31 ago 2011

Billy Hollyday

One of the recent episodes of a Flamenco podcast, "duendeando," is dedicated to "Billy Hollyday." Not to be confused, I supposed with the the great Billie Holiday.

Dial M for Murder

This 1954 Hitchcock film stars Grace Kelly as a woman whose husband tries to have her killed. I had seen it many years ago and rewatched it the other night and it holds up well.


I am rarely able to remember my dreams. When I try to conceptualize them, I have to use a metaphor that does not belong to the dream per se, or a verbal equivalent to something that was not verbalized at all, or else confine myself to vagueness. Last's night's dream, for example, was that something didn't correspond to what it was supposed to, that the code was broken and something wasn't working right. That's all I have, which is frustrating because it was a long and intense dream.

Got Lead?

A student wrote "tenía plomo" for "has led to...." I finally figured out that s/he was confusing the verb "to lead" with the name of the metal "lead." Aargh... Of couse, you don't use the verb tener with perfect tenses.

30 ago 2011

The Fine Arts

I've been listening to my ipod music in order. Art Blakey was excellent, then came Art Pepper. Art Tatum was fine, but got wearying after the first hour. The sonic landscape was just too uniform. Arthur Jarvinen was good in a Morton Feldman piece. Arthur Weisberg, who used to be my ex-brother in law's bassoon teacher, conducted some George Crumb Lorca pieces that I have never been able to like. The finest of the arts this time around was Pepper.

Beat the Devil

John Huston, 1954.

This movie stars Bogart, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida in a comedic film about some shady characters on the way to central Africa to exploit some uranium resources. It is lightweight and amusing, with Bogart and Lollobrigida restrained and the rest of the cast often hamming it up. This combination makes for a good balance.

29 ago 2011

Antonio Mairena

Antonio Mairena is a great Flamenco cantator whose music is easily accessible on itunes and similar sources. He also wrote one of the great books on Flamenco, Mundo y forma del cante flamenco. According to a professor whose interview I recently listened to, Mairena is a kind of "neo-classical" artist. In other words, a good example of a singer who tries to present authentic and classical styles. This makes him an excellent point of reference for anyone, like me, who is trying to educate himself.

He's also very good.

28 ago 2011

What Lorca Knew

This will be coming out in October. This is really my first online article ever, believe it or not. Of course I have substantial web footprint, but this is the first formal academic essay written for an online journal.

27 ago 2011

Kansas City Confidential

This 1952 filmed directed by Phil Karlson has a good cast of Hollywood character actors of the period. It's a film noir with a happy ending tacked on. Because no one actor really dominates the film, the emphasis is on ambience and plot. No wasted motion in this well-made genre film about a guy almost framed for the almost perfect bank robbery who sets out to find out the truth of who really pulled the job.

High Noon

(Fred Zinnemann, 1952) I never saw "High Noon" before. It is one of those iconic movies that everyone assumes they have seen, but this was my first time. Gary Cooper is a marshal who's waiting in town for some criminals to come. Nobody in the town wants to help him, through a combination of self-interest and cowardice. Most of the movie transpires between 11 a.m. and noon, and the action takes place in real time, or close to it, with a clock counting down the minutes.


I dreamed that social relations across the board had become radically more relaxed. I had to adjust to a new set of conditions. An intercollegiate swim meet, for example, would no longer have timed races. It would just be a group of kids driving over to another school and hanging out with swimmers there. They would still have races for fun but not keep track of the results and not do things in a very systematic way. This is just one example that I remembered upon waking up. I had to educate young children in a very non-intimidating way.

This change was related, somehow, to the operating system of the ipad, where "apps" replaced "applications." Perhaps also to an anecdote I had read in Charles Bernstein's Attack of the Difficult Poems the night before about an essay that got rejected from the PMLA because it did not conform to academic norms. In my dream I had to make changes myself, but these were largely pleasurable. There seemed to be no point in resisting the mood that the society as a whole had adopted.

I tend to remember a mood from a dream rather than a series of events. In this one our neighbors in one house next door had suddenly moved away and the mother of our daughter's friend was going to come over to fix our blinds. These random events have little to do with the relaxation of norms, but they have some emotional valence the somehow relates.

26 ago 2011

The Conversation

(Francis Ford Coppola, 1974). Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a nerdy-looking San Francisco surveillance guy hired to tape a conversation between a couple in a crowded plaza. He listens to the tape over and over again, looking for some clues. He's supposed to turn the tape over to the director of some organization (Robert Duvall) but instead meets with a character played by Harrison Ford. Very little happens for most of the movie, until he sleeps with a blonde woman after a convention of surveillance experts and he wakes up to find the tapes stolen... He's afraid some harm will come to the woman whose conversation he had taped. The real movie is all in what happens in the last half an hour, with themes of voyeurism, action and inaction, and moral responsibility.

The film is tense and slow-moving, with several scenes that seem pointless or over-long, as though Coppola were trying to be anti-operatic after directing The Godfather. Hackman is good in this kind of role, but otherwise it's a 3-star movie. I guess you'd want to see it if you were writing a book about FFC.

What strikes me is how in movies like "High Noon" there is nothing wasted, nothing thrown away, whereas in a kind of semi-avant-garde movie of the 60s there is a kind of indecision or aimlessness.

25 ago 2011

The Bill Evans Trio: The Oslo Concerts

This is how jazz movies should be made: just footage of the music itself, tastefully shot. No talking over the music allowed. This film combines a mid-sixties trio concert with another one from 1980. The small 60s audience is concentrated but undemonstrative. The later audience applauds in unison. Both sets are wonderful, and the contrasts / continuities are very interesting. The trio was Evans's best format.

Listen for Stella by Starlight and Nardis.

24 ago 2011

Oddly Specific Dreams

I dreamt that some people I knew sightly or had come into contact with were applying complex mathematical models in an inappropriate way to things they knew nothing about. I was arguing that they had to have some actual empirical data about these things in order to have some solid data to input into the algorithms, and also had to have a theory about what the mathematical manipulation of the data was supposed to accomplish. They dismissed my concerns, though, as being evidence of my anti-mathematical disposition.

The people themselves, and the actual things they were applying their models to, had no identity in the dream. The only clear point was the intellectual debate itself.

Colinas on Fray Luis

I'm listening to all my songs on my ipad in order, and right now the "song" I'm listening to is an hour-long lecture by the Spanish poet Antonio Colinas on mysticism in the poetry of Fray Luis de León, which I downloaded from the Fundación Juan March. It is a thing of beauty. I wish I had had access to this kind of thing when I was first learning Spanish. In the 1970s you could barely get cassette tapes of salsa music, even in California. The idea of 100s of hours of lectures on Spanish literature that could be gotten for free would have seemed utopian to me. Coming up next will be Colinas's lecture on María Zambrano.

I looked up Juan March the other day, and discovered that he was a fabulously wealthy and powerful Franquista businessman. I'm very glad that something good resulted from such an apparently evil person. No hay bien que por mal no venga. Or maybe no hay mal que por bien no venga.

Get Carter

This 2000 thriller directed by Stephen Jay stars Stallone as a shiny-suited Las Vegas hired muscle who returns to a rainy town to investigate his brother's death and beat people up. Stallone is such a bad actor and his suits, which I guess are supposed to mean that he is a Very Important Gangster, are so shiny and in such bad taste that I gave up on this movie about half way through. Michael Caine is in it, which is always a good thing, but Stallone just glares, reflects light off his suits, and mumbles.

I actually like the "return to home town to wreak vengeance" plot, so I would have been a good target audience for a movie like this. I've watched some bad movies until the bitter end, but not this one.

Mayhew 5.1

A new version has come out today, JonathanMayhew 5.1. I can't say it's any improvement over previous versions. In fact, it has the pretty much the same bugs and features as most of the previous ones.

Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor

Here is a 1982 documentary by Don McGlynn. Art Pepper, who had been an addict and spent years in jail, is accompanied by his wife Laurie. Unlike many jazz biopics, this one is focused and doesn't slight the music itself. You won't come away liking Art Pepper as a human being, but this is still better than most documentaries.

23 ago 2011

El aura

(Fabian Bielinsky). Ricardo Darín, who also starred in "El secreto de sus ojos," plays a taxidermist / bank robber who goes on a hunting trip with his friend Sontag in Southern Argentina, far enough for Buenos Aires that they have to fly to get there. There are no hotel rooms so they go to some cabins owned by Dietrich, an old guy married to an attractive young woman. The bank robber / taxidermist is non-violent by nature, so his friend taunts him about not being able to shoot a deer. He passes out in the woods, because he is also epileptic, then awakes to see a stag right there. He follows it and eventually shoots... Dietrich by accident.

Two shady characters show up looking for Dietrich. Darín inexplicably stays behind. His friend has already returned because his wife had taken some pills mixed with booze.

I don't want to spoil the rest of the plot. The movie is good, keeps you surprised. Not like the typical movie that telegraphs everything 10 miles in advance.

22 ago 2011


My car has a clock. My cell phone, ipod, ipad, laptop, and desktop have clocks. The microwave and the oven have clocks. Not to mention the alarm clock itself. The only reason I own a watch, then, is because I have to teach. Even then, the watch goes off my wrist and unto the lectern. If the classrooms had clocks, I would never need a watch for the rest of my days.

21 ago 2011

Out of Season

This is a dark little 2004 movie starring Dennis Hopper and Gina Gershon. Directed by Jeron O'Neill. It takes place in an Eastern seaboard tourist town during the off-season. Six rather sordid characters: an amusement park owner, his daughter, his wife (step mother), an ex-crook crippled bar owner (Hopper), and two young criminals. One is tutored in thievery by the Hopper character, the other is hired by evil step-mother to kill her husband. It builds to a rather violent climax when all these six characters mix it up. I would skip this one unless you are Dennis Hopper completist.

Context for Idiomatic Expressions

To know an idiom is to know when it is used, so we need a context. I found a quote about a certain firm who was willing to pay Jersey Shore not to use their clothing, a kind of product placement in reverse:
Que la mona sigue siendo mona por mucho que se vista de seda es prácticamente un axioma en el mundo del prestigio, el glamour o la elegancia.... Los ejecutivos de la prestigiosa firma de ropa pusieron el grito en el cielo al conocer que su marca estaba siendo expuesta día sí y día también en el popular reality show Jersey Shore, de la cadena musical MTV.

First, the proverb: "dress a monkey in silk and she will still be a monkey." The newspaper article seems to take this proverb rather literally, as a statement about the fashion industry. It is interesting that this more literal meaning is available, because I've known this proverb to be more about people than about the clothes they wear. The second expression is "poner el grito en cielo" or "protest to high heaven." "Un día sí, un día también" means just about everyday. It is a variation on the phrase "un día sí, un día no," which means "about half the time."


I'm listening to all 5000 songs on my ipod in alphabetical order by first name of artist. I'm on Allison Balsom.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Frases hechas de Almodóvar

I've decided to base my course mostly on authentic material. In other words, I'll be taking my idioms and proverbs directly from real sources, not from collections compiled already by others. Here are some idioms and collocations I found in an interview with Pedro Almodóvar en El país.

en los tiempos que corren
los tiempos que vivimos [the times we're living in]
“No son santo de mi devoción” [not a saint I worship = I'm not crazy about them {papparazzi}]
que guardo como oro en paño [I treasure it like Gold wrapped up in cloth]
por enésima vez [for the umpteenth time]
El presente va a toda hostia [the present going forward full speed ahead. Hostia is word with many meanings in colloquial Spanish.]
en plena democracia [pleno means full-blown, or something like that, it can be used with names of seasons, like "en pleno invierno"]
“El menosprecio a la cultura y a sus creadores viene de antiguo” [goes back a long way]
Se me cae el alma a los pies [my soul falls down my feet. In English we would say "my heart sank."]
uno de mis directores fetiche [one of my "fetish directors," a "santo de mi devoción" in other words]

Charles Mingus: The Triumph of the Underdog

(Don McGlynn, 1998)

The problem with music documentaries is that they never settle into a satisfying rhythm. We get 45 seconds of footage of actual music, then 45 seconds of someone talking (in this case his wives Celia and Sue, Gunther Schuller, several musicians who played with him), then some still phtotos, then more 15-45 second clips from the interviews. The music never lasts more than a minute or so before the editor decides to cut to something else.

This shapeless documentary about Mingus falls into the typical unsatisfying pattern. The narrative culmination is a posthumous performance of "Epitaph" conducted by Schuller wearing a hideous green jacket. The problem is that "Epitaph," which is supposedly Mingus's masterpiece, is also given in only a few brief snippets. I bought the cd of "Epitaph" when it came out, and I remain disappointed with the work, or at least the inchoate performance of it, so I had a hard time seeing it as the culmination of Mingus's career. The implicit argument of the movie is that Mingus is far more important as a composer than as a bass player. This is true, but his bass playing is so fine that I would have watched a documentary of him playing bass for 2 hours with more pleasure.

20 ago 2011

Plata quemada / the novel

This award-winning true-crime novel by Ricardo Piglia was made into a movie, and I made the mistake of seeing the movie first. I would have rather approached the novel with fewer expectations. The movie, for example, develops the relationship between the two main characters more deeply than the novel does, and introduces a more elaborate love triangle. Piglia often lapses into a pretentious journalistic style, quoting or parodying press accounts of the real events. This is meant to be ironic, I suppose, but it often became wearying. Piglia switches back and forth between this language and the argot of the criminals. Finally, the concluding battle between the police and the "pistoleros" takes up a large portion of the novel, disproportionately to the rest of it. In short, I liked the movie a bit more than the book. Now I will have to read other works by RP to see whether this is better, worse, or simply typical of him. Vance tried the English translation and didn't like it much. I have mixed feelings about the original. Obviously, it was a lot of work to synthesize all the original documentary material and make it into a coherent narrative, and parts of it are brilliantly re-created.

It was humbling to realize I don't understand Argentine slang very well. "Mexicanear" apparently means to betray a comrade in crime, "canas" are the police, etc... I got some good idioms for my class out of this novel, which was a plus.

(Thanks to the author of the Spanish Teaching Issues blog for the recommendation of both film and novel. I am also watching "Sólo con tu pareja" on her recommendation.)

Semantic Prosody

I'm going to be teaching a course starting Wed with the title "From Idiom to Proverb." I'm very excited by a little frightened by it too, because I've never taught it before and I don't know whether the course will work or not. It is a course that is supposed to be "Advanced Studies in the Spanish Language," so it is basically the highest level of Spanish language course there is, for graduating senior Spanish majors.

Anyway, I found an interesting concept in a book by John Sinclair (Trust the Text) what he call "semantic prosody." This has nothing to do with prosody at all, but with the habitual use of a word in a context. (I have a feeling I wrote a similar post last Spring about this, but I am not going to look at it until I finish writing this one.) The example he uses is the word "budge." If you look it up in a dictionary, you will find its meaning, which is to move a slight bit. The semantic prosody, however, associates the word mostly with NOT moving, and with intransigeant positions that have nothing to do with physical movement. The way to get at the semantic prosody of a word is to study huge corpora of actual real life language. You can also use simple search engines like google and see what comes up.

Sinclair argues that, compared to grammar, the study of the lexicon seems very primitive. Dictionaries simply list items in arbitrary (alphbetical) order and give definitions that often don't give guidance as to semantic prosody or context. If a single word has multiple definitions, how does a reader or listener know what is meant?

Blogging from ipad

Since the iPad does not have a word processor, the only way to do writing on it is by blogging. If it is something I do not want to publish I can just save it as a draft. I am having some problems controlling the key board.

19 ago 2011

One Tough Cop

This movie, directed by Bruno Barreto, stars two actors whose brothers are better knowPn, Chris Penn (brother of Sean) and Stephen Baldwin (brother of Alec) as two cops in New York. The Baldwin character is a close childhood friend of a mafioso, while the Penn character is an alcoholic and compulsive gambler who owes this mafioso a lot of money. They solve a case involving the sexual assault on a nun, then their involvement with the underworld catches up with them. It's actually a decent movie, better than a lot of what I've seen recently.

More Contrastive Focus Reduplication

In the cafeteria in the basement of our building a few days ago, there weren't many offerings, so I heard a girl asking if the student union was open and serving "food food." She said it in a tone of voice that implied she knew she was using it humorously.

Last night at the department gathering I heard someone use one of these in Spanish. Unfortunately, I don't remember what the word was, but it was a native speaker of Spanish. Interestingly, the second element receives emphasis in Spanish and the first in English. So it's "FOOD food" in English but "amor AMOR" in Spanish.

Idioms from Piglia

Here are some idioms from Ricardo Piglia's novel Plata quemada.

de mala muerte (un bar de, un boliche de) [sordid dive, seedy bar]
vivir en la babia (estar en la babia) [living in Lala land]
ver todo negro [to see everything black, to be pessimistic]
en cámara lenta (a cámara lenta) [in slow motion]
de golpe [suddenly]
a todo tren [full speed ahead]
perder la cabeza [lose one's head]
un dominó de caídas en cadena [domino effect]
cortinas de humo [smokescreen]
jugarse las pelotas [to put one's balls on the line]
sangre fría [cold blood, calmness in violent situations]
hacer la vista gorda [to look the other way]

These are idioms and not merely collocations because they have at least some metaphorical dimension, and are somewhat less variable. You can move in slow motion even if there is no camera present. Making a "fat" look has nothing to do with literal meanings of "gordo." There is no literal smoke involved in a "cortina de humo." An idiom in Spanish may or may not have a ready equivalent, where a literal translation also produces an English idiom, like "losing one's head."

18 ago 2011

Piglia's Collocations

Here are some I found in the first 80 pages of Ricardo Piglia's Plata quemada:

en mangas de camisa [in shirt sleeves]
amigo de la infancia [childhood friend]
medidas de seguridad [security measures]
pegarle a alguien un tiro [to shoot someone]
en el acto [right then and there]
paralizados de terror [paralyzed with fear]
estado de ánimo [mood, state of mind]
a toda velocidad [at full speed]
en sentido contrario [in the opposite direction]
hacer caso [to notice]
no servir para nada [to not do any good, to be be of no use]
delincuentes comunes [common criminals]
“algo de eso había” [that was partially true]
confirmar la sospecha [to confirm the suspicion]
el Gran Buenos Aires [greater Buenos Aires, the metropolitan area]
descartar la posibilidad [rule out the possibility]
por puro instinto [by sheer instinct]
todo bien [everything's ok]
a esta altura (a estas alturas) [by now]
“no le daba importancia...” [he didn't think twice about it]
hacer planes [to make plans]
con cara de aburrido [with a bored expression on his face]
de todos modos [anyway]
su mayor orgullo [his greatest pride]
“se hacían los machitos” [acted really macho]
está bien por hoy [that's enough for today, we've done enough for today]
sus horas están contadas [his hours are numbered]
conferencia de prensa [press conference]
asesinos a sueldo [hired killers, hitmen]
el predilecto de su padre [favorite son, his father's pride and joy]

In almost all these cases, there is a corresponding idiom (or two) in English that matches up pretty well. In Spain they might say "rueda de prensa" rather than "conferencia."

There is some slang in this novel I don't understand too well, but the expressions on my list are used in other Latin American countries and in Spain as well.

This is not a complete list by any means. They are just expressions that caught my attention as I read. I still don't know where a collocation ends and just a normal combination of words begins, so I chose ones that I had seen many times before.

The Usual Suspects

This 1995 film by Bryan Singer stars Kevin Spacey in a rather confusing plot. The title, of course, evokes a line from the classic film "Casablanca": "Round up the usual suspects." The movie lacked a convincing central character, although the acting was good for the most part.

I don't like the technique in which a character's narration is dramatized, but later shown to be a fabrication. A character can lie, but don't show us his lies using actors acting it out. For me, that is manipulative.

Surrealism and Collocations

I am working furiously to put together the ideas for this course "from idiom to proverb." You, readers of ¡Bemsha Swing!, are the unexpected victims of my pre-lecture notes, the notes I make to myself before I actually decide what to do in the classroom.

Collocations, a word I learned just yesterday, are idiomatic or frequent combinations of words, clichés or simply common ways of saying something. I don't particularly like the word "cliché" in this context because it implies that it is wrong to say something in the way that it is usually said. For example, "I don't particularly like..." is a collocation, because that adverb is found with that verb often when it is negated. It is easy to see, though, why it is impossible to avoid such clichés. It would be like saying that people should not go to crowded restaurants or listen to the most popular music: by definition, a crowded restaurant is where people tend to go more. (cf. Yogi Berra: "Nobody goes there, it's too crowded.")

The surrealist game of "exquisite corpse" involves people writing parts of speech down on a piece of paper and then putting them together. So you write an adjective, I write a transitive verb, she writes another adjective, etc... and the resulting sentence is "statistically improbable." Like Chomsky's "colorless green ideas sleep furiously." The childhood game of "mad libs" produces a similar result. These games take their effects from their violations of collocation. Riffaterre, though, showed that surrealist poetry is also based on the transformation of linguistic clichés. You cannot really escape them, because they are language. Grammar constrains the syntactic combinations of words, but there are other powerful constraints on what words get to be combined.

17 ago 2011

Harry Brown

Harry Brown, a 2009 film starring Michael Caine, follows the classic vigilante plot. Caine's friend is killed by some local hooligans and Caine, who looks about 90 in this movie, begins offing them. The gimmick is that he is a former marine with experience fighting the IRA in Belfast, so he is handy with knife and gun.

I do like the genre, and this is a good example of it, but it isn't quite trashy enough to be really good. It is a movie that is too good for its own good. In other words, give me Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series. Emily Mortimer is very good as the cop who figures out what is happening.

Idiom Below the Level of Idiom

We know what an idiom is, like "he's pulling my leg." The dictionary on my computer defines it as " a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words."

There is also language which is not unidiomatic per se but does not fall into this category. It's meaning is deducible or obvious from the individual words, and not metaphorical, but it is idiomatic because it is typical of how people talk. "I'm meeting my friend for dinner."

I'm interested in the level between those two, where the language is formulaic but not obviously an idiom. Some categories would be verbs mainly used in certain situations, like "conciliar el sueño" (to fall asleep) or "derramar sangre" (to shed blood). In a dictionary you might not find that definition of "conciliar." The core meaning in the dictionary is to reconcile or conciliate beliefs, but I haven't heard that usage in everyday conversation very much.

Certain combinations of adjectives and adverbs are idiomatic. Like "woefully inadequate" or "or classically trained" or "perfectly clear" or "happily married." We might call them clichés. Words found habitually with other words.

Then there is unidiomatic usage, which sounds like somebody trying to use words only in their dictionary definitions or creating a calque from a foreign language. If you said, "At last I was able to reach an agreement with sleep" to mean falling asleep, you would be creating a calque from the Spanish and hence unidiomatic language (Por fin pude conciliar el sueño.). [Loan translation: "an expression adopted by one language from another in a more or less literally translated form." Also called calque.] A calque is an anti-idiom, precisely because it is idiomatic, but not in this language.

Elevated language

One of the simplest ways of defining poetic language is to see is as more elevated in register.
Largo espectro de plata conmovida
el viento de la noche suspirando,
abrió con mano gris mi vieja herida
y se alejó: yo estaba deseando.

Llaga de amor que me dará la vida
perpetua sangre y pura luz brotando.
Grieta en que Filomela enmudecida
tendrá bosque, dolor y nido blando.

A lot of the words seem very ordinary (noche, luz, mano) but the constant placement of the adjectives before the nouns and the gives the passage a literary feel (largo espectro, vieja herida, perpetua sangre, pura luz). Not to mention the mythological allusion and the Petrarchan language (llaga de amor).

Then learning to read and interpret this kind of poetry is simply a matter of knowing the metaphorical codes and being accustomed to the elevation in style. Love is a wound (herida, llaga). A long phantom of impassioned silver sighing the wind of the night opened with grey hand my old wound... etc... Filomela, the nightingale, represents poetry.

It might seem simple to do away with elevated language and write poetry in a language that is really spoken. The Wordsworthian ideal. But in practice this is not so easy to do. Poetic language wants to be different from ordinary, and it will find a way to get there.
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, John, I

sd, which is not his
No elevation of style, no conventional Petrarchianism, but it is not easier poetry to interpret. In fact, the absence of literary code makes it almost impenetrable. If you try to find a literary code that isn't there you will end up with one of those highschoolish Christian readings of the poem that I've heard about. Colloquialism also seems to be a deliberately anti-literary gesture, so elevation of style persists in its very absence.

There are also styles that seem colloquial but are really not, like Creativewritingese: "I stare at the sky / for days." Nobody talks about actions in the present tense like that unless they are writing a pome. The words might be perfectly ordinary, but the gesture is literary. A truly colloquial or prosaic style (two different things, by the way) is often hard to accept in a poem.

Prosiness still often sounds like its making a prosy gesture, away from literary elevation and poetic concision. Otherwise, what is it doing? If it looks like its being used unconsciously, then the reader might think it's simple incompetence. Colloquialism is easier to accept than prosiness, because it come from the spoken rather than the written language, but colloquialism can mean several things: a plain vanilla neutrality, a deliberately "low" register, or an actual imitation of real life speech patterns. But whose?

So once you get rid of the simplistic idea that poetic language distinguishes itself by being more elevated and literary in the conventional sense, you get a complex and bewildering situation that nobody quite understands. I certainly don't. There may be an unarticulated ideal of a language elegant but not too elevated, colloquial but not too colloquial, distinguishable not by its diction or rhetoric or metaphorical codes but by its purity of gesture. I find this ideal in certain poems by Machado, for example.

16 ago 2011

Arizona Bushwhackers / Waco

These are two movies from the early days of technicolor with almost identical plots. In each, Howard Keel plays a gunfighter with a problematic past who comes to clean up a Western town with a corrupt saloon owner. In one movie, the sheriff is an ex-convict named Waco; in the the other, he is a confederate spy. Both movies end with classic shootouts in which the gunfighter / sheriff figure saves the town by enlisting the townsmen to shoot a group of Indians or gangsters, finding redemption in the process. Each features a saloon girl and a girl from the town as love interests. I think they even use the same sets for both movies, although they have two different directors.

Plata Quemada / Burnt Money

This 2000 Argentine movie by Marcelo Piñeyro, based on a novel by Piglia, features a gay couple nicknamed "los mellizos" or the twins who participate in a robbery of a huge payroll in which a police officer is killed. They escape with the getaway driver and the guy who planned to heist to Montevideo and hide out. The movie takes place in the 1960s, and is apparently based on a real case.

It is pretty much a genre flick, with the twist being the relation between the two lovers, El Nene and Ángel. Ángel hears voices and El Nene attempts to take care of him but also betrays him with a female lover. The psychological complexity brings the film into the literary realm, though the genre elements remain strongly formulaic.

Deleted Comments

I've deleted comments by a blogger who doesn't (I have the feeling) want real identity widely known. I inadvertently learned who this person was, but I'm not going to reveal that information to anyone else.

15 ago 2011

How to Memorize a Poem

Here is my very simple method.

Look at each line, then close your eyes and say it three times. Go though the entire poem like this, one line at a time.

Now go back to the beginning and take every two lines and do the same thing.

Now you know each line of the poem. Recite it to your self beginning at the beginning, until the point where you get stuck. Look every time you get stuck at at certain point. Do this five times. In other words, start the poem five times and see how far you get.

When you've done this five times, start again at the point at which you ended. Repeat from there until the end of the poem.

When you get to the end of the poem, start again from the beginning. Close your eyes and see how far you get in five tries.

Once you have the entire poem memorized, repeat it a few more times. You should be able to memorize a sonnet in 20 minutes using this method.

14 ago 2011

Pullum on Password Strength

Here. This is very funny. I have one of those X56@$@me passwords that is impossible to remember. You know, the university makes me get a "strong" password that no human brain can remember. It has to be between x and y characters long, include numbers, letters, some upper-case, and some special characters used for comic strip obscenities. Actually, according to Pullum and the sources he cites, such a password could be cracked by a computer more easily than a memorable one like ENEMY MUTANT CLARIN FISHFRY. I doubt I would ever forget that. This reminds me I should study information theory again.

13 ago 2011

Duende In a Bottle

Whoever said duende could not be put in a bottle?

Poetry the Least Translated Genre?

Venuti says that poetry is the least translated genre, or may be the least translated genre today. If this is true, then I think this is an enormous opportunity. Let's, all of us, translate more poetry. Starting right now. Let's make poetry the second least translated genre, at least.

Yet another review

here. I haven't been able to get to the full review yet. I'll have to try to get it through my own library. The first page is positive though.

[Update: not available from the library until a year after publication. I don't want to spend $34 just for my own ego, which is doing just fine today, thank you. I've written the author of the review to see if she will send it to me.]

Flamenco Course

This would be what the content of a course on Flamenco might look like, based on my limited expertise. I don't know what the organization would be, but these are the elements, in no particular order.

(A) Literary

(1) I know something about the literary traditions of the lyrics themselves. I could start with Machado y Alvarez's 19th century anthologies. I could talk about the context in which the literary elites read and understood these lyrics. [2 weeks]

(2) I can talk about works of poetry inspired by this tradition, from Manuel Machado (the son of MyA) to Lorca and more contemporary poets. [2 weeks]

(3) There is quite a bit of Spanish poetry that has served as Flamenco lyrics, even if it was not written in that context. Every singer nowadays sings Lorca, Hernández, Alberti... [1 week]

(B) Musical

(4) Styles of musical performance. Major performers [1 week]

(C) Sociological and metacritical

(5) The discourse surrounding gypsies in Spain. Traditions in "flamencology" itself. Cultural Studies approaches to contmporary Spanish music. [2 weeks]

(D) Dance and Film

(6) We would approach dancing through the medium of film. Saura, etc... [3 weeks]

In another year or so, I will be competent to teach this course (maybe) without it being almost exclusively literary (not that there's anything wrong with that.

12 ago 2011

Paperback Writer

I wrote my editor to see if my book could be put out in paperback. My royalty statement shows I am not going to sell many more hardbacks. Of course, with Border's having closed, and the US being in a double-dip recession, otherwise known as a depression, I am not too optimistic. Yet I had to ask. This is the only way I am going to sell any more copies of this book.

[UPDATE: not yet. We have to sell more cloth bounds first. It might never go to paper because more and more people are reading books on electronic gadgets].

Snakes Are Not Evil

Surely snakes are evil; in fact, they are the very symbol of evil. Yet when you think about it a moment, it is obvious that snakes or spiders are not ethical agents at all. They are not even evil, in the sense that you can be not even wrong about something. I do not believe that squirrels make ethical judgments about right or wrong, that there are some squirrels that are "better squirrels" than others. Of course, some might have nastier or more gentle temperaments, but they don't form ethical judgments. An ant is not "unselfish" or altruistic just because it works on behalf of the group. A grasshopper is not lazy because it isn't an ant. Nor are cows to be praised because they don't wage war on other herds of cows. Those are just misapplications of categories. I don't even think a leopard is less ethical than the gazelle that it hunts, kills, and eats.

Now with certain animals domesticated during ten thousand years to be companions to humans, it is hard not to think in anthropomorphic terms. Or with close genetic relatives of humans, like the great apes. But these are, in the end, anthropomorphic terms. In other words, we attribute ethics to animals to the extent to which they resemble humans. We also value animals aesthetically to the extent that they appeal to the human eye. Nothing wrong with that, a hippo is not as cute as a koala, as long as we know exactly what we are doing.

What provoked this little rant was this paragraph by Marianne DeKoven, quoted by Perloff in an article I linked to a few days ago::
I think that many have turned away from our own species in dismay at what it has wrought and turned toward other animals as a locus both of the other who calls us to ethics and of many of the things that, in our various modes of ethics, we value: purity of affect, unselfish altruism, absence of genocide and infrequency of random, unmotivated violence, and connection to what is for us a source of powerful spiritual experience.

What is striking about this is how anthropomorphic it is, and how unconscious it is of this quality. A chipmunk never read Levinas, The pretentiousness of the language is also unbearable. A person who writes a phrase like "a locus both of the other who calls us to ethics..." should be reincarnated as a chipmunk 10,000 times, or at least sent back to remedial freshman composition. I can assure you. It is no comfort to me that other animals do not mimic the depredations of humans, the unspeakable horrors of history, because there is no particular merit in this. I won't even say that the animal kingdom is ruthless and cruel, that one fish eats a smaller fish in a brutal competition for survival, because that is just a human projection. Animals are not ethically superior or inferior to humans, because they just aren't ethical in the first place, in any meaningful sense. Negative perceptions about their evil, or positive judgments about their moral purity, have no toe-hold.

(In no way would I approve of cruelty to cats or puppies, or excuse and human failings, whether collective or individual. I am in awe of the biodiversity of the planet, etc... I respect your love for your dogs... That is not what this post is about.)


Is it unethical to experience ennui when people are starving, rioting, and otherwise suffering everywhere on the planet?

No, because that's exactly what ennui is. The pallid human suffering that exists anyway, without a good reason.

11 ago 2011


In pursuit of Dasein.

Descriptive and Prescriptive

There is a lot of confusion about what "descriptive" and "prescriptive" grammar mean. I'm here to straighten you out. I'm not a linguist, but often I have to play one in the classroom. This is what I've learned, mostly from reading Language Log:

All linguistics is descriptive, in the sense that it tries to describe what the grammar of a language actually is, to discover the inner laws of a language. A descriptive grammarian does, in fact, think that there are ungrammatical sentences. For example, people in English say "By no means do I agree." They don't say *"By no means I agree." Grammar is largely unconscious, because nobody pulls aside a 4-year old and teaches her this rule: After an expression like "by no means," invert the subject and the verb. In fact, I do not even know, myself, the set of circumstances the require this inversion. I could figure it out perhaps, but then I would be doing linguistics.* Speakers of the language don't need to know this information to perform this inversion. I do it perfectly every time.

When faced with a prescription, or a recommendation of usage, the descriptive linguist tries to see whether it is a real grammatical rule or a zombie rule. For example, my second sentence in this post ends with a preposition. It is a perfectly good grammatical sentence in English, right? You can't say "*I'm here out you to straighten" or *"I'm here to straighten out you." So probably the idea of not ending a sentence with a preposition is a fake rule that doesn't have anything to do with English grammar. Linguists would also look to the writing of great and / or prestigious writers to see what they actually do, rather than deriving grammatical rules from principles of logic or from their own prejudices. If all the great writers in French use the language in a certain way, this cannot be wrong, because there is no grammar god to overrule the norm established by the language in its actual use, the norma loquendi. Grammar is actually evidence based, in this sense.

I wouldn't write "I'm here to straighten you out" in an academic paper. It's too informal. The descriptive grammarian knows that there are differences in register and dialect, but never confuses these differences with grammar per se. A dialect of English, even a stigmatized one, is going to have its own grammar, or its own rules, that the linguist might be interested in studying. A dialect considered substandard is still governed by unconscious rules. The prescriptivist is too intent on stigmatizing and peeving to even notice that there might be something interesting going on in a different dialect of a language.

The ordinary person uses the word grammar to refer to a wide range of issues: spelling and punctuation, usage and dialect, register, even pronunciation. A person like this often only perceives "grammar" when there is a violation, usually a violation of a rule that isn't even a rule in the first place. The linguist tends to reserve the word grammar for syntactical relationships.


*Possibly the rule is "When the first word of a sentence is a negative adverbial type thing, invert the subject and verb." To see if I am right, my next step would be to see if these conditions apply. I know that I would say "Never have I heard of such a thing" but not "*Always do I go to bed at one." I am getting somewhere, very slowly.

Kessler Review of Apocryphal Lorca

I guess it's the day of the duende.

Stephen Kessler, an eminent translator, has reviewed my book for Translation Review. He kindly sent it to me in the mail. It's not on line, and I am not going to type it all in here, but I'll eventually post some snippets of it in the Critical Reaction page to the right. "Insightfully provocative and original." It's a positive review, and he thought one of my most controversial points, the comparison of Lorca with Frank O'Hara, was "shrewd." I'm going to try to scan it to send it my publisher. Maybe I can convince them to put out this book in paperback.

A Dream of Duendeando

Our real estate agent had convinced us to put our house on the market, even though we weren't really moving or looking for another house to live in. We didn't have a sign in our front lawn, but a woman from Argentina showed up and started talking to us about buying it. We were outside on the deck, and I began to effusively praise the happy times we had had in our house. Then I discovered that this woman was also a Spanish professor. She used the word "duendeando" and I started to talk about my research, etc... It turned out she was a Spanish professor too.

I rarely have vivid dreams that I can remember, so this is very unusual. The duende comes from "dueño de la casa" so is associated with a local spirit, the spirit of a house. This thought occurred to me, however, only as I was writing this post, not during the dream itself. "Duendeando" is the name of a Flamenco podcast. I had been listening to this podcast all week before the dream. I had also visited the blog of an Argentine Spanish professor, and blogged about an NPR story about the duende. This was a dream only I could have had, and only with that particular set of stimuli.

10 ago 2011


I heard an awful (for me) segment on NPR about an American woman trying to find the duende in Jerez de la Frontera by dancing flamenco. I don't even know where to begin. It was a uniquely painful experience to listen to this, though I could hardly turn the radio off during a segment about the duende, could I?

This pain is also uniquely my own. I'm sure no other listener would feel the way I did, right? Nobody else wrote a book denouncing exactly this set of fallacies, and is now writing another book addressing some of the same issues one more time. Nobody else has a third book planned... So I can hardly blame NPR. I will have to blame only myself. . .

No, I'll blame NPR anyway.

Creeley on Vendler

This is brilliant in so many ways. What a way of deflecting criticism:
Is Helen Vendler's characterization of your work, that "things are wasted, faded, faint, trembling, wavering, blurred, darkening" and that yours is a "way of avoiding bathos" consistent with how you see your writing? I take objection to her statement that your writing style is "fatally pinched." Thank you kindly for your reply.
Bev -- NJ
I sure know what Helen Vendler is referring to. We both come from the Boston area, like they say, and "fatally pinched" is all too insistent a prospect if you have what my mother called a "lower middle class" status and all. I think it's taken real time to manage a passage through the early years of my life, coming of age in WWII, feeling very inadequate to the world as I found it, growing up fatherless, one eyed, and so on. Yet I was lucky in that solutions, if that's the word, seemed to keep coming at very unexpected moments—like just now being hired at Brown at age 77. That's happy! Or getting an unexpected scholarship to Holderness School at 14 because my sister Helen had persuaded my mother, the Acton, Mass town nurse, to apply for me. Anyhow Helen Vendler is not out to get me—she has other work to do—and my writing is not her interest. I don't not read her critical work therefore—I just haven't, but I know from her students, those I've met, she's a classically inspiring teacher with, expectably, very strong opinions. I liked her very much when we met and had a necessary time together a year ago—it was a pleasure just that I felt so simply at home with her.

I wish I could be so magnanimous about people who criticize Creeley.


There are certain poems that just sing. They just rise off the page and sing at the reader. I don't mean that they are song lyrics. Any poem or almost any poem can be set to music, but that doesn't mean it is cantabile. Nor is it a matter of metrical poetry vs. free verse, since most poems, whether in meter or not, don't have this quality. It's a mystery. Even good poets don't have this quality most of the time. It's very rare, but this is what poetry aspires to:
Tú no sabías que la muerte es bella
y se hizo en tu cuerpo.
No sabías que la familia, calles generosas
eran mentira...

To be continued....

9 ago 2011

Perloff on 9/11

Click here for complete article. Perloff makes a strong point here:
"I think that many have turned away from our own species in dismay at what it has wrought and turned toward other animals as a locus both of the other who calls us to ethics and of many of the things that, in our various modes of ethics, we value: purity of affect, unselfish altruism, absence of genocide and infrequency of random, unmotivated violence, and connection to what is for us a source of powerful spiritual experience."

I sympathize with the pain and disillusion with politics that could lead a thoughtful critic to such conclusions, but such apocalyptic talk of the human species destroying the planet is predicated on the curious denial of both history and geography that is characteristic of our post-9/11 moment. [Marianne] DeKoven knows very well that, in fact, we cannot just turn away from our species in dismay and give our attention to other animals, seemingly less violent and more altruistic than ourselves. It is a manner of speaking used to dispel the nagging suspicion that America is no longer No. 1, that our vulnerability to attack is an index of the loss of power that is rapidly bringing other nations to the forefront.

El cante cante

I was listening to Flamenco podcast and someone referred to "el cante cante," using a classic contrastive focus reduplication.. (I love techinical terms like this.) Cante means "singing," basically, but it is not the same word as "canto" or "canción." The word cante is specific to the Flamenco ambience, in fact. A "cantaor" is not the same thing as a mere "cantante" or singer. A bailaor is not a bailarín either. So the person talking about "cante cante" meant real Flamenco song, unmixed with anything else. In fact he said, it wasn't "cante fusión," but "cante cante." I think the complete sentence was something like "El cante era el cante cante, no el cante fusión sino el cante cante."

8 ago 2011


Here is Julia playing trumpet during a performance of Franck's symphony at the Brevard music camp.


Here are some slogans from the "indignados" in Spain. Translations are mine
1. "No somos antisistema, el sistema es anti-nosotros" [We aren't "anti-system"; the system is "anti-us.]
2. "Me sobra mes a final de sueldo" {I have month left after the end of my paycheck]
3. "No hay pan para tanto chorizo" [There is not bread enough for so much chorizo {chorizo = politician}
4. "¿Dónde está la izquierda? al fondo, a la derecha". (Where is the left? Go down, and to the right.]
5. "Si no nos dejáis soñar, no os dejaremos dormir". [If you {pl) don't let us dream, we won't let you sleep]
6. "Se alquila esclavo económico" [Cheap slave for rent]
7. "Se puede acampar para ver a Justin Bieber pero no para defender nuestros derechos" [They let us camp out in the street to see Justin Bieber, but not to defend our rights]
8. "Error 404: Democracia not found" [English in original]
9. "Error de sistema. Reinicie, por favor" [System error. Reboot please.]
10. "Esto no es una cuestión de izquierda contra derechas, es de los de abajo contra los de arriba" [It's not the right against the left, it's those on the bottom against those on top]
11. "Vivimos en un país donde los licenciados están en paro, el presidente de nuestro gobierno no sabe inglés...y la oposición tampoco" [We live in a country where college grads are unemployed, where the president of the government doesn't know English... and the opposition doesn't know English either]
12. "Mis sueños no caben en tus urnas" [My dreams don't fit in the ballot boxes.]
13. "Políticos: somos vuestros jefes y os estamos haciendo un ERE" [Politicians: we are your bosses and we are firing you]
14. "Nos mean y dicen que llueve! "[They piss on us and tell us it's raining]
15. "No falta el dinero. Sobran ladrones" [There enough money, but too many thieves]
16. "¿Qué tal os va por España"?- Pues no nos podemos quejar. O sea, que bien ¿no?- no, que no nos podemos quejar." [How is it going in Spain? Well, we can't complain. Or rather, "great," because we cannot complain]
17. "No es una crisis, es una estafa" [It's not a crisis, it's a fraud.]
18. "No apagues la televisión... Podrías pensar" [Don't turn off the t.v., you might accidentally think.]
19. " !!Tengo una carrera y como mortadela!!" [I have a college degree and I'm eating mortadella]
20. "Manos arriba, esto es un contrato" [Hands up! This is a work contract.]
21. "Ni cara A, ni cara B, queremos cambiar de disco" [Neither the A side or the B side: we want a different record.]
22. "Rebeldes sin casa" {Rebells without a house]
23. "Democracia, me gustas porque estás como ausente" [Democracy, I like you because it is as though you were absent {after Pablo Neruda: "Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente}
24. "Nosotros buscamos razones, ellos victorias" {We are looking for reasons, they are looking for victories]
25. "Cuando los de abajo se mueven, los de arriba se tambalean" {When the ones on the bottom move, the ones on the top swing from side to side.

Flamenco Sketches

I've been gradually going through all the Flamenco podcasts I downloaded, but I am still way behind because I cannot listen them fast enough to keep up. My method is just to listen, taking no notes, in the hope that eventually I will get informed simply by dint of repetition. Once I listen to a podcast it goes into the trash, unless it's something I want to save like Camarón's last concert. I am getting a good sense of the canon, of the literary aspects of the music. it seems that the most highbrow, canonical singers are those with the most interest in singing poems by Lorca, Hernández, Cernuda, Alberti... It is really quite amazing how literary this art form is.

I only have about 70 hours left to listen to.

6 ago 2011

Secrets of the Heart / Secretos del corazón

Montxo Armendáriz, 1997.

Neither of us liked this film that much. It's about a little boy in 1960s Spain discovering that people have sex. One of those coming of age films we've all seen. He keeps discovering this in seemingly random ways. The film promises a big secret revelation, but we get this revelation about half way into the film, and then it meanders after that, overplaying the "through the eyes of innocents" cliché. There is a subplot about the boy and his older brother starring in a school play.


Here I am at Looking Glass Falls near Brevard, NC.

5 ago 2011

También la lluvia

Icair Bollain is probably the best Spanish director right now. Forget Almodóvar. Her 2011 movie "Even the Rain" is about a group of Spaniards shooting a film in Bolivia about Christopher Columbus, using Bolivian Indians in place of the Caribbean ones Columbus encountered. The Spaniards are idealistic about their political message, but impatient with their indigenous actors. The star Indian actor, Daniel, is also a leader of a protest movement, and the cynical producer, Costa (Luis Tovar) keeps trying to keep him out of jail. The director, Sebastián, is more idealistic, but in the end the roles are reversed and the idealistic one turns out to be selfish and short-sighted.

Some very good play-within-the play metafilmic stuff, done in a very unclichéd way. The actors in Sebastián's film take on the positions of the characters they play, for example. This is by far the best movie I've seen all summer. It faces political issues honestly but never feels manipulative or preachy. If you see it and don't like it I'll give you a year's free subscription to Bemsha Swing.

4 ago 2011

Amor y venganza

This film by Pilar Miró from the late 90s stars Emma Suárez as a 40s-style femme fatale. It's not quite campy enough to be a real film noir from the 40s, and the dialogue is very stilted. I never believed the character of the mathematician policeman who is investigating the crime. Franco-era police were just not that nice. I have little patience for period stuff when it looks too costumey. If you think of the actual look that real 40s films had, you just can't buy the look of the film. The music, too, was too melodramatic, but not in a way that evoked any particular epoch.


Maybe advertising is not as persuasive as I, and many other people, had assumed. This has huge implications, because I think people had, with good intentions, overestimated the influence of advertising. One indication that advertising doesn't work all that well is that such enormous quantities of it are needed to even register on our consciousness. Advertisers want you to see their ads hundreds or thousands of times, suggesting that limited exposure would be even less effective, even for consumer goods that people want to buy anyway.

I rarely watch tv, but I know I've seen commercials time after time and afterwards not even remembered what the commercial was even selling. I would remember something about the ad, but not what it was for. Was the commercial about a giraffe for insurance, for beer, for a car? I would have no idea unless I actually paid attention. Even then I would forget, remembering the giraffe (or whatever) more than what was being hocked.

This, then, is another of those ubiquitous things that are really very poorly understood.

3 ago 2011

Spanish Politics

Spain is a relatively prosperous country, pretty much on a par with economies like Italy and just below the level of the other G7 nations. The top industrialized nations of the world.

Or so it seemed until recently. The economic crisis has hit it hard. The president, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, ZP for short, emphasized social issue, like gay marriage, the recovery of historical memory, etc... and also was successful in repressing ETA terrorism, with several high profile arrests. Basque separatists have all but renounced violence at this point. The economic crisis has hit the Spanish economy and the ZP government very hard. The movement of "indignados" of the May 15 movement has been camping out in the Puerta del sol and the Plaza Mayor, in the heart of Madrid. Indignados are disaffected and unemployed people disgusted with the political system as a whole. The left cannot harness them for electoral support because the economic crisis occurred with the Left in power.

ZP has called an election for next November 20, and it doesn't look good for the ruling PSOE. The candidate will be the recently resigned Vice President and Interior minister, Rubalcaba. He is more impressive than the PP candidate, Mariano Rajoy, but his party is less popular. So Rajoy, a hard-righter turned moderate for electoral reasons, is likely to win, despite the corruption scandals in his party. There was a huge scandal in Valencia, with the leader of the autonomous government there involved in a scheme in which a lot of expensive suits were given out as bribes.

The successor to Batasuna, an illegalized party associated with ETA, is Bildu, newly legalized and regenerated and in control of one of the three Basque provinces. So if Rajoy wins, the country will be even more divided, since the PP has even less tolerance for the Izquierda Abertzale than the PSOE has.

El secreto de sus ojos

This 2009 Argentine film by Juan José Campanella, which one an Academy Award, features a police detective, Espósito, around the time of the Argentine dirty war. He arrests a rapist and killer, but this man gets released early from prison because he is also an informer useful in the rightwing repression of subversives. Espósito is in love with his boss, Irene, a Cornell-educated judge from a higher social rank, who marries an engineer while half in love with Espósito himself. The movie goes back and forth between the present, when the retired Espósito is writing a novel about his case, and the past, when the events were going on.

It is an excellent movie with maybe one or two extra plot twists too many at the end.

2 ago 2011


a film by Sebastián Cordero (2009) features a violent South American immigrant in Spain, José María, who falls in love with a young woman named Rosa. After killing a guy on a construction site, he hides in attic of the the suburban mansion of the family for which Rosa works as a maid living there unbeknownst to anyone while watching Rosa's pregnancy develop. Although he is extremely violent, Rosa calls him "María," feminizing him in a way. (While José María is a common name for a man in the Spanish-speaking world, the usual nickname would not be "María.") She sees only the good in him, despite his homicidal ways, and despite the fact they hardly seem to know each other. All his acts of violence, by the way, are due to his "protection" of Rosa. He kills (or beats) people who insult or attack her.

This is a film that tries a little to hard for its effects and overplays its central conceit: the old stranger living in the house bit. Acting is superb by all, but the plot wears a little thin.

How To Work With Me

The title of this post, but not the content, was inspired by this post. I would like to be the diametrical opposite of the person who wrote the original list of "How To Work With Me." It is not that I don't want to work fast and avoid wasting time, but I think that whoever wrote this list is a completely narcissistic person.

So here's how to work with me. Consult my "fees and services" and see if any of what I can offer might be something you need. Write me an email and tell me what you have in mind. I'll ask questions to make sure you are someone I can help. Send me your work and I will quickly give you my honest opinion in a respectful way. Then pay me and recommend me to your friends.

Wow, I am a lot more concise than the asshole who's telling his subordinates to be concise. The problem is not that any of the ideas of the asshole are bad, per se. Maybe "micromeetings" are the way to go. The problem is that you can just tell he's an asshole by the condescending way he phrases things and by the sheer length of the list.

Not Even the Word Literal Is Literal

It hides a trope, the idea of the "letter," or graphic signifier of meaning. No meaning is "literal" in the literal sense of inhering in a letter. No wonder that people say they are "literally climbing the wall" to intensify their metaphorical expressions, or, as I heard on NPR yesterday "opportunity literally came knocking at her door."

There Is No Such Thing As Biblical Literalism, And It Is A Good Thing Too

There are three mains problems with what is badly termed "biblical literalism":

People who try to observe the Law quite scrupulously depend very heavily on complex layers of hermeneutics. The more strict the observance, the more interpretation is involved. If the Law were clear on its literal face, then there would be no schools of complex Talmudic commentary. Most so-called literalists, however, are Christians and don't even attempt to follow the letter of the Law.

Secondly, the Bible has always been read allegorically. The Song of Songs has no religious significance at all on its literal level. All those parables? Pure allegory. The Book of Revelations? Nothing literal about that, surely. That's not even to mention everyday metaphors like "the kingdom of heaven." To even read the "Old Testament" as a being about Jesus Christ is a totally allegorizing move, because Isaiah and those folks were not even thinking about that. Once again, an extremely complex hermeneutics that developed in order to interpret meaning that is not at all available at the literal level. The middle ages perfected this kind of tropological reading, in which a single passage event could have four separate meanings, only one of which was literal if my memory of Dante class does not deceive me.

The third problem is one of historical, archeological, and scientific evidence. This is what is usually meant by literalism, believing the earth was created in six days and the like. People who read so literally are forced to interpret the world itself according to an impossible apologetic hermeneutics, in which fossil fuels are the remains of non-existent fossils from an age before the universe existed.

So there are three problems, one having to do with the observance or non-observance of the Law of Moses, one with reading the text for its religious significance and trying to make it more coherent than it is, and the third with the fact that a supposedly literal reading doesn't square with reality itself. Only the third sort of literalism has the merit of actually existing. The other two simply aren't.

1 ago 2011

Movie Review

We've been getting netflix movies and watching them at night.

"Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" (2009), directed by Jan Kounen.

Great costumes, hairstyles, and interior decoration. Visually, this film is stunning. I get quickly bored with period pieces, though, and with the stereotype of the brooding artist. In this case, Stravinsky, who moves his family into Chanel's country house and has an affair with her a few yards away from his sickly wife. The movie kind of fizzles out in the end. I wanted more Stravinsky music. The scene where she discovers Chanel #5 is a bit too contrived.

I do fantasize about the room he got to work in, though.

Beef with Snow Peas

Tonight I took 3/4 lb. of flank stake, cut while still half frozen against the grain into thin slices and dusted with cornstarch, stir-fried it with some snow peas (about the same volume as the meat, though weighing less), garlic, ginger, one small red bell pepper, one small hot pepper (a serrano will work), and some scallions and soy-sauce and white vinegar. Everything was perfectly cooked, nothing mushy. This was a perfect dinner for two, served with white rice. Greens, browns, reds, and greens on a white background.

If you eat this in a Chinese restaurant, it will have more sauce to it, be a bit less garlicky and spicy. Unless it is a very good restaurant outside the midwest, mine will be much tastier. Since I don't have a decent wok, I used a frying pan and cooked the meat first, then added it back to the pan when the rest of the dish was done.

I don't have exact proportions or cooking times for you. Basically you have to know how long things need to cook and when to add various ingredients. Generally I can cut up everything for the stir-fry and cook it up in about the time it takes the rice to cook.

For pastas and stirfries, the general rule is you want to have things about the same size. The strips of meat are about the size of the snow peas, for example. For a pasta primavera with penne, you want to cut up the zucchini or bell peppers about the same same size and shape as the penne or ziti or farfalle.

Religion Politics and Oatmeal

It is only religious and political issues that are seen as exterior to literature, that need a special dispensation to be talked about. If the poet is talking about his personal feelings about outmeal, or anything else, that is seen as a literary theme like anything else.

So the problem of the political commitment of writing, or the mysticism of John of the Cross, is a non-issue, or a thematic issue like any other. The way commentators tie themselves in knots over whether to read religious poetry as religious, or not, is just silly.

Or is it? What people really object to is allegory itself. Again, the de-allegorizing reading is deeply unhistorical and thus fairly ridiculous.

I remember reading the Song of Songs as a kid in some standard KJV bible, and seeing the headings that told you what it was supposed to be about. Obviously this was a lie, and I knew it then. But this pretty stupid way of reading an anthology of nuptial songs led to some pretty great poetry.


I've cancelled my twitter. It just wasn't doing very much for me, either in the accounts I was following or in my own tweets. I was willing to give it a try, but if there were no tangible benefits, I didn't see the point in continuing. If I change my mind I can always start fresh with a completely new account.

I am in no way saying twitter is bad thing and will rot our brains. There's nothing particularly wrong with it; I just don't have space for it in my personal internet economy.

Fray Luis, San Juan, Santa Teresa

One thing the three greatest 16th century religious poets / thinkers had in common was that they were from converso families. Fray Luis de León got in trouble with the Inquisition for translating the Song of Songs directly from the Hebrew, rather than from the Latin vulgate. The language of this translation was a direct source for the greatest poem of Juan de Yepes (Saint John of the Cross), the "Cántico espiritual." What was essentially a collection of Hebrew wedding songs ended up in the Bible. Christian interpretations of this erotic poetry allegorized it. The bridegroom is Christ, etc... So in the "Cántico espiritual" the speaker of the poem is female and the "amado" is a divine figure.

The poet-professors of the Generation of 1927, like Guillén and Dámaso Alonso, wanted to be mysticize the mystic, so they argued that the allegorical, religious, mystical reading of the text was tacked-on. They wanted to read it as expression of a human love, invoking some version of the intentional fallacy. After all, if you didn't know this was mystic poetry, you would not see any religious content at all. It's about a woman waking up an seeing that her lover has gone, etc...

Valente re-mysticizes this poetry, arguing against Guillén and Alonso. Of course, I agree with him, pretty much. You cannot read poetry apart from the literary and intellectual tradition to which it belongs. San Juan draws inspiration from Islamic mysticism too, if we accept the conclusions of Luce López Baralt in San Juan de la Cruz y el Islam.

Goytisolo and Valente

Goytisolo's book on Valente, which is basically all of his short articles on the Spanish poet collected between two covers, reveals that these two were very close. Goytisolo basically agrees with everything Valente stood for (and vice versa) and shares Valente's feeling that Valente is a great poet, the only true heir to San Juan de la Cruz. The only difference in their intellectual posture is that Valente emphasizes Judaism and Goytisolo Arab culture. Of course we are used to seeing Arabs and Jews as enemies, but in the Spanish context intellectuals like Goytisolo, Valente, or Subirats view them as the two peoples expelled in 1492. Goytisolo was more influenced by Américo Castro and Valente by María Zambrano, but Valente also buys into Castro's theories with few if any reservations. Valente strongly identified with Celan and Jabès and at one point investigated his genealogy to see whether he was Jewish. Alas, he turned out to be an Old Christian.

The relation between Valente and Goytisolo is not very interesting, because complete agreement is rather dull. For my purposes, though, this is perfect, because I want to show that there is a single, monolithic and rather absolutist (intransigent) position. If it makes any sense, I agree with this position, more or less, but disagree with its rhetorical forms of assertion. I do agree that the expulsion and forced conversion of the Jews in 1492, and the subsequent persecution of nuevos cristianos or conversos (remember the Inquisition?), was a tragedy for Spanish intellectual life. I disagree that this invalidates almost everything in Spanish culture and intellectual life that is not in direct relation to the lost legacy of the Sephardim. When Goytisolo says that Valente is the first Spanish poet to recapture the extremity of language of Saint John of the Cross, I have to say, What about Lorca?