Quarterly Potpourri: 2012, Q2
Intro. Partly because I can't find any large issues in the news about which I have a thousand words to say, partly because my poor brain has been turned to bean curd by yet another — but, Apollo be praised, very likely final — session of chemotherapy, but mostly because IT'S MY COLUMN AND I CAN DO WHAT I LIKE,there is no particular topic connecting what follows. This is a potpourri of random, unconnected items.
Alan Colmes drives a Trabi. I shall be a guest (together with two or three others) on Alan Colmes's radio show the night of Friday, June 8. This is the "Friday Night Free-For-All" when we end up breaking crockery over each other's heads and screeching abuse at callers. I've done it before and it's fun.
Alan's a pretty good egg in my book. He's a lefty, of course. He's still upset about FDR dumping Henry Wallace for Truman, he drives a Trabi with a Walter Ulbricht medallion hanging off the rearview mirror, he vacations in Cuba, etc.
Since I, on the other hand, am a well-known fascist hyena with a collection of SS memorabilia in my bathroom closet, you wouldn't think there'd be any affinity there. Yet we get on well.
I like the guy personally; he's done me favors for which I'm grateful, and one of my best friends is a cousin of his. I'm not sure how it looks from his end.
The story begins in medias res on February 6th, 1953 at Covent Garden Opera House in London during a production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. It was sung in English and conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Orpheus is male in the classical story, but in the original 18th-century production the part was sung by a castrato, and since then it's been a "pants role" (i.e., a male character sung by a woman). The lady singing as Orpheus was the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier:
At the theater she [i.e., Ferrier] was composed, but unusually somber. "Once you get started, you'll be all right," Bernie [her secretary] tried to reassure her. "You always are." [She] did not answer. Frederick Ashton came to see if there was anything he could do, but she shook her head, thanking him for taking the trouble to ask and apologizing for being a nuisance …
Her voice was as glorious as ever, and it seemed at the interval that her presentiment had been groundless. In the second act, however, her fears were realized. As she went to move a searing pain lacerated her left thigh and the leg ceased to function, preventing her from moving to her correct stage position. She leant against some scenery and sang from there. Barbirolli knew at once that something terrible had happened, and went through his own personal torture in the pit, unable to help.
(The above passages are from Maurice Leonard's biography of Kathleen Ferrier.)
What had happened was that the singer's femur had partially disintegrated, a portion of bone actually breaking away from the shaft. Incredibly, Ferrier's singing was so mesmerizing, the audience had no idea anything was wrong. She had been diagnosed with cancer two years before and died from the disease eight months later. Ferrier was born in 1912. That's the centenary I missed.
I grew up hearing Ferrier's voice. Her unaccompanied rendering of the English folk song "Blow the Wind Southerly" was a favorite of my mother's. We had it played at her funeral. My own choice is Ferrier's English rendering of "Che farò senza Euridice" from Orfeo. It still gives me the skin shivers.
The twentieth century produced numerous great voices, but there was something about Ferrier's that had a particular hold on her countrymen. It was so damn English in a way that no longer exists, and if it tried to exist it would be pulled up by the roots, torn to pieces, and stomped into the all-surrounding dust of gadget culture, thug triumphalism, moral snobbery, and political correctness. RIP, England.
Middlebrow fiction report: The Danger. As part of the campaign to get my brain tuned up again, I've been reading more fiction — middlebrow fiction this time, Dick Francis to be exact. A friend told me that Francis is good: "Basic unpretentious thriller writing." So I read The Danger.
Meh. Nicely plotted and without gross faults of style or syntax, but flat, colorless, and not much humanity with which to engage. I pretty much guessed who the perp was, though, so at least the brain cells must be firing.
Why pig poop smells bad. What are they up to over at The National Center for Biotechnology Information? "Isolation and analysis of odorous components in swine manure." So if you read the paper, you'll know why pig poop smells so bad. Don't you wish you'd opted for a career as a research scientist?
Genetic vs. social determinism. I'll admit it — I'm a genetic determinist. With some small allowance for accidents and occasional inexplicable mental events, your genome's your destiny. I like to think I've arrived at this position by long, deep reflection on my own life and those of my parents, siblings, and kids; but that's probably just a story I've made up. Most likely my position is genetically determined. (My position on free will is that at best, some of us have it and some of us don't. I'm pretty sure I myself don't.)
Here is reinforcement for genetic determinism from a new set of twin studies:
The results, published in the Journal of Personality, revealed genes to play a much bigger role than lifestyle, with self-control particularly etched into our DNA. Our genes also largely determine how determined and persistent we are. This is important in terms of success, as someone who refuses to give up is more likely to achieve their dreams than someone who throws in the towel at the first hiccough.
(Nice to see the old-fashioned spelling of "hiccough.")
The opposite of genetic determinism is social determinism, or "blank slate" theory, according to which every trait of the finished human personality is molded by parenting, schooling, or life experiences. Tweak those molding forces — on the assumption that you are wise and learned enough to do the tweaking correctly — and you can end up with any kind of human being you like. Social determinism is naturally popular with social engineers, careerist bureaucrats, and every kind of busybody who wants to tell us how to live. Such people include "progressive" economist Glenn Loury:
I rejected then, and still do, Murray and Herrnstein's claim that profound social disparities are due mainly to variation in innate individual traits that cannot be remedied via social policy.
People sometimes tell me that my own genetic determinism is a darkly fatalistic recipe for despair. I don't see it, and people who know me testify that I am quite cheerful and busy in person. As a poet said: "To enter in these bonds, is to be free." Social determinism, by contrast, is for commissars, bullies, and slaves. So it seems to me.
The problem is that social determinism is the ruling dogma of our age.