Theodor Adorno: punctuation as music

July 24th, 2014
Theodor W. Adorno

Serious about the semicolon

“Punctuation marks,” wrote German critical theorist Theodor Adorno, “are marks of oral delivery.” Because of that, they’re a sort of musical notation: “The comma and the period correspond to the half-cadence and the authentic cadence.” Exclamation points are “like silent cymbal clashes, question marks like musical upbeats.” Colons are like “dominant seventh chords.”

Open Culture notes that Adorno “is known for many things, but a light touch isn’t one of them. His work includes despairing post-fascist ethics and a study on the sociology and psychology of fascism. Those who dig deeper into his catalog may know his rigorously philosophical Negative Dialectics or dense, opaque Aesthetic Theory.  Given the seriously heavy nature of these books, you might surprised, as I was, to read the paragraph below”:

An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (<<> >) lick their lips. 

Read the Open Culture snippets from Adorno’s piece here – or, if you’re up to it, read the whole essay here.

A few days ago, Ben Yagoda attacked the humble and serviceable semicolon. We’re pleased to see that Adorno gave it a rousing defense. From Open Culture:

There is no mark of punctuation that Adorno rejects outright. All have their place and purpose. He does decry the modernist tendency to mostly leave them out, since “then they simply hide.” But Adorno reserves a special pride of place for the semicolon. He claims that “only a person who can perceive the different weights of strong and weak phrasings in musical form” can understand the difference between semicolon and comma. He differentiates between the Greek and German semicolon. And he expresses alarm “that the semicolon is dying out.” This, he claims, is due to a fear of “page-long paragraphs”—the kind he often writes. It is “a fear created by the marketplace—by the consumer who does not want to tax himself.” Right, I told you, he would hate the internet, though he seems to thrive—posthumously—on Twitter.

Bliss Carnochan names the worst poet evah.

July 23rd, 2014

A cult figure now.

The world has exploded into violence, everywhere you turn this month. Where else to turn for a few moments’ respite from the news but … Scotland?

A few months ago, Bliss Carnochan gave a talk on his book Scotland the Brave during the Company of Authors event – I wrote about his book earlier here.  I meant to write about his talk that day, too – but, well, time ran away with me, and I forgot the details of what he said, so must refer to his book for the part I remember best: Bliss’s nomination for the worst poet evah. He’s not alone, apparently, in his assessment.

Where, he asks, should we begin in the extraordinary career of William McGonagall (1825–1902), who has become something of a cult figure? “He specialized in dramatic events: shipwrecks, battles and, in his best-known poem, the disastrous failure of the Tay Bridge, spanning the Firth of Tay near Dundee, in December, 1879. Only a year after it was built, the bridge collapsed in a storm under the weight of a passing train, killing all aboard when the train plunged into the water below.” Here’s the poem, then, with Bliss’s words to walk us through:

When the bridge had opened, McGonagall was bursting with Scottish pride.

Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array.
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day.

Lest passengers worry about the bridge’s strength, McGonagall assures them:

carnochanAnd I think nobody need have the least dismay
To cross o’er thee by night or by day.
Because thy strength is visible to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.
So long, so splendid is the Tay Bridge that it rivals a famous bridge across the sea:
The New Yorkers boast about their Brooklyn Bridge,
But in comparison to thee it seems like a midge,
Because thou spannest the silvery Tay
A mile and more longer I venture to say
Besides the railway carriages are pulled across by a rope,
Therefore Brooklyn Bridge cannot with thee cope…
But then the bridge collapsed in December,1879:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

McGonagall offers an engineering analysis of the disaster, quite at odds with his earlier raptures, and a homespun moral:

I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Bliss concludes that “the niceties of critical exegesis are probably lost on this poet’s oeuvre. Macro-poetics, not micro-poetics, are the issue here.” Is this the worst poem ever written? No! McGonagall falls from that to this, written at the request of bereaved parents in Scotland to honor their daughter who died young, and mercifully confines himself in one short quatrain:

Here lies little Mary Jane,
She neither cries nor hollers,
She lived but one and twenty days,
And cost us forty dollars.


Connoisseur of sorts…

Bliss Carnochan is a connoisseur of badness. “This may be uniquely bad, perhaps the worst poem ever written,” he mulls. “But its badness differs from that of McGonagall’s usual fare. Here he can only be read as sporting with a child’s death. As an expression of feeling in the face of tragedy, it is utterly perverse. That is not the case with poems like “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” in which the hypnotic monotony of expression—Hugh MacDiarmid calls it a ‘dead levelness of utterance’—flattens rather than perverts normal feelings. I think that is one reason why McGonagall’s poetry, in all its dreadfulness, has been able to attract an audience as devoted almost as that of Robert Burns.”

The legendary McGonagall has been remembered Spike Milligan’s film The Great McGonagall (1974), with Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria. McGonagall inspired a series of books, concluding with William McGonagall Meets George Gershwin (1988). “A William Topaz McGonagall Appreciation Society keeps his memory warm in his hometown of Dundee where, until his born-again life as a poet and performer, he was an impoverished hand-loom weaver. And a capacious website, McGonagall-Online, filled with information, provides a McGonagall poetic ‘gem’ each day, inviting readers to register if they would like to receive it by e-mail.”

According to the website here: “His audiences threw rotten fish at him, the authorities banned his performances, and he died a pauper over a century ago. But his books remain in print to this day, and he’s remembered and quoted long after more talented contemporaries have been forgotten.”

How did such an extraordinary writing career begin?  Bliss takes us to the roots. McGonagall writes: “I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877, and in the month of June . . . when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears, ‘WRITE! WRITE!’” And so he did.

“Did he fabricate the whole thing? Almost certainly not. For better or worse, William McGonagall was born to write.”

Spike Milligan below as McGonagall. Not quite my thing, but it gives you a feel… In any case, Peter Sellers does an interesting turn as Queen Victoria.

Robert Pogue Harrison socks it to Silicon Valley

July 20th, 2014

pregnantPregnancy brings unaccustomed insight. For instance, I used to look around me and realize that everyone, including the dirty drunk on a park bench, required someone to go through hours of agonizing labor to bring him into the sunlight. Some woman, whether she consciously helped or hindered, nurtured the new being for nine months, offering the best of her body’s resources to a  tenant who would never be able to repay the rent – true whether the mom is a doctor or a drug addict. The fragility of the whole human endeavor, and the perishability of the robust daughter I eventually bore, used to bring me almost to the point of tears – also unaccustomed.

I realized that a huge amount of what we call “civilization” goes into maintenance. I estimated about a third of an individual’s lifetime, and about the same percentage of a society’s resources, goes into rearing and educating the next generation – whether, for an individual, it’s teaching kids to refrain from punching a pal in the sandbox, to eat with a fork, and to appreciate the finepoints of Bellini, or, on a societal level, building a school, funding studies on infant mortality, kicking a few bucks to the old alma mater, or supporting neighborhood basketball court.

Now, however, we’ve become a society “where children, metaphorically speaking, believe that adults need their guidance and tutelage,” according to the latest from Robert Pogue Harrison. It’s not so metaphorical, actually. I’ve often considered that our technological world is being driven faster, ever faster, by 15-year-olds with time on their hands to text hundreds of messages a day, to tweet their most trivial and transcient feelings to the world. Those who hold jobs, have children to feed and clean up after, math homework to correct, or a subpoena to respond to, don’t have time to fiddle with their smartphones or figure out Pinterest. And yet we must keep up, keep up, keep up – or lose our jobs and our social connections, lose our “relevance” and fall hopelessly behind.

Robert is on the same wavelength. In “The Children of Silicon Valley,” a strong and scathing essay on the New York Review of Books blog, he begins:

Harrison as DJ

Harrison as radio host. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In the new HBO comedy Silicon Valley, almost every new start-up representative at a high-tech conference ends his presentation with the programmatic words, “and this will make the world a better place.” When Steve Jobs sought to persuade John Sculley, the chief executive of Pepsi, to join Apple in 1983, he succeeded with an irresistible pitch: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: “Don’t just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.” A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to “change the world” through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it’s hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly.

Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you. Referring to all that happened during the “dark times” of the first half of the twentieth century, “with its political catastrophes, its moral disasters, and its astonishing development of the arts and sciences,” Hannah Arendt summarized the human cost of endless disruption “The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs—which are the needs of mortals—when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.”


She knew.

We purchase connectivity at the price of solitude, and, as I’ve written before, the very essence of the humanities is to teach one to be alone. Many of us have forgotten how to read, as opposed to scanning. Books are mere sources of data, not keys to meaning, clues to understanding another time, another place, another human being.  Quoting Thoreau – “Be it life or death, we crave only reality” – Robert adds, “Alas, Silicon Valley has enriched its coffers thanks largely to a contrary craving in us—the craving to trade in reality for the miniature screen of the cell phone.” He writes:

With a few exceptions, our new tech armies rarely take the time to think through what they are doing. Or if they do, they tend to think in ways that only add to the turmoil and agitation.

Silicon Valley, and everything it stands for metonymically in our culture, has indeed affected billions of people around the planet. The innovations have come fast and furious, turning the past four decades into a series of “before and after” divides: before and after personal computers, before and after Google, before and after Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, and so forth. In the silicon age, ‘changing the world’ means at bottom finding new and more ingenious ways to turn my computer or smart phone into my primary—and eventually my only—access to ‘reality.’

Read Robert’s essay here. Okay, okay, it’s a little bit of a rant at points, but Robert is an intelligent and provocative Jeremiah, and his words are worth a large audience. Another one of the skills that has gotten lost in our times is the ability to consider different points of view impartially – to be able to rub elbows with strangers who are not like-minded, not in one’s Twittersphere or Facebook circle. You don’t have to buy his whole argument – but you can, at least, look at it. It’s easier than being pregnant. Trust me on that one.

Word crimes: irony is not coincidence, etc.

July 17th, 2014

Sing it, Al.

We have already rabbited on about the misuse of the word “literally,” especially when people actually mean “figuratively.” Don’t get us going about “hopefully.” However, Ben Yagoda doesn’t necessarily have a problem with these kinds of usages. Nor does he yawn at strings of passive voice sentences, or the misuse of the word “which” instead of “that.” We agree with him, however, that it’s okay to split infinitives. Read the rest of his views on “bogus grammar ‘errors’” here.

Wait! Don’t give up on him. He cracks down hard on some grammatical abuses: the misuse of subjunctive and bad parallelism, for example. However, we don’t agree with his tiff with the semicolon, a punctuation mark that we rather like. Read his take on the grammar rules he insists on here.

Or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the 3-minute version below by a fellow called “Weird Al Yankovic”:



Happy birthday, Iris Murdoch! A few words from her about happiness…

July 15th, 2014

iris-murdoch-1Two quotes today, because I couldn’t decide. You choose:

“Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary and everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self.”

and this one:

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”


— Dame Iris Murdoch, born on this date in 1919

birthday cake





A boy and his little library: free and legal

July 13th, 2014

A boy and his books

Spencer Collins of Leawood, Kansas, likes books. Lots of them. ”It’s kind of like I’m in a whole other world and I like that,” he said. “I like adventure stories because I’m in the adventure and it’s fun.”

He became the protagonist in an adventure story of his own when he tried to start a little free library on Mother’s Day, May 11 – you know, the kind that are springing up all over the country, often no bigger than a country mailbox or a bird feeder. It was a gift from his grandfather, and they built it together. The boy stocked it with such classics as Madeleine L’EngleA Wrinkle in Time and Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

The city didn’t like it. When the family returned from vacation, notification of a code violation was waiting in the mail. If it wasn’t taken down by the 19th, the family would receive a citation.

City officials said the little house is an “accessory structure,” and the city bans buildings that aren’t attached to someone’s home. The city had received two complaints. Go figure.  People don’t have anything better to do.  ”We empathize with them [the family, that is – ED.], but we still have to follow the rules,” said Richard Coleman of the City of Leawood. “We need to treat everybody the same. So we can’t say if somebody files a complaint but we like the little libraries – we think they’re cute – so we ignore it. We can’t do that.” The family closed the library.

Daily Kos picked up the story here and complained: “Only in Kansas would someone complain about a little free library. I guess book-learnin’ is too librul.” (The Book Haven does not know the political content of Spencer’s books, if any.) Then the writer added, “Anyway, Kansas City area Kossacks, let’s help Spencer out and get his little free library back out in his yard.”



Spencer thought of getting a rope and tethering the library to the house. Voilà!  Same “structure.” But we live in the technological era. So he set up a Facebook page instead, called “Spencer’s Little Free Library.”  The page currently has nearly 32,000 “likes.”  The Collins family decided to fight city hall.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Star picked up the story. In an editorial protesting Leawood’s acton, the Star wrote:

Mayor Peggy Dunn said she has put the topic at the top of the agenda of the July 7 City Council meeting. That’s appropriate. Lending libraries have become Leawood’s hottest topic since media reports about the forced removal of one family’s front-yard structure went viral this week.

“I’m hoping there might be some resolution that we can come up with,” Dunn said.

The rest of the nation followed suit – Spencer even got a spot on NPR. He argued his case before the authorities, standing on a milk crate to reach the podium. Reprieve! The Leawood City Council unanimously approved a temporary moratorium last week that exempts the little lending libraries from a city ordinance that prohibits structures in front yards. The moratorium will last until October 20. That’s short term. The council also discussed changing the ordinance to allow front-yard libraries. It could take two or three months to amend the ordinance as the city goes through the required public hearings before the council can adopt it.

Read more here:

According to a July 9 Facebook post: “Spencer’s Library is back out and open for business. Spencer assembled a new bench for the library. Many people have donated books, the two pictured here were given to Spencer by the author at the city council meeting. After we are done reading them they will be put into the library.”

Life is good. For now.

Read more here:

Join NYRB Classics at the “Classics and Coffee Club”

July 10th, 2014


Over at tumblr, “A Different Stripe: Notes from NYRB Classics” is inviting everyone to partake in its “Classics and Coffee Club.” Here’s the invite: “Do you have a picture of an NYRB Classic with a cup of coffee or tea? Send it to this address and we’ll post it here (making you an honorary member of the Classics and Coffee Club). And let us know where you bought or borrowed your book from. We would love to shout out bookstores and libraries.” They aren’t fussy. Later on they admit they’ll take a photo of a book with a cup of tea or – what the hell – vodka or beer or a hot toddy. How, in fact, do they know that’s coffee in my photo above, and not, say, Jamaica rum?

It sounds like fun. We’ve interviewed NYRB Classics founder and editorial director Edwin Frank before here, and we’re awfully fond of managing editor Sara Kramer, too. Most of the photos on the tumblr site are accompanied by a quote from the photographed book about coffee (or tea or vodka, etc.) – such as this one: “Of course, we always drank coffee, no matter what the weather,” from Nescio‘s “Insula Dei,” in Amsterdam Stories, translated by Damion Searls. We post that photo below, because we can’t turn down the chance to add another book cat to our gallery. This one is a half-Siamese at Haymarket Café in Northampton, MA. (I couldn’t find a coffee quote to go with the tweet I sent for Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, but I rather liked this one: “”Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…”)

Exactly what the club will do I don’t know, but I’m sure the imaginative folks at NYRB Classics will think of something. Meanwhile, check out some of the photos here.


From the Met: a superb collection of Japanese books

July 9th, 2014



In the era of Kindle, we regularly retreat for refreshment to the book-as-art-object, and no destination is better suited to this shift-in-focus than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Last fall, the museum acquired about 400 volumes spanning the 17th to 19th century, from a private collection – but unless you have mastered the Japanese from a few centuries ago, you won’t be able to read them. No problem!  You can simply look at them. That’s the whole idea of book-as-art-object. We’ll give you a head start.

japanese3Although the museum began collecting of fine art Japanese books began 60 years ago, the newest cache is choice: it includes masterpieces of woodblock printing, many nearly impossible to find in such fine condition today. Here are a few (photos by Karin L. Willis): Above, Santō Kyōden (1761–1816), New Mirror Comparing the Handwriting of the Courtesans of the Yoshiwara (1784).  Below, an illustration of seashell lovers from Kitagawa Utamaro‘s Gifts of the Ebb Tide (The shell book), probably 1789; the illustration at right is from the same volume.  Go to the the museum website here to see dozens more images. (Check out Katsushika Hokusai‘s One hundred views of Mount Fuji, 1834; 1835; ca. 1849, too.)

According to Asian Art curator John Carpenter, “Artists represented in the collection include Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige, who are best known today for their woodblock prints, but who also excelled at illustrations for deluxe poetry anthologies and popular literature. In one fell swoop, the Met now has a superb collection of Japanese books to complement its excellent holdings in paintings and prints of the Edo period (1615–1868).”



A few wise words from Dame Hilary Mantel about writing

July 7th, 2014

Photo: John Haynes

Yesterday, we mentioned author Hilary Mantel in passing, not knowing it was also her birthday. Thanks to Joseph Peschel, we found these wise words from her, more than fitting for the coming week:

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”

birthday cake

– Dame Hilary Mary Mantel, twice awarded the Booker Prize

“Mock not, mock not”: Shakespeare’s curious nod to July 6

July 6th, 2014



Don Pedro: Well, you temporize with the hours. In the meantime, good Signior Benedick, repair to Leonato’s: commend me to him and tell him I will not fail him at supper; for indeed he hath made great preparation.

Clare Asquith

She solved the riddle.

Benedick:  I have almost matter enough in me for such an embassage; and so I commit you—

Claudio:  To the tuition of God: From my house, if I had it,—

Don Pedro:  The sixth of July: Your loving friend, Benedick.

Benedick:  Nay, mock not, mock not. The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments, and the guards are but slightly basted on neither: ere you flout old ends any further, examine your conscience: and so I leave you.

I know of no one who has been able to explain these curious lines from Act 1, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare‘s Much Ado About Nothing better than Clare Asquith in her controversial book Shadowplay, which I reviewed years ago for the Washington Post.  Not even my comprehensive Riverside Shakespreare provides a gloss on the line. While I found some of her interpretations extreme (read more about them and Asquith’s book in The Guardian here), this one seemed spot on.

July 6 marks the anniversary of the execution of Sir Thomas More, an occasion that was remembered in England long after Harry the Eighth was buried. Yes, yes, I know about Hilary Mantel and what she said. Still, his contemporaries and near-contemporaries had a different view:  John Donne called him “a man of the most tender and delicate conscience that the world saw since Augustine.” Jonathan Swift referred to him as “the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.” And if the play Sir Thomas More is to be considered as the Bard’s handiwork, Shakespeare himself called him “the best friend the poor ever had.”

Famous film about him below:

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