The Curious Lives of the Russian Stray Dogs That Traveled to Space — Hyperallergic

Here is a fascinating review of Space Dogs, a documentary about dogs in the Soviet space program.

Poster for Space Dogs (2020), dir. Elsa Kremser & Levin Peter (all images courtesy Icarus Films)Dogs were among the first animals sent into outer space, and were a crucial part of the Soviet space program in the 1950s and ’60s. The first living being to orbit the Earth was a dog — the now-famous Laika,…

The Curious Lives of the Russian Stray Dogs That Traveled to Space — Hyperallergic

Grammar is ‘Racist’?

Here is an interesting (albeit utterly depressing) post about the new grammar policy at Rutgers. What craven nonsense it is, what woolly thinking.

Liberals don’t think minorities can learn real stuff. Please! Stop sending kids to Rutgers! They won’t learn anything, and they’ll be “taught” a bunch of crap. The latest: Standard English grammar is [trumpet fanfare] Racist, and so the Rutgers B.S. University English Dept. will no longer teach it or expect students to know it (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/3868323/posts). […]

Grammar is ‘Racist’?

From ‘Death in the Classroom’ and other poems

I

Death in the Classroom

First, children, let us sing the Names of Death.
Sacred Death, and Holy Death,
Most Holy Death, Most Saintly Death,
Skinny Lady, Bony Lady, Black Lady, White Lady,
White Sister, Pretty Girl,
Powerful Lady, Lady of the Shadows,
Holy Girl, Girl Skeleton, Saint Skeleton
And Godmother.
And Lord of Death,
And Lord of the Good Death, Lord of the Bad Death,
Easeful Death, and Mighty Death.
King of the Graveyard, Lord of the Boneyard,
The Emissary, The Angel and The Reaper.
The Hunter, The Finder, The Keeper.

For homework, choose a Name and write a story,
Bright with joy, dark with sorrow.
Write it with your fountain pens.
Please make sure it’s finished by tomorrow.
Revision now, on what we’ve done today.
Then, and only then, Jemima,
Can you go out to play.

Where, children, does Death live? Above.
Where, children, does Death live? Below.
Children, will Death come? He will.
When, children, will Death come? We do not know.
How, children, will Death dance? Like this.
Children, are you scared of Death? Yes, Miss!
Children! Are you scared of Death? No, Miss!


II

Secondary School

So, sinful earth and rebel powers,
And slaves to fate and chance,
(And you too, Teddy, when you’re ready, please),
Spread the good news.
There’s happy tidings in The Times today.
A cheerful letter from the Minister – he’s
Glad to say Heironymo’s got better.
(Roger, was it lower-back pain?
No sir, he was “mad againe”.)

He also says that Death,
That feeds on desperate men,
Won’t eat us up again.
So, no more dying then!
Yes, no more dying then!

Yet, shall we still say, Sunil,
“Death, be not proud!”
Or shall we say, Anita,
Take me now,
Put me to sleep,
With poppies or charms,
Poppies or charms,
For I’ve opened my arms.

Now to “real life”, Jamar.
Consider this – a man sits in a bar,
Waiting for his friend.
He thinks, for unlike you, he’s far from clever,
“I will live forever.”
Well, he died next week,
And ten years hence,
Flesh and sense
Were bones and dust,
The bones themselves no longer bones.
Some looked like sticks,
Pocked with woodworm holes.
And others, Lucy, shells of fledgling souls.

Dry dust!
Blood in thy face!
Full of grace!
Make our pillows down, or dust.
Go, my brave young things,
Fill jampotfuls of frogspawn,
Watch it hatch, then write a piece
On Mr Heaney.

Or Mr Bleaney.

Easeful death, Bill,
Easeful death.
Here there is no light,
And seems it rich to die,
For, as you know, Miss Jones and I,
We nearly kissed.
Fled is that music. Class dismissed.



III

Varsity Tutorial, D. Litt.

Doctors of Letters
Must know their letters.
So D is for Derrida, and Death.
Be sure to look them up.
B is for Bier, and Beer,
And Walter Benjamin,
Or the inevitable dying Breath
Of Bearwood, that intolerable Boffin.
C is for Coffee, Coughing,
Carry-him-off, and Coffin.
Note all this.

C also serves for College Cloisters,
The honey-stoned arcades,
Their bounded but strangely boundless lawn,
Where dusk turns down the volume
Of its strident, guarded green,
To a quietly beckoning emerald
As the summer clock strikes seven;
An Elysium where one day all must pass,
For now, forbidden.
Keep Off The Grass,
Pelouse interdite:
A novel yet to be written, Mr. Fleet.



IV

Art School

John Charles Loth, A native of Bavaria,
The Apelles of his time,
Who, on account of the skill of his pencil,
Was, by the emperor Leopold,
Honoured with a patent of nobility,
Began to paint the shades of Death
On the sixth day of October, 1698,
In the fifty-sixth year of his age.

‘Painting the Shades’ begins in week 9,
Taught by artist-in-residence, Marjorie Klein,

Ms Klein writes, “Please come prepared,
With sufficient Flake White
To show the sun in flight,
And the dying of the light,
For this will prepare your souls for flight,
Your hearts for Death’s cold hand!”

This course will stand all students in good stead
Before and after they are dead.


V

Bullet Points


Might you be shot, Gunner Short?
Yessir.
And exactly how might you be shot, Gunner Short?

● Shot in the neck,
● Shot in the head,
● Shot in the a***hole,
● Shot in bed,
● Shot in a desert,
● Shot in the knee,
● Shot before my breakfast,
● Shot before my tea.
● Shot of tequila
● Shot of rum
● Shot near a palace
● Shot near a slum
● Shot as I dream of Jill, the kids and me,
● Shot as I dream of our day by a sea
● Shot with breakers that danced on the sand,
● Shot as I think of Jill holding my hand.

Dear Mrs. Short, it is
With deep regret and sympathy
That I must now disclose
The death in action of your husband, who
According to the Adjutant’s report, was

● Shot in the head,
● Shot in the knee,
● Shot near a palace,
● Shot after his tea.
● Shot as he dreamed of your day with the kids, by a sea
● Shot with breakers that danced on the sand,
● Shot as he thought of you holding his hand.


Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern)

… is a fascinating 1919 German film produced during the Weimar Republic, starring Conrad Veidt and Reinhold Schünzel, directed by Richard Oswald and shot by Max Fassbender.

It is generally considered to be the first gay film – its blackmail plot was later recycled for Victim (1961), starring Dirk Bogarde. Anders als die Andern was co-written by Richard Oswald and Magnus Hirschfeld, as a polemic against Germany’s Paragraph 175 law, which made homosexuality a criminal offense. Later the film was inevitably repressed by the Third Reich and many prints were burnt in the general purge of “decadent” art from 1933 onwards.

Death from laughter

You have to hand it to Wikipedia. Their content becomes more agreeably bizarre by the minute, as in the excerpts from Death from laughter below. I’ve added a few notes here and there. Here is an excerpt from the comedy sketch that finished off Alex Mitchell of Kings Lynn.

The Goodies- The Battle of Ecky Thump
make funny GIFs like this at MakeaGif

On 24 March 1975, Alex Mitchell, from King’s Lynn, England, died laughing while watching the “Kung Fu Kapers” episode of The Goodies, featuring a kilt-clad Scotsman with his bagpipes battling a master of the Lancastrian martial art “Eckythump”, who was armed with a black pudding.

After 25 minutes of continuous laughter, Mitchell finally slumped on the sofa and died from heart failure. His widow later sent The Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mitchell’s final moments of life so pleasant.Diagnosis of his granddaughter in 2012 of having the inheritable long QT syndrome (a heart rhythm abnormality) suggests that Mitchell may have died of a cardiac arrest caused by the same condition.


In 1410, King Martin of Aragon died from a combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughter triggered by a joke told by his favourite court jester. [Wiki doesn’t elaborate on this. The king had eaten an entire goose for dinner. The jester’s name was Borra. This was the joke: “In the next vineyard, I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs.”]

One ancient account of the death of Chrysippus, the 3rd-century BC Greek Stoic philosopher, tells that he died of laughter after he saw a donkey eating his figs; he told a slave to give the donkey neat wine with which to wash them down, and then, “having laughed too much, he died” (Diogenes Laërtius 7.185). [With this and the preceding story, it’s useful to know that ‘fig’ was and still is a lewd synonym for the female genitalia in Mediterranean culture, and therefore central in the jester’s repertoire.]

In 1799, William Cushing, a pauper who lived in the parish of St Andrew’s, Norwich, England, died from “a fit of excessive laughter, which lasted five minutes.” [The report in The Monthly Mirror, Vol viii, 1799: “Norwich – An inquisition was on Sunday, 21st April, taken by Mr. Marks, the coroner, on the hody of William Cushing, a pauper, who was taken with a violent fit of laughing, at the Hole in the Wall public house, in St. Andrew’s, which continued above five minutes, when he dropped down and expired. Juror’s verdict ‘Died by the visitation of God.'”

In 1556, Pietro Aretino “is said to have died of suffocation from laughing too much”. [Pietro Aretino is buried in the church of San Luca in Venice. As a result of his reputation as a pornographer and satirist, the church became a place of pilgrimage for nonconformists of various sorts, such as libertines, non-believers, journalists and free thinkers. His epitaph was striking: “Here lies Aretino, the Tuscan poet, that spoke poorly of everyone, except God, whom he said he ‘did not know’.” This was later recast by local wags as follows: “Here lies Aretino, the Tuscan poet , that every one spoke poorly about, except God, who apologized saying: ‘I do not know him’!” Having heard an off-colour joke, Aretino fell over and took a fatal bump to the head.]

Zeuxis, a 5th-century BC Greek painter, is said to have died laughing at the humorous way in which he painted the goddess Aphrodite – after the old woman who commissioned it insisted on modeling for the portrait.

In 1660, Thomas Urquhart, the Scottish aristocrat, polymath, and first translator of François Rabelais’s writings into English, is said to have died laughing upon hearing that Charles II had taken the throne.

On October 14, 1920, 56-year-old Mr. Arthur Cobcroft, a dog trainer from Loftus Street, Leichhardt, Australia, was reading a five year old newspaper and was amused at the prices for some commodities in 1915 as compared to 1920. He made a remark to his wife regarding this, and burst into laughter, and in the midst of it he collapsed and died. A doctor named Nixon was called in, and stated that the death was due to heart failure, brought by excessive laughter.

The LibriVox Question

LibriVox is a rapidly expanding online platform where volunteers make recordings of literary classics, anything from short poems to major novels. Its laudable aim is the “acoustical liberation of books into the public domain”, making it a sort of vocal version of Project Gutenberg. The problem is that a great many of the volunteers, though well intentioned, fall woefully short of the mark when it comes to the interpretation of their chosen texts. Thus LibriVox is potentially a platform for the most excruciating public self-humiliation. Let me put my own head on the block before I set out some examples. Here’s the scenario…

I’m a middle-aged guy with a reasonably cultivated British accent. I also fancy myself as a literary type and a bit of a performer. I’d like to volunteer for LibriVox. Let me think of a text well-suited to my age, voice, nationality and background. Ah yes – the work to which I could best do justice, without a shadow of a doubt, is Huckleberry Finn. I shall be Mark Twain’s faithful servant, submerging any otiose expression of my own personality in favour of the greater objective, of bringing Huck and his pals to life for a new generation of listeners. Let me do a very quick voice test:

Faced with this flawlessly authentic evocation of antebellum life and language along the Mississippi River, you would surely have to agree that I should get in touch with LibriVox immediately. If I do, I shall be “a first among equals”, a member of the thousands-strong fellowship of volunteers who have added an extra dimension to literary awareness. Here is my first LibriVox example, a poem by Lewis Carroll. Poetry arguably affords us readers an opportunity to “be ourselves” for a spell, abandoning the tighter constraints imposed by novels and short stories, where we continue to strive for the authentic and indispensable sense of time and place. Here the reader courageously sets aside the high-Anglican whimsy and Oxford donnishness one might normally associate with Carroll in favour of a more contemporary reading:

And here is an excerpt from a group project, a recording of Macbeth. As to the accents and casting, finely-grained “diversity” is the deeply-struck hallmark of this production. Who needs the (freely available) old-hat performance starring Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench when they could experience this instead?

And here is a highly individual characterization of Rodion Raskolnikov. After this one could easily imagine Russia’s favourite axe-wielding maniac being perfectly at home at a cocktail party with Gore Vidal and Tenn Williams:

Sometimes, it has to be said, a reader’s unsuitability for the chosen text is far outweighed and redeemed by some kind of mysterious inner magic, a kind of mesmerizing personal connexion with the text. Consider this, ignoring if you can the “Arksford friend”:

I am not for a moment suggesting that all English drama has to be performed in an Arksford accent, or that people should be discouraged from reading great literature aloud in class, or at informal gatherings, by virtue of their backgrounds or accents. They shouldn’t. But presenting great literature to the public, as a public service, is a different matter entirely. Whether paid or voluntary, it surely requires some measure of respect for the author, some understanding of what his or her intentions were. Bearing that in mind, I’ll get back to my rehearsal of Huckleberry Finn:

Advice for aspiring authors –from William Plomer.

William Plomer (1903 – 1973) was a South African and British author, poet and literary editor. The extract below is from ‘The Typewritten Word’, a chapter in his Autobiography. It should be required reading for anyone who has the merest atom of a wish to put pen to paper. Here Plomer recalls his time at Jonathan Cape, where Edward Garnett had installed him as principal reader. Few wiser descriptions of authorial delusion–and the delinquencies of publishers–exist outside these few pages. Plomer made a number of ‘discoveries’ during his publishing career, two of which are of particular interest. One was the diary of the nineteenth century English clergyman, Francis Kilvert – a great masterpiece of its kind. The other, decidedly different, discovery was Ian Fleming’s James Bond, whom Plomer was the first to spot as a potential winner.

Plomer accepts Garnett’s invitation to work at Cape…

…the book referred to is Kilvert’s Diaries, the subject of a future post!

Prufrock revisited

The illustration is from Julian Peters’ comic-book version of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Julian Peters Comics is well worth a visit – he has illustrated poems by Wilde, Kipling, Poe, Rimbaud and many more. There is even a Manga-style edition of Yeats’ When You Are Old.

Turning to Eliot, I love Prufrock, but am I alone in being increasingly irritated by his relentless line in self-depreciation and self-pity? I’ve known J. A. P. for decades and I always used to nod in wise agreement during our many conversations. Now, I’m beginning to lose patience. Consider, for example, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two.” It makes you think. What is so wrong with being an attendant lord? It is not a condition that necessarily requires you to be, as Prufrock later suggests, “obtuse” or “ridiculous”. And who in their right mind would want to be Prince Hamlet, knowing what we know and having the opportunity to be someone different? Later Prufrock complains that he “heard the mermaids singing, each to each…’, adding, “I do not think that they will sing to me.” Surely he got off lightly, as anyone who has been sung at by a mermaid will tell you. Once they start, it’s very hard to silence them. Another maudlin bid for sympathy: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Who hasn’t, apart perhaps from millions of non-coffee-drinkers considerably less privileged than Prufrock or oneself. “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Well, there are scenarios significantly more depressing than this to be endured on the social scene. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Pull yourself together, man.

There is a Prufrock in each and every one of us, and Prufrocks dotted amply around our circles of acquaintance. They all need a stern talking-to, a stiff drink and a gentle but firm replenishment of their sense of humour. That way it would be a great deal easier for them to deal with the inevitable problem we all face. Eliot’s articulation of it is the true cornerstone of the poem:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Jair Bolsonaro

Jair Bolsonaro by Daryan Dornelle, 2016

I hope readers will forgive a fairly lengthy digression before we proceed to the vexed question of the President of Brazil.

One of the most interesting books I’ve ever looked at – I do not exaggerate – is National Anthems of the World (Orion: 10th Revised edition, 2002). This 624-page masterpiece, first published in 1960, contains the lyrics and music of all known national anthems. You could say that it is a rich and finely-grained celebration of cultural diversity. Alternatively, you could say that all the folly, delusion, vanity, hypocrisy and arrogance one might associate with pedlars of national pride and identity are laid bare in its pages. The truth lies somewhere in between. Though I tend to the less charitable view, I mean no disrespect for the book’s editors, W. L. Reed and M. J. Bristow, who have created and sustained, through ten editions, a breathtaking work of scholarship. Get the book, and if you can’t sing and play the piano, find someone who can. There is an enthralling armchair adventure in store. When it takes you to South America, you will notice a marked Italian influence – highly entertaining echoes of Rossini and Verdi abound in these unashamedly martial and triumphalist tunes. The anthems of Peru, Venezuela and Uruguay are good examples. For the dictator, all provide perfect background music for smoking cigars, making love, dressing up and raiding the national exchequer, prior to one’s inevitable imprisonment or assassination.

Turning to Brazil, its anthem was composed by Francisco Manuel da Silva in 1831. We all know the tune – a cheerful Rossini-like march. Since Brazil almost always goes a very long way in the FIFA World Cup, the anthem is played more often than those of most other countries.

The lyrics, however, are less widely known to non-Latin Americans. At first glance there are few surprises amid the predictable recital of anodyne references to the beauties of land and people. One thing, however, does stand out – a jewel set with paste. In the second stanza, we learn that “Teus risonhos, lindos campos têm mais flores” (thy [Brazil’s] smiling, pretty prairies have more flowers), immediately followed by a line from Antônio Gonçalves Dias: “Nossos bosques têm mais vida” (Our forests have more life). This is from Gonçalves Dias’ poem Canção do exílio (The Exile’s Song), one of the best-loved poems in Brazilian romantic literature, written when the poet was away in Portugal, studying law, homesick for his native land. Gonçalves Dias acknowledged his debt to Goethe by supplying the first verse of Mignon as an epigraph – “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühen” (Know you the land where the lemon trees bloom…), etc.  Here are the first two verses of Canção do exílio, where the line quoted in the national anthem can be seen in its original context. Much is lost in translation, so if you don’t know Portuguese, have a suitable Brazilian recite the original while you look at the English.

Minha terra tem palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.
As aves que aqui gorjeiam
Não gorjeiam como lá.

Nosso céu tem mais estrelas,
Nossas várzeas têm mais flores.
Nossos bosques têm mais vida,
Nossa vida mais amores.  
My land has palm trees 
Where the thrush sings.
The birds that sing here
Do not sing as they do there.

Our skies have more stars,
Our valleys have more flowers.
Our forests have more life,
Our lives have more love.

You could be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, until you pause to consider the vandalism he has inflicted on this beautiful country – on its valleys, forests and lives –since he came to office in January 2019. As to the valleys and forests, his cynical stewardship to date has resulted in the loss of over 3,700 square miles of the Amazon jungle. His scaling back of federal agents in remote areas, coupled with his contempt for national and international environmental programs, has turned the rainforests into an Eldorado for (largely illegal) loggers, ranchers and miners. As to “nossa vida”, the “lives”, his disgraceful conduct during the Covid-19 emergency has made even Donald Trump seem tolerable in comparison. Indeed, his public utterances have been consistently more offensive than those of the Pussygrabber. But enough commentary. Let the President speak for himself. Here are some representative examples of the wisdom of Jair Bolsonaro. As you read them, try to imagine why some if not all of the utterances, repulsive though they are, might attract rather than repulse a significant number of people in any given electorate.  

On Covid-19 fatalities (this back in April): “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do? My name’s Messiah, but I can’t work miracles.”  On the Amazon: “The interest in the Amazon isn’t in the Indian or the fucking tree, it’s in the mining.” On the benefits of child labour: “Look, working nine, ten years old at the farm, I was not harmed at all. When a nine-year-old, ten-year-old goes to work somewhere, it’s full of people there.” On the merits of straight as opposed to gay sex tourism, as it relates to family values: “Anyone who wants to come here to have sex with a woman, feel free. But we can’t let this place become known as a gay tourism paradise. Brazil can’t be a country of the gay world, of gay tourism. We have families.” On the necessity of not being an indiscriminate rapist: “I would never rape you, because you don’t deserve it…” (this to federal deputy Maria do Rosário, at the Chamber of Deputies, in 2003; he later clarified his position: “I’m not a rapist, but if I was, I wouldn’t rape her because she doesn’t deserve it.”). On parenting, specifically what to do if one’s son turned out to be taking drugs: “I would beat him. You can be sure of that. If acting with energy is torturing, he’ll be tortured.”  “On the correct measure of tolerance towards homosexuality: “I will not fight against it nor discriminate, but if I see two men kissing on the street, I’ll beat them up.” On being a tolerant husband: “I never hit my ex-wife. But many times I wanted to shoot her.” On the penal system:  Brazilian prisons are wonderful places … they’re places for people to pay for their sins, not live the life of Reilly in a spa. Those who rape, kidnap and kill are going there to suffer, not attend a holiday camp. Are we obliged to give these bastards [criminals] a good life? They spend their whole lives fucking us and those of us who work have to give them a good life in prison. They should fuck themselves, full stop. That’s it, dammit!” On the consequences of legitimizing same-sex marriage: “It’s a mess. The next steps are the adoption of children and the legalization of pedophilia.”

After all that, perhaps the best that can be done is to revisit Canção do exílio, this time the full version.

Minha terra tem palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.
As aves que aqui gorjeiam
Não gorjeiam como lá.

Nosso céu tem mais estrelas,
Nossas várzeas têm mais flores.
Nossos bosques têm mais vida,
Nossa vida mais amores.

Em cismar, sozinho, à noite,
Mais prazer encontro eu lá.
Minha terra tem palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.

Minha terra tem primores
Que tais não encontro eu cá;
Em cismar – sozinho, à noite –
Mais prazer encontro eu lá.
Minha terra tem palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.

Não permita Deus que eu morra
Sem que eu volte para lá;
Sem que desfrute os primores
Que não encontro por cá;
Sem que ainda aviste as palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.
My land has palm trees 
Where the thrush sings.
The birds that sing here
Do not sing as they do there.

Our skies have more stars,
Our valleys have more flowers.
Our forests have more life,
Our lives have more love.

In dreaming, alone, at night,
I find more pleasure there.
My land has palm trees
Where the thrush sings.

My land has beauties
That cannot be found here;
In dreaming – alone, at night –
I find more pleasure there.
My land has palm trees
Where the thrush sings.

May God never allow
That I die before I return;
Without seeing the beauties
That I cannot find here;
Without seeing the palm trees
Where the thrush sings.