‘The Ill-Defined Plot’ | The New Yorker

Essays can be such a delight.

In The Ill-Defined Plot, John Jeremiah Sullivan happily rummages around in the origins of the term.

In the words of Hugh Walker—whose English Essay and Essayists remains the most lucid single-volume work on the genre a century after its publication—the genre becomes the “common” of English literature, “for just as, in the days before enclosures, stray cattle found their way to the unfenced common, so the strays of literature have tended towards the ill-defined plot of the essay.”

He finishes, if we (unjustly) exclude four entertaining, meaty footnotes, by setting the scene for the very first recorded use of “essayist”. Continue reading

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‘Why Academics Stink at Writing’ | Steven Pinker

In this dryly amusing essay, Steven Pinker tries to figure out “Why Academics Stink at Writing”.

He quickly discards the conventional explanations: that “bad writing is a deliberate choice” designed to “bamboozle”; that “difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of [the] subject matter; and, that “the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness”. There’s a smidgen of truth in each but none stands up to proper scrutiny.

For Pinker, the gold standard of expository prose is the classic style:[1]

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

While academic writers generally do want to convey some particular information, this straightforward goal is undermined by a deeper need. “[T]he writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.” Continue reading

What would Maggie do now? | Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson can be a funny guy.

People aren’t remotely interested in how much tax these characters pay. That does nothing to palliate their primary offence, which is to be so stonkingly and in their view emetically rich.

Emetically, for those who (like me) haven’t run across it before, means vomit inducing.

He loves stirring things up, saying the unsayable, tweaking friends and opponents. By all accounts, he rides easily over his own stumbles and idiocies, an irrepressible, privileged, well educated, scruffy and oversized urchin.

Last week, he gave the Margaret Thatcher Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Somewhat careless comments about the uses of greed and the distribution of IQ in “our species” got most of the critical attention. Still, alongside this, and his boosterism for Britain, and his unabashed enthusiasm for free markets and meritocracy, worries about rising inequality dotted the speech. I rather liked his summary of the dilemma. Continue reading

Poll: Majority Of Americans Approve Of Sending Congress To Syria | The Onion

“I believe it is in the best interest of the United States, and the global community as a whole, to move forward with the deployment of all U.S. congressional leaders to Syria immediately,” respondent Carol Abare, 50, said in the nationwide telephone survey, echoing the thoughts of an estimated 9 in 10 Americans who said they “strongly support” any plan of action that involves putting the U.S. House and Senate on the ground in the war-torn Middle Eastern state. “With violence intensifying every day, now is absolutely the right moment—the perfect moment, really—for the United States to send our legislators to the region.”

“In fact, my preference would have been for Congress to be deployed months ago,” she added.

via Poll: Majority Of Americans Approve Of Sending Congress To Syria | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source. (h/t SST)

Obama Shaken by Support | The New Yorker

An aide to Mr. Obama, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that he was in the Oval Office with the President when he got the call from Mr. Boehner: “As it became clear that Boehner was going to support him on this, he looked more and more stunned. He was trying to stay calm and all but you could see that he was really taken aback.”

After putting down the phone with Mr. Boehner, the President reportedly told aides, “Boehner’s supporting it. That’s so weird. This is still a good idea, right?”

Moments after the President had “seemed to settle down,” the aide said, he received a phone call from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who also offered his support for the Syria plan.

“That one really rattled him,” the aide said. “He was like, ‘I think I need to take a long walk.’”

via Obama Shaken by Boehner’s Support on Syria : The New Yorker. (h/t FB Ali)

‘Becks in Paris’

Can’t remember who first pointed me to ‘Becks in Paris‘. Whoever it was, I’m grateful.

[The] blog imagines Beckham’s internal monologue as he collides with the Parisian intellectual tradition – the glittering surface of a footballing icon cracked open by existentialism. Golden boy deconstructed.

The man responsible is a lecturer in French philosophy at the University of Cambridge. The blog has, it seems, become a cult hit of sorts with Andy Martin now travelling about giving talks on ‘Becksistentialism’. All very British.

Here’s the second half of entry #8, ‘In the café’:

‘Sartre has this phrase,’ says Eric. Voué à l’échec. Doomed to failure. Nous sommes tous voués à l’échec.’

I stared into my coffee. It looked brown and sludgy like the Seine on a bad day. I had a suspicion Eric was never going to get a job working for the Samaritans. To be fair, he must have troubles of his own.

‘And yet,’ he said – I reckon he must have noticed I was looking a bit off-colour right then – ‘this failure, it is liberating, non? For the very idea of success – this is the illusion. Continue reading

‘My lunches with Orson’

During the last three years of Welles’ life the lunches he and Henry Jaglom had long shared were recorded. “After Welles died, Jaglom put the tapes in a shoebox, another unfinished Welles project relegated to a closet.” This book finally brings these conversations into the light.

Godot didn’t show up for Welles either, but the waiting is fascinating, and in these casual, robust exchanges, we see a Welles both playful and morose, driven and defeated, optimistic and hopeless, seeking both patronage and independence, bursting with creative brio, yet tempered by the slow realization that things will not come to bear. And if these musings from the last, lamentable years don’t conclusively answer our Why, they compose a sad, lovely portrait, rich with pathos, of our artist in winter.

The review is beautifully done with many quotes from these conversations. In this one, Welles has (at last) been promised financing for one of his dangling projects, provided he can sign an A-list actor: Continue reading