Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

American Christianity I

November 14, 2018

I have just read an article by Amanda Marcotte in Salon, titled “White evangelicals will never dump Trump — but those who leave the churches will”.

It brought me back to the mid-1950s, when I was an undergraduate at Caltech. At the time the campus had a facility for listening to classical music, called the Musicale, copmprising a small room with up-to-date (I don’t think “state-of-the-art” was in use yet) hi-fi equipment for playing LP records in stereo (both innovations at the time). There were very few of us who used the facility — typically for eating our bag lunches — and those few became friends.

One member of our group, with whom I became close, was a graduate student in chemistry, who turned out to be an evangelical Christian, affiliated with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He believed in a personal god and a personal devil — beliefs that did not diminish his dedication to science. (He has, I have discovered, remained faithful to both — in his fashion — having written a book criticizing “intelligent design“.)

When the 1956 presidential election came upon us, he surprised me by saying that he would vote for Stevenson. The reason, he said, was that “to vote for Eisenhower is to vote for Nixon, and Nixon is evil.” This was a decade and a half before Watergate.

In don’t know how my friend’s politics have evolved since our student days (he long ago moved to Canada), but it was only a few years later that the “evil” Nixon got the wholehearted support of Billy Graham. And the political evolution of evangelical Christianity in America has followed a straight line from that to its present-day embrace of Donald Trump.



The Sinners

October 9, 2018

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I would like to discuss The Sinner. Actually, The Sinners, since seasons 1 and 2 of the TV series, and the novel that season 1 is based on, are three different beasts.

I first found out about it from my favorite TV critic, Melanie McFarland. It was shortly after the first episode of season 2 had run, and it was from her that I also first learned about the first season, despite the splash that it was said to have made last year. Fortunately, the USA Network makes previously aired (cabled?) episodes (or “parts”, as they are called in this case) available for recording, while our local library happened to have the entire recorded first season on the shelf. So my wife and I binge-watched it in the course of a week, and then began playing the new season.

But to call this series a second season, as though it were a continuation of the first, is a stretch. There is no connection between the plots, and the only continuity in the show itself (as distinct from the production staff) is the character the detective, Harry Ambrose, played by Bill Pullman.

But both the professional and personal aspects of this character are quite different in the two series. In the first he is the lead detective investigating a case in his department’s jurisdiction, and his private life centers on his complicated relationships with his ex-wife and his mistress. None of this is alluded to in the second  “season”,  he is invited as a consultant by another detective in what happens to be his hometown, and what we see of his inner life is flashbacks to his traumatic childhood.

Even using the same title is a bit disingenuous. The original series is based on a novel titled Die Sünderin (feminine!) by Petra Hammesfahr, the title character being Cora Bender, who murders a man called (but not actually named) Frankie. In the TV adaptation Cora gets to retain her first name, as do (more or less) her mother (Elsbeth → Elizabeth) and her aunt (Margret → Margaret), while Frankie becomes her victim’s actual name. All the other characters’ names (and all surnames, of course) are changed significantly. Cora’s sister Magdalena (a highly symbolic name in view of the plot’s religious undertones) becomes Phoebe, while Harry Ambrose’s prototype is Rudolf Grovian, an altogether different character — conventionally and faithfully married, with a daughter and grandson about the same age as Cora and her son. And in the second series it is not at all clear who the titular sinner is meant to be.

Another difference between novel and adaptation has to do with space and time. The novel takes place in precise locations in and around Cologne and Hamburg, and, while it was first published in 1999, its action is earlier in that decade. We know this because Freddie Mercury is dead, so it must be later than 1991, while Cora’s mother Elsbeth (who is now 65) had, as a young girl, a pregnancy-producing fling with a British soldier after World War II. If she was 18 in 1945, that would put us in 1992; if a year or two younger, then in 1993 or 1994, but no later. The TV series, on the other hand, takes place vaguely in the present (all the technology is up to date, but the are no references to contemporaneous events) and in fictitious places in upstate New York.

Each of the three is an excellent work, worthy of enjoyment on its own.


Yet more on “Polish death camps”

February 16, 2018

In contradiction to what I wrote the other day, I have discovered (thanks to a reference in the relevant Wikipedia page), that an explicit use of the expression “in Polish death camps” (w polskich obozach śmierci) is found in Zofia Nałkowska‘s 1946 book Medaliony , though a little later in the same section there occurs w obozach Polski (‘in Poland’s camps’), which in the English translation is also rendered as “in Polish camps”.

Zofia Nałkowska (1884–1954) was a prominent figure in post-war Poland, not only as a writer and public intellectual but in politics as well. Several cities in Poland have streets named for her. Will she, then, be posthumously charged with a crime against the reputation of the Polish nation and the Republic of Poland?

And am I a criminal in Poland for citing these references?

British TV history

February 11, 2018

In a post I published the other day, I commented on some (far from all) of the historical distortions perpetrated by the creator of the TV series Vikings, Michael Hirst. This is perhaps an extreme example of what is quite common in Brtish-written televised historical dramas, at least those written directly for TV. Those based on novels are different, since the good British historical novelists (Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and their ilk) play freely with character and language but stick close to actual history.

In the same Michael Hirst’s The Tudors (mistitled because it’s only about Henry VIII, one of five Tudor monarchs, not to mention their illustrious Welsh predecessors), Henry’s two sisters Margaret (who married James IV of Scotland) and Mary (who married first an elderly king of France and, after he died, her brother’s friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) are conflated into one, with Margaret’s name and Mary’s history, except that her elderly first husband is king of Portugal, not France.

Another recent example: in the currently airing Victoria, the queen is depicted as jealous of Albert’s friendship with the (unknown to her) mathematician Ada Lovelace, though in fact Ada had been presented at court and it was Victoria herself who, on the recommendation of her favorite politician, Lord Melbourne (who was a cousin of Ada’s mother), made Ada a countess by making her husband Earl of Lovelace. And when Albert’s father and brother, both named Ernest, visit London in 1844(?), both are portrayed as single while in fact both were married; the younger Ernest’s wife Alexandrine was to become a good friend of Victoria’s.

Interestingly enough, as cavalier as Vikings is about history, it tries to be realistic about language. While the dialogue is predominantly in English, accents are used to distinguish speakers of the original languages: all the actors playing Anglo-Saxon characters speak with a standard English accent (RP), those playing Scandinavians with a Scandinavian one, and those playing Franks with a French one. And in a situation where two languages are spoken, the actors actually speak in the original languages — Old English, Old Norse and Old French. (The last is a bit anachronistic, being in an 11th-century form of the language as found in the Song of Roland rather than that of the 9th-century Strasbourg Oaths, but that’s just  a petty quibble on my part.) The presence of the character Athelstan, who is Anglo-Saxon but speaks Norse (and teaches English to Ragnar), is crucial to the plot.

Consider, by contrast, the series The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels, which covers the same ground as Vikings (the Scandinavian invasions of England) but is historically fairly accurate. While it uses the same accent convention as Vikings (even a modern Irish accent for an Irish character), it never makes clear which language is being spoken, since all the characters seem to understand one another without interpreters. (This is not the case in the novels, only in the TV series.)

Now, Victoria falsifies both history and language. Victoria is known to have spoken German with her mother, with her governess Baroness Lehzen, and with Albert. But in the series not only do they all explicitly speak English, but so does Albert with his brother and father, despite a few poorly pronounced German phrases here and there.

And I have already commented on language use in Wolf Hall (based on Hilary Mantel’s novels).

Greece and Macedonia… again!

February 7, 2018

I mentioned in my last post that the old squabble between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s name has started up again. I first wrote about this a dozen years ago, but maybe it’s time to comment again.

The Greeks’ (or, as I prefer, the Grecians’) argument is that the Republic has no right to appropriate the Macedonian identity (including symbols like the Vergina star or Alexander the Great), which to them is Greek, and that much of the Republic’s territory (the northern half was never part of historic Macedonia.

Well, let’s see now. In the (vastly oversimplifying) words of the late Benedict Anderson, nations are “imagined communities”, and the Macedonian Slavs’ choice to imagine themselves as Macedonians (after thinking of themselves as Bulgarians until about 100 years go) is no different from choices other nations have made. For a thousand years, under both Byzantine and Ottoman rule, the Greeks thought of themselves as Romans (Ρωμαίοι in Greek, Rūm in Turkish), and reinvented themselves as Hellenes only at the beginning of the 19th century for the benefit of West European philhellenes. In the Middle Ages, the French thought of themselves as Franks (Franci in Latin and interchangeably Francs or Franceis [modern Français] in French), though the Franks’ historic homeland does not lie in France.

Quite a few nations invented themselves in the course of the past century: Luxembourgers, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Montenegrins…

As for Macedonia being a part of Greece: Greeks are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christians, and as such they should know the Greek Bible, also known as the New Testament. If they were to open the Acts of the Apostles, presumably written by the Greek (or Hellenistic Jew) Luke the Evangelist, they would read (in Chapter 20, Verses 1–3) that “Paul… departed for to go into Macedonia… and… he came into Greece… he purposed to return through Macedonia” (ο Παυλος… εξηλθεν πορευεσθαι εις την Μακεδονιαν… και… ηλθεν εις την Ελλαδα… εγενετο γνωμης του υποστρεφειν δια Μακεδονιας).

Clearly, then, to the Evangelist Macedonia is not a part of Greece, and since in the Christian view the Bible is eternally true, the view that “Macedonia is Greek” is heretical, isn’t it?.

Bulgarian and Macedonian

January 17, 2018

When I wrote about Colombia’s musical diversity in my last post, I neglected to mention that, in addition to its many own regional styles, Colombia is quite hospitable to outside music as well. Salsa is popular everywhere, but especially in Cali. Bogotá is a hotbed of Mexican mariachi music, while the Argentine tango is at home in Medellín (it was where Carlos Gardel gave his last performance before the plane in which he was leaving crashed with another at the airport). And, of course international pop, rock and jazz are as popular as anywhere, though they weren’t so when I lived there in 1977. When Elvis Presley died, all four of Bogotá’s rock bands joined for a memorial concert at the bullring.

But while these musical styles are acknowledged as being external, the llanero music of Venezuela is, as I mentioned, regarded as a part of Colombia’s heritage, including sometimes a change of lyrics as I described in the post. I remember once getting into an argument with a Colombian acquaintance who insisted that a certain well-known Venezuelan song (I think it was Moliendo café) was Colombian (this was before such a question could be easily resolved with the help of a portable device).

I found some similarities between Colombia’s attitude toward llanero music and Bulgaria’s toward that of Macedonia (meaning what is historically known as Vardar Macedonia, now the Republic of Macedonia). I am familiar with the subject because of my lifelong (or at least adult-life-long) addition to Balkan folk-dancing.)

First of all, there are some historical parallels. Colombia and Venezuela were once together as part of Spain’s New Granada, and Venezuela briefly belonged to Colombia after independence. Similarly, Macedonia belonged to the Bulgarian empire before becoming a part, along with present-day Bulgaria, of the Ottoman empire’s eyalet of Rumelia, and was briefly a part of independent Bulgaria before being returned to Ottoman rule. Until about a century ago Slavic Macedonians regarded themselves as Bulgarians (though nowadays such an identification is vehemently rejected), while the inhabitants of southwestern Bulgaria (Pirin Macedonia) continue to identify themselves as both Bulgarians (ethnically) and Macedonians (historico-culturally), and this is how many Bulgarians still think of Macedonian Slavs. A young Bulgarian woman in Plovdiv once told me that when a professor from Skopje gave a lecture (in Macedonian) at her university, the students thought that he was speaking funny Bulgarian.

To this day, Bulgaria and Macedonia share national heroes (such as Goce Delchev and Jane Sandanski), just as do Colombia and Venezuela (such as Simón Bolívar).

And, interestingly, Blagoevgrad hosts a pan-Macedonian festival, just as Villavicencio hosts a llanero one.

With regard to music, Bulgarian regard Macedonian music and dance (especially what is known as lesnoto) as part of their folklore. They don’t Bulgarianize the content of Macedonian songs (which are replete with references to the river Vardar and places in Macedonia), but they do adapt the language. For, unlike the common Spanish of Colombia and Venezuela, Macedonian and Bulgarian are, at least in their standard form, similar but different languages, as I have discussed here (when it comes to actual speech there is a dialect continuum), though the difference is lessened in singing, since the distinctions in syllabic stress and vowel quality become insignificant.

As one example, when the Macedonian song Oj ti pile is sung by Bulgarians it is generally done in Bulgarian, as More pile. One exception is the great Kostadin Gugov, a specialist in Macedonian songs, who makes a point of singing the original Macedonian version.

To summarize:

There is a llanero culture, which Venezuelans consider uniquely theirs, while Colombians regard it as a part of their national culture, and sometimes adapt the contributions from Venezuela to make it more so.

There is a Slavic* Macedonian culture, which “Macedonians” (Slavs of the Republic of Macedonia) consider uniquely theirs, while Bulgarians regard it as a part of their national culture, and sometimes adapt the contributions from the Republic to make it more so.

*I am leaving out the Greek, Albanian and Aromanian (Vlach) elements of Macedonia.

Colombian and Venezuelan

January 11, 2018

Of late I have been listening — mainly via YouTube — to quite a few Colombian and Venezuelan songs. And what drove me to it was a subtle point of Spanish grammar.

Specifically, the Colombian songs are of the genre known as vallenato, and the Venezuelan ones of llanero. I have long been a fan of both.

Llanero music is that of the Llanos or plains that make up more than a quarter of Venezuela’s territory and whose culture — focused on cattle and horsemanship — is seen by Venezuelans as typifying their country, embodied in the classic novel Doña Barbara (by Rómulo Gallegos, the first democratically elected president of Venezuela) and in the song Alma llanera (a joropo), which is considered Venezuela’s unofficial second national anthem.

I have never been in Venezuela, but when I was in graduate school I had a friend from there, who taught me to dance the joropo and introduced me to the beautiful interplay of harp, maracas, cuatro and singing.

I got to know and love vallenato music when I lived in Bogotá in 1977. The music is characteristic of the Caribbean coastal region, but in the 1970s (after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967 and the founding of the Vallenato Legend Festival in 1968) it became popular throughout Colombia. But it is still one of a great many of the country’s regional musical styles.

Colombia is arguably the most diverse Hispano-American country. Geographically it has the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the Amazon and the Andes, volcanoes and plains. Culturally there are different mixes of European, African and indigenous influences in different regions. (The vallenato is one such mix, with the European accordion, the African drum or caja and the indigenous guacharaca.) There are even more different varieties of Spanish spoken there than elsewhere; it’s the one Hispanic country where I am not usually taken for a foreigner, because my accent may be taken as being from some other part of Colombia.

I mentioned the plains of Colombia. They are, in fact, adjacent to those of Venezuela, in the department (the Colombian equivalent of province or state) of Meta, whose capital Villavicencio is located on the department’s very edge, where the plains meet the Andes, but its culture is fully that of the Llanos, virtually the same as Venezuela’s. I got to hear llanero music live when I visited there in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most famous llanero song, internationally, is Caballo viejo, though its best-known renditions are in more of a salsa-like or pop style, unlike the purely llanero original of Simón Díaz. But my favorite is Campesina, which I first heard sung by a Colombian llanero group in Bogotá.

In the version I heard, the last line of the song’s lyrics is “y adorna con tu hermosura a la tierra colombiana“, which struck me as not quite grammatical.

Spanish has the peculiarity that when direct object of a verb is a person or persons, it is treated as an indirect object, with the preposition a. This makes it possible, when the direct object is, say, the name of the country, to distinguish between its meanings as, on the one hand, the land, and on the other hand the people or some entity representing the people (government, armed force, sports team). Thus, “Germany occupied Poland” is Alemania ocupó Polonia, but “Germany defeated Poland” is Alemania derrotó a Polonia. But la tierra colombiana is land, not people.

The mystery was solved for me when I discovered, by searching the song out on YouTube, that the song is actually Venezuelan, and the line in question is “y adorna con tu hermosura la tierra venezolana“, without the ungrammatical a, which the Colombians added to make up for the missing syllable.

Now, what was it that led me to listening to vallenato? The accident of finding a vallenato version. of Caballo viejo.

And, incidentally, listening to the song led me back to my old song-translating ways, and I’ve made an English version of it.

Happy holidays!

December 24, 2017

In English, there are two-word phrases that have different meanings, depending on which word is stressed. The meanings may even be opposite: a near-miss is “almost a miss” — that is, a hit that is close to being a miss — while a near miss is a miss that is near (close to) the target but is still a miss.

For another example, a French major is an officer in the French army, while a French major is an undergraduate student of French language and literature.

And, more relevantly, a wish of “a happy new year” is one for the whole upcoming year (as in the song We wish you a merry Christmas), while “happy New Year” (or “New Year’s”) refers to the celebrations around New Year’s Day.

I have always interpreted “happy holidays” to be, primarily, shorthand for “merry Christmas and happy New Year”, though other holidays people may celebrate around the season — Boxing Day, Saint Stephen’s, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Epiphany — may be implied obliquely. (The inclusion of Hanukkah is iffy, since it often occurs well before the Christmas season, and there is no Jewish tradition of “happy Hanukkah” wishes.)

The insistence of Fox News, Donald Trump and the Christian right on the replacement of “happy holidays” with “merry Christmas” is not so much the end of a nonexistent “war on Christmas” but the beginning of a WAR ON NEW YEAR and, secondarily, on such Christian (especially Catholic) holidays as Saint Stephen’s and Epiphany as well.




When Harry met…

November 29, 2017

In all the media frenzy around the engagement between Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle, I have yet to see a reference to the recent movie King Charles III, in which a fictionalized Prince Harry falls in love with a black woman. The play that the film was based on was first produced in 2014, well before Harry met Meghan.

Looks like life imitating art, innit? To be sure, the woman in the play (Jessica Edwards) is working-class English black (and a republican to boot), while Meghan Markle is glamorous American blackish. And the fictionalized Harry gives up Jess in order to remain a royal, while the real one is going to marry Meghan. But still…


October 24, 2017

I recently read a book that I should have read some forty years ago, when it first came out. And reading that book led to another, by the same author, which turned out to be among the most delightful novels I’ve ever read. And all because of serendipity.

A couple of months ago Mark Liberman published a post on Language Log about a book that had just appeared in English, The seventh function of language, by Laurent Binet. The book’s relevance to Language Log lay in its linguistics-laden contents and in its inclusion as characters of many real-life personalities in linguistics, semiology, literary criticism and related fields. Here’s the list cited by Mark Liberman:

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Louis Althusser, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Morris Zapp, Gayatri Spivak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Lacan, Camille Paglia, and more.

I was familiar (if only from having seen them in print) with many of these names, but not Morris Zapp.

I was able to get the French original (published in 2015), La septième fonction du langage, from my university library. It turned out to be a fun read, and the first part, taking place in Paris and Bologna, seemed like historical fiction. While this term is not usually applied to books taking place in the recent past (here it’s around 1980), there is no reason why it shouldn’t: actual events (the death of Roland Barthes, the Bologna massacre) form the background, and fictionally treated actual persons mingle with fictitious ones — that’s what historical fiction is. But when the scene shifts to Ithaca, NY, things go haywire: Derrida and Searle die (the former lived till 2004, the latter is still with us), and the flamboyant Morris Zapp makes his appearance.

When I tried to find out about Morris Zapp, I discovered that he is a fictitious character created by David Lodge in his novel Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. I looked this up on Wikipedia, and found out that one of the two campuses involved is modeled on UC Berkeley, the university where I taught for most of my adult like. My public library has nothing of David Lodge, and the one at UCB had it  only as part of a trilogy, which I duly checked out.

To say that the State University of Euphoria (also called Euphoric State) is “modeled” on Berkeley is an understatement. While the state of Euphoria is supposedly “a small but populous state… situated between Northern and Southern California” — that is, the greater Bay Area is imagined as a separate state — the site of the university, “Plotinus” is an obvious stand-in for Berkeley (both are named for philosophers), and is across the Bay from the “glittering, glamorous city of Esseph” (SF, get it?). The “right-wing Governor of the State” is (this is 1969) “Ronald Duck, a former movie-actor.” Berkeley’s Euclid and Shattuck Avenues become Plotinus’s Pythagoras Drive and Shamrock Avenue, while UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall is Euphoric State’s Dealer Hall. San Francisco’s North Beach is Esseph’s South Strand, and the Golden Gate Bridge is the Silver Span.

(To be continued)