Quarterly Potpourri: 2013, Q1
Intro. It's been three months: time for another potpourri of unrelated items.
Assholes. To make up for not reading half as many books as I'd like to, I read about books. An excellent resource is the London Literary Review, of which I remain a faithful subscriber notwithstanding the fact that the bastards haven't sent me a book to review FOR 22 YEARS.
James fingers, among others, Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, Simon Cowell and Mel Gibson. He claims, plausibly, that George W. Bush wasn't an asshole, but was in thrall to a lot of them, most notably the asshole's asshole, Donald "Asshole" Rumsfeld … We live under what he terms asshole capitalism: a proposition with which few would argue.
I certainly wouldn't argue with it, though I would argue with the choice of verb in the first sentence there.
Parsifal at the Met. If you think business and politics are plagued with assholes, check out high culture. Paul Johnson covered some of this ground in Intellectuals, showing us what intolerable assholes Shelley, Tolstoy, Hemingway, et al. were. Johnson's 416 pages are barely enough to cover just the literary side of the field, though. Picasso was an artistic asshole, Sir Isaac Newton a mathematical one. And then there was Richard Wagner, who discovered and explored entire new continents of assholery.
Wagner's on my mind because I went to see Parsifal on Saturday at the New York Met. The orchestra and singers were superb, but the director should be run out of town on a rail. His sets were minimalist — bare soil and rock. This makes nonsense of the libretto ("Here in holy forests," Act One) and the stage directions ("Tropical vegetation; most luxuriant wealth of flowers," Act Two), all of which were written by Wagner himself. If it's OK to mess around with Wagner's stage directions, why isn't it OK to do the same with the music? Why not have the orchestra play while blindfolded or wearing boxing gloves? Pshaw!
Some nitwit at the Huffington Post calls those sets "thought-provoking." The thought they provoked in me was that the spectacle would have been more atmospheric if they'd staged the thing in a Walmart parking lot.
Parsifal in 150 words. Most operas have longueurs, but Wagner has more than the average. ("Wagner has great moments but dull quarter hours." — Rossini.) During those boring stretches I amuse myself by mentally condensing the plot of the thing into a few stanzas of doggerel.
Knights guard Grail, the Spear's gone missing:
Stolen while the Prince was kissing,
Then used to give him wound that's cruel,
Which none can heal but virgin fool.
Female messenger is mocked.
Swan gets shot; the knights are shocked.
Knights assemble, worship Grail.
Shooter joins them, hears Prince wail.
Spear's in wizard's castle tower.
And messengeress is in his power.
He tells her to use charms upon
The teenage fool who shot the swan.
She tries her best, but kid gets smart;
He's immune to all her art.
Grabs the wizard's holy Spear —
Wizard, castle disappear!
Years pass. Fool gets back to knights.
Grail's power denied, they're sorry sights.
Racked by wound, Prince wants to die.
Begged to show Grail, he won't comply.
Messengeress sees fool can save her.
Bathes his feet; he shows her favor.
Fool heals Prince's wound with touch.
Christian allegory, much?
As a temperamental fatalist I can't be much of a worrier, but I do occasionally find my dark tranquility disturbed by thoughts of calamities that might befall me. As a trained statistician I instinctively rank those calamities by probability, which saves me fretting about asteroid strikes, terrorist nukes, or decimating plagues. All of those are certainly possible, but there are way-higher-probability things just as personally devastating to worry about.
My top three would be: (1) death or maiming of wife or child in a car crash; (2) having a stroke; (3) losing all my savings in a financial calamity. The first is far too common — around 34,000 deaths in the USA last year, five Gettysburgs or ten 9/11s. For the second, there's some family history. The third is worry-worthy for anyone who believes, as I do, that human events are smarter than human beings and will catch us out eventually.
It's been in the news. Why do people mind it? The most sensible man his wife ever met (according to her) had an opinion:
It is not very easy to fix the principles upon which mankind have agreed to eat some animals, and reject others; and as the principle is not evident, it is not uniform. That which is selected as delicate in one country, is by its neighbours abhorred as loathsome. The Neapolitans lately refused to eat potatoes in a famine. An Englishman is not easily persuaded to dine on snails with an Italian, on frogs with a Frenchman, or on horseflesh with a Tartar.
— Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Samuel Johnson
When some new fad comes up, we of a reactionary temperament give it a few years to run its course. If it shows no signs of doing so, we grudgingly incorporate it into our lifestyles.
My reactionary wisdom has been vindicated regarding Facebook:
Facebook has made the startling admission that teenagers are becoming bored with the social networking giant.
Thank goodness. Now I'll never have to bother with the fool thing. Teen enthusiasms occasionally have staying power — Elvis, Monty Python — but that's not the way to bet.