Sunday, January 21, 2007

It Beats Drunken Exhibitionism

There ARE a million monkeys sitting at a million keyboards, but the internet looks nothing at all like Shakespeare.

Why are we here? And by "here" I don't mean the big existential question. I mean here in cyberspace? Is it, perhaps, to collect our fifteen?

No, not the fifteen minutes promised us by Warhol, but the fifteen people promised us by Currie.

It turns out, Nick Currie was only partly right. Reflecting on the technological innovations of the early 90s, he issued a now-famous riff on Andy Warhol's already-famous maxim that "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes." Warhol had been commenting on the nature of celebrity and the inability of the public to intentionally focus rather than to flit from amusement to amusement. A generation later "fifteen minutes of fame" was part of our cultural psyche, and Momus / Nick Currie was able to repurpose the tag. He decried the control of the suits and the tyranny of "units sold" over the music industry. Looking forward to the end of the industry's hegemony and the rise of innovative, creative musicians through relatively simple and inexpensive self-production, he predicted that "in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people." How one would make a living with such a small fan base he did not speculate. Presumably, a pure artst doesn't care about such things. In 1999, Currie revisited his theme and saw the revolution nearly realized, with artists controlling both the means of production and global distribution. He says, "the era of stars... is over, and that worries the critics."

Currie was at least partly wrong. The age of stars goes on, it's just that those who previously would have been completely ignored or crushed beneath the big wheels' roll now move in a parallel track on MySpace or in the blogosphere, famous for fifteen people and sometimes getting called up by the suits who hope to profit by them. I think Rabo Karabekian hit much closer to the mark back in 1987.

Early in Chapter 9 of Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard, Rabo Karabekian says this:

I was obviously born to draw better than most people, just as the widow Berman and Paul Slazinger were obviously born to tell stories better than most people can. Other people are obviously born to sing and dance or explain the stars in the sky or do magic tricks or be great leaders or athletes, and so on.

I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives--maybe fifty or a hundred people at most. And evolution--or God or whatever--arranged things genetically, to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn't afraid of everything and so on.

That's what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn't make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world's champions.

The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an "exhibitionist."

How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, "Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!"

So now with the mass-media superstars AND Currie's fifteen people, we are all being compared not only with the world's top dozen, but also with the moderately gifted stars of the internet. And you know what? I think if I had to choose just one form of fame, I would take the drunken exhibitionism. Because that way, at least we're in the same room with one another, physically present in a community. This cyber-stuff can be a useful adjunct to, but is no replacement for, a real life.

So log out, and go share a meal with some friends.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Horace and the Thunder: notes on a recension

I’m a fan of Seamus Heaney. I’m also a Latin teacher who has on occasion set his classes an exercise in which they must rewrite the preamble to the US Constitution using no Latin or Greek roots. They complain about how hard it is and how impoverished Anglo-Saxon must have been. Then I read them some Seamus Heaney, usually something from his Beowulf. It is astounding to hear those old Germanic roots thundering off the page. (BTW, does anyone know of an unabridged edition of Heaney reading this epic? I have the two disc abridged version and lust for more.)

I also tend to trot out Heaney’s resetting of Horace’s Odes 1.34 at least once a semester -- on 11 September and when we start a unit on Horace. It is an astounding poem -- not a translation but a cathartic reworking. It is apparently also a work in progress and has been published in several different forms.

I first saw a version of this poem early in 2002 and scribbled it down by hand. I did not then note from where I was copying it, but some scruple kept me from either tearing it out or taking the magazine / newspaper with me. Were it on the web, I would have mailed myself a copy & paste. Whatever the source, what I wrote down was virtually identical to the text as it subsequently appeared in Alexander Nehamas’ comments at Princeton on the first anniversary of the September 11 attack. One difference I take as an uncorrected typo on the Princeton website, where line 6 reads “the clogged underneath” instead of “the clogged underearth.”* (I ignore this variant in my tiny little app. crit.) The other difference between my handwritten version and that on the Princeton website is in line 10, where Nehamas’ version has “hooked-beak Fortune” rather than the usual (and far better) “stropped-beak Fortune.”

While poking around in late summer 2003 for a more authoritative version to use with my classes on the second anniversary, I came across a free-lance Armenian translator whose website has a version of the poem nearly identical with my handwritten version. The single difference is in the final two words, “boil away” instead of “darken day.” (Pipoyan’s Armenian version does not appear in the Amnesty edition, which is a shame; it would have made a nice diptych with Turkish.)

When I got my copy of the Amnesty International edition (ISBN 186059235X), I found two English versions. One entitled “Horace and the Thunder,” dated 2001; the other, “Anything Can Happen,” dated 2004. Aside from internal differences, both have differences from the poem as I had known it up to that point. The “esteemed” of line 10 has been wisely changed to “regarded,” lines 11 and 12 have undergone significant revision, and line sixteen has two new versions.

And now I’ve received (as a birthday present to myself) a copy of last year’s District and Circle (ISBN 0374140928), where I find yet another version of “Anything Can Happen,” one that is (oddly) more in agreement with Amnesty’s “Horace and the Thunder” than with Amnesty’s “Anything Can Happen.” It also has a unique variant, “tallest towers” at the end of line 8 instead of “tallest things.”

So what’s a Latin teacher to do when it comes time to talk about Horace’s influence on other poets and / or the usefulness of poetry in processing these dark days? Simple enough; use the variants he prefers to construct his own recension. Which is what I’ve done below. As far as I know, the version that I’ve posted below exists nowhere else, and is in no way authorized by the poem’s author. I’m enough of a pinhead that I’ve even included an app. crit. to remind me what and where the variants are. In those notes, I’ve used the following abbreviations:

Aa “Anything Can Happen” as printed on p. 11 of the Amnesty edition, 2004
Ad “Anything Can Happen” as printed on p. 13 of District and Circle, 2006
Ha “Horace and the Thunder” as printed on p. 20 of the Amnesty edition, 2004
Hn “Horace and the Thunder” as printed in Nehamas’ comments, c. 2002
Hp “Horace and the Thunder” as printed on Pipoyan’s website, c. 2003

This is meant to be neither exhaustive nor authoritative; it is entirely idiosyncratic, and all I’ll ever do with it is use it in my Latin classes. If anyone wants to talk about which variants you prefer and why, that’s what com boxes on blogs are for. But as far as I’m concerned, poems are better savored than dissected.

*Postscript: Be careful to avoid reading lines 5 & 6 as “It shook the earth / And clogged the underearth.” Sure, that rhythm works better, and your mind naturally wants to read clogged as a verb instead of as an adjective, but the and is joining earth and underearth, not shook and clogged. It’s NOT “and clogged the underearth”; it IS “and the clogged underearth.”

Horace and the Thunder: an Unauthorized Recension

after Horace, Odes I, 34
Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now,
He galloped his thunder-cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest things

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing off
Crests for sport, letting them drop wherever.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid,
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores darken day.

by Seamus Heaney

8 things Aa Ha Hn Hp; towers Ad
10 regarded Aa Ad Ha; esteemed Hn Hp -- Stropped-beak Aa Ad Ha Hp; Hooked-beak Hn
11-12 tearing off...wherever Hn Hp; tearing the crest off one / Setting it down bleeding on the next Aa Ad Ha
13 heaven’s Ad Ha Hn Hp; heavens’ Aa
16 Telluric ash and fire spores Ad Hn Hp; Telluric ash and fire spore Ha; Smoke furl and boiling ashes Aa -- darken day Aa Hn; boil away Ad Ha Hp