English 407, Victorian Studies

Reading through the day’s news, I felt the usual pangs of disgust and anger — mostly but not entirely at Republican politians. When will enough of them, while scratching their asses, discover their backbones? It could happen, right? In fact, it will happen.

And at that point a wee small timorous voice in the distance whispered a couple famiar lines.

Oh yet we trust that somehow good
will be the final goal of ill

That can happen to unreconstructed English majors, even in their eighties. So I listened to the line again. Aha, says I. Tennyson.

Tennyson? That pompous Victorian Empire and Bible salesman? Yeah, him. I’d forgotten he might have written something good along the way. But I couldn’t recall the whole poem, so I looked it up.

Oh well. Should have known. Later verses ramble through gloom and pain and random misery, all — perhaps — to be balance out. Sometime.

Or not.

Is there a lesson here for the Trump generations. Not really.

Is there any lesson at all to be gained from these word squanderings I keep posting on Some Old Guy?

Yeah. The lesson is to hell with Victorian poets.

Except Browning, him and her. And the Rosettis, both of them. And Hood and Morris and Arnold and (maybe) Carroll. And Edward Lear, him too.

But still, to hell with Tennyson.

What it’s safe to say

Cleaning out my desk yesterday I came across an old mini-poster from many years ago, a ten-line quote printed on heavy slick paper. It had been on the wall of my previous office, meaning it had to be at least fifteen years old. That old, and it still rang true. Think I’ll pin it up on the wall of this office for a while. The time seems… well… it seems about right.

lecarre quote
One of the reasons — there are many — why this suits the time so well is the man who wrote it. He’s David John Moore Cornwell, whom you may know better by his pen name. He’s John le Carré. A man who wrote many great novels about spycraft — how it works and doesn’t work, for example — and who was himself for many years a ranking operative in British Intelligence.

There he is right now, sitting in comfortable retirement somewhere in England, likely his family home in Cornwall. Can’t help wondering what he thinks about what’s going on right now in the U S Halls of…

  • …Halls of Courage? No.
  • …Halls of Power? I think not.
  • …Halls of Mirrors? Much more likely.
  • …Halls of Chaos? Yeah, I think that’s it.

Halls of Chaos.
Has a nice dystopian ring to it.

(It may sound familiar. I cited it back on December 17, 2008)

The Show Must Go On!

Let me elaborate on that. The show will go on until it comes to an end.

Any reasonable evaluation of a show must include a careful study of its ending. Its resolution. The point at which an audience picks up and goes home… or as may be in a few instances, when the audience picks up rotten vegetables to throw at the stage and the actors. Or takes some other action to indicate not only that this performance is at an end but that no further performances of this show will be attended, or perhaps even tolerated.

This  odd image — call it a metaphor if that pleases you — came to mind late last evening. I attended an uncommonly good performance of the Kander and Ebb masterpiece Cabaret. It is the last few moments of Cabaret which are most dramatic. Last night they were grim. Heart-wrenching. (Yes, it was a very good show.)

I stood with the rest of the audience to applaud when the cast came back on stage. As was right for such a show, there were only quick cast bows, no mugging or waving to friends or other bullshit. The cast bow, just like the show and the message at its core, was hard and cold and unrelenting.

I looked around at people near me. Most were gathering coats and heading quietly and thoughtfully — and not a few tearfully — to the exits. But there were a few — the couple next to me, for instance — who stood looking about, puzzled looks on their faces. As if they were trying to figure out what had just happened.

They must, I decided, have been Trump supporters.

A Moderate Proposal

Last evening, trying to put a tolerable if not tolerant face on the news, I had a momentary insight. It was this. I do not fully understand the reasoning of the political other side.

I have friends, neighbors, relatives who voted for Trump, people I often see and talk with. But we never discuss politics, never even verge close to it. We both know there’s no middle ground where we can stand — or sit — peacefully and discuss our differences without distress or rancor.

But why not? Why can’t we try to do that?

And then, that moment of insight, and an answer. Let’s establish a neutral zone, a place to meet and explain ourselves to each other without interruption, or insult, or argument.


Start a brawl at a family picnic? Or a troll-and-slam fest online? I don’t think so. It has to start, at least, somewhere else.

Then I thought about old technology. The US Mail Service. We could write letters back and forth. It’s a different kind of communication. You have to write it out — with a pen or a keyboard — editing and revising as you go. Look at it again and decide to send it. Find an envelope and address it. Buy a stamp. Get to the post office or a drop box.

Then a reply, also done over time. And that’s the advantage. It takes time, which at least implies a level of thought and precision.

I’ll try for a while, see what happens. If you have a comment, to agree or elaborate or challenge, please add on.

My next move will be to reserve a mailbox at the local post office, to emphasize the “neutral zone” idea. If it works, I’ll post that mailbox address here, and invite anyone who’s interested to join in.


Today’s predictable ramble

I’ve been trying for weeks to develop an answer to the “free speech” dilemma. And everything I come up with is, essentially, a re-hash of a short piece I wrote three months ago. It’s here or somewhere down the page if you’re interested.

Now with presentation of the award which recently brought the question into view — as if it had ever disappeared — I can add a codicil to my earlier post. The PEN committee and its defenders argued that those who opposed the award were unfamiliar with the French style of satire, and therefore were not competent to criticize it.

To accept that argument, one has to ignore what seems to me a far more important aspect of satire than its country of origin. Those most affected by and most liable to be distressed by satire — which is to say, its victims — are the primary aspect, and it their reaction which ought first to be considered.

So again, murder is not acceptable as response to satire. But to defend, to explain, satire’s impact without regard to its targets is simply to avoid an obvious truth.

Crime and punishment

Why do we punish criminals? That is, what is the purpose of penalizing those who break the rules which we accept as limitations on our actions?1

So far, I’ve been able to categorize, or at least to put into lists, various reasons for the penalties we exact. What I’ve come up with is this.

Penalties are decreed/enforced for three groups:

The first group is the guilty party, the criminal. Penalties are intended to

  1. punsh him for his action (or inaction)
  2. discourage him from further violations

The second group is society at large. Penalties are intended to

  1. satisfy collective outrage
  2. discourage others from similar violations

The third group is the victim. Penalties are intended to

  1. repay the victim for his loss
  2. impose retribution on the guilty

Which of those are the more important, which the less? Have I omitted any which ought to be included, or included any which do not belong?

These questions are more or less rhetorical, but feel free to answer them if you wish. This is still a rough draft of an idea; usually I wait until an idea is fully formed, or its presentation has been edited and revised a few times, before throwing it out in public.

So this is an on-going exercise. Experiment. There are (I hope) obvious connections to a few earlier posts. I want to develop a clear statement of my own beliefs about the way things are, and possibly to suggest how they might be made better.

  1. Don’t yet quibble with the terminology. I’m trying to generate a rational analysis here. This is simply a starting point.  ↩