Saturday, October 25, 2008

Carving Pumpkins

Pumpkin carving is the most fantastic idea ever. First of all, the word pumpkin is absurd. It's fun to say. It looks silly. And they are orange, and make such cool noises when tapped. They yield useful pulp, which makes a most delicious pie. They are full of delicious seeds, and are arguably the best seeded food (not as snackable as the sunflower, but meatier). And, of course, you get to play with knives, and make silly faces. If you have no skill whatsoever... who cares? It's still a giant glowing orange fruit! And if you do have... I don't know, small motor skills, any artistic sense at all, and so on, you can actually make really cool things.

Everything about Halloween is great. Carving pumpkins are the best; only outdone in the annals of yearly traditions by Christmas morning and Easter brunch, edging out Thanksgiving dinner, Fourth of July BBQs, New Years Day (which is too all-over-the-place; do you listen to the Vienna Philharmonic, watch football, or just eat nachos and hopefully watch a nice snowfall?), and the first day of skiing. I distinctly remember a childhood Friday Halloween, sitting at home, watching a Ray Harryhausen-esque dinosaur movie, carving pumpkins, cooking pumpkin seeds, and being perfectly contented. One can ever wear sweaters without a jacket for the entire day!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Character Development

The first sense, while arguably the more interesting one- although in great danger of being didactic and dull- is perhaps the more esoteric. One often hears laments over a work of temporal art's lack of character development, or some other, equivalent statement (nearly always involving my arch-nemesis, cardboard). I must admit that I too think the second meaning nearer to "correct," as Hal points out, it is quite close to the meaning of development in photography. After all, it could be argued that the former type of character development does not even exist, or, more weakly, that to name such changes a 'development' is an overambitious bit of teleology.

The term, interestingly, also finds currency in music, where this distinction is much more complicated. It would at first blush seem akin to the first meaning; just as there are classic literary devices to advance a character, there are classic musical devices. But one could also view musical development as being more aligned to the second meaning, where the various changes in instrumentation, tempo, key, time signature, and so on are all used to more fully express whatever it was that the theme expressed. The distinction here is nearly impossible to draw, and certainly seems to strike at more basic distinctions: does a piece of music mean anything other than precisely what it is? If so, the second meaning is precluded; there is nothing more to be heard than what is in fact heard. Conversely, if one does ascribe to music having some abstract significance, the second meaning is inextricably caught up in the first one, how can the development of a theme fail to further explore it's significance?

In either case, musical or literary, it would seem the two meanings are in technique nigh indistinguishable. A novel might have wooden characters and fall prey to pedantry, but if so it is not for a lack of development, but simply the ineffectiveness of the development- done properly, the same tale would have both meanings. Certainly any novel with development in the second sense will admit of debate over whether it had development in the first sense (or else the high school essay would cease to be!) And in music, one might argue over whether or not a composition has any development (obviously, Bolero comes to mind, but so too most 'minimalist' works), but this is really an argument of effectiveness- once one has admitted that a piece of work is indeed developed, picking only one sense of the word becomes impossible. Or, more precisely, it becomes a philosophical question, largely outside the grounds of the work itself.

Character Development

The phrase, it seems to me, has two distinct meanings which are independent of one another. One or both types of character development could be present in any given novel.

1. On the one hand, a character develops over the course of a novel in the sense of undergoing change -- i.e., becoming a wiser, better, or maybe even a more moral person. Or perhaps they could end up a vicious shell of their previous self. The important thing, however, is change: a character develops in the sense of becoming different than they were.

2. On the other hand, a character develops over the course of a novel in the sense of becoming more detailed or nuanced. They're still the "same" character -- there's no moral progress or regress -- but through the action of the novel we have to come to better know them as they are. This is the sense in which film develops in developing solution.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Rabbit Reconsidered

This weekend I read Rabbit, Run by John Updike (I found it on the street in Park Slope along with The Words). Published in 1960, Rabbit, Run is the first entry in Updike's four-part (+ novella-coda) Rabbit-Cycle which describes the ups and downs of former basketball star Harrison "Rabbit" Angstrom's life.

Anyway, it was really good -- contestable, perhaps, in its social conclusions, and questionable, perhaps, in its stylistic decisions -- but nonetheless "good" for all that, and maybe even because of that -- i.e., "good" to the precise degree it is urgently contestable or provocatively questionable.

So I guess I feel like an idiot for dismissing Updike all these years. True, Terrorist (which I reviewed for the Nass) did suck, and it sucked hard, but even Terrorist, now that I think about it, had some moments of life.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sartre Restarted

In HS, Sartre was very in ("Hell is other people," we said knowingly), but in college he was very out ("Sartre just misinterpreted Heidegger," we said dismissively). Like my classmates, I conformed to both upswing and downswing in the career of Sartre's reputation.

Recently, however, I found a copy of his autobiography, The Words, lying on the street in Park Slope (along with Rabbit, Run by John Updike -- this has actually happened to me multiple times in Park Slope). Technically, it's not a complete autobiography: Sartre only recounts his first ten years. But his first ten years was a formative period which, in one way he spend the next twenty repudiating and overcoming, and in another way ends up consummating the very ideals hatched during these halcyon days.

Anyway, I finished it a few days ago, and it was shockingly, overwhelmingly good. Perhaps that's the best way figures such as Sartre should be approached -- through their marginal and parergal works, like The Words or Sartre's brilliant essay on anti-Semitism -- rather than through those big opera about which one already has set opinions.

Satre's father died while he was in utero. Thus, his childhood was a fatherless one, a condition which Sartre in time came to regard as a great boon. Here's (part of) what he has to say about it:
There is no good father, that's the rule. Don't lay the blame on men, but on the bond of paternity, which is rotten. To beget children, nothing better; to have them, what iniquity! Had my father lived, he would have lain on me at full length and would have crushed me. As luck had it, he died young ...I left behind me a young man who did not have time to be my father and who could now be my son. Was it a good thing or a bad? I don't know. But I readily subscribe to the verdict of an eminent psychoanalyst: I have no Superego.
Like I said, it's an unexpectedly awesome memoir. Also, it's really funny in parts. I definitely recommend this book.

Tonight I Learned an Important Lesson

Never, ever, under any circumstances, read about serial killers while listening to Boards of Canada. You'll inevitably end up reading about Eliphas Levi or something equally absurd. I did stumble onto Madeleine L'Engle, which is ok. But still, now I've a case of insomnia. Damn.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Dude Abides

I like Heidegger, I really do, but sometimes even I have to shake my head at the man's writing-style. It all makes sense, I guess, when you get the idea of what he's after, but still, sometimes you just have to stop and laugh. This quote is from Conversation on a Country Path About Thinking, a ponderous dialogue conducted in Heidegger-speak between three characters identified only as "Scientist," "Scholar," and the (somewhat insufferable) "Teacher:"

Teacher: The region gathers, just as if nothing were happening, each to each and each to all into an abiding, while resting in itself. Regioning is a gathering and re-sheltering for an expanded resting in an abiding.
All ridicule aside, it's actually a very interesting and profound document, and I'm glad to have read it.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thank You, Joe Simmons

At some point in my survey taking crazy (I believe this was junior year), I got signed up to an email list run by one Joseph Simmons, which I believe about half of Princeton is also on, where you take short, seemingly inchoate surveys with the promise of winning $50. First, has anyone actually won? By the usual rule at Princeton, that between you and everyone you know and everyone that everyone you know knows (practice your recursive descent parsing skill!) you encompass the entire class, it should be easy to determine if anyone ever wins. Second, the one I took today (I suppose I should, um, stop taking them, but whatever. It's the digital equivalent to people handing PETA pamphlets out on street corners. Except you don't have to see or smell them, so it's actually much better. Dirty plebeians) is exceptionally strange. The first question was, if you unexpectedly find $20, would be willing to gamble it in a fair game (50/50 change of -$20 or +$20)? The second was, if a husband and wife can't decide whose last name their child should have, is a coin toss an acceptable way to make the decision? The third was your gender (at this point, the survey mostly makes sense. How much do you like 50/50 games? Is there a gender preference for 50/50 games over money, vs. 50/50 games about life decisions?). The final question was if you are a vegetarian. So, now I have questions:

  1. What?
  2. No, seriously, what? Why did you ask that? What is the goal?
  3. Why aren't I a psychology/sociology graduate student?

Also, I found this album on my computer of Benjamin Britten songs with lyrics by Auden (not sure if this was an explicit collaboration, or just Britten setting already written poems), which is very enjoyable. I don't understand why people dislike traditional Western vocal music. I mean, I can understand disliking the music, but I know a surprising number of people who wouldn't object to the music without a singer, but hate when they hear a voice come in. I don't get it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Learning to Whistle

Until late last year, I couldn't whistle. At some point I decided this was unacceptable, and I tried for awhile and then I could whistle. So I could whistle for awhile. For the past few months I've been without any music instruments, so the only ways to make noise are singing (ugh), humming (worse), or whistling. I have become fairly proficient at whistling, much to the chagrin, I suppose, of anyone within earshot. Whistling is an excellent complement to walking.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Perfect Morning

Proust + Pancakes: