Sunday, January 31, 2010

Location is everything

Last week I made an offer on a townhouse. If the inspection is favorable tomorrow, I expect to settle on the property before the end of February.

The townhouse has an excellent location. To the west, a spacious city park (shown above) is close by. I counted off a mere 150 steps today as I walked from the townhouse stairs to the edge of the park. To the east, a 12 minute walk takes me to the state reservoir with its acres of adjoining woods and meadows. I have spent many hours walking the nature trails there. In my view, there is nothing so soothing to the nerves as a quiet stroll through the woods. Henry David Thoreau was of the same opinion concerning walking's therapeutic effects. From his essay Walking:

"I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say a penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The iPad and the decline of the West

The Apple iPad irrupted upon the consciousness of an innocent public this week. A new and improved way to read! Well, I was unimpressed by the advertising fanfare.

The emphasis on the technological medium for conveying literature rather than the artistic content is another example of modern aesthetic decadence, in my admittedly stodgy view. I was reading Havelock Ellis's introduction to J.K.Huysmans's Against the Grain and found a serviceable definition of artistic decadence. (Ellis and Huysmans are two of the most decadent literary fellows you are likely to run across. I would discourage anyone from following their principles, either aesthetic or moral. But they know artistic decadence thoroughly, from the inside out.)

Havelock Ellis: A decadent style is only such in relation to a classic style. It is simply a further development of a classic style, a further specialization, the homogeneous, in Spencerian phraseology, having become heterogeneous. The first is beautiful because the parts are subordinated to the whole; the second is beautiful because the whole is subordinated to the parts. Among our own early prose-writers Sir Thomas Browne represents the type of decadence in style. Swift's prose is classic, Pater's decadent. Hume and Gibbon are classic, Emerson and Carlyle decadent. In architecture, which is the key to all the arts, we see the distinction between the classic and the decadent visibly demonstrated; Roman architecture is classic, to become in its Byzantine developments completely decadent, and St. Mark's is the perfected type of decadence in art; pure early Gothic, again, is strictly classical in the highest degree because it shows an absolute subordination of detail to the bold harmonies of structure, while later Gothic, grown weary of the commonplaces of structure and predominantly interested in beauty of detail, is again decadent. In each case the earlier and classic manner -- for the classic manner, being more closely related to the ends of utility, must always be earlier -- subordinates the parts to the whole, and strives after those virtues which the whole may best express; the later manner depreciates the importance of the whole for the benefit of its parts, and strives after the virtues of individualism. All art is the rising and falling of the slopes of a rhythmic curve between these two classic and decadent extremes.

The West is presently skiing down a black diamond slope toward total individualism (in the form of societal atomization -- the Facebook nation) and decadence. Enjoy your iPads and your iLibrary books, my darling little consumers. I myself will abide in the moldering stacks of my branch library until its doors are shuttered.

How to write a shocker

I have been occupied of late with the arrangements for purchasing a townhouse and my literary interests have languished. Writing has been pushed aside and my reading has been restricted to breezy adventure novels.

Last night I finished reading John Buchan's 1924 thriller (or "shocker", to use Buchan's description) called The Three Hostages. This is the final book of the Richard Hannay series, which includes The 39 Steps, Greenmantle, and Mr. Standfast.

At the beginning of The Three Hostages, Buchan shows us Richard Hannay, now Sir Richard, as a retired general living as a country squire with his wife Mary and young son Peter John. Hannay is visited by his friend and family doctor, Tom Greenslade. During their conversation, Greenslade summarizes Buchan's method to writing shockers.

It was a cold night and very pleasant by the fireside, where some scented logs from an old pear-tree were burning. The doctor picked up a detective novel I had been reading, and glanced at the title page.

"I can read most things," he said, "but it beats me how you waste time over such stuff. These shockers are too easy, Dick. You could invent better ones for yourself."

"Not I. I call that a dashed ingenious yarn. I can't think how the fellow does it."

"Quite simple. The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively. Do you see what I mean?"

"Not a bit," I replied.

"Look here. I want to write a shocker, so I begin by fixing on one or two facts which have no sort of obvious connection."

"For example?"

"Well, imagine anything you like. Let us take three things a long way apart" -- he paused for a second to consider -- "say, an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. Not much connection between the three? You invent a connection -- simple enough if you have any imagination, and you weave all three into a yarn. The reader, who knows nothing about the three at the start, is puzzled and intrigued and, if the story is well arranged, finally satisfied. He is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn't realise that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.

"I see," I said. "You've gone and taken the gilt off my favorite light reading. I won't be able any more to marvel at the writer's cleverness."

"I've another objection to the stuff -- it's not ingenious enough, or rather it doesn't take account of the infernal complexity of life. It might have been all right twenty years ago, when most people argued and behaved fairly logically. But they don't nowadays. Have you ever realised, Dick, the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world?"

Mary, who was sitting sewing under a lamp, raised her head and laughed.

Greenslade's face had become serious. "I can speak about it frankly here, for you two are almost the only completely sane people I know. Well, as a pathologist, I'm fairly staggered. I hardly meet a soul who hasn't got some slight kink in his brain as a consequence of the last seven years. With most people it's rather a pleasant kink -- they're less settled in their grooves, and they see the comic side of things quicker, and are readier for adventure. But with some it's pukka madness, and that means crime. Now, how are you going to write detective stories about that kind of world on the old lines? You can take nothing for granted, as you once could, and your argus-eyed, lightning-brained expert has nothing solid with which to build his foundations."

I observed that the poor old War seemed to be getting blamed for a good deal that I was taught in my childhood was due to original sin.

"Oh, I'm not questioning your Calvinism. Original sin is always there, but the meaning of civilisation was that we had got it battened down under hatches, whereas now it's getting its head up. But it isn't only sin. It's a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning, a general loosening of the screws."


Greenslade: "The barriers between the conscious and the subconscious have always been pretty stiff in the average man. But now with the general loosening of screws they are growing shaky and the two worlds are getting mixed. It is like two separate tanks of fluid, where the containing wall has worn into holes, and one is percolating into the other. The result is confusion, and, if the fluids are of a certain character, explosions. That is why I say that you can't any longer take the clear psychology of most civilised human beings for granted. Something is welling up from primeval deeps to muddy it."

"I don't object to that," I said. "We've overdone civilisation, and personally I'm all for a little barbarism. I want a simpler world."

"Then you won't get it," said Greenslade. He had become very serious now, and was looking towards Mary as he talked. "The civilised is far simpler that the primeval. All history has been an effort to make definitions, clear rules of thought, clear rules of conduct, solid sanctions, by which we can conduct our life. These are the work of the conscious self. The subconscious is an elementary and lawless thing. If it intrudes on life, two results must follow. There will be a weakening of the power of reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty. And there will be a failure of nerve."

A generation later, Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Ian Fleming adapted this writing method for their own ends as they wrote their shockers about mid-20th century barbarism and the decadence that has infiltrated the West since The Great War.

[Wikipedia Note: Pukka is a loan word borrowed in English during the British Raj from the Hindi language and is of Sanskrit origin. An adjective (esp in India) meaning:
1) Genuine; authentic.
2) Superior; first-class; firm; properly or perfectly done, firmly constructed

Therefore, the pukka madness that Greenslade spoke of means a most deep-seated madness.]

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Journalism Recipe from James Barrie

When a young H.G. Wells was recovering from tuberculosis, he considered what jobs were possible during his convalescence. His options were severely limited: he scarcely had the strength to sit up in bed. He determined to give journalism a try. But what to write?

At this point Wells had the good fortune of reading James Barrie's When a Man is Single, a short novel about a fledgling journalist named Rob Angus, who comes to London (after earlier chapters have set up the obligatory romantic complications) and asks advice of a experienced journalist named Rorrison. Within this advice from Rorrison, Barrie embedded a concise recipe for selling "fillers", the quarter- and half-column pieces for the morning and evening newspapers. Wells took this recipe as a guide and began writing fillers that he successfully marketed to the Pall Mall Gazette. He graduated to half-page pieces called "single sitting shorts." (This name makes me think of disposable underwear.) Wells's writing career was launched.

I tracked down Barrie's recipe in Chapter 8 of When a Man is Single. Here are the relevant excerpts:

There was only one journalist in London whom he [Rob] knew even by name, and he wrote to him for advice. This was Mr. John Rorrison, a son of the minister whose assistance had brought Rob to Silchester. Rorrison was understood to be practically editing a great London newspaper, which is what is understood of a great many journalists until you make inquiries, but he wrote back to Rob asking him why he wanted to die before his time. You collectors who want an editor's autograph may rely upon having it by return of post if you write threatening to come to London with the hope that he will do something for you.

[. . . .]

Rorrison had chambers at the top of one of the Inns of Court, and as he had sported his oak, Rob ought not to have knocked. He knew no better, however, and Rorrison came grumbling to the door. He was a full-bodied man of middle-age, with a noticeably heavy chin, and wore a long dressing-gown.

"I'm Angus from Silchester," Rob explained.

Rorrison's countenance fell. His occupation largely consisted in avoiding literary young men, who, he knew, were thirsting to take him aside and ask him to get them sub-editorships.

[. . . .]

Rorrison: "There are only about a dozen papers in London that are worth writing for, but I can give you a good account of them. Not only do they pay handsomely, but the majority are open to contributions from any one. Don't you believe what one reads about newspaper rings. Everything sent in is looked at, and if it is suitable any editor is glad to have it. Men fail to get a footing on the press because –- well, as a rule, because they are stupid."

"I am glad to hear you say that," said Rob, "and yet I had thirty articles rejected before the Minotaur accepted that one."

"Yes, and you will have another thirty rejected if they are of the same kind. You beginners seem able to write nothing but your views on politics, and your reflections on art, and your theories of life, which you sometimes even think original. Editors won't have that, because their readers don't want it. Every paper has its regular staff of leader-writers, and what is wanted from the outside is freshness."

[. . . .]

Rorrison: "They should write of the things they have seen. Newspaper readers have an insatiable appetite for knowing how that part of the world lives with which they are not familiar. They want to know how the Norwegians cook their dinners and build their houses ask each other in marriage."

"But I have never been out of Britain."

"Neither was Shakespeare. There are thousands of articles in Scotland yet. You must know a good deal about the Scottish weavers –- well, there are articles in them. Describe the daily life of a gillie: 'The Gillie at Home' is a promising title. Were you ever snowed-up in your saw-mill? Whether you were or not, there is a seasonable subject for January. 'Yule in a Scottish Village' also sounds well, and there is a safe article in a Highland gathering."

"These must have been done before, though," said Rob.

"Of course they have," answered Rorrison; "but do them in your own way: the public has no memory, and besides, new publics are always springing up."

"I am glad I came to see you," said Rob, brightening considerably; "I never thought of these things."

"Of course you need not confine yourself to them. Write on politics if you will, but don't merely say what you yourself think; rather tell, for instance, what is the political situation in the country parts known to you. That should be more interesting and valuable than your individual views. But I may tell you that, if you have the journalistic faculty, you will always be on the lookout for possible articles. The man on this stair I have mentioned to you would have had an article out of you before he had talked with you as long as I have done. You must have heard of Noble Simms?"

"Yes, I know his novel," said Rob; "I should like immensely to meet him."

"I must leave you an introduction to him" said Rorrison; "he wakens most people up, though you would scarcely think it to look at him. You see this pipe here? Simms saw me mending it with sealing-wax one day, and two days afterwards there was an article about it in the Scalping Knife. When I went off for my holidays last summer I asked him to look in here occasionally and turn a new cheese which had been sent me from the country. Of course he forgot to do it, but I denounced him on my return for not keeping his solemn promise, so he revenged himself by publishing an article entitled 'Rorrison's Oil-Painting.' In this it was explained that just before Rorrison went off for a holiday he got a present of an oil-painting. Remembering when he had go to Paris that the painting, which had come to him wet from the easel, had been left lying on his table, he telegraphed to the writer to have it put away out of reach of dust and the cat. The writer promised to do so, but when Rorrison returned he round the picture lying just where he left it. He rushed off to his friend's room to upbraid him, and did it so effectually that the friend says in his article, 'I will never do a good turn for Rorrison again!'"

"But why," asked Rob, "did he turn the cheese into an oil-painting?"

"Ah, there you have the journalistic instinct again. You see a cheese is too plebeian a thing to form the subject an article in the Scalping Knife, so Simms made a painting of it."

[. . . .]

Rorrison: "Then there was the box of old clothes and other odds and ends that he [Simms] promised to store for me when I changed my rooms. He sold the lot to a hawker for a pair of flower-pots, and wrote an article on the transaction. Subsequently he had another article on the flower-pots; and when I appeared to claim my belongings he got a third article out of that."

"I suppose he reads a great deal?" said Rob.

"He seldom opens a book," answered Rorrison; "indeed, when he requires to consult a work of reference he goes to the Strand and does his reading at a bookstall. I don't think he was ever in the British Museum."

Fortified by Barrie's journalistic recipe from a century ago, I will seek out articles from daily life as I find it. But as this is a plebeian blog, I will not feel pressured to turn cheeses into oil-paintings.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happiness networks

Professors James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis conducted a social network analysis to "evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks." Their study was summarized in the British Medical Journal article Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. (See

Results (with minor edits): "Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people's happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one's friends' friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals. A friend who lives within a mile and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25%. Similar effects are seen in coresident spouses (8%), siblings who live within a mile (14%), and next door neighbors (34%). Effects are not seen between coworkers. The effect decays with time and geographical separation."

Conclusions: "People's happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected."

It appears that your chances of happiness increase greatly if you are connected to happy people who are themselves connected to a great many happy people. Be a central node in a network of happy people, or at least be close friends with such a node.

Does this social network component of happiness explain the fascination and attraction we feel toward celebrities? Do we see famous people as "uber-nodes" that we would like to connect to and thus further our own happiness?