light was especially welcome, though, after a solid week of rain and the dreadful flooding (but not where I live: I had done my homework before buying a house; no house in Louisiana "lives on a hill" but, as everywhere, it is wise to live in the oldest neighborhoods).

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Coal Miners

Bill Brandt, Lewis Hine, D. H. Lawrence
Bill Brandt, Miners a generation later than D. H. Lawrence's father.
Once again, works of art (photographs in this case) have brought me to re-read a novel that made a huge impression on me while I was still in high school, so probably not more than 18 years old: I was still doing my browsing and reading from the Berkeley Public Library, the one in Egyptianising style on Shattuck Avenue, and my ideas about photography were still derived from the camera club work of my father and grandfather.  As for literature, not only did I very quickly become impatient with D. H. Lawrence, so that I never did read (still haven't) Lady Chatterly's Lover, even though it would soon become publishable, but I acquired friends who would have discouraged my admiring him.  I mean, by the time I had taken a course in ancient art I judged Etruscan Places of, at best, negligible value. You will see that I had not yet learned to judge things for myself, but several decades later I thought no better of it.  From Taos I had gotten, besides, strong prejudices regarding the art colony clusters there and, rightly or wrongly, for half of my life would not take seriously writers, painters, photographers, et al., who took to it.

Anyway, what about Sons and Lovers?  I'm afraid that barely after graduating from re-reading Louisa May Alcott, I was smitten by an early (though not the earliest, except for its subject) novel by D. H. Lawrence.  It shares most of the flaws of Miss Alcott's Jo's Boys.  The descriptions of the mines, of their dangers, of the black coal dust, are still worth reading; more recent collieries are bright and clean, though, as we know from West Virginia, nothing seems to be able to make them safe.  The old ones, with old flash lighting, remain among the most photogenic of inhumane work places.  The greatest improvement is the elimination, in most regions at least, of child workers who ought to have been in school.  That was not only in coal: Has anyone read, for example,  The Five Little Peppers, and How they Grew, just to mention one piece of formula fiction that present-day octogenarians avidly consumed?  Yet coal was the grimmest, perhaps.  The first chapters, dealing with the pits, are the best things in Sons and Lovers.  Evidently, autobiography brought out the worst in D. H. L. (they say that he was remembering how he felt and dealt with Lady Chatterly).  One learns that 'gin' with regard to cotton as well as coal is short for [en]gin[e], and dozens of other words, with the dictionary on the desktop, are no longer just skipped over as vernacular jargon.  When D. H. L. must characterize persons and their relationships, he just repeatedly gives us their eye color and their clothing and the like.  Only from the wiki did I learn that he just added the setting and the social study to Paul Morel (himself) and published the result.  Adding in his boyhood memories of his mother is the coup de grace.  Yet this is the novel of his that for me remains, on the whole, memorable.

Memorable as Bill Brandt's photos from the 1930s are, it is Lewis Hine that remains the greatest of the pre-WW II documentary photographers.  He records early 20th century labor so that we cannot forget the weary and hopeless ten-year-old girl, the crowded bench of breaker boys, and eventually his last work, the men in high steel building the Empire State Building.

It was not to belittle Lawrence that I couldn't praise him any more than I could some 30 years ago.  Go ahead and read him (though I don't think I'd have liked him as a lover, either: you might).  But as I pulled out the picture books I found that I wanted to study them—and Paul Strand, too—all over again.  I took over teaching History of Photography just because we lost our specialist, and at least I had some grounding in it.  It was with great profit and pleasure that in that last decade of my career in teaching I could learn more and more of it.

A few references:
  • Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography.  Page and figure numbers differ from one edition to the next, but there is a whole "album" for Lewis Hine.
  • The Google sources are almost inexhaustible, but see Coal Photography, et sim., and svv. Horace Nicholls, Lewis Hine, Bill Brandt (early work), and of course D. H. Lawrence, though his is not Wikipedia's best article.
  • A note: as with all the other illustrious Lawrences, I am not related to D. H.
"Coming Home".  One of Bill Brandt's most famous photos of working men.