Category Archives: articles

Vertigo in Two Setences

Richard Brody’s distillation of Vertigo:

An acrophobic detective (James Stewart), after the apparent death of a woman he loves (Kim Novak), meets another woman who reminds him of her, dresses her up as the late object of his obsession, and then discovers that she’s the same woman. It’s as if Hitchcock were endowing with holy wonder the miracle by which Hollywood turns a shopgirl into a star—and by which he turns an actress into the object of his own erotic fantasy.

Nicely put.

Does America Have Any Culture?

A lack of culture is not our problem. The problem is we’ve become too effective at distributing that culture – at the same time, in the same way, and with the same velocity. It all ends up feeling interchangeable, which makes it all marginally irrelevant.

Chuck Klosterman

Academics Who Dress Well

Gary Cooper as Professor Bertram Potts in Ball of Fire (1941)

Loved this aside from Russell Jacoby’s recent profile of Paul Piccone:

Another leftist Italian-American of working-class origins coincidentally chaired my department at Rochester. Eugene Genovese, the historian of American slavery, also dressed to the nines. He once addressed us motley graduate students, mainly from New York City and its suburbs, as we clomped about in work boots, blue jeans, and work shirts: “You think the workers like what you are wearing?” he sneered. “They despise it and you.” He fingered his own fine threads. “This is what they like. This is what they would wear if they could.”

The point is that academics need not dress in a slovenly manner; indeed, many academics dress very well, or at least they used to. This is something of a hobbyhorse of mine.

James Bond as Archetype

When asked “If you could be any character in literature, who would you choose?” Michael Dirda admits he’d want to be James Bond. And why not? Indeed, as Dirda explains,

The first words we think of when we describe James Bond — at least the 007 of the films — are suave, debonair, cosmopolitan. All those are shorthand for Bond’s supreme personal characteristic, what Renaissance courtiers always aspired to exemplify: sprezzatura. That is the ability to perform even the most difficult task with flair, grace, and nonchalance, without getting a wrinkle in your clothes or working up a sweat. Bond not only is cool, he always looks cool, at ease in his skin, at home in the world. Whatever his surroundings, he’s the best-dressed guy in the room.

There are other reasons – ahem – why someone would want to be James Bond, and Dirda mentions most of them. I find Dirda’s honesty refreshing here. My guess is that most men with PhDs in Comparative Literature publicly renounce Bond, while secretly, as the saying goes, wishing they were him.

More on Hitchens’s Apartment

I’ve hinted at my interest in Christopher Hitchens’s life and work before. Part of why I find him so interesting has to do with his prolificness. That is to say, how does he write as much as he does as quickly as he does? A recent New York Review of Magazines article sheds some more light on his work habits. Part of the secret, it seems, is not to watch TV:

The apartment where Hitchens lives with his wife, writer Carol Blue, and his daughter, Antonia, is cavernous but lacks much décor. Besides a grand piano in the living room, the only furnishings Hitchens seems to have acquired in two decades at this address are hundreds of books, many piles of which rest unshelved against the walls. His office in the apartment next door is equally spartan but for a pile of promotional books on the kitchen isle (the anti-liberal firebrand David Horowitz, among others, seeks a blurb from Hitchens for the back cover of his latest offering). A framed National Magazine Award rests on the back of the gas range, next to a refrigerator that houses a few bottles of water, a jar of mustard and little else.

Hitchens’ only television set is in the master bedroom. It’s a recent acquisition, Blue said, and she watches it more than he does. He hardly has time, he said, now that he’s working on a memoir.

Professors Who Sleep with Their Students and Vice Versa

From an article entitled “Sex and the University”:

For Jane Gallop, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the US, tough policies on relationships are affecting tutors’ ability to teach.

In her book Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, she says: “At its most intense – and, I would argue, its most productive – the pedagogical relation between teacher and student is, in fact, a ‘consensual amorous relation.’”

Gallop is candid about her relationships with both male and female students, and her exploits as a graduate student herself, when she slept with two men on her dissertation committee. She is more than aware of the power relationship that existed between them.

When it comes to professors who sleep with their students, “pathetic” is usually my first thought. But when it comes to students who sleep with their professors, especially professors on their dissertation committees, the phrase “conflict of interest” comes to mind, among other things.

On a related note, part of me admires Gallop’s honesty here, and I’d love to attend one of the sexual harassment workshops I’m required to go to every year with her, if only to watch her lock horns with the person who runs it.

Related Reading: “The Higher Yearning: Bringing Eros Back to Academe”

Sounds Nice

Johann Hari on the brain-enhancing drug Provigil:

A week later, the little white pills arrived in the post. I sat down and took one 200mg tablet with a glass of water. It didn’t seem odd: for years, I took an anti-depressant. Then I pottered about the flat for an hour, listening to music and tidying up, before sitting down on the settee. I picked up a book about quantum physics and super-string theory I have been meaning to read for ages, for a column I’m thinking of writing. It had been hanging over me, daring me to read it. Five hours later, I realised I had hit the last page. I looked up. It was getting dark outside. I was hungry. I hadn’t noticed anything, except the words I was reading, and they came in cool, clear passages; I didn’t stop or stumble once.

Perplexed, I got up, made a sandwich – and I was overcome with the urge to write an article that had been kicking around my subconscious for months. It rushed out of me in a few hours, and it was better than usual. My mood wasn’t any different; I wasn’t high. My heart wasn’t beating any faster. I was just able to glide into a state of concentration – deep, cool, effortless concentration. It was like I had opened a window in my brain and all the stuffy air had seeped out, to be replaced by a calm breeze.

Normally, like Tom Cruise, I’m pretty anti prescription drugs, but this sounds nice. 

Related Reading: “Brain Enhancement Is Wrong, Right?” 

Rock/Rap Combos

Ben Mathis-Lilley asks, “Why do rappers whose work I hold in such high regard have such terrible taste in rock?” His answer, that middlebrow rock artists “are seen by their hip-hop collaborators … as living samples, picked out of the musical spectrum because their voices have some distinctive quality,” is a good one.

That Blurry Line

I have myself always been terrified of plagiarism – of being accused of it, that is. Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever than others at disguising our robberies. The reason writers are such slow readers is that we are ceaselessly searching for things we can steal and then pass off as our own: a natty bit of syntax, a seamless transition, a metaphor that jumps to its target like an arrow shot from an aluminum crossbow.

In my own case, I have written a few books built to a great extent on other writers’ books. Where the blurry line between a paraphrase and a lift is drawn – not always so clear when composing such books – has always been worrisome to me. True, I’ve never said directly that man is a political animal, or that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Still, I worry that I may somewhere have crossed that blurry line.

Joseph Epstein

Christopher Hitchens

There’s a rather lengthy profile of Christopher Hitchens in the May 2008 Prospect which contains some fascinating insights into his personal life and work habits, as well as his protean political views. Of course, it’s not really cool to like Hitchens – he is someone, after all, who isn’t afraid to savagely attack his friends in print – but as a polemicist he’s second to none, and I admire him for that. That and his thick skin.  The following two quotes, in particular, stood out to me:

  • “Christopher Hitchens’s apartment is curiously unchanged in the 13 years since I first visited him in Washington. A portrait of him and his wife, screenwriter Carol Blue, is still unframed. There is little art on the walls, few travel mementos; just bookshelves, a spacious living room, a modest kitchen and an annex for the alcohol. The aesthetic is not so much utilitarian as uncluttered of anything that would distract from the essentials of his life: reading, meeting people, drinking, laughing, arguing, writing.”
  • “The appearance he gives of living improvisationally must obscure a ferocious interior organisation. Articles get written at any time of day or night, with extraordinary speed and fluency—however much he has drunk. He turns out a couple of pieces in the intervals while I’m taking a breather from merely talking.”