The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Monday, January 30, 2006

Time for a little kulchur: some words on Khatchaturian

For the first time in months, I listened to some music by the once famous composer Aram Khatchaturian. I find it odd that his name is not as recognizable these days since, not only was he one of the 20th century's most famous composers, he is (if memory serves) the only composer ever to be on the American top 40, probably back in the 1940s due to the popularity of his "Sabre Dance", otherwise known as the circus song (not one of my favourite pieces, but it is recognizable). In the 1950s, he was a household name in America.

The CD I listened to was a burnt copy of a CD I once checked out from York University's Music Library. I forget the name of the CD, but there aren't that many. I listened to CD 1, which features his famous symphony in D preceded by a Piano Concerto (No. 2, I think. Incidentally, Dr. J, I burned this for you back in August).
I am not an expert in music, much less classical music, but Khatch. sure has his charms. I wouldn't be surprised if a musicologist out there has written on his influence on subsequent music. As a "modernist," Khatch employed some odd rhythms and frequently made use of atonality ("wrong notes"). What I like though is a) he doesn't go overboard with the atonality, and b) unlike many composers, he doesn't use atonality for its own sake; it actually sounds good! An analogy could easily be made from literature: imagine two modernist or post-modernist writers: both make use of every conceivable modernist conceit, technique, etc, except the first seems laboured, boring and pretentious whereas the other one actually makes it work. One thinks of Virginia Woolf and possibly James Joyce, but I hated Wyndham Lewis, to say nothing of postmodernists. I'm sure there are good postmodernists out there, and as my exposure has been limited, I can't comment on all: I am especially less than fond of a certain Canadian, who shall remain nameless, who wrote a "book" that had something to do with Paul Bernardo. Rest assured it was the worst piece of garbage I had ever read, and it was one of the very few books in my life I stopped reading and actually sold.

I've digressed: I really like Khatch, and I think he is currently underrated or possibly just forgotten. Give him a listen if you can find something of his. Sure Khatch is Armenian, but that's not why I like him: if I didn't like him, I simply wouldn't listen to him.
Another thing that I really like about him is that, with very few exceptions, every notes counts: in other words, every note has "feeling" in it and is there for a reason. Khatch rarely lapses into the empty music that is so very common (even the very best composers indulge in it, and Mozart, at least in Amadeus, was accused of playing "too many notes").

Aram is something of a forgotten genius: even the most illiteratue, uncouth blockheads know that Mozart was a child prodigy, writing and composing major works before the age of 12. Khatchaturian is not very different: born into a peasant family outside of Tblisi, Georgia (the Republic, not the State), he had no musical training or anything of the like until he was in his twenties. By the time he was thirty, he was already composing major works. His contemporaries, such as Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Samuel Barber, thought very highly of him (in fact, the American Samuel Barber considered him the best living composer).
UNESCO declared 2003, the centenary of his birth, as the year of Aram Khatchaturian. Unless I missed something, I was very disappointed that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra did not hold any concerts on this occasion, but I did see a documentary on him.

I'm not sure if there are any print bios out there (there must be), but thanks to the internet,
much can be learnt in minutes and from the convenience of ones home.

Now I must go and get me a coffee and continue reading Frye's Great Code (yep, that's right, picked it up 2 days ago). But that's another post.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Holy Jumping Backpacks Batman!

I was reading an article I culled in the summer entitled "Beowulf to Baman: The Epic Hero and Pop Culture," College English 31 (1970). The article was fairly interesting and enjoyable to read. Some interesting points, especially to all except those who are familiar with Frye and archetypes, etc. However, the article is interesting because it is a historical document: Apparently, teaching high school students or even undergraduates about Beowulf, Milton, Spenser, etc, was very difficult back in 1970. One of the author's goals was to demonstrate the these epics ARE relevant since teens or whatever back then would enjoy analogous programs on television.

The author (Roger Rollin) makes one point that I'm not sure I agree with, and point out the article's main weakenss, to wit, it would be impossible to write it today. On discussing the virtues in common with Spenser's knight's (Redcrosse, for example), he mentions chastity, something which had become unpopular by the late 60s. He compares these to spy-heroes such as James Bond and says these people are

"already to a great extent outside both the law and the culture, apparently have licenses tp fornicate as well as to kill. They are hedonist-heroes of the New Morality. Yet their popularity, enormous for a year or two, already seems on the wane, which may indicate that Spenser's ideal of Chastity is still operative beneath the surface of our supposedly liberated culture." (441)

This is one of the few points I would argue against. James Bond at least is certainly not dead: the franchise is alive and well, although it could be argued that only now is JB on the wane. Unless I'm mistaken, most people stopped caring after Roger Moore; there was a slight but short-lived revival with Brosnan. What do y'all think about this? It is interesting to note that, at least back in the 1970s, the heroes were often sexless, that is, they did not engage in sex: Superman, Batman (Adam West), Lone Ranger, etc. Rollin mentions Star Trek, and although he doesn't mention the sexual escapades of Captain Kirk, I would argue that in most cases, his sexual escapades were portrayed as "wrong" OR he only pursued them becuase he was infected with some spirit, etc. All this leads me to my argument at the beginning: could this article be written today? It begs the question: what happened to our heroes? T.V. sucks enormously now, and even Wrestling, which showcased such positive role models as Hulk Hogan when I was a kid, is a corrupting influence. I certainly don't see any positive role models wherever I look, which makes me a little less surprised when I see out of control kids. Now I definitely look like an old fart, even though I'm in my twenties, and I may very well be lapsing into the same error as my older old farts, namely, that everything was always better back then. But in this case one can actually and objectively examine data from forty years ago and compare it with today.

A Detrimental Education

This should interest some of you. Boy did it bring back memories! I wasn't at all a good student during my high school years, and now I'm a total nerd (but, it must be said, one of those cool nerds). We've all heard the anecdote of Einstein failing elementary school, or something like that. Stephen Hawking was purportedly a "mediocre" graduate student. School's a funny place, but especially high school which (nowadays anyway) doesn't teach anything and certainly doesn't prove anything. Some of the dumbest people I have ever encountered got stellar grades in high school.

Anyway, I was looking for some articles, and I found my grade 11 report cards, which date back to 1997-98. I am including the grades, course titles and comments for your delectation. It is interesting to note the slight improvement towards the end, except math, which I passed by one percent (51) in the following year. Strangely enough, I recall being quite good at physics, earning 80s and 90s until I stopped trying (teenagers are a funny bunch). Funny: when I was growing up, my parents would complaing that I wouldn't read/study enough. By my third and fourth year in university, I was reading/studying too much. Anyway, here's the format: Course - Grade - Comments

First Term:

English - 63 - Work is satisfactory

French (OAC) - 73 - Good progress has been made. Keep it up!

Socal Science - 67 - Works conscientiously and makes a fine contribution to class discussions. Understanding of the content and concepts of this course meets expectations.

German - 75 - Good progress has been made. Keep it up! Keep up the good work.

Mathematics - 52 - Please continue to work hard to improve your mark.

Parenting - 67 - Please continue to work hard.

Gym/Health Education - 43 - More self-discipline and consistency of effort are required.

Chemistry - 71 - Written tests demonstrate a good understanding of course material. Class participation was good.

Average absences - 4 Lates - 2

Second Term:

English - 65 - Must concentrate on improving work habits.

French - 82 - Written work and oral contributions reflect a high degree of comprehension. Excellent effort and attitude. Speaks clearly with a good accent and correct intonation.

Social Science - 71 - Is an enthusiastic student. A pleasure to teach. Well done this term.

German - 77 - (comments same)

Mathematics - 55 - Class time was not well used. Good progress has been made. Keep it up. Extra help is available from the teacher.

Parenting - 79 - Good progress has been made. Keep it up!

Health Education - 50 - Better attendance would likely improve progress. More self-discipline and consistency of effort are required. More attention and participation required in written work.

Chemistry - 71 - Written tests demonstrate a good understanding of course material.

Average absence from classes - 8

I don't know where my OAC (Grade 13) report card went. I simply stopped showing up after February that year :)

Reading Letters of Recommendation

What the hell is this?
As I am in a state easily excitable and with shattered nerves, I took it upon myself to see what I could learn about letter of recommendation (LOR) "inflation." Apparently, such a phenomenon exists, much like grade inflation. Here's one website I found which was funny: it reminds me of a piece on As for this one, I'm not sure whether it is meant to be taken seriously or jocosely. In any case enjoy.

For the record, it has been said of me that "his student is always willing to engage in vigorous debate." Not exactly in those words, of course. I guess I can be obnoxious :)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Somnium Arbionis

Some of you may already know that I have been plagued with sleeping difficulties for quite some time now, and I won't bore those of you who don't know with details. Here's something odd though: I recently bought some Melatonin over the counter, a synthetic supplement of some kind that is supposed to aid sleep. The first time I took it nothing happened (if anything, it had adverse effects); the second and third time, however, something strange happened: I slept relatively early (i.e., 2 am), but I woke up at about 5 or 6 am. I would love to be able to get up at that time, but after 3-4 hours, that's not normal (right now I feel as if I've pulled an all-nighter. Sure does bring back memories). From what I've gathered, Melatonin may or may not work: most studies are either inconclusive or the data is statistically insignificant, but I've never come across anything like this.

Gotta go and send off the physical component of my application to Queen's, including my writing sample, statement of purpose and 2 (that's right, two) transcripts. I'll never know why they want two and most schools want only one (for those not in the know, a transcript costs about 10 dollars CDN, this in addition to the 70$ application fee and any other ancillary fees). So far I haven't heard anything, but it's far too early. FYI, despite what you may see on some message boards, English graduate programs are, for whatever reason, extremely competitive, and as such they take longer than most programs to get back to the applicants. BTW, I ended up choosing Queen's #2 paragraph below, with minor modifications. I omitted the very first sentence: my bestest buddy noticed it, and neither I nor any of my profs who looked at it noticed that it was an odd line.

As for the election last night, it turned out just as I predicted, except I didn't think the Liberals would do so well. All things considered, I think this was a good result: some fresh faces, a new party, but without the risks of a 4 year majority.

Bonus points for anyone who can identify the source of my parodic title (Dr. J, this doesn't include you, but given how few people actually read this, go nuts :)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Readers: which is better?

Dear Friends and Readers,

Until now I had little trouble with my Statement of Interest for Graduate School. With my last two, Queen's and Ottawa, I'm having a little trouble deciding on very minor matters of phrasing, etc, and I was hoping you could shed some light on this.
I won't include the statements in their entirety as they are more or less the same: what is troubling me is the one paragraph where I discuss the school in question as well as faculty I'd like to work with.
Here are two possibilities for Queen's University. Tell me which is better:

1) One may ask why I have chosen Queen’s University. Apart from the
university’s reputation, I am attracted to English department at Queen’s University because of its [remarkable] strength in the area of Restoration and eighteenth-century literature, something of a rarity in North America. I am interested in the research of Christopher Fanning and especially F.P. Lock. I share F.P. Lock’s interest in eighteenth-century philosophy and aesthetics. His expertise in this area, especially his familiarity with...would be invaluable for my research enterprises. In fact, I have already spoken with Professor Lock and he has expressed his interest in working with me.


2) One may ask why I have chosen Queen’s University. The university’s English department is remarkably strong in the area of Restoration and eighteenth-century literature, a trait few universities in this part of the world can claim. I am especially interested in the work of F.P. Lock, whose expertise in the area of eighteenth-century philosophy and aesthetics would be invaluable for my research enterprises. In fact, I have already spoken with Professor Lock and he has expressed his interest in working with

Finally, here is the paragraph in question for U of Ottawa, which is, I freely confess, far more confused than the latter:

I am attracted to the English department at the University of Ottawa because of the presence of Frans De Bruyn. I share his interest in the philosophy and aesthetics of the period (not to mention the poetry and appropriation of classical writers such as Virgil). I would definitely enjoy and profit from his course on Don Quixote in the eighteenth-century. His expertise in this area, especially his familiarity with Edmund Burke and matters of taste (which complements my understanding of Smith), would be invaluable for my research enterprises.

I would appreciate any insight. Thanks. Either leave a comment or, if you'd prefer, an email at piouslabours [at] yahoo . ca

Sunday, January 15, 2006

That's Scary

Speaking of illiteracy, I recall reading recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education (I believe, or perhaps it was a similar publication) that something like 25% of undergraduates in the United States can be considered academically literate. Essentially, students were given an examination that tests basic reading and writing skills, which, much like the Grade 10 EQAO here in Ontario, the majority failed. Imagine that: only a quarter of those in university (undergrad) actually have university level literacy! Kinda scary. It's also interesting that in the United States, one can go straight into education, i.e., there's such thing as an Education major. In Ontario/Canada, one must first or simultaneously acquire a Bachelor's degree of some kind alongside teacher's college. Although most people I know in teacher's college are blockheads (there are notable exceptions of course!), it is scary to think that the majority of those in education, especially in the United States, cannot themselves read and/or write. Interestingly, Education majors in the U.S. have the consistently worst SAT and GRE scores. Something to think about.

Battle of the Books

One of the more famous writers of the eighteenth-century was Jonathan Swift, still remembered (despite endemic illiteracy) as the author of Gulliver's Travels, a piece I haven't read in years but one which I remember referring to as "the greatest and most perfect satire in the English language" (a strong statement from a 2nd year student). Given the vagaries and necessities of undergraduate (and graduate/master's) education, I neglected many of my cherished 18th century friends, especially the prose fiction writers. During the summer I had picked up some interesting volumes and I finally cracked one of them open: it is a collection of Swift's major works published by OUP, and it included Battle of the Books. Those of you who are at least familiar with the literature of the period know that this is too short to be the actual title; the complete title, with original spelling, is

A True and Full Account of the Battel Fought Last Friday between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James's Library.

(Incidentally, I believe there is a book out there that is nothing but a listing of eighteenth-century titles in their entirety!)

I just read the said work and found it, as with other works from the period, ripping good fun. It is fairly short and can be found on the internet fairly easily, including here. The picture is of the original frontpiece.

Of course, the notion of a battle between the ancients and the moderns wasn't new. This work was, if I know my dates, completed in 1697. Perhaps the most famous work on the ancients vs. moderns controversy was Dryden's Essay of Dramatick Poesie (although the more correct, latinate form is Of Dramatic Poesie, An Essay), which was published in 1668.
In any case, I found Swift's work to be, well, Swiftian. I especially found the part where Virgil and Dryden square off in the battle to be especially funny since, not only did Dryden worship the ground Virgil walked on, he also famously translated his Aeneid in 1697. From what I have gathered, it is a somewhat inaccurate translation, but it has more literary merit than any 20th century translation I have seen.

As a side note (which I'm sure RK and Dr. J will like), I was looking around in Willow Books the other day (a second hand bookshop in downtown Toronto), which has a remarkably chaotic basement. To my surprise I found a paperback copy of A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, for which I ended up paying something like two bucks. Along with Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells us, it is one of those classic works of criticism (first published in 1904!) without which no discussion of Shakespeare is complete. I have only ever read bits and pieces, but I'm willing to bet that many of the ideas I have about Shakespeare, including unconscious ones, come from that. For those of you who studied Shakespeare in high school, many of your ideas concerning the imagery probably come from Spurgeon's work. It's really neat that, at this point in my life, I can actually go back and read criticism and say "so that's where that came from!"

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Imitatio Homeris

My extremely erudite friend at Laudatortemporisacti recently posted on a title, "Imitatio Homeris," which should be Imitatio Homeri. I think the gaffe occured because the author thought, for whatever reason, that Homer (Homerus in Latin) is a third declension rather than a second declension noun, by analogy with oper. Thus, we have opus=operis and Homer=Homeris (operis and Homeris being the genitive or possessive forms). I think the author thought that Homer, not Homerus, was the Latin name, which, if I'm not incorrect, resembles a third declension noun.
Of course, this is based on my very fundamental, rudimentary, basic, and bare bones understanding of Latin. I know less Latin than most babies, but I wanna be smwart, so there ya go : )

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Dat's Whack!

So I'm just about finished my applications, and I thought maybe, as a last choice, I should apply to one of the schools in my province. I'm already applying to Queen's and U Toronto, both excellent institutions, but I thought I'd apply to one more to hedge my bets. I settled on University of Western Ontario and University of Ottawa. I emailed a prof at the former with my customary introduction along the lines of "Hi, I'm Arby. Here are my interests, I would be interested in working with you...". Until now, I've received nothing but kind and positive replies.
Today, I receive an email from someone I'd never heard of: turns out he's the Grad English chair at Western. The prof I had written to forwarded her message to the chair. This makes sense because I had asked one or two things about cutoffs, etc, but the rest was addressed to the original professor. In the end, I got the impression from the chair that what I had done was somehow amiss and frowned upon! I won't quote the entire email, but here are the more mind boggling parts:

"While seeking to enlist a supervisor's interest in advance is permissible, it
would be advisable to do so on the basis of rather more concrete and clearly
articulated plans. And an expression of favourable interest from a possible
supervisor in no way puts an applicant on any "inside track" for entry to the
program. I hope that this information is helpful as you consider your options
and I thank you for your interest in our program. We shall review your
application in due course. In the meantime, please consider this correspondence
as closed."

A rather negative response for something so innocuous and, in fact, recommended! Does this make any sense? No wonder I'd heard weird things about Western. This left an unexpectedly bad taste in my mouth and I don't think I'll waste my time or money on them, especially when bigger and better schools have been more encouraging.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Merry Christmas (to me)

I really mean that.
Today, January 6 (or the eve of the 5th) marks Armenian Christmas. Armenia was the first officially Christian nation in the world, and they have always celebrated Christmas on this day. From what I know, so did the other Christian cultures, but Rome moved it to December 25 to override a popular pagan festival (I could be wrong, but that's what I've read).
So after a big feast and some less than usual wine (pomegranite wine, not strong but sweet), I'm feeling it. If you are interested, read this brief piece on the history of the holiday, though I'm sure you could probably find something more in-depth elsewhere.

Dear readers, please accept my very best for the year to come.

Racial Unknowns

I came across this article from Inside Higher Ed. As some of you, i.e. Dr. J, know, I haven't hopped aboard the postcolonial train or anything like that, so if I'm talking about something race related, it must be interesting! It concerns people who check "unknown" or similar choice on th portion of their application which asks for ethnicity/race. I'm definitely one of the 5 or so percent who do not divulge. I don't reveal my "race" (whatever that means) for several reasons:
  1. It's stupid
  2. The categories are too general
  3. I don't see why there's any reason they should know
  4. What difference does it make

etc etc etc. One thing the article is probably right about is that the majority of those who refuse to answer are white. Given the unpopularity of being white now (not to mention male), this makes sense. IT makes even more sense with me because, though I am Caucasian, I am not really white (I'm not Whitey white Adams), but I'm definitely not Hispanic or Black (sorry, the term African-American is just so wrong in my eyes). As such I definitely do not want to be seen as "just another white kid" (although at elite institutions that's probably a good thing), but at the same time, I don't want to be seen as a "minority." I guess I really am in the middle somewhere.

Grad School Update


After paying through the nose for postage to the States and countless emails, I finally can breathe a little easier. U of Virginia, my top choice, has my entire application. I had two out of three online references, and my last referee was nowhere to be found until last night, when he emailed me telling me he refused to complete the impossible online form (the deadline for this school was January 2, but because I applied on time, I have a grace period with letters). Luckily he sent an email copy which the graduate school accepted. University of Texas at Austin's Graduate school seems to have received my stuff, but no word yet from their very unhelpful English department (actually, UTexas has to be the worst school in this respect. No one at the Grad School or English office returns calls or emails).

Of course, there's such thing as something that's too good to be true: ETS, the governing body of the GRE, goofed on my subject test score and sent the score to the correct insitutions, but no the English departments. For some schools this won't be a problem, but it may for others. I'm sure as hell not paying 15$ US for someone else's f#@&-up. Reminds me of what my friend said: You can do everything right, but ultimately your fate is in the hands of idiots. If you think about this, it's true: you are often at the mercy of blockheaded mail carriers, administrative workers, government employees, etc etc. So much for free will :)

I will not be applying to Boston U: they seemed to be more trouble than it's worth (I'm saying this as a Canadian who has to go through all the international BS). I may apply to something closer to home such as Ottawa (I'm already applying to U Toronto and Queen's).
I will know the results of my applications beginning probably in late February. If you don't hear from me around that time, then I've probably retreated to the mountains forever.

PoMo Fun

I was thinking of the Postmodern Generator last night, and today, in his bigger and better blog, Dr. J points our attention to something very similar and all too real for an English student: an English PoMo title generator. Ever wonder where snobby profs come up with those titles? Well, it makes sense now :) Seems to me that many of those academics that have such papers spend more time on their titles than the papers themselves. Even Dr. J has to admit though that there's something amusing in the insanely complicated and esoteric titles. One almost feels a sense of accomplishment after being able to read and decipher such titles.
For what it's worth, I entered some random names and here's what I got

1) For Joseph Addison's Cato:

Dismembering the Queer Murder in Joseph Addison: Cato and Intersection
Colonizing, Questioning, Constructing: Darkness in Joseph Addison and the Outraged Tyranny of Theory in Cato
Joseph Addison, Cato, and The Privileged: Sectioning Gendered Appropriation
Raping the Misogynistic Poetics in Joseph Addison: Cato and Degeneration
The Racist Exhuming The Privileged: Joseph Addison, Cato and Patriarchy

2) Something a little less "literary": Sam Johnson's Lives of the Poets:

Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets, and The Invader: Etching Bourgeois Race
Marginalizing the Oriental Penetration in Samuel Johnson: Lives of the Poets and Degeneration
Protest as Fuzziness: Politicizing Unitary Promiscuities in Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets
Homophobic Re-vision and the Initiation of Transgendered Alterity in Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets
Samuel Johnson Destabilizing Collusion: Lives of the Poets and the Object of Postmodernity

Funny stuff: reminds me of my M.A. year when some of us would (jocularly) try to come up with such titles for our works. I for one could rarely do it: I don't have the pomo gene in me, which should be a relief to anyone who reads (or will read) me.