After “Vor dem Gesetz,” At Home, Oct ’20

He was sat in an obscure corner of the world, 
In Memphis (of late), and left alone to read
Obscure histories, of the fishing of sea-bream,
And grouper, of the proper ecological relations, 
Of sponge, tortoise, and the sunlight which scatters 
Thru the unlanc'd emeraldry of sea-skin,
Their holy bilayer. This curriculum 

Like most, went totally unfulfilled, unrepentant though he stayed 
Thereto. Power, charm, height were promised
Him at the outset of this, 
An odyssey in Aramaic, but the cashing-in thereof
Proved plus dificcile than expected,
And there is your general lesson. 

By whom were such promises forsworn, whose
Was the setting hand which him there
In prematurely (truly) aging Memphis him set?
Keen, but too late arrived. This door

Now shall close. For you alone stood it
Ajar and now nevermore shall its threshold
Suffer the calls of prostrating neighbors. 

Review: Peter Zeihan, “Disunited Nations”

If geopolitics ever found itself in need of a fabulist, it could do worse than to give Peter Zeihan a call. To be fair, geopolitics today does need a fabulist – one of the wittier passages in Zeihan’s recent book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, concerns the moment in 1990 or so when all notions of narrative were left by the wayside:

With the Soviet fall, American president George HW Bush sensed history calling. He used his unprecedented popularity in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the First Iraq War to launch a national conversation on what’s next. What do the American people want out of this new world? He openly discussed a New World Order, his personal goal being a ‘thousand points of light,’ a community of free nations striving to better the human condition in ways heretofore unimaginable. Bush’s background – he had previously served as vice president, budget chief, party chief, ambassador, House representative, and intelligence guru – made him the right person with the right skill set and the right connections and the right disposition in the right place in the right job at the right time.
So of course the Americans voted him out of office, and all serious talk of moving the Order onto newer footing for the new age, more relevant for the challenges and opportunities of the post-Cold War era, ceased.

Peter Zeihan, Disunited Nations, p. 14

Since that magical moment when the Wall fell, Zeihan argues, geopolitical thinking has cast about fruitlessly for a new framework to latch onto, foisting Thucydidean notions of rise and decline onto China and America, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Germany and Turkey. This, he holds, is foolish. “The Americans have changed their mind about their alliance and have turned sharply more insular,” he notes [emphasis original], contrasting the post-Soviet era to the period of hyperpower competition. The impact this disengagement will have is scarcely visible, yet of the utmost importance: “Without the global security the Americans guaranteed, global trade and global energy flows cannot continue.”

From this launching point Zeihan develops a global theory of novel national competition, assessing and assigning winners and losers country-by-country. His analysis is anchored in a startlingly broad reading of history and geography. Among his most admirable guiding notions is the one given above, namely that freedom of the seas eliminated the previously insuperable problems of food and energy security. Relieving these pressures enabled population growth in the Hejaz, economic integration in southeastern Brazil, and industrialization on the Pearl River Delta. Once the American guarantee is withdrawn, however, the fight for basic provisions will drive great powers to the brink.

Among the best determinants of success in a newly competitive world will be demographics, and Zeihan deftly weaves throughout an analysis of age and sex distributions to explain who will rise and who will fall. Another major factor is the degree of industrialization. The most industrialized countries with the healthiest demographic balances (lowest dependency ratio), Zeihan forecasts, will be the best equipped to handle the return of national competition. The final components of the success function are concerned with resource endowment and geography: proven reserves of oil and gas, fertile soil and navigable inland waterways all propel nations up his list. Most dramatically, a full reckoning of these factors leads Zeihan to anticipate a total breakdown of China as we know it.

Even as things stand today, Zeihan begins, China is militarily constrained by the First Island Chain, the set of landmasses including the Sakhalin Peninsula, the Japanese home islands, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the Philippines. In the early modern period, following the pioneering missions of Zheng He, this geography was hostile enough to turn imperial China entirely inward, forestalling the development of a major ocean-going naval tradition.

China's Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower  - Yoshihara - 2012 - Asian Politics & Policy - Wiley Online Library
From Yoshihara, T. (2012), China’s Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower. Asian Politics & Policy, 4: 293-314.

Many of those conditions prevail today, preventing the Chinese from projecting force away from their eastern seaboard. Their contemporary attempts at the development of a large navy are mostly laughable, Zeihan assesses:

China is utterly incapable of shooting its way to resource security or export markets or a diversified domestic economy. Just as important, the country on the receiving end would not be the United States. The Americans are out of reach, and even a mild American counteraction against Chinese interests would utterly wreck everything that makes contemporary China functional.

Zeihan, p. 126

This is an old argument which holds up well – I myself was first taught it by Arthur Waldron at Penn. John Foster Dulles advanced it in the fifties.

Turn the clock forward past the end of the American guarantee, however, and Zeihan figures we’ll bear witness to the emergence of a new Warring States Period. He writes,

If the almost magical confluence of factors that enabled China’s rise shifts out of alignment, China will suffer a cataclysmic flameout every bit as impressive as its rise to power. And since those factors were always and still remain beyond China’s control, the question isn’t if, but when.

Zeihan, p. 103

China, he finds, simply got too old before it became sufficiently rich. “Demographically, China is in a state of not-so-slow-motion collapse,” he says. This, too, is an old and well-studied fear. What’s more, its riches are predicated on freedom of the seas and hyperglobalized capitalism, which will be the first casualties of the removal of the American guarantee. He even finds the potential for breakaway regionalism in Sichuan, in Tibet, in Xinjiang, and in Guangdong, leveraging arguments I found novel about the hushed-up discovery of oil in the Sichuan Basin.

BP, China's Top Producer to Develop Unconventional NatGas in Sichuan Basin  - Natural Gas Intelligence
Oil and gas in mainland China. Some attention is devoted to those deposits south of the Yangtze.

None of this is totally objectionable, even if it is sensationalistic. His bear China case counters some of the more pearl-clutching fussiness which has come out of intelligentsia publications like the London Review of Books of late. Zeihan’s other predictions, however, may beggar belief.

Sclerotic old Japan, he thinks, will prosper as the new East Asian hegemon. The Middle East from Tabriz to Kuwait is merely Turkey’s for the taking. Germany and Russia will enter a new period of intense and potentially hot conflict, leaving France to rule the rest of the continent, the Mediterranean, and West Africa. Brazil has peaked, as has Saudi. The real cheap buy is Argentina, which he bizarrely claims has “had a couple of decades to re-consolidate internally”.

Notably absent from this analysis are the minor states of India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. The utter blindness with respect to South and Southeast Asia is the book’s most obvious flaw. The reader is left to conjecture that, under Zeihan’s hypothetical assumptions, these countries devolve into mere poverty and irrelevancy, but it would be nice to see a mention thereof.

The next most obvious flaw comes out in Zeihan’s style, which I can only at the best of times describe as colorful. He is callous in reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, writing, “There is good reason Japan had to be nuked to be forced into surrender.”

He seems to delight in what will become of the Persian Gulf once the Saudis are left to fend for themselves against the Iranians and others, an arrangement which he holds as “the geopolitics of arson”: “In a straight-up land war, a coalition of the kids from Stranger Things and It would rip [the Saudis] apart…”

Discussing relations across the English Channel in the era to come, he writes, “Yet Britain is an experienced sea power that can apply diplomatic, economic, financial, and military pressure nearly anywhere it wants without fear of reprisal—and it has centuries of experience applying that pressure to Europe. Payback’s a bitch.”

He compares the governance of the Chinese Communist Party to “watching a game of drunken giant jenga,” and offers in this manner an assessment of China as a whole: “China fails on all counts. Allow me to detail the full unfurling fucking disaster.”

There’s no problem with a good dose of levity in world affairs: comparing the spending habits of the Greek economy pre-crisis to those of “a Saudi prince on Instagram” is well put. But prudence dictates restraint when discussing the Fat Boy and Little Man, and after 400 pages, his juvenile style grates even on the ears of your Twitter-obsessed reviewer.

Zeihan’s editors are also guilty of missing errors, both typographical and historical in nature. The most offending comes in one of Zeihan’s assertions regarding Turkish strength, which he explains through a kind of geographical impregnability. Couching this in the history of navigation, he writes,

Well-positioned locations that could also offer some semblance of security and shelter became crossroads. And Istanbul was the ultimate example of a secure crossroads…The city has fallen to hostile forces only twice in the past thousand years – once when the Crusaders sacked it in 1204, practically burning it to the ground, and again when the Turks conquered it somewhat more gently in 1453.

Zeihan, p. 267-9

This is incorrect: from 1918 to 1923, amid the end of the First World War and the raging of the Greco-Turkish War, the Entente held Constantinople. The Greeks, aided by the British, captured substantially all of eastern Anatolia, pushing the Turks to Ankara, which is where their capital remains today.

British forces at Karaköy port in 1919.

Other errors seem borne less of inaccuracy and more of an inadequately deep interpretation. About Germany, Zeihan writes, “For a point of reference, the whole Karl Marx and world wars thing was part and parcel of the German industrialization experience.” This is a minor beef, but Karl Marx did not live in Germany after 1849, when he was only about 30, and much of his writing was done in London.

About continuity, he writes, “The French have arguably the longest tradition of operating as a cohesive culture vis-à-vis their location of any people on Earth,” a statement I imagine would go unappreciated by the people of Tamil Nadu or the Yangtze River basin.

Zeihan commits a more lacunary error in discussing the Turks of the early modern period when he writes,

The sprawling [Turkish] empire became the largest on Earth of its time, and if a European coalition had not stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna during the Ottoman siege of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one power would have dominated all of Europe and all of the Middle East.

Zeihan, p. 269

I am as big a fan of Eugene of Savoy as the next guy, but especially given Zeihan’s focus on seapower, it’s surprising that the spotlight is given to Vienna and not Lepanto here, where in 1571 the Venetians at the height of their power began the rollback of Turkish Mediterranean gains.

The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese.jpeg
Veronese’s The Battle of Lepanto. Clearly he thought it was a big deal.

The typographical error I noticed is also minor, but funny to report: the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul is referred to as Mato Grosso do Sol, which I suppose should cheer the sunny dispositions of all two and a half million Sul-mato-grossenses.

A number of books I’ve read recently have engaged with many of the same issues. The human cost of the failure of marginal lands was a thrilling study in Geoff Parker’s Global Crisis. The national world tour made Gaston Dorren’s lively and lovely Babel a great read. The notion of the American guarantee as critical to geopolitical harmony is a core undercurrent of Adam Tooze’s magisterial The Deluge, while cool-headed reckoning with the fortunes and vagaries of demography was among the many strengths of Doug Saunders’ Maximum Canada. And lastly, the place of pride given to an analysis of international shipping was a powerful component of Pettis and Klein’s argument in Trade Wars Are Class Wars. That one book should fold all these elements in together is worthy of praise. More praise ought be given for the stance taken against the literature of the Thucydides Trap, exemplified by Graham Allison’s recent blockbuster Destined for War, to which Disunited Nations is most directly responding. Zeihan’s efforts help put those rather antiquated notions to bed.

And sometimes Zeihan can poignantly hit the nail on the head. He fits the word “thalassocracy” into a discussion of resurgent Japanese militarism. Reading contemporary French race relations against the American system, he writes,

In many ways, the French system takes the two types of racism most prevalent in the United States and applies the worst of both. In the American South, racism takes the form of, ‘We will mingle, but we are not equal.’ In the American North, it is in the vein of, ‘We are equal, but we will not mingle.’ In France, the targets of racism are out of sight and out of mind, consigned to ghettos and at the back of the line as regards government services.

Zeihan, p. 217

But in the end, this book is a mess. Zeihan is a writer who privileges animation at the cost of sober study, whose search after contrarianism yields unsupportable conclusions. I found it revealing that the first person named in his acknowledgements is a hedge fund manager. (I won’t mention just how silly it is to write “…there are very few direct [footnotes] in this book…if I cited every obliquely contributing thought, each page would have a book’s worth of citations.”)

While I’m sure the people of NMS Capital are smart as they come, hedge funders are structurally contrarian – there’d be no reason for their clients to pay them fees otherwise. This kind of thinking is well applied to small-scale medium-term subjects, like looking for mispricings in sovereign debt curves, but less so in the evolution of literally planetwide systems. I’ll applaud Peter Zeihan for attempting to handicap a future radically different from the boring fare on usual offer at Foreign Affairs and The Economist, but bold attempts do not great books automatically make.

Three Movies about Memphis, and the Death of Place in Recent American Cinema

I have been overthinking recently about place in movies, specifically American movies, and more specifically about the death of place in American movies. By what means was cinematic place killed? By my reckoning, it was the overweening dominance achieved of late by just two places, New York and Los Angeles, which have come in the cinema of today to stand in for all of the geographic diversity of vaguely urban American life.

I am as guilty as the filmmakers I malign – NY and LA are the two cities I have (thus far) decided to make my vaguely urban American life in. And while I understand my path to be typical of my generation’s trek back to the city, from which our parents and grandparents fled with such rapidity in the heady high modernist days of urban renewal and interstate highways, that typicality does not excuse the duty of cinema to show life in all its forms. This duty is being prorogued, and what we have instead upon us is a deluge of mediocre visions of boho-artistic or high-achieving life in inner ring Brooklyn or in Silver Lake, visions whose production costs swallow up all the air from the rest of the goings-on around the country.

(As an aside, the slimness of the novelties of this latest round of urbanization are noteworthy: when the teeming southern Europeans came, they built Pittsburgh and Cleveland and St Louis and Milwaukee. When the Sunbelt rose, Phoenix and Dallas and Houston and Los Angeles and San Diego were called into being out of nothing. What have we accomplished, with our aesthetics of gentrification? The Manhattanization of Austin? Of Boulder or Colorado Springs? Seattle? Maybe Boise will be our great legacy.) (As a second footnote, is Kate Wagner our first great millennial architecture critic? I think so.)

So as to be not totally unfair, I want to acknowledge the countless recent movies which take as their subject an unsung city. Lady Bird aches for Sacramento, even as the action of the film eventually takes its heroine away to Manhattan.

Lady Bird': Here's what the reviews are saying about Greta Gerwig's film |  The Sacramento Bee
From Lady Bird, dir: Greta Gerwig, 2017.

Last Black Man in San Francisco is deeply wedded to its eponymous setting, its other shortcomings notwithstanding.

Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on The Last Black Man in San Francisco | by  Nell Minow | Medium
From The Last Black Man in San Francisco, dir: Joe Talbot, 2019.

Silver Linings Playbook and Creed bring us back to Philadelphia, for which we have to be always grateful.

Historical Philadelphia Comes to Life in Silver Linings Playbook |  MovieLoci.com
From Silver Linings Playbook, dir: David O. Russell, 2012.

But the reader will note the easy parallel among all those movies – they are essentially fugues for the cities they depict, weepily elegiac for their long dead glories. Perhaps the only truly celebratory new take was Baby Driver‘s, which did not shrug away from an clear eyed vision of 2010s metro Atlanta.

10 things about Atlanta that Baby Driver got wrong - Atlanta Magazine
From Baby Driver, dir: Edgar Wright, 2017.

Instead we are besieged by visions of the twin coastal megalopoleis. Marriage Story is a bad offender in this trend but more symptom than cause. Funnily, it may have been another Baumbach feature, Frances Ha, that paved the way instead.

Another blaring symptom is given by Joker, so rooted in New York as to unblinkingly feature a whole scene on the Metro-North regional railroad. The shift in superhero depiction from the Gotham-cum-Chicago setting of The Dark Knight to the ebullient Queens-iness of Joker is a good illustration of the boot on our necks. Ebert touched on the placelessness of Dark Knight in his review, in 2008:

The movie was shot on location in Chicago, but it avoids such familiar landmarks as Marina City, the Wrigley Building or the skyline. Chicagoans will recognize many places, notably La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive, but director Nolan is not making a travelogue.

Roger Ebert, “The Dark Knight,” July 2008

(And as to the assignation of blame? The Avengers, naturally, and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with it. I think you can practically pick out Doctor Strange‘s Upper West Side apartment from the street signs.)

Doctor Strange: What His Apartment Says About The Character
From Doctor Strange, dir: Scott Derrickson, 2016.

Are there other movies besides comings-of-age and superhero films? Few, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood fits the bill. Despite centering on a character who rather prominently lived in Pittsburgh, the film is at least half set in the alleyways of Manhattan! Lulu Wang’s lovely, lovely The Farewell cannot shake the trend, nor can Uncut Gems. I will note that a common thread here is the semi-autobiographical nature of these movies, many of which are from young directors. This applies for Greta Gerwig as well as Lulu Wang and the Brothers Safdie. Baumbach, too, is a New Yorker by birth.

But this begs the question of why so many stories from New Yorkers are being privileged in film to the exclusion of stories about anywhere else. The Coens deserve commendation here – hailing from St Louis Park, they set Fargo and A Serious Man in their backyard. Moreover, they take on American regionalism with real zeal: their Western movies (Raising Arizona, less Buster Scruggs and True Grit) care about the West. O Brother Where Art Thou is inextricably Southern. And their NY/LA movies deal handily with their settings as well, whether the monumental studio lots of Hail Caesar or the cramped clubs of Greenwich Village in Llewyn Davis. It’s great stuff! (Is Kelly Reichardt the next one up in the regionalist film tradition? Maybe so, maybe so.)

What is it that we’ve lost? The ancien régime I long for is mostly represented by the filmography of John Hughes, which I spent this month watching in part. Of course, Ferris Bueller may be the greatest movie to sing the city in which it makes its scene, but all the rest of his movies quiver with a peculiar Chicagoland energy which we have lost. These are worlds which stitch between on the one hand, Michigan Ave and the El, and on the other, the leafy courts of Winnetka and Glen Ellyn. Families at work and at school and at home are represented, a far cry from the strange undomesticated childlessness which predominates in today’s films on New York. Pretty in Pink‘s country club and record store and high school are all easily slotted into the viewer’s mental model of the complete community on display.

How to Have a Ferris Bueller Kind of Day in Chicago | Condé Nast Traveler
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, dir: John Hughes, 1986.

When we only tell decline-and-fall stories about the whole of the country wedged between the Hudson and the Aqueduct, we do a disservice to the perpetuation of the national community. I was set off on this rant by seeing an ad for a recent animated TV series, Central Park. It concerns a park conservator and stars Hamilton luminaries like Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr and veterans like Kathryn Hahn and Stanley Tucci. Apple outbid Netflix and Hulu for the rights to develop it. Fred Armisen guest stars in two separate roles. It is also about the fifth-largest park in New York City.

Kristen Bell to No Longer Voice Mixed-Race Character in 'Central Park' -  Variety
Promotional image for Central Park.

Where are the quirky animated shows about Zilker Park, or Rock Creek Park, or Balboa Park? Who would not sing for Seattle’s Gasworks, or the Power and Light in Kansas City?

At any rate, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and want instead of bemoaning our modern cinema to highlight the different approaches towards one city – Memphis – taken by a set of films. I was turned onto Jim Jarmusch by Richard Brody’s June 2019 review of The Dead Don’t Die, and recently got the chance to watch his 1989 film, Mystery Train. Mystery Train‘s lovely conceit of foreigners visiting Memphis propels the story across an anthology in three chapters.

Mystery Train Is A Memphis Pilgrimage You Must Make : Trunkworthy
From Mystery Train, dir: Jim Jarmusch, 1989.

The first third, featuring a young Elvis-obsessed Japanese couple, luxuriates in its alienness. The perpetually mean-mugging boy smokes cigarettes and pomades his hair from the train station to Sun Studios to the mysterious hotel at the center of the film. His poor girlfriend helps him lug their suitcase with a makeshift bamboo handle around the city, arguing about which rock n’ roller was best. They have sweet moments holed up in the hotel – the boy likes to take pictures of the hotel rooms they stay in, because those are the parts he won’t remember, the girl lights his cigarettes and paints him with lipstick.

The latter stories are less compelling, but the hotel’s employees who recur are keenly felt. A fidgety bellhop in misfit uniform tries to carry on a conversation with the laconic manager, played by a massive Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in an even louder red suit. All told, Mystery Train exposes us to the daily experience of life in a place whose time has passed, but through fresh eyes, unleavened by the common narratives we as Memphis-adjacent American viewers internalize.

Mystery Train (1989)
From Mystery Train, dir: Jim Jarmusch, 1989.

I do have to wonder if at the time of release the idea was as preposterous as it is today. Jarmusch cannot, of course, show a bustling town up on its toes, full of industry – even his Memphis is hollowed out – but in 1989, Elvis was only a dozen years dead. Imagine someone making a movie like this about Detroit, set as we are today nearly a decade from its legendary municipal Chapter 9 filing. What dissonances would arise in the minds of American viewers?

The other two films are more mainstream. John Grisham’s legal thrillers first hit the screen with 1993’s The Firm, where Sydney Pollack guided a red-hot Tom Cruise from Harvard to Memphis. Four years later, Francis Ford Coppola played a variation on that theme, breaking out Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor for The Rainmaker.

Review – The Rainmaker (1997, dir: Francis Ford Coppola)
Danny Devito and Matt Damon in The Rainmaker, dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1997.

Of the two, Rainmaker is more soulful, with a heartfelt story of an underdog seeking justice against a family wronged by a health insurance giant. Rainmaker‘s story resonates even a quarter-century later, testament to the paralysis of our politics. That Donny Ray, the sick young man whose case Baylor takes on, dies halfway through the movie is a heartrending development, but one deftly parlayed into raising the stakes of the more standard courtroom drama which follows. Claire Danes sparkles throughout, even if the violent scene between Baylor, Danes’ Kelly Riker, and her abusive husband beggars some disbelief. In truth, the many plot threads never come quite so neatly together, because there’s too much going on – we haven’t even addressed the FBI raiding Mickey Rourke’s office – but the whole thing works.

I don’t think Rainmaker overly cares about being set in Memphis, but it pays effective lip service – Baylor graduates from Memphis law in the first scene, and the Rays’ house, where sick young Donny is mostly confined, is appropriately Upper South. By contrast, The Firm goes full bore into being a Memphis movie. It gives all the flashy landmark shots you could want. Cruise’s Mitch McDeere and his wife Abby, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, are early on paraded through a lush patrician party set atop the Peabody Hotel. A critical sequence towards the end takes place on a funny piece of public transit, the Mud Island Monorail. There’s really effective contrast drawn between McDeere’s life in a cramped Boston tenement and the amply-acred Tennessee house he’s set up with once the action gets going.

The Firm at The Peabody Memphis - filming location
Tom Cruise and Hal Holbrook in The Firm, dir: Sydney Pollack, 1993.

The Firm is a giddy hook of a movie, which pulls you along somewhat breathlessly. An incredible performance by Gary Busey at the start of the second act winds the movie into its whodunnit phase, and while each and every one of McDeere’s machinations to stop the bad guys weren’t perfectly clear to me, the climactic scene between him and a fresh-off-Goodfellas Paul Sorvino delivers a scrumptious finale.

How to weigh these movies against each other? Perhaps we can take an archaeological approach and excavate the class relations each of these movies plays with. Mystery Train concerns itself with showing the ordinariness of life in a hallowed city – its characters are hotel managers, convenience store owners, tour guides, diner employees. Rainmaker is sympathetic to the lower class but occupies itself with the halls of power, and Rudy Baylor is successful insofar as he transcends his lower-class status and beats the moneyed interests in their own arena. The Firm could have said “greed is good” – there are offhand remarks about Mitch McDeere’s family poverty, but it’s unimportant, and the rewards to the work Bendini, Lambert, & Locke perform occupy the bulk of the movie. The battle in the movie is over the discovery of those gains being ill-gotten, not about the morality of the affluence in the first place.

What’s more, I don’t think The Firm has a single black character. Mere demographics usually present a hollow argument, but the population of Memphis today is undeniably 65% black. Rainmaker at least features a stellar (and uncredited!) Danny Glover as the sympathetic judge, while Mystery Train is replete with black figures making their way in the city. This is, I believe, a rather disqualifying assessment for Pollack’s movie, and Coppola’s Rainmaker scarcely better. Hopefully the next Memphis flick will do better.

Sharing some John Ashbery, and Poetry in California

Wanted to pass along some beloved excerpts from John Ashbery, who I try my utmost to imitate. Nothing is like his poetry.

An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs,
recollections of the Fall—tell me,
has anyone made a spongier representation, chased
fewer demons out of the parking lot
where we all held hands?

Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.
I was touched by your care,
reduced to fawning excuses.
Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,
the clock ticked on and on, happy about
being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes
came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though
it had happened long ago
in ancient peach-colored funny papers
wherein the law of true opposites was ordained
casually. Then the book opened by itself
and read to us: “You pack of liars,
of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each
and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.
Look, here is where I failed at first.
The client leaves. History goes on and on,
rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn
condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread,
shoes the faithless. How convenient if it’s a dream.”

In the next sleeping car was madness.
An urgent languor installed itself
as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little
bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves’
truant exchanges, brandished my intentions
for once? But only I get
something out of this memory.
A kindly gnome
of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all been instructed
to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it
seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights.
Funny, none of us heard the roar.

“Wakefulness,” in John Ashbery, Wakefulness, 1999

I was introduced to his works by this September 2018 LitHub article by Nathan Goldman, on the pleasures of Ashbery’s poetry. Written a year after the master’s death, the piece is part personal engagement on Goldman’s part with Ashbery’s work and part deliciously close reading of his final poem, “Climate Correction”.

“I came to believe that entering Ashbery’s often incomprehensible work requires us to set the goal of comprehension to the side and to linger patiently in the poems’ pleasures,” Goldman writes – beautifully, I think.

Orpheus liked the glad personal quality
Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part   
Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends   
Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks   
Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon   
To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.   
Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth.   
Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to   
Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not?   
All other things must change too…

…Meaning also that the “tableau”
Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example,   
Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure   
That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;   
It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,   
Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,   
Harsh strokes. And to ask more than this
Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,
Powerful stream, the trailing grasses
Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action   
No more than this. Then in the lowering gentian sky   
Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth   
Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses   
Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks,   
“I’m a maverick. Nothing of this is happening to me,   
Though I can understand the language of birds, and   
The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is fully apparent to me.
Their jousting ends in music much
As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm   
And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.”…

“Syringa,” by John Ashbery in Poetry, Apr 1977

Goldman chronicles Ashbery’s own grappling with his status as a “difficult” poet. When after a seminar he asked his friend Richard Howard how it had gone for his students, Ashbery was told, “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.”

Goldman adds a flourish on that anecdote: “Here, as in Ashbery’s description of his reputation as ‘a writer of hermetic poetry,’ his work’s difficulty is framed as impenetrability, as inaccessibility: it withholds its meaning from the reader. But the fact that the work is difficult does not mean that is inaccessible—not if we try to see open doors where Howard’s students saw keyholes. Rather than suspect Ashbery of deliberately concealing his poems’ true meaning, we might begin from the premise that Ashbery left doors open everywhere in the particular modes of strangeness he chose.”

So what if there was an attempt to widen
the gap. Reel in the scenery.
It’s unlike us to reel in the difference.

We got the room
in other hands, to exit like a merino ghost.
What was I telling you about?

Walks in the reeds. Be
contumely about it.
You need a chaser.

In other words, persist, but rather
a dense shadow fanned out.
Not exactly evil, but you get the point.

“Climate Correction,” by John Ashbery in Harper’s, Sep 2018

By the by, I have learned that there is no currently appointed poet laureate for the great “state of California,” as Gov. Newsom would say. The post is irregularly filled, and this lacuna is no great chasm; still, this is a different state of affairs than the one prevailing when Charles Garrigus held the post, as he did from 1966 through to the end of the millennium.

The position has been extant since 1915, when the state commanded within its borders just a hair above three millions. Our last poet laureate was Dana Gioia, a graduate of Stanford’s GSB and former executive at General Mills, who went on to become Chairman of the National Foundation of the Arts. As poet laureate, he was the first to undertake a tour of all of California’s 58 counties.

‘We’re going,’ they said, ‘to the end of the world.’   
So they stopped the car where the river curled,   
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge   
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

We tramped for miles on a wooded walk
Where dog-hobble grew on its twisted stalk.
Then we stopped to rest on the pine-needle floor   
While two ospreys watched from an oak by the shore.

We came to a bend, where the river grew wide   
And green mountains rose on the opposite side.   
My guides moved back. I stood alone,
As the current streaked over smooth flat stone.

Shelf by stone shelf the river fell.
The white water goosetailed with eddying swell.   
Faster and louder the current dropped
Till it reached a cliff, and the trail stopped.

I stood at the edge where the mist ascended,   
My journey done where the world ended.
I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky,   
The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.

“The End of the World,” by Dana Gioia in Interrogations at Noon, 2001

Los Angeles’s poet laureate-ship also appears to have lapsed – Robin Coste Lewis, whose debut collection, The Voyage of the Sable Venus, blasted onto the world and won a National Book Award in 2015, was appointed to a two year term in April of 2017.

Last summer, two discrete young snakes left their skin
on my small porch, two mornings in a row. Being

postmodern now, I pretended as if I did not see
them, nor understand what I knew to be circling

inside me. Instead, every hour I told my son
to stop with his incessant back-chat. I peeled

a banana. And cursed God—His arrogance,
His gall—to still expect our devotion

after creating love. And mosquitoes. I showed
my son the papery dead skins so he could

know, too, what it feels like when something shows up
at your door—twice—telling you what you already know. 

“Summer,” by Robin Coste Lewis, in Voyage of the Sable Venus, 2015

Legendary LA poet Bill Mohr (also a CSU Long Beach professor of English) posted about the city’s department of culture putting out applications for the next poet laureate, which were due in March of this year. So I guess we’ll have to see.

Waiting for the sink to fill and foam with the soap of permission,
I know it’s only ordinary tasks that tremble with any hope of permission.

How do I know, for certain? The aspiration’s fixed, and how
Could this wet bowl be other than a stage prop of permission?

Young lovers play at being disobedient, like constellations
In a galaxy that flutter in a dance that says we elope with permission.

I held out as long as I could. Poignant thrusts and I grope.
How even after fucking starts, it all rolls to a stop for permission.

A spigot leaks. I tease the parched trees round my house with playful arcs
Of water every other day. Even on webs, spiders grope for permission.

Did anyone ask the cop how horny he felt in his patrol car? Who says
That punishment awaits those who are given enough rope of permission?
Don’t laugh, my friend: ‘The protestors clashed with lightly armed police.’ Lightly?
In swearing to uphold the law, they mock the trope of permission.

“Hasty Deceptions of a Dishwasher,” by Bill Mohr in Ghazals, 2015

…This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers   
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else   
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,   
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time…

“Soonest Mended,” by John Ashbery in The Double Dream of Spring, 1966

“Das Wunderkind,” by Thomas Mann

I was asked, after posting my translation of this story, whether I could offer readers a link to the original. Hoping ardently that I’m not running afoul of any copyright laws for posting a 117-year-old story, here it is in full.

Das Wunderkind kommt herein – im Saale wird’s still. 

Es wird still, und dann beginnen die Leute zu klatschen, weil irgendwo seitwärts ein geborener Herrscher und Herdenführer in die Hände geschlagen hat. Sie haben noch nichts gehört, aber sie klatschen Beifall; denn ein gewaltiger Reklameapparat hat dem Wunderkinde vorgearbeitet, und die Leute sind schon betört, ob sie es wissen oder nicht. 

Das Wunderkind kommt hinter einem prachtvollen Wandschirm hervor, der ganz mit Empirekränzen und großen Fabelblumen bestickt ist, klettert hurtig die Stufen zum Podium empor und geht in den Applaus hinein, wie in ein Bad, ein wenig fröstelnd, von einem kleinen Schauer angeweht, aber doch wie ein freundliches Element. Es geht an den Rand des Podiums vor, lächelt, als sollte es photographiert werden, und dankt mit einem kleinen, schüchternen und lieblichen Damengruß, obgleich es ein Knabe ist. 

Es ist ganz in weiße Seide gekleidet, was eine gewisse Rührung im Saal verbreitet. Es trägt ein weißes Jäckchen von phantastischem Schnitt mit einer Schärpe darunter, und sogar seine Schuhe sind aus weißer Seide. Aber gegen die weißseidenen Höschen stechen scharf die bloßen Beinchen ab, die ganz braun sind; denn es ist ein Griechenknabe. 

Bibi Saccellaphylaccas heißt er. Dies ist einmal sein Name. Von welchem Vornamen »Bibi« die Abkürzung oder Koseform ist, weiß niemand, ausgenommen der Impresario, und der betrachtet es als Geschäftsgeheimnis. Bibi hat glattes, schwarzes Haar, das ihm bis zu den schultern hinabhängt und trotzdem seitwärts gescheitelt und mit einer kleinen seidenen Schleife aus der schmal gewölbten, bräunlichen Stirn zurückgebunden ist. Er hat das harmloseste Kindergesicht von der Welt, ein unfertiges Näschen und einen ahnungslosen Mund; nur die Partie unter seinen pechschwarzen Mausaugen ist schon ein wenig matt und von zwei Charakterzügen deutlich begrenzt. Er sieht aus, als sei er neun Jahre alt, zählt aber erst acht und wird für siebenjährig ausgegeben. Die Leute wissen selbst nicht, ob sie es eigentlich glauben. Vielleicht wissen sie es besser und glauben dennoch daran, wie sie es in so manchen Fällen zu tun gewohnt sind. Ein wenig Lüge, denken sie, gehört zur Schönheit. Wo, denken sie, bliebe die Erbauung und Erhebung nach dem Alltag, wenn man nicht ein bisschen guten Willen mitbrächte, fünf gerade sein zu lassen? Und sie haben ganz recht in ihren Leutehirnen! 

Das Wunderkind dankt, bis das Begrüßungsgeprassel sich legt; dann geht es zum Flügel, und die Leute werfen einen letzten Blick auf das Programm. Zuerst kommt »Marche solennelle», dann »Rêverie«, und dann »Le hibou et les moineaux« – alles von Bibi Saccellaphylaccas. Das ganze Programm ist von ihm, es sind seine Kompositionen. Er kann sie zwar nicht aufschreiben, aber er hat sie alle in seinem kleinen ungewöhnlichen Kopf, und es muss ihnen künstlerische Bedeutung zugestanden werden, wie ernst und sachlich auf dem Plakaten vermerkt ist, die der Impresario abgefasst hat. Es scheint, dass der Impresario dieses Zugeständnis seiner kritischen Natur in harten Kämpfen abgerungen hat. 

Das Wunderkind setzt sich auf den Drehsessel und angelt mit seinen Beinchen nach den Pedalen, die vermittels eines sinnreichen Mechanismus viel höher angebracht sind als gewöhnlich, damit Bibi sie erreichen kann. Es ist sein eigener Flügel, den er überall hin mitnimmt. Er ruht auf Holzböcken, und seine Politur ist ziemlich strapaziert von den vielen Transporten; aber das alles macht die Sache nur interessanter. 

Bibi setzt seine weisseidenen Füße auf die Pedale, dann macht er eine kleine spitzfindige Miene, sieht geradeaus und hebt die rechte Hand. Es ist ein bräunlich naives Kinderhändchen, aber das Gelenk ist stark und unkindlich und zeigt hart ausgearbeitete Knöchel. 

Seine Miene macht Bibi für die Leute, weil er weiß, dass er sie ein wenig unterhalten muss. Aber er selbst für sein Teil hat im stillen sein besonderes Vergnügen bei der Sache, ein Vergnügen, das er niemand beschreiben könnte. Es ist dieses prickelnde Glück, dieser heimliche Wonneschauer, der ihn jedes Mal überrieselt, wenn er wieder an einem offenem Klavier sitzt – er wird das niemals verlieren. Wieder bietet sich ihm die Tastatur dar, diese sieben schwarz-weißen Oktaven, unter denen er sich so oft in Abenteuer und tief erregende Schicksale verloren, und die doch wieder so reinlich und unberührt erscheinen, wie eine geputzte Zeichentafel. Es ist die Musik, die ganze Musik, die vor ihm liegt! Sie liegt vor ihm ausgebreitet, wie ein lockendes Meer, und er kann sich hineinstürzen und selig schwimmen, sich tragen und entführen lassen und im Sturme gänzlich untergehen, und dennoch dabei die Herrschaft in Händen halten, regieren und verfügen … Er hält seine rechte Hand in die Luft. 

Im Saal ist atemlose Stille. Es ist diese Spannung vor dem ersten Ton … Wie wird es anfangen? So fängt es an. Und Bibi holt mit seinem Zeigefinger den ersten Ton aus dem Flügel, einen ganz unerwarteten kraftvollen Ton in der Mittellage, ähnlich einem Trompetenstoß. Andere fügen sich daran, eine Introduktion ergibt sich – man löst die Glieder. 

Es ist ein prunkhafter Saal, gelegen in einem modischen Gasthof ersten Ranges, mit rosig fleischlichen Gemälden an den Wänden, mit üppigen Pfeilern, umschnörkelten Spiegeln und einer Unzahl, einem wahren Weltensystem von elektrischen Glühlampen, die in Dolden, in ganzen Bündeln überall hervorsprießen und den Raum mit einem weit übertaghellen, dünnen, goldigen, himmlischen Licht durchzittern … Kein Stuhl ist unbesetzt, ja selbst in den Seitengängen und dem Hintergrunde stehen die Leute. Vorn, wo es zwölf Mark kostet (denn der Impresario huldigt dem Prinzip der ehrfurchtgebietenden Preise) reiht sich die vornehme Gesellschaft; es ist in den höchsten Kreisen ein lebhaftes Interesse für das Wunderkind vorhanden. Man sieht viele Uniformen, viel erwählten Geschmack der Toilette … Sogar eine Anzahl von Kindern ist da, die auf wohlerzogene Art ihre Beine vom Stuhl hängen lassen und mit glänzenden Augen ihren kleinen begnadeten weißseidenen Kollegen betrachten … 

Vorn links sitzt die Mutter des Wunderkindes, eine äußerst beleibte Dame, mit gepudertem Doppelkinn und einer Feder auf dem Kopf, und an ihrer Seite der Impresario, ein Herr von orientalischem Typus mit großen goldenen Knöpfen an den weit hervorstehenden Manschetten. Aber vorn in der Mitte sitzt die Prinzessin. Es ist eine kleine runzelige, verschrumpfte alte Prinzessin, aber sie fördert die 

Künste, soweit sie zartsinnig sind. Sie sitzt in einem tiefen Sammetfauteuil, und zu ihren Füßen sind Perserteppiche ausgebreitet. Sie hält die Hände dicht unter der Brust auf ihrem graugestreiften Seidenkleid zusammengelegt, beugt den Kopf zur Seite und bietet ein Bild vornehmen Friedens, indes sie dem arbeitenden 

Wunderkinde zuschaut. Neben ihr sitzt ihre Hofdame und darf sich nicht einmal anlehnen. 

Bibi schließt unter großem Gepränge. Mit welcher Kraft dieser Knirps den Flügel behandelt! Man traut seinen Ohren nicht. Das Thema des Marsches, eine schwunghafte, enthusiastische Melodie bricht in voller harmonischer Ausstattung noch einmal hervor, breit und prahlerisch, und Bibi wirft bei jedem Takt den Oberkörper zurück, als marschierte er triumphierend im Festzuge. Dann schleißt er gewaltig, schiebt sich gebückt und seitwärts vom Sessel herunter und lauert lächelnd auf den Applaus. 

Und der Applaus bricht los, einmütig, gerührt, begeistert: Seht doch, was für zierliche Hüften das Kind hat, indes es seinen kleinen Damengruß exekutiert! Klatsch, klatsch! Wartet, nun ziehe ich meine Handschuhe aus. Bravo, kleiner Saccophylax oder wie du heißt – ! Aber das ist ja ein Teufelskerl! – – – 

Bibi muss dreimal wieder hinter dem Wandschirm hervorkommen, ehe man Ruhe gibt. Einige Nachzügler, verspätete Ankömmlinge, drängen von hinten herein und bringen dich mühsam im vollen Saale unter. Dann nimmt das Konzert seinen Fortgang. 

Bibi säuselt seine »Rêverie«, die ganz aus Arpeggien besteht, über welche sich manchmal mit schwachen Flügeln ein Stück Melodie erhebt; und dann spielt er »Le hibou et les moineaux«. Dieses Stück hat durchschlagenden Erfolg, übt eine zündende Wirkung. Es ist ein richtiges Kinderstück und von wunderbarer Anschaulichkeit. Im Bass sieht man den Uhu sitzen und grämlich mit seinen Schleieraugen klappen, indes im Diskant zugleich frech und ängstlich die Spatzen schwirren, die ihn necken wollen. Bibi wird viermal hervorgejubelt nach dieser Pièce. Ein Hotelbedienter mit blanken Knöpfen trägt ihm drei große Lorbeerkränze  aufs Podium hinauf und hält sie von der Seite vor ihn hin, während Bibi grüßt und dankt. Sogar die Prinzessin beteiligt sich an dem Applaus, indem sie ganz zart ihre flachen Hände gegeneinander bewegt, ohne dass es irgendeinen Laut ergibt … 

Wie dieser kleine versierte Wicht den Beifall hinzuziehen versteht! Er lässt hinter dem Wandschirm auf sich warten, versäumt sich ein bisschen, auf dem Stufen zum Podium, betrachtet mit kindischem Vergnügen die bunten Atlasschleifen der Kränze, obgleich sie ihn längst schon langweilen, grüßt lieblich und zögernd und lässt den Leuten Zeit, sich auszutoben, damit nichts von dem wertvollen Geräusch ihrer Hände verlorengehe. »Le hibou« ist mein Reißer, denkt er; denn diesen Ausdruck hat er vom Impresario gelernt. Nachher kommt die Fantaisie, die eigentlich viel besser ist, besonders die Stelle, wo es nach Cis geht. 

Aber ihr habt ja an diesem hibou einen Narren gefressen, ihr Publikum, obgleich er das erste und dümmste ist, was ich gemacht habe. Und er dankt lieblich. 

Dann spielt er eine Meditation und dann eine Etüde – es ist ein ordentlich umfangreiches Programm. Die Meditation geht ganz ähnlich wie die »Rêverie«, was kein Einwand gegen sie ist, und in der Etüde zeigt Bibi all seine technische Fertigkeit, die übrigens hinter seiner Erfindungsgabe ein wenig zurücksteht. Aber dann kommt die Fantaisie. Sie ist sein Lieblingsstück. Er spielt sie jedes Mal ein bisschen anders, behandelt sie frei und überrascht sich zuweilen selbst dabei durch neue Einfälle und Wendungen, wenn er seinen guten Abend hat. 

Er sitzt und spielt, ganz klein und weiß glänzend vor dem großen, schwarzen Flügel, allein und auserkoren auf dem Podium über der verschwommenen Menschenmasse, die zusammen nur eine dumpfe, schwer bewegliche Seele hat, auf die er mit seiner einzelnen und herausgehobenen Seele wirken soll … Sein weiches, schwarzes Haar ist ihm mitsamt der weißen Schleife in die Stirn gefallen, seine starkknochigen, trainierten Handgelenke arbeiten, und man sieht die Muskeln seiner bräunlichen, kindlichen Wangen erbeben. 

Zuweilen kommen Sekunden des Vergessens und Alleinseins, wo seine seltsamen, matt umränderten Mausaugen zur Seite gleiten, vom Publikum weg auf die bemalte Saalwand an seiner Seite, durch die sie hindurchblicken, um sich in einer ereignisvollen, von vagem Leben erfüllten Weite zu verlieren. Aber dann zuckt ein Blick aus dem Augenwinkel zurück in den Saal, und er ist wieder vor den Leuten. 

Klage und Jubel, Aufschwung und tiefer Sturz – »meine Fantaisie!« denkt Bibi ganz liebevoll. »Hört doch, nun kommt die Stelle, wo es nach Cis geht!« Und er lässt die Verschiebung spielen, indes es nach Cis geht. »Ob sie es merken?« Ach nein, bewahre, sie bemerken es nicht! Und darum vollführt er wenigstens einen hübschen Augenaufschlag zum Plafond, damit sie doch etwas zu sehen haben. 

Die Leute sitzen in langen Reihen und sehen dem Wunderkinde zu. Sie denken auch allerlei in ihren Leutehirnen. 

Ein alter Herr mit einem weißen Bart, einem Siegelring am Zeigefinger und einer knolligen Geschwulst auf der Glatze, einem Auswuchs, wenn man will, denkt bei sich: »Eigentlich sollte man sich schämen. Man hat es nie über. Drei Jäger aus Kurpfalz, hinausgebracht, und da sitzt man nun als eisgrauer Kerl und lässt sich von diesem Dreikäsehoch Wunderdinge vormachen. Aber man muss bedenken, dass es von oben kommt. Gott verteilt seine Gaben, da ist nichts zu tun, und es ist keine Schande, ein gewöhnlicher Mensch zu sein. Es ist etwas wie mit dem Jesuskind. Man darf sich vor einem Kinde beugen, ohne sich schämen zu müssen. Wie seltsam wohltuend das ist!« – Er wagte nicht zu denken: »Wie süß er ist!« – »Süß« wäre blamabel für einen kräftigen, alten Herrn. Aber er fühlte es! Er fühlte es dennoch!

»Kunst …« denkt der Geschäftsmann mit der Papageiennase. »Ja freilich, das bringt ein bisschen Schimmer ins Leben, ein wenig Klingklang und weiße Seide. Übrigens schneidet er nicht über ab. Es sind reichlich fünfzig Plätze zu zwölf Mark verkauft: das macht allein sechshundert Mark – und dann alles übrige. Bringt man Saalmiete, Beleuchtung und Programm in Abzug, so bleiben gut und gerne tausend Mark netto. Das ist mitzunehmen.« 

»Nun, das war Chopin, was er da eben zum besten gab!« denkt die Klavierlehrerin, eine spitznäsige Dame in den Jahren, da die Hoffnungen sich schlafen legen und der Verstand an Schärfe gewinnt. »Mann darf sagen, dass er nicht sehr unmittelbar ist. Ich werde nachher äußern: ‚Es ist ein wenig unmittelbar’. Das klingt gut. Übrigens ist seine Handhaltung vollständig unerzogen. Man muss einen Taler auf den Handrücken halten können … Ich würde ihn mit dem Lineal behandeln. 

Ein junges Mädchen, das ganz wächsern aussieht und sich in einem gespannten Alter befindet, in welchem man sehr wohl auf delikate Gedanken verfallen kann, denkt im geheimen: »Aber was ist das! Was spielt er da! Es ist ja die Leidenschaft, die er da spielt! Aber er ist doch ein Kind?! Wenn er mich küsste, so wäre es, als küsste mein kleiner Bruder mich – es wäre kein Kuss. Gibt es denn eine losgelöste Leidenschaft, eine Leidenschaft an sich und ohne irdischen Gegenstand, die nur ein inbrünstiges Kinderspiel wäre? … Gut, wenn ich dies laut sagte, würde man mir Lebertran verabfolgen. So ist die Welt.« 

An einem Pfeiler steht ein Offizier. Er betrachtet den erfolgreichen Bibi und denkt: »Du bist etwas und ich bin etwas, jeder auf seine Art!« Im übrigen zieht er die Absätze zusammen und zollt dem Wunderkind den Respekt, den er allen bestehenden Mächten zollt. 

Aber der Kritiker, ein alternder Mann mit blankem, schwarzem Rock und aufgekrempelten, bespritzten Beinkleidern, sitzt auf seinem Freiplatz und denkt »Man sehe ihn an, diesen Bibi, diesen Fratz! Als Einzelwesen hat er noch ein Ende zu wachsen, aber als Typus ist er ganz fertig, als Typus des Künstlers. Er hat in sich des Künstlers Hoheit und seine Würdelosigkeit, seine Scharlatanerie und seinen heiligen Funken, seine Verachtung und seinen heimlichen Rausch. Aber das darf ich nicht schreiben; es ist zu gut. Ach, glaubt mir, ich wäre selbst ein Künstler geworden, wenn ich nicht das alles so klar durchschaute …« 

Da ist das Wunderkind fertig, und ein wahrer Sturm erhebt sich im Saale. Er muss hervor und wieder hervor hinter seinem Wandschirm. Der Mann mit den blanken Knöpfen schleppt neue Kränze herbei, vier Lorbeerkränze, eine Lyra aus Veilchen, ein Bukett aus Rosen. Er hat nicht Arme genug, dem Wunderkind all die Spenden zu reichen, der Impresario begibt sich persönlich aufs Podium, um ihm behilflich zu sein. Er hängt einen Lorbeerkranz um Bibis Hals, er streichelt zärtlich sein schwarzes Haar. Und plötzlich, wie übermannt, beugt er sich nieder und gibt dem Wunderkinde einen Kuss, gerade auf den Mund. Da aber schwillt der Sturm zum Orkan. Dieser Kuss fährt wie ein elektrischer Stoß in den Saal, durchläuft die Menge wie ein nervöser Schauer. Ein tolles Lärmbedürfnis reißt die Leute hin. Laute Hochrufe mischen sich in das wilde Geprassel der Hände. Einige von Bibis kleinen gewöhnlichen Kameraden dort unten wehen mit ihren Taschentüchern … Aber der Kritiker denkt: »Freilich, dieser Impresariokuss musste kommen. Ein alter, wirksamer Scherz. Ja, Herrgott, wenn man nicht alles so klar durchschaute!« 

Und dann geht das Konzert des Wunderkindes zu Ende. Um halb acht Uhr hat es angefangen, um halb neun ist es aus. Das Podium ist voller Kränze, und zwei kleine Blumentöpfe stehen auf dem Lampenbrettern des Flügels. Bibi spielt als letzte Nummer seine »Rhapsodie grecque«, welche schließlich in die griechische Hymne übergeht, und seine anwesenden Landsleute hätten nicht übel Lust, mitzusingen, wenn es nicht ein vornehmes Konzert wäre. Dafür entschädigen sie sich am Schluss durch einen gewaltigen Lärm, einen heißblütigen Radau, eine nationale Demonstration. Aber der alte Kritiker denkt: »Freilich, die Hymne musste kommen. Man spielt die Sache auf ein anderes Gebiet hinüber, man lässt kein Begeistrungsmittel unversucht. Ich werde schreiben, dass das unkünstlerisch ist. Aber vielleicht ist es gerade künstlerisch. Was ist der Künstler? Ein Hanswurst. Die Kritik ist das Höchste. Aber das darf ich nicht schreiben.« Und er entfernte sich in seinen bespritzten Hosen. 

Nach neun oder zehn Hervorrufen begibt sich das erhitzte Wunderkind nicht mehr hinter den Wandschirm, sondern geht zu seiner Mama und dem Impresario hinunter in den Saal. Die Leute stehen zwischen den durcheinandergerückten Stühlen und applaudieren und drängen vorwärts, um Bibi aus der Nähe zu sehen. Einige wollen auch die Prinzessin sehen: es bilden sich vor dem Podium zwei dichte Kreise um das Wunderkind und um die Prinzessin, und man weiß nicht recht, wer von beiden eigentlich Cercle hält. Aber die Hofdame verfügt sich auf Befehl zu Bibi; sie zupft und glättet ein wenig an seiner seidenen Jacke, um ihn hoffähig zu machen, führt ihn am Arm vor die Prinzessin und bedeutet ihm ernst Ihrer königlichen Hoheit die Hand zu küssen. »Wie machst du es, Kind?« fragt die Prinzessin. »Kommt es dir von selbst in den Sinn, wenn du niedersitzest?« – »Qui, Madame«, antwortet Bibi. Aber inwendig denkt er: »Ach, du dumme, alte Prinzessin …!« Dann dreht er sich scheu und unerzogen um und geht wieder zu seinen Angehörigen. 

Draußen an den Garderoben herrscht dichtes Gewühl. Man hält seine Nummer empor, man empfängt mit offenen Armen Pelze, Schale und Gummischuhe über die Tische hinüber. Irgendwo steht die Klavierlehrerin unter Bekannten und hält Kritik. »Es ist wenig unmittelbar«, sagt sie laut und sieht sich um … 

Vor einem großen Wandspiegel lässt sich eine junge, vornehme Dame von ihren Brüdern, zwei Leutnants, Abendmantel und Pelzschuhe anlegen. Sie ist wunderschön mit ihren stahlblauen Augen und ihrem klaren, reinrassigen Gesicht, ein richtiges Edelfräulein. Als sie fertig ist, wartet sie auf ihre Brüder. »Steh nicht so lange vor dem Spiegel, Adolf!« sagt sie leise und ärgerlich zu dem einen, der sich von dem Anblick seines hübschen, simplen Gesichts nicht trennen kann. Nun, das ist gut! Leutnant Adolf wird sich doch vor dem Spiegel seinen Paletot knöpfen dürfen, mit ihrer gütigen Erlaubnis! – Dann gehen sie, und draußen auf der Straße, wo die Bogenlampen trübe durch den Schneenebel schimmern, fängt Leutnant Adolf im Gehen ein bisschen an auszuschlagen, mit emporgeklapptem Kragen und die Hände ein den schrägen Manteltaschen auf dem hartgefrorenen Schnee einen kleinen niggerdance aufzuführen, weil es so kalt ist. 

»Ein Kind!« denkt das unfrisierte Mädchen, welches mit frei hängenden Armen in Begleitung eines düsteren Jünglings hinter ihnen geht. »Ein liebenswürdiges Kind! Dort drinnen war ein verehrungswürdiges …« Und mit lauter, eintöniger Stimme sagt sie: » Wir sind alle Wunderkinder, wir Schaffenden.« 

»Nun!« denkt der alte Herr, der es nicht über ‚Drei Jäger aus Kurpfalz’ hinausgebracht hat und dessen Auswuchs jetzt von einem Zylinder bedeckt ist, »was ist denn das! Eine Art Pythia, wie mir scheint.« 

Aber der düstere Jüngling, der sie aufs Wort versteht, nickt langsam. Dann schweigen sie, und das unfrisierte Mädchen blickt den drei adligen Geschwistern nach. Sie verachtet sie, aber sie blickt ihnen nach, bis sie um die Ecke verschwunden sind. 

“The Prodigy,” by Thomas Mann – My Translation

For the Christmas 1903 issue of Vienna’s Die Presse, the Nobel laureate-to-be Thomas Mann contributed this lovely short story, about a wintertime concert given by a prodigy pianist. “Das Wunderkind” was the title it carried when published as a novella in 1914. Mann himself wrote in 1910 that it was his “most beloved” work. I wrote this translation some years ago for a contest, which I didn’t win, but enjoyed what I had written so much that I wanted to present it here.

The prodigy enters! — the hall grows quiet.

It grows quiet, and then the people begin to clap, because somewhere a man, born to power and leadership, has been the first to strike his hands together. The people still have heard nothing, but they applaud, in some part because a tremendous publicity machine has worked ahead for the prodigy’s sake, and the people are already infatuated, whether they know it or not.

The prodigy comes out from behind a magnificent curtain, completely decorated with the  wreaths of empire and flowers of mythology. He nimbly ascends the steps to the stage aloft and steps into the applause, as if in a bathroom, a little misted, wetted by a little shower, yet still in a friendly element. He proceeds to the edge of the stage, smiles as if he should be photographed, and thanks the crowd with a shy and lovely ladies’ greeting, although he is a boy.

He is from head to toe clothed in white silk, his clothes spreading a certain feeling through the hall. He wears a little white jacket of fantastic tailoring with a sash underneath, and even his shoes are made of white silk. But against the white silken pants, his naked little legs stand out sharply, brown all over — he is a Greek boy.

He is called Bibi Saccellaphylaccas. This is, first of all, his name. Whether “Bibi” is a shortening or a diminutive of a real first name, no one seems to know, excepting the impresario, but he considers it a trade secret. Bibi has smooth, black hair that hangs down to his shoulders and parts sideways, with a small silken ribbon tied around the thin brown ends. He has the most harmless face a child’s yet had in the world, an unfinished nose and a mouth, devoid of opinions; the area under his inky mouse’s eyes is already a bit dull and limited to just two trains of character. He looks 9, counts himself 8 and is presented as 7. The people themselves know naught, even if they actually believe it. Maybe they do know better and believe him nevertheless, as they have gotten used to doing in such cases. A little lie, they think, belongs to such beauty. Where, they think, remains the uplifting and raising of daily life, if one cannot even bring a little good will with one, to let 5 be just so? And they had this all worked out in their minds!

The prodigy thanks everyone, until the greeting cracklings lay themselves down; then he goes to the grand piano and the people throw a last glance to the program. First comes “Marche solennelle,” then “Rêverie,” and then “Le hibou et les moineaux” — all by Bibi Saccellaphylaccas. The whole program is by him, they are all his compositions. Indeed, he cannot even write them down, but he has them all in his strange, tiny head, and such behavior must be granted to a kind of artful meaning. So honest and objectively is the program recorded onto the pamphlets, which the impresario took the liberty to write up. It seems that the impresario has wrested at least this concession, after many struggles.

The prodigy sits himself on the swivel chair and fishes with his little legs for the pedals, which, by means of an ingenious mechanism, he can raise to his liking so as to better reach them. The piano is his own, and he takes it everywhere. It rests on wooden horses and its polish has been punished by the many trips, but that only makes the thing even more interesting.

Bibi sits his white silken feet on the pedals and produces a subtle expression, looks straight ahead and raises his right hand. The hand is that of a little, brown, naive child, but the joints are strong, unchildlike, and show hard-worked knuckles.

Bibi makes such an expression for the people, since he knows that he must undertake a little conversation with them. But for himself, it is a particular and secret pleasure, a pleasure that he could never describe to anyone. It is this tingling happiness, this secret blissful shower, each time trickling over him, whenever he sits at his vacant piano — he will never lose this feeling. Again the keyboard presents itself, the black and white octaves, under which he can so oft lose himself in adventures and deep, exciting fates, and which time and again so clean and unaffected appear, like a newly cleaned chalkboard. It is the music, the complete music, that lies before him! It lies before him submissive, like an alluring ocean, and he can plunge himself and blessedly swim, carry himself and let himself be carried away, and in the storm completely go under and nevertheless hold on to the sovereignty in his hands, governed, owned. He holds his right hand in the air.

The hall is breathlessly silent. Such is the tension before the first tone… How will it begin? And thus it begins. And Bibi summons with his pointer finger the first tone out of the grand piano, a completely unexpected, empowered tone in the middle position, something like a trumpet’s shock. Others fit themselves in, an introduction arises — thus one resolves the parts.

It is a palatial hall, lying in a fashionable inn of the first rank, with rosy, carnal paintings on the walls, with Rubensian pillars, mirrors enveloped by flourishes and an immense number, a true modern system, of electric gas lamps, which in flowering sprouts, in complete bundles everywhere arise, and which tremble an extended, thin, golden, heavenly light of day through the room…. No seat is unfilled, indeed in the aisles themselves and in the back of the room people stand. In front, where seats cost 12 Marks (due to the impresario’s allegiance to the principle of awe inspiring price), the distinguished society strings themselves along; it is in the highest circles that a lively interest in the prodigy avails. One sees many uniforms, many chosen tastes of toilette… Even a number of children is there, who in a well-behaved way let hang their legs from the seats and with dulled eyes regard their gifted, white silken colleague.

At front left sits the mother of the prodigy, an extremely obese woman with a powdered double chin and a plume on her head, and at her side the impresario, a man of oriental type with great golden buttons on his out-stuck collars. But in the middle of the front sits the princess. She is a small, wrinkled, shriveled, old princess, but she supports the arts, insofar as they are of the delicate variety. She sits in a deep velvety chair, and at her feet, a Persian rug is spread out. She holds her hands tight under her bust on her gray striped silken dress, declines her head to one side and provides a picture of settled peace, all the while watching the working prodigy. Near her sits her lady-in-waiting, who may not even once lean herself on the princess.

Bibi finishes with great pomp. With such strength this tot handles the piano! One cannot trust one’s eyes. The theme of the march, an enthusiastic melody full of momentum, breaks into full harmonic features once more, broad and boastful, and Bibi throws his upper body with each stroke back, as if he marches triumphantly in pageantry. Then he mightily ends, throws himself sideways off the chair and, grinning, lies in wait for the applause.

And the applause breaks out, unanimously, enthusiastically, the audience so moved: But see, what dainty hips the child has, all the while executing his little ladies’ greetings! Wait, I’ll wave my handkerchief. Bravo, little Saccophylax, or whatever you’re called! But that is truly a devil of a fellow! 

Bibi must three times come out from behind the curtain, before they let peace. Some stragglers and latecomers push from behind towards him and fit laboriously into the full hall. Then the concert takes its transition.

Bibi whispers his “Rêverie,” a song consisting totally of arpeggios, above which sometimes a piece of a melody, with weak wings, can arise; and then he plays “Le hibou et les moineaux”. This piece has resounding success and a sparkling effect. It is a true child’s piece and wonderfully clear. In the bass one can see the eagle-owl, sitting and sullenly folding into itself with its veiled eyes. Meanwhile in the treble the sparrows schwirrr naughtily, anxiously, as they try to tease the eagle-owl. Bibi was four times applauded to the rafters after this piece. A hotelier with blank buttons takes up three great laurel wreaths to him on the stage and holds them in front of Bibi, while Bibi greets and thanks. Even the princess joins in the applause, tenderly moving her flat hands together without ever causing sound.

How well this little savvy runt understands to drag out the applause! He holds himself behind the curtain to be waited for, regards with a childish pleasure the sateen edges of the wreaths (even though they have long since bored him), greets haltingly and lovely and lets the people time to let off steam, so as not to let the valuable noise of their hands perish away. “Le hibou” is my trump card, he thinks — naturally having learned such an expression from the impresario. Afterwards, the Fantasia, which is really much better, especially the parts where it goes that half-tone higher. But you all have devoured a fool with this “hibou,” you audience, even though he is the first and the dumbest of all my creations. And so he thanks lovingly.

Then he plays a Meditation and then an Étude — it is an orderly, extensive program. The Meditation goes just the same as the “Rêverie,” with similarly few objections to it, and in the Étude Bibi shows all his technical accomplishments, which in any case stand a bit behind his present tasks. But then comes the Fantasia. It is his favorite piece. He plays it each time a little differently, handling it freely and surprising himself occasionally through new incidences and phrases, if he has a really good night.

He sits and plays, small and dulled white, in front of the great black grand piano, alone and ordained on the stage above the blurred mass of humanity, who even together only a dull, barely movable soul have. This soul is the one he must make effects on, with his separated and elevated soul…. His smooth, black hair has, together with the white bow at the end, fallen into his forehead, his bony, trained wrists work, and one sees the muscles of his brown, childish cheeks shuddering.

Occasionally there come seconds of forgetfulness and aloneness, where his strange, flat rimmed mouse’s eyes to one side slide, from the audience away onto the painted hall’s walls to his side, always seeing past, trying to lose themselves in one of those eventful widths of vague duration in life. But then his gaze jerks out of the corner of his eye back onto the hall, and he is again in front of the crowd.

Moans and exultations, rises and deeper falls — My Fantasia! thinks Bibi, full of love. But hear, now the section comes, where it raises a half-tone! And he lets the shift play, as the piece raises a half-tone. Are they noticing? God forbid! They don’t notice at all! Circumventing, he performs a beautiful batting of his eyelashes to the ceiling, so the audience will have something to look at.

The people sit in long rows and all watch the prodigy. Even they think all sorts of things in their common brains. An old man with a white beard, a ring with a seal on his first finger and a bulbous swelling on his bald spot, a protuberance, if you will, thinks so: Actually they should be shamed. They have never done better. Three hunters from the Palatinate, brought all the way out, and now they sit like gray-haired men and let themselves be deluded by this three-cheese-high wonder. But one must consider, that it could come from high. God distributes his gifts, there’s nothing we can do about it, and it’s no shame to be an ordinary man. It’s something like with the Christ child. One may bend themselves before a child without having to be ashamed about it. How strangely soothing that is! He dared not think: How sweet he is! “Sweet” would be shameful for a strong old man. But he feels it! He feels it regardless!

Art… thinks the businessman with the parrot’s nose. Sure, it brings a bit of shimmer into life, a little kling-klang and some white silk. But that doesn’t really cut through to the heart of it. There are fifty places sold at 12 Marks: that alone makes 600 Marks — and then there’s still all the rest. Consider the rent for the hall, lighting, printing in discount, but that’s still a happy thousand Marks net. That you take home with you.

Now, that was Chopin, that he just played the best, the piano teacher thinks, once a randy woman in her years, and now one who only hopes for the chance to be let to sleep and who chases the focus of the mind. A man could say, “That wasn’t really direct.” I would afterwards comment, “It is a little direct.” That sounds good. Anyway, his hand poses are completely untaught. You should be able to hold out a silver piece on the back of your hand … I’d take the ruler to him.

A young girl, looking as if made of wax and located in that taut age, wherein one can easily resort to delicate thoughts, thinks secretly: But what is that?! How he plays! It is really a passion that he plays! But that is just a child?! If he were to kiss me, it would be as if I kissed my brother — it would be no kiss. Is it then just a detached passion, a passion of itself and without earthly object, only a soulful child’s piece? Oh, were I to say this loud, someone would prescribe me cod liver oil. Ah, so is the world.

Near one buttress stands an officer. He watches the successful Bibi and thinks, You are something and I am something, each of his own type! Then he pulls his heels together and pays the prodigy the same respect he does to all the powers that be.

But the critic, an old man with a coatless, black robe and crumpled, spattered trousers, sits in his free seat and thinks, They look at him, this Bibi, this pest! As an individual, he is not yet grown but as a type, he is all there — the type of the artist. He has in himself the sovereignty of the artist, the artist’s indignity and charlatanism, his holy spark and scornfulness, and that artful secretive smolder. But I can’t write that; it’s too good. Ach, believe me, I myself would have become an artist, if I hadn’t seen so clearly through it all…

Then the prodigy is done, and a true storm raises in the hall. He must again and again and again come out from behind his curtain. The man with the bare buttons hauls new wreaths up to him, four laurels, a lyre made of velvet, a bouquet of roses. His arms were not quite enough for the donations all to reach Bibi, so the impresario himself goes to the stage in an attempt at helpfulness. He hangs a laurel wreath around Bibi’s neck and strokes tenderly the prodigy’s hair. And suddenly, as if overwhelmed, the impresario bends himself down and gives the prodigy a kiss, straight on the mouth. But then the storm swells into a hurricane. That kiss drove like an electric shock in the hall, running through the masses like a nervous shiver. A great involuntary noise ravished the people. Loud calls on high mixed themselves into the wild crackle of the hands. Some of Bibi’s ordinary friends under him waved with their handkerchiefs… But the critic thinks, Naturally, the impresario kiss was going to happen. An old, yet effective ploy. God alive, if one couldn’t see so clearly through it all!

And then the concert comes to its end. It began around 7:30 and exits at 8:30. The stage is full of wreaths and two small flower pots now stand on the lamp boards of the grand piano. Bibi plays as his last number his “Rhapsodie grecque,” which at the end devolves into the Greek hymn, and his present countrymen would not have so good a mind to sing a long, if it weren’t such a posh concert. They compensate for that at the end by raising a tremendous amount of noise, a hot blooded round, a nationalist demonstration. But the old critic thinks, Certainly, the hymn had to happen. One plays these things in another region, one lets no enthusing medium go untried. I will write that it was unartistic of him. But maybe it was artful. What is an artist? A buffoon. Criticism is the highest form. But I can’t write that. And he departs in his crumpled trousers from the hall.

After nine or ten eliciting calls the overheated prodigy stops going behind the curtain. He goes to his mother and the impresario, underneath, in the hall. People stand between the rows and applaud and push forwards, trying to catch a close view of Bibi. Some also want to view the princess — so forms before the stage two dense circles, one around the prodigy, and one around the princess. No one knows properly who belongs to one, the other or both. But the lady-in-waiting attends to the matter of Bibi for the princess. She tugs and pulls at his silky jacket, being cordial to him, then leads him by the arm in front of the princess and indicates to him the hand of her queenly highness. “What are you doing, child?” asks the princess. “Do you come here of your own accord, as you were just sitting down?” “Just so, madame,” Bibi replies. But inwardly, he thinks, Ach, you dumb, old princess…! Then he turns himself shy and untactful and goes back to his people.

Outside at the wardrobes there prevails a dense throng. One holds his number aloft and then receives in one’s open arms pelts, skins, and leather boots over the table. Somewhere the piano teacher talks criticism among acquaintances. “It was a little direct,” she says loudly and looks around her.

In front of a great mirror, covering the wall, a distinguished young woman’s evening coat is laid out by her brothers, two lieutenants. Her steel blue gaze and clear, purebred face make her unsurpassingly beautiful, a true noblewoman. When she is clothed, she waits for her brothers. “Don’t stand so long in front of the mirror, Adolf!” she says quietly and annoyed to one of them, who cannot bear to separate his gaze from the image of his simple face. Now, that’s good enough! Lieutenant Adolf’s coat may be buttoned in front of the mirror, with your benevolent permission! Then they go out into the street, where the arc lamp murkily shimmers through the snowy fog. On the walk, Adolf begins to kick, and with popped collar, dance a little on the solidly frozen snow, agitated by the cold.

A child, thinks the unkempt girl, with her freely hanging arms accompanying one of the gloomy youth behind her. A charming child! Back there, inside, was a commendable… And with louder, more monotonous voice she says, “We are all prodigies, we creators.”

Now! thinks the old man, who is still not over coming out for the three hunters from the Palatinate and whose protuberance is now covered by a cylinder, what exactly was that? A form of Pythia, it seems to me.

But the gloomy youth, who understood the girl as she spoke, nods slowly. Then they fall quiet, and the unkempt girl looks to the three noble siblings. She despises them, but she looks on at them, until they disappear around the corner.

Hamilton, the Quaternions, and Mathematical Mythologies

The arduous discovery of the properties of the quaternions by William Rowan Hamilton has always stuck in my mind as among the most romantic of modern math’s encounters. Until the fall of 1843, Hamilton was set to work extending the complex numbers, by then a regular feature of the theory of equations. As he would later write in a letter to his son,

Every morning in the early part of October 1843, on my coming down to breakfast, your brother William Edwin and yourself used to ask me: “Well, Papa, can you multiply triples?” Whereto I was always obliged to reply, with a sad shake of the head, “No, I can only add and subtract them.”

Lucky for us, the mathematician was no more than a few weeks from perspiration paying a handsome dividend of inspiration. The image topping this post is an inscription, set by the city of Dublin, on Brougham Bridge, which reads,

Here as he walked by on the 16th of October 1843 Sir William Rowan Hamilton in a flash of genius discovered the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = −1 & cut it on a stone of this bridge.

William Rowan Hamilton - Wikipedia
A portrait of Sir WR Hamilton, ca. 1860.

I used to read fondly about the Hamilton Walk some lucky mathematicians and quaternion admirers went on annually, along the foggy span of the Royal Canal, retracing his eureka moment.

Imagine my surprise, then, when in the course of reading Tristan Needham’s peerless Visual Complex Analysis, I read a note on the history of the quaternions which alluded to prior discovery.

As is well known, the quaternion rule was discovered in algebraic form by Sir William Rowan Hamilton in 1843. It is less well known that three years earlier Olinde Rodrigues had published an elegant geometric investigation of the composition of rotations in space that contained essentially the same result…

Needham, Visual Complex Analysis, p. 44
Olinde Rodrigues - Wikipedia
A portrait of Olinde Rodrigues, date unknown.

Rodrigues was an interesting figure in his own right. His mathematical discoveries were noteworthy, but the greater part of his writings were political. He was a noted follower of the Comte de Saint-Simon, whose philosophy, Saint-Simonianism, counts among its descendants the utilitarianism of Mill, the anarchism of Proudhon, and the positivism of Auguste Comte. Despite all that, Rodrigues was said to be Saint-Simon’s favorite.

His works on math, though, are what we’re dealing with here. They shift the perspective on quaternionic discovery. Far from being the classic eureka moment of 1840s Irish mathematics, the near-simultaneous discovery sets up a new battle in the mold of the great Newton-Leibniz Calculusschlacht.

Of course, that would be the case, had both Rodrigues and Hamilton not been preempted by – who else? – Gauss:

Hamilton and Rodrigues are just two examples of hapless mathematicians who would have been dismayed to examine the unpublished notebooks of the great Karl Friedrich Gauss. There, just like another log entry in the chronicle of his private mathematical voyages, Gauss recorded his discovery of the quaternion rule in 1819.

Needham, Visual Complex Analysis, p. 44

I was motivated to track this citation down and stumbled upon a kindly scan of Gauß’ wissenschaftliches Tagebuch 1796-1814, published in 1903 and edited by none other than Felix Klein.

Klein himself was among the greatest of the many great mathematicians working in Göttingen and others of the first-class German universities in the tail end of the long nineteenth century; he studied under Lipschitz and taught, among others, Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro (developer of the theory of tensor calculus), Walther von Dyck (formalizer of the modern notion of group), and Max Planck. In 1875 he married Hegel’s granddaughter, Anne, and in 1895 he hired David Hilbert as a professor at Göttingen. His was the recommendation that the basis of secondary-level mathematical education be analytic geometry, which endures today in the common Algebra -> Geometry -> Pre-Calculus sequence.

Felix Klein
Felix Klein, by Max Lieberman, 1912. In the collection of the Mathematisches Institut Göttingen.

Aside from the Klein bottle, Klein is best known for his lectures at Erlangen, the first place he held a professorship (at 23!), wherein he motivated a new synthesis for modern mathematics and established new directions for mathematical research – this is the famous Erlangen Program. Needham puts it well:

…[A] geometric property of a figure is one that is unaltered by all possible motions of the figure…in answer to the opening question of “What is geometry?”, Klein would answer that it is the study of these so-called invariants of the set of motions…Klein’s idea was that we could first select a group G at will, then define a corresponding “geometry” as the study of the invariants of that G.

Needham, Visual Complex Analysis, p. 32, 33

Amid all that work, Klein found the time to edit Gauss’ journals. May we all be so productive. In his preface, he noted one of two things “which bestow upon the journal incomparable biographical value” :

What we win for ourselves here is an unadulterated, personable insight into the scientific development of the young Gauss in the years 1796-1800.

[Diese] ist der unmittelbare, sozusagen persönliche Einblick, den wir gerade für die entscheidenden Jahre 1796-1800 in den wissenschaftlichen Werdegang des jungen GauB gewinnen.

Klein, Preface to Gauß’ wissenschaftliches Tagebuch, 1796-1814, p.2

The reader at this stage may have noticed the regrettable error in my research – the copy of Gauss’ journals I could find on the internet only went through 1814. The note in which he sets out the defining relations for the quaternionic algebra appeared in 1819. Try as I might, I ended up there, and so cannot get to the text of what Gauss did find.

Wikipedia stakes a further claim in the really nicely done “History of Quaternions” article. It relates that the quaternionic relationship is implicit in Euler’s four-squares identity, which I believe, but cannot work out for myself.

Regardless of the ultimate decision on who found quaternions first, I feel glad to have tracked down a little of the mathematical lives which worked on this problem and admired each other’s work.

Predestination, Home, Aug ’20

There are no mountains 
On the sky-rim here, no.
Not much offered to the gauzy eye, 
Squat and squinting,
On the lookout for orogenies 
And irruptions. It’s a flat place.

For the Puritans, the most attractive features of this,
The nearer coast, was respite, a chance to get away from it all,
Arable land less the masses which tended to teem. What they
Wanted was mostly a place to die alone, together, or to wait
At any rate, for the date of biblically preordained death. By accident, 
The soil left them too much surplus and toleration ended up as
A sound manner to run a society, but it needn’t have turned out

Like this. They could’ve taken their time, 
Subsisting on chaffish maize 
And melting into their rocks, 
Plymouth and otherwise. 
Maybe they could’ve
Had their time taken away from them. 
You’ve a preference?

Barnacle-Studded Buoy, Seattle WA, Aug ’20

A night-dark cormorant skizzed past us on a solid packet of waves. Some minutes later, he came back the same way.

You gripped with both hands alert and taut the unspooling line which plumbed the gloom. I had taken to wondering by and by when those hands would jump up and clamp into a vise our spinning-jenny world, or whether they would take in Earth’s stead Mercury, upon whose ermine gleam my pointer had alighted when we dewy sat gazing, as though it were finishing a plié. That wonder anew came to me, crouched on the wobbling sea, observing your dextrous manipulations.

In their capacity, your hands held a murderous energy, but the pleasing sight of barnacles studded into a nearby-adrift buoy served to keep the dread at bay. 

The line caught and my breath did too, but you dismissed both in your own flouting way. It tugged a few times more and I felt smug as you finally pulled back with verve. The reel quickened, hopping full of slate-grey wire at an accelerating pace. You wound and wound and the contour of the rod arced with electric passion. It held promise, provision, a triumphal satisfaction.

Another tug from below set you in oscillatory motion, and the action of the waves drove you into a vicious pitch. You grinned and gasped and the full light of life hit me when you turned to look upon my visage. I couldn’t move, frozen from what I at first thought was fright but realized further on was a sensation of historicity, like that felt by the partisans present at the Tennis Court Oath.

It was a comic image, immemorializable into English, French, or German, though I reckon Arabic could have handled it if pushed far enough, of you and this rod swinging around. The adversary unseen led the way. You toppled from your perch and I watched each component of your body in flight go by, unable then, and still now, to resolve all of flapping you into a single coherent image. Once down, you thrashed in the breakers and it was clear the murky threat had in fact angled you.

I hazard now guesses that you in your grasping desperation called out to me, but I had become lithic and could not traverse the remaining path out from this underworld to you. What I was ready for, all of a sudden, was a new lot in life, the destiny announced to me then to become queen at the king’s side, providing the jointure for which our ruptured realm ached. Who would be king of a mountain made of bones, I wondered as the oars swung shoreward in my arms, and can’t get that question out of my head today. 

Dramaturgical Notes on “Hamilton”

I follow in the tradition of the great A.C. Bradley in presenting here some odd notes on Hamilton I thought up while watching the filmed version a couple of weeks ago. I have adored Hamilton since 2016 or so, and I got there by way of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which has always been to me a timeless song, worth it, at the very least, for the clinic of a solo Berton Averre puts on. (Odd addendum: apparently Quincy Jones was inspired by this song to include a rock-and-roll song on Thriller, an inspiration which became “Beat It”. If you haven’t watched Quincy on Netflix, it is well worth your time.)

One day, I had the song going on Spotify and it finished, and the next song thought up by the engine to play for me was “My Shot,” off the Hamilton soundtrack. And it worked! I used to come home after going out and sit and listen to “Guns and Ships” or “Right Hand Man,” or the “Cabinet Battles”. Anyway, thoughts on a few items in Hamilton:

– So much of the action in the play is about events which did not occur. Instead, Miranda manages to make plot, and drama, and development out of the internal conflicts of the characters as they choose not to take actions. The most clear example of this is “Burn,” where Elizabeth Hamilton chooses not to publish her letters defending herself following the publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet.

Burn Lyrics - Phillipa Soo | Genius Lyrics
(A still from “Burn” from the filmed production of Hamilton.)

In fact, “We Know” comes from a similar place. It involves a meeting between Hamilton, now disgraced and out of power, and the Democratic-Republican triumvirate of Jefferson, Madison, and Burr over their accusations of the former’s improper financial transactions while Secretary of the Treasury. The outcome is that the trio won’t go public with their (inaccurate) accusations.

We Know | Hamilton Wiki | Fandom
(A still during “We Know” from the filmed production of Hamilton.)

“It’s Quiet Uptown” is not too far off from this mode, in that it concerns the Hamiltons’ retreat from public life, which, again, is a non-event. In the first act, the conceit of “Satisfied,” where Angelica Schuyler gets to imagine her romance with Alexander, is in keeping with this trend and is probably the part of the musical where it is most explicated. And lastly, “The Room Where It Happens” is a twist on this – it is about a very real event, the Compromise of 1790, but from the perspective of a character who wasn’t there. More on that song next.

– In the back half of “Room Where It Happens,” the musical’s most obvious showstopper (now famous enough to provide the title for the administration memoir of John Bolton), Hamilton appears to Burr mid-solo.

(A selection from “Room Where It Happens”. Source: Genius)

The whole song is off-kilter insofar as a “unity of place” is concerned, as there’s an earlier digression where Jefferson and Madison discuss their plans for the upcoming meeting. But when those asides occur, the characters do not interact with Burr, who acts as a kind of master of ceremonies, spotlighting them and spinning the camera back to himself to keep the action going. I’m sure this will sound as cliché as I think, but in this way, it’s sort of reminiscent of Rashomon, as we get to hear the event told by those who were there in different ways, but never see the truth of it ourselves.

Film Club: Rashomon and the Notion of Truth in Akira Kurosawa's ...
(Rashomon, 1950. Dir. Akira Kurosawa)

At any rate, when Hamilton appears, he and Burr get to interact and discuss Hamilton’s plans. Burr’s movements through the musical are worthy of more interrogation – in particular, the question of why he’s present for “Washington on Your Side,” is a good one, and I believe even briefly acknowledged in a double-take Daveed Diggs (as Jefferson) sneaks in before the song starts – but that he and Hamilton would begin speaking randomly following this pivotal meeting is at least curious. What’s more, they don’t do the exchange of greetings which is a motif of all the other times they meet and speak, as in “Right Hand Man,” “The Story of Tonight (Reprise)”, “Non-Stop,” “The Election of 1800,” and “Ten Duel Commandments.”

(A selection from “Ten Duel Commandments”. Source: Genius)

My conspiratorial interpretation of this elision is that Hamilton does not, in fact, speak to Burr here. Instead, what’s presented is Burr’s theorized recollections of what Hamilton would say in such a conversation. Burr dwells on Hamilton’s thoughts and words and deeds, most obviously in “Wait For It,” so that the action of the play would involve Burr projecting Hamilton before him to explain his choices is not too far beyond the pale. A Genius commenter with a similar theory also noted that Hamilton’s speech in this song is darker, more “fire and brimstone” indeed than in most other songs. What to make of this? Little, but it is fun to hazard a guess at.