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

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Psycho German Kid

This video is truly synaesthetic, though not in the Keatsian sense of the word. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to describe it as synpathetic (not sympathetic) or polypathetic since it is funny, sad and scary all at once.

One a more pleasant and austere note, I just picked up A.C. Bradley's Oxford Lectures on Poetry, originally published in (I believe) 1909. It is indeed a fascinating experience to read very early criticism (the academic study of English literature/poetry, at least in the English speaking world, was still in it's infancy back then). It's interesting to see just how much tastes and criticial issues have changed, to say nothing of the fact that many famous and, indeed, almost unconscious pronouncements or judgements on poems and authors that we hold go back to these early critics.
Of course the book is not available to buy (and that kinda defeats the point since it has been in the public domain for over a decade); looks like it's good ol' illegal photocopying for me.
This leads me to a question I asked myself in the summer, when I was photocopying volume 2 of J.P. Ker's edition of Essays of John Dryden, first publushed in 1901 (needless to say, long out of print). Here it is: is it still illegal to photocopy a book that has been out of print since, say, the 1960s? If yes, why the hell so?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Salam Aleykum

I should probably let sleeping dogs lie (well, they're definitely not sleeping), but I couldn't help but disagree with so much of the total B.S. concerning the cartoons of Muhammed. I'm sure the 3 or 4 readers of this blog are intelligent enough to see through B.S., but on the off chance that someone stumbles upon this blog, I wanted to make sure my (hopefully cogent) points are not unknown.
Reasons why the current controversy is total baloney:

(Before I proceed, I must take great care to point out that when I says "muslims," I'm referring to those unintelligent, parochial ones, not enlightened, civilized ones).

1) Those Muslims who say that the controversy is about depictions of Muhammed are full of it. Not only do depictions of Muhammed have a long history in the Muslim world, but you can go to a market in Tehran and easily buy posters with his likeness.

2) Those who complain that the depictions are offensive are wrong for two reasons: one, there is nothing really wrong with them (they're not particularly funny, but not offensive either), and there have been many, even worse depictions in the media in past years. So why the sudden call to arms?

3) Even if Islam forbids depictions of Muhammed (which, as I've pointed out, it doesn't), that is part of Islamic Law, so that doesn't apply to anyone who is not Islamic. In the Old Testament the Hebrews were exhorted (repeatedly) to refrain from worshipping idols, etc. Does this mean that a non-Jew is not allowed to do that?

4) Despite what some people say, Christian figures have been subject for years to depictions. I'm sure this gets some hardcore Christians riled up, but they don't go and bomb embassies. There have been scores of movies and other media with depictions of Christ or other Christian figures which would be considered blasphemous. I'm told some "artist" out there has placed a crucifix in a cup of urine. How that is considered art I'll never know, but it must be allowed. As an Arab professor at Johns Hopkins U (whose name escapes me) has been saying, if you wish to live in a liberal, pluralist, free society, you have to be willing to get offended sometimes. That's the "price" of a free society.

5) Let's not forget the double standard that unfortunately exists with many muslims: they are allowed to slander Jews and gays (don't get me started on the plethora of anti-Judaic cartoons in Arabic newspapers), but they ave diplomatic immunity. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

Above all else, however, this should be a wake-up call to the world, especially enlightened and civilized Muslims everywhere: there are serious problems in the Muslim world, and I blame the Muslim leaders especially. Don't let corrupt muslim leaders lead your bretheren down a blind path (witness what has happened to Iran). There were reports of Imams circuating fake cartoons of Muhammed in the Middle East, just to rile the people up (who are often young, uneducated and unemployed, by the way).

This whole controversy, and its response, does seem very suspicious: how on earth does someone get near an embassy in Syria without police clearance? Someone is probably letting this happen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


We are not now that strength which in the old days /Moved earth and heaven

I am still playing the waiting game with universities, though I expect to start hearing back very soon. One thing I know for sure is that U Virginia, my top choice, has been rejecting people this week, and so far I haven't heard back. My online status still says "pending", so that's a bit of (potentially) good news. U Penn and U of Toronto start accepting people next week I believe. I'll keep y'all posted as soon as I hear something. I am not saying this only because I have been through the process, but even those who are in their PhDs in English at this moment will tell you that getting in is a total crapshoot. I also can't think of any program more competitive (maybe Psych).

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Voltaire continued

I forgot to include this delicious bit concerning pedants. Micromegas (referred to as the Sirien in the passage) asks a bunch of philosophers about the soul. We read:

Un vieux péripatéticien dit tout haut avec confiance « L'âme est un entéléchie, et une raison par qui elle a la puissance d'être ce qu'elle est. C'est ce que déclare expressément Aristote, page 633 de l'édition du Louvre. [ENTELEXEIA ESTI] -- Je n'entends pas trop bien le grec, dit le géant. -- Ni moi non plus, dit la mite philosophique -- Pourquoi donc, reprit le Sirien, citez-vous un certain Aristote en grec ? -- C'est, répliqua le savant, qu'il faut bien citer ce qu'on ne comprend point du tout dans la langue qu'on entend le moins. »

An old peripatetic said loudly and confidently: "The sould is an entelechy, and the reason by which it has power to be what it is. This is what Aristotle declares in page 663 of the Louvre edition. [A Greek phrase]. I don't understand Greek very well, said the Micromegas. No, me niether, said the tiny philosopher. Why then, replied the Sirian, do you cite a certain Aristotle in Greek? Because, replied the sage, it is better to cite that which we don't understand at all in an language we understand less. (Ch. 7)

Funny and, I assume, true in Voltaire's day; it certainly is in ours, even though Greek pedants have virtually gone extinct. A quick look at an academic journal/book in the humanities published in recent years will surely prove my point. What do you do if your ideas aren't that impressive or don't make too much sense? Clothe it in language that not even the author will understand, thus obviating any subsequent critiques. I think a phrase of Voltaire's applies to these poseurs and Derrida wannabees, etc: barbares sédentaires!

Thought du jour

I finally finished all twenty pages of Voltaire's Micromegas en francais. The good news is that with practice my French is becoming less rusty.
I had little doubt that Voltaire was heavily influenced by Jonathan Swift, especially (but not exclusively) by Gulliver's Travels, which is evident in Candide, but after reading Micromegas, I have no doubt that he probably memorized most of GT.
Here's a little tidbit for the day, a pensee philosophiqe, by an uncharacteristically optimistic Voltaire. I quote the french and append my own translation. Incidentally, my OUP translation by Roger Pearson is, although sometimes too literal, quite good, but I'm too lazy to go upstairs and get it :)

J'ai été dans des pays où l'on vit mille fois plus longtemps que chez moi, et j'ai trouvé qu'on y murmurait encore. Mais il y a partout des gens de bon sens qui savent prendre leur parti et remercier l'auteur de la nature. Il a répandu sur cet univers une profusion de variétés avec une espèce d'uniformité admirable. Par exemple tous les êtres pensants sont différents, et tous se ressemblent au fond par le don de la pensée et des désirs. La matière est partout étendue; mais elle a dans chaque globe des propriétés diverses.

I have been in countries/planets where they live a thousand times longer than where I'm from, and I've found that they still grumble. But everywhere there are people of god sense who know how to use what they have and thank the author of nature. He has spread over this universe a copious variety with an admirable uniformity. For example, all thinking beings are different, yet they all resemble each other in essense by the gift of thought and desires. Matter is infintely extended, but it has different properties in each world. (Micromegas, ch. 2)

I don't know why I liked this; perhaps I'm not as cynical as I think I am :) And I'm not one of those who is so arrogant that they cannot admit the grandeur of the cosmos and submit themselves wholly to the intelligence/power behind it. If I were better at math, I would most likely have become an astronomer. Thus ends my sermon for the day :)
Incidentally, and I don't know how I missed this, Micromegas name is Micro-mega, that is, small-big, and he's 120, 000 feet tall (you gotta love Voltaire's hyperbole).

Monday, February 06, 2006


Sorry to all those who left comments recently: I accidentally clicked "yes" to "moderate comments," but wasn't actually moderating them. It's fixed now, so comment away.
This explains why I hadn't seen comments in over a week. I simply assumed that people lost interest (which wouldn't surprise me :)

For something completely different: I finally resumed my reading of Voltaire's Micromegas en Francais. I knew French very well at one time, and, given the prospects of the PhD, I thought it wise to brush up (more like overhaul) my French. I find Voltaire to be, on the whole, fairly simple. Unless I'm mistaken, it seems to me that French has changed far less in the past 300 years than English. I mean, if the typical literate undergrad English major considers Daniel Defoe unintelligible, I'm having little difficulty with the likes of Voltaire, and I haven't read French in over 8 years. I'm also only now seeing the weakensses of the public education system: I got through high school French very, very easily (I went to french immersion until grade 3), but in retrospect, I learnt little there. We never had to read anything remotely literary or difficult.
I've also procured copies of Racine's Andromaque, Britannicus, Phedre and Iphigenia, along with English translations. That is a more ambitious project, but I'm sure I'll do it sometime: having a somewhat literal translation by my side makes life easier for idiomatic or complicated phrases.
I will soon post something on the differences between English and French comedy.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Freedom of Expression

Laudator reminded me of the recent fiasco caused by the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed. I'm glad to see that there is a country with balls out there (or chutzpah, whatever you want to call it).
Among non moderate-muslims, there exists a double standard: you can't say anything (and I mean anything) that may offend them, but they are free to express their own beliefs, such as "gays are evil", and this doesn't stop them from attempting to impose these beliefs on the rest of the population.
I'm also amused everytime something like this happens because of the reaction it engenders: what do you do when someone draws a cartoon you don't like? Kill and burn every non-muslim in sight, even if they had nothing to do with it. Yep, that makes sense. There are muslims out there whom I love and respect (i.e., moderate ones), but there are serious problems in the muslim community at large.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I ain't dumb; I be smwart

I was "reading" Frye's Great Code today (which, BTW, I'm not particularly fond of, but that could be because I'm used to his Anatomy, and I place reading in " " because most of it is flying over my head) and I came across a Latin line, which I was, much to my surprise, able to translate fairly easily. My Latin studies have been suspended for quite some time now, and my understanding is at a very basic level, but it just "happened."
Thus I submit the following line:

Felix qui poscuit rerum cognoscere causas

I just meditated on it for a minute and guessed, and lo and behold, I was more or less correct. The translation in my head was:

Happy is he who was able to understand the causes of things.

I'm sure Laudator and possibly RK are laughing sardonically right now, but it came as a pleasant surprise to me. No doubt my French, which I have been practising and ameliorating after a dormancy of some eight years, has helped activate some hitherto dormant areas of my brain.
Incidentally, the "correct" translation (or the one I found online) runs thus:

Happy is he who has been able to understand the causes of things.

The only other time I this happened was almost two years ago when, upon reading Locke's Treatise Concerning Human Understanding, I was struck with the following line:

...Si non rogas, intelligo

Which I translated as, "If you don't ask, I know/understand." No doubt the simplicity of the vocabulary as well as the pithiness of the statement, so natural in aphorisms, grants ease of translation.

Maybe the PhD isn't looking so unlikely now :)