Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

American Christianity II

January 21, 2022

I stopped posting in March of 2019, when covid-19 became a grim fact of life that dictated a spell — whose length was unknown — of confinement at home. I took advantage of it to complete a project that had been on my mind for years: a sort of memoir telling my story of, among other things, surviving ghettos in Poland and concentration camps in Germany. I finally did so at the end of last year, and self-published the book through Amazon Kindle. It as available as an e-book here, and as a paperback here.

Despite several relaxations of the isolation imposed by the pandemic, we’re not really out if it, especially since omicron became the most cited Greek-letter name. So I’m back to blogging, and I would like to start by continuing a post on American Christianity that I published on November 14, 2018.

Aside from the chemistry grad student that I wrote about, I knew of only one other student in my days at Caltech who was a committed Christian, a classmate of mine who was a fellow civil-engineering major (there were not many of us). I didn’t live on campus, so I didn’t know the Sunday-morning habits of the students — they might have been attending some of the Pasadena’s many conventional churches, including one where the Los Angeles Rams’ star “Deacon” Dan Towler served as pastor — but it wasn’t something that was talked about on campus.

Based on my life in postwar Germany until 1950, my life in America after that and my visits back to Europe starting in 1958, my impression was that in the 50s and 60s the United States was not significantly more religious than Europe, and considerably less so than such (at the time) ultra-Christian countries as Ireland, Italy, Spain and Greece. (The last two were, along with Portugal, right-wing dictatorships in which the Church played along with the regime). True, in 1954 “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 “In God We Trust” was made the national motto, but then Britain had (and still has) Dieu et mon droit as its royal motto, and Denmark has Gud, konge og fædreland as its national one.

But drastic changes began to happen in Western societies in the 1960s, and intensified in the 1970s. There was the abolition of the death penalty (temporary in the US, permanent elsewhere). There was the liberalization of private, especially sexual, conduct — the legalization of abortion and homosexuality, the destigmatization of extramarital cohabitation and childbirth. There was civil-rights legislation — the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the US, the Race Relations Act of 1968 in the UK, and so on. There was a relaxation of blue laws in the US and some European countries.

These changes were, by and large, embraced by most of the countries’ populations. In Europe they led to further changes: the overthrow of the three remaining dictatorship in southern Europe, and a gradual turning away from religion. The Quiet Revolution in Quebec led the way for similar changes in Canada.

In the US this acceptance was largely confined to the larger metropolitan areas, while they were viewed with hostility elsewhere, especially in rural areas. And because some of these changes, especially the loosening of strictures on sexual behavior, ran counter to traditional church teachings, many of those opposed to them took refuge in “conservative” religion as a shield.

It must be pointed out that the rural-urban divide plays out differently in the US and Europe. European rural folk, for the most part, live in villages, but these are clustered densely around a smaller or larger city that serves as a district capital, and in Europe relatively small cities (with a population range of, say 10,000 to 25,000) are distinctively more urban than their counterparts in the US. Often such a city has a history as a feudal or ecclesiastical center, with a castle, cathedral, abbey or the like, and has a dense urban core that differs only in size from one in a large city, with a main square (often the site of a market) and surrounding business streets that are home to varied stores, restaurants, banks, professional offices and the like. It also serves as a focal point for many activities for the surrounding villages, with it is typically connected by public transport: it’s where the secondary (and possibly post-secondary) schools are located, as well as sports clubs (for both participatory and spectator sports), police headquarters, and so on. (Those who watch Midsomer Murders may recognize the fictitious Causton — represented on television by the real towns of Thame and Wallingford, both with populations around 12,000 — as just such a city.) Village dwellers may work in the city, or else they visit it frequently.  As a result of this contact, the cultural divide between rural and urban people is blurred. Far more important than such a divide are the cultural differences among regions, as well as socioeconomic differences between the “provinces” (which may include fully urbanized areas) and the large metropolitan areas, as may be gleaned from the gilets jaunes movement in France.

By contrast, a “rural” American typically lives in or near a typical American small town, represented in fiction by Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie and Elk Mills, Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, and in reality by thousands of actual places. The main characteristic distinguishing such a town from a European village is its self-sufficiency. Even a fairly small town, with a population not much over a thousand or two, is likely to have its own high school and library, its own police force if it is incorporated (or a sheriff’s department if it is a county seat, which many such places are), a limited set of its own businesses (typically located on a short stretch of Main Street) and industrial establishments, and a full complement of churches appealing to numerous denominations, some of them invariably of an evangelical nature.

It is this last feature that, for the inhabitants of such a town, becomes an identifying symbol distinguishing them from people they think of as urban, often decried as liberal Godless urban elites (or some combination of these epithets). I am not aware of any indication that the practice of Christian virtues — chastity, temperance, kindness and the like — is any more widespread in rural towns than in cities, and the massive embrace of a figure like Donald Trump by rural America shows that such virtues are not really considered as important as the use of Christianity as an identity marker.

To be continued.


Mystery Spanish

January 21, 2019

I have previously commented (here and here) on the difficulty that American and British writers of mystery novels have with getting matters relating to the Spanish language or Hispanic culture, even writers — such as Tony Hillerman and Michael Connelly — who have lived in places rife with Hispanic people, culture and history (New Mexico and Southern California, respectively).

Recently Connelly introduced a new detective, a female Mexican-American named Bella Lourdes. He seems to have seen Lourdes as a part of Hispanic women’s names, specifically as a second name (e.g. María Lourdes or Ana Lourdes) and assumed that it was a family name, as though a Marian apparition that happened in France in the 19th century could have given rise to a Spanish surname.

But I have also discovered that the ignorance of Hispanic matters is not limited to anglophone writers. I recently read the Olof Palme trilogy by Leif GW Persson, and found that when, in the third volume (Falling Freely, as if in a Dream), the Swedish detective goes to Majorca, Persson gets several things wrong.

1. He confuses the Spanish (Castilian) and Catalan (Majorcan) toponyms, referring to Cala Sant Vicente, which is actually either San Vicente (Spanish) or Sant Vicenç (Catalan).

2. He refers to the Guardia Civil as “the Spanish national police” while it’s actually one of the Spanish national police forces, the other being the Policía Nacional, though the case at hand, being an offshore disappearance, is in fact under the purview of the former.

3. One of the Spanish policemen is nicknamed El Pastor, ostensibly because of his clergyman-like character. While pastor can, in context, denote a protestant minister, such a context is too improbable to be the source of a nickname in Spain. The ordinary meaning of pastor is ‘shepherd’, and any hispanophone, when hearing such a nickname, would think of it as describing a shepherd-like quality, whatever that might mean.


Good Night

November 12, 2018

Theodore Baker (1851–1934) was a noted American musicologist who, among other things, was the first to write about the music of indigenous Americans, and was for many years the in-house translator for the music-publishing house G. Schirmer, Inc.

Baker’s translations are what appears above the German text of the Schubert volume I mentioned in my last post. His style is what passed as “poetic” in the Victorian era: the first lines of Gute Nacht, “Fremd bin ich eingekommen, fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus” — quite ordinary colloquial German — are rendered as “A stranger I came hither, a stranger hence I go”. I can’t imagine anyone nowadays being caught dead singing lines like these.

Around the turn of the millennium I developed another hobby, that of translating songs. By this I mean translating them into modern English, keeping the meaning as close as possible to the original but also keeping its rhythm and rhyme.

My first effort dealt with a set of three Catalan art songs by the 20th-century composer Federico Mompou. Since then, however, I have avoided art songs and focused primarily on popular songs and secondarily on opera numbers. But I’ve always kept Gute Nacht in the back of my mind. But, because I love the song so much, I wanted it to be just right.

Since I’ve resumed singing I have taken another stab at it. Here is my latest attempt. It definitely isn’t final.


October 24, 2018

I don’t mean to write about any actual person lying under oath, such as Brett Kavanaugh. The title of this post is just the translation of that of a novel by Petra Hammesfahr (the author of The Sinner), Meineid.

I have a quirk about reading. If a book is written in a language of which I have a reading knowledge (with the occasional help of a dictionary, if necessary), then I feel compelled to read it in the original. I won’t try to justify this compulsion — translation is a noble enterprise that I myself have engaged in — but I can’t deny it.

And so, when I found out that the first season of the TV series The Sinner was based on Die Sünderin, I made an effort to get it, assuming that my ever-reliable university library would have it. To my surprise, it doesn’t — no branch has anything other than the English version. Eager to get to know her work, I checked out one of the two German books of hers that I found to be available, the aforementioned Meineid, published in 1991, two years — and six books! — after Die Sünderin.

Like the last-named, Meineid is a murder mystery, and I don’t wish to tell the plot. But the basic story is that of two women of modest family background who are each other’s best friends from the first day of elementary school. Both are brilliant students, but only one of them goes on to university and to a successful professional career, while the other, who grows into a great beauty, drops out and supports herself with odd jobs.

There’s something familiar about this background story, isn’t there? Of course: it’s the basis of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, published between 2012 and 2015. A coincidence? Possibly. Meineid does not seem to have been translated into Italian (at least it isn’t listed as such in the Italian Wikipedia page for Petra Hammesfahr). And since nothing is publicly known about Elena Ferrante, there is no way of finding out whether she reads German (unless the hypothesis that she is actually Anita Raja, who is a translator from German to Italian, is valid). This is quite different from the many coincidental points that I found between Ian Rankin’s The Naming of the Dead and Philippe Djian’s Ça, c’est un baiser. But one never knows, does one?

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 are 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.


Piano dance

September 1, 2018

A recent New York Times article about alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans by Harvard’s admission officers concludes as follows:

But if Harvard were race-blind, the plaintiffs say, its freshman class would be about 40 percent Asian-American, like the University of California, Berkeley, a public institution that has to abide by a state ban on racial preferences.

I remember hearing, during my tenure at UC Berkeley which ended two and a half decades ago, from a high-ranking campus official that if admissions (at least to the engineering programs) were based on academic criteria only, then the percentage of Asian-Americans would be closer to 100. And in my own experience of screening applications into the highly selective bioengineering program, I had to struggle to find two or three places (out of 25) for applicants of non-Asian ancestry.

And, in the long course of my attendance at various musical events at the university, I have never ceased to be amazed at the abundance of musically talented Asian-Americans who were also gifted in scientific disciplines. A description like “double major in music and molecular and cell biology” (sometimes followed by “due to begin medical studies at Harvard”) is not all that unusual.

I was privileged to attend a piano  recital by just such a student at last Wednesday’s noon concert.

The pianist tossed off some devilishly difficult pieces by Debussy and Franck with effortless technique. But she was also a strikingly attractive young woman, clad in a stylish black sleeveless gown that showed off her slim figure and shapely arms. And it’s the arms that I mean to write about.

In my more than seventy years of concert-going, I don’t recall ever experiencing a piano recital or concerto performance as a visual spectacle. The body language of conductors or violinists, yes. But pianists? They just sit.

But this young pianist’s arms performed a graceful dance as they moved over the keyboard, especially — but not only — during the copious hand crossing that some of the pieces required. The experience was not so different from watching a ballet.

I have seen many pianists in my lifetimes. Most of them have been male — from Rubinstein, Backhaus and Gieseking to Thibaudet and Lang — and so of course their arms are encased in tuxedo sleeves. And it seems to me that the women pianists I’ve seen (Alicia de Larrocha, Martha Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida…) have also worn sleeved dresses. Though one can find online photographs of a sleeveless young Larrocha or Argerich, I have no memory of watching a pianist’s arms dance as she played.

It’s a memory that will stay in my mind.


Macedonia revisited, 2

July 24, 2018

In my previous comments on the Macedonia name issue, my argument was based on the concept of synecdoche, whereby a part may take the name of the whole. I adduced the examples of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which occupies only a part of historic Azerbaijan (most of it is in Iran, which has the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan); of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which occupies only a part of historic Luxembourg (most of it is in Belgium, which has the province of Luxembourg); and of the United States of America — often called just America — which occupies only a part of the continent of America. So, I argued, let there be a Republic of Macedonia, while Greece can have its provinces of West, Central and East Macedonia.

But the argument that I have lately seen put forth by Greeks, especially on Quora, is that what they call FYROM is not at all, except for a small strip in the south, a part of historic Macedonia, which they identify essentially with the ancient kingdom of Macedon, and whose population they claim to be Greek (justifiably so, as can be read here and here). They thus accuse the Slavs who now call themselves Macedonians (and who, until  some time in the 20th century, thought of themselves as Bulgarians) of having appropriated an identity that is not theirs.

Because of the fame of Alexander the Great, Macedonian identity has carried prestige. In graduate school I had a friend who called himself Romanian-American, but he emphasized that he was of Macedonian-Romanian origin (what is now called Aromanian) and therefore a descendant of the Macedonians of Alexander.

But there is precedent for people adopting a prestigious identity that is not originally theirs. The Greeks themselves are a good example: in the Byzantine Empire and under Ottoman rule they called themselves Romans ( Ῥωμαῖοι), because of the prestige of ancient Rome; the Turks called them Rum.

Yet another example is that of the French, who assumed the identity of the Franks, a German tribe (or group of tribes) whose homeland is mainly in western Germany (the region known as Franconia or Franken). The Franks did, indeed, form the ruling class of what eventually became France, but French mythology identified French (franceis, français) with Frank (franc) retroactively to the age of Charlemagne (a heroic figure similar to Alexander), starting with the Song of Roland, and as late as Henri de Bornier’s 1875 play La Fille de Roland, the source of the saying (spoken by Charlemagne in the play) “Every man has two countries, his own and France.” (Modern French historiography, to be sure, uses Francie, not France, to denote the Frankish realm.)

So much for identity. I will write about territory next time.


Macedonia revisited, 1

July 17, 2018

Last May and June my wife and I took a trip across northwestern and north central Greece, from Corfu to Thessaloniki, with side trips into the neighboring republics of Albania and Macedonia. It was, except for the sometimes-too-warm weather, a most enjoyable trip, with visits to archaeological sites, historic monuments, old cities museums and magnificent scenery, including some beautiful lakes (Ioánnina, Kastoriá, Prespa and Ohrid).

We like to use public transport whenever possible, and only rent a car when it’s the only way to get to places that we want to see. This time we took a ferry from Corfu to Sarandë in Albania, a local bus to visit Butrint, a long-distance bus from Saranda to Gjirokastër and another one (one of two daily) from there to Ioánnina, the capital of Epirus in Greece.

But in planning the continuation of our trip into Greek Macedonia it turned out that bus service is deficient, unless one wants to go directly to Thessaloniki. From Ioánnina there are four buses a week to Kastoriá and two to Flórina, but no direct ones between the latter two cities, or between Kastoriá and the Prespa lakes. All these places were on our route, and so renting a car became a necessity.

I inquired further whether one could take a rented car across the border into what the Greeks persist in calling the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Given the tense relations between this state and Greece, there are practically no public transport links between them. There is one, to be precise: the train that connects Greece to her old friend and ally Serbia (Thessaloniki–Belgrade) has to, by dint of geography, go through Macedonia. (I once took this train from Thessaloniki to Skopje, and the border crossing was not a pleasant experience.) But this is not the part of Macedonia that we wanted to visit: our focus was on Ohrid, in the country’s southwest.

It turned out that, of all the car-rental companies, only Avis allowed for a possible border crossing, and the booking could only be made through Avis Greece, not the international site. At the time I inquired they didn’t know as yet what the rate would be, so I waited. When I finally got the information, it was that the rate for a week’s rental would be over €1,100, as against some €400 for a rental within Greece. So, back to planning.

The plan that emerged was to leave the car parked in Flórina for the time that we would spend traveling to, staying in and returning from the Republic of Macedonia. To that end we booked a hotel in Flórina for the nights before and after the cross-border trip; the hotel’s management kindly agreed to let us park the car at their contract lot at no charge. And the only way to get from Flórina to Bitola is by taxi. We heard, however, that Greek taxi drivers don’t like to cross the border. By a stoke of luck, I got a lead (through TripAdviser) on a driver based in Bitola who could take us across the border both ways at a very reasonable price. The driver turned out to be punctual and skilled at bypassing the lone line at passport control.

Once in Bitola there was no problem in catching a bus to Ohrid, after visiting the archaeological site of Heraclea Lyncestis and eating lunch washed down with good Macedonian wine. And Ohrid, which I had visited over 20 years ago, was enchanting, though drastically changed.

One of my memories of that visit (which I undertook by bus from Skopje) was stopping off in a gift shop and hearing a family tell the owner, in English, that they were Spanish, from Majorca. Being curious whether they would be speaking Spanish or Majorcan, I followed them out the store and eavesdropped. There were speaking… Greek!

They probably assumed, rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly, in my opinion) that Macedonians’ attitude to Greeks would not be too friendly, and so they hid behind the common trope that a Greek accent in English sounds like a Spanish one. (It doesn’t: Greeks have a hard time with the consonant represented in both English and Spanish by ch).

The tension that I am referring to has to do with the Macedonia name dispute, which I have been writing about for a dozen years (starting here), and which has lately come to the foreground again, so that I need to write about it again. More next time.


Peeve addendum

June 30, 2018

In my last post I suggested that adding accent marks to the Latin transcriptions of names on road signs in Greece would help people pronounce them relatively more correctly.

But watching World Cup matches on American TV has reminded my that accent marks are not necessarily heeded (as I already mentioned with regard to  Bacardí).

I heard players whose jerseys are marked MÚJICA, GIMÉNEZ and CÁCERES referred to by commentators (not all) as moo-HEE-ka, HIM-en-ez and ka-SER-es. And while the name of Roberto Martínez, the manager of the Belgium team, was accented correctly this time, I have a definite recollection of him being called Martinez when he coached Everton in the English Premier League.

Clearly, then, accent marks are no guarantee of correct accentuation. But I still think my idea is good, since there are people who do pay attention to details.

Another alphabet peeve

June 26, 2018

A few months ago I wrote a critique of some versions of the Latin alphabet that have been adopted in the last 200 years by several languages, leading the some conflicts or difficulties that could have been avoided.

My latest peeve results from a trip across northern Greece that my wife and I took a few weeks ago, and concerns the Latin alphabet that is used for the transcription of Greek place names on road signs.

We visited such places as Ioannina, Kastoria, Florina and Edessa. In Greek they are, respectively, Ιωάννινα, Καστοριά, Φλώρινα and Έδεσσα, with accent marks clearly indicating the stress. But, as I have written, English-speakers have the tendency to stress vowel-final words (except those ending in y) on the penultimate syllable, and their default pronunciation — and those of Spanish-speakers as well — for these names (if they aren’t familiar with them) would be Ioannina, Kastoria, Florina and Edessa.

Why don’t the Greeks, then, put accent marks on the transcribed names? It isn’t too late — volunteers could fan out across Greece and with a stroke of a paintbrush make signs that read Ioánnina, Kastoriá, and so on.

The better pronunciation resulting from such an effort would be pleasing to hosts and visitors alike.