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Saturday, July 25, 2015

The greatest alumni note of all time

I've mentioned in the past that I am a very diligent reader of the U of C alumni magazine's notes and obituaries. I read them all, and learn about how each stage of life is accompanied by very specific modes of bragging - those under 35 brag about birthing children and their first career accomplishments, those between 36 and 65 brag about their children's accomplishments, and those over 65 brag about how active and vigorous they remain (with the effect, I think, of cowing the non-active into alumni magazine silence). This last group is probably the most comical, but only because the others are so predictable. Still, I enjoy all of them. However, the most recent issue of the alumni magazine featured what I can say with almost a decade (!) of experience in the field of alumni-note reading is the best alumni note I have ever seen, composed by someone who appears not to have even graduated from Chicago:



A contemporary Tellus the Athenian, altered by modernity but not beyond recognition.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Regional differences in breaking records

"San Diego has broken just about every record it has for July," said Roger Pierce, a National Weather Service forecaster. "It was a pretty amazing weekend."
And what exactly is meant by "pretty amazing" in San Diego? This:
Sunday's downpour pushed San Diego's July rainfall to 1.50 inches, breaking the previous July record of 0.92 inches, set in 1902. Lindbergh Field recorded a high temperature of 88 degrees, one degree higher than the previous record for July 19, set in 1951.
There you have it, the apocalypse: 1.5 inches of rain and 88-degree temperatures. Essentially, San Diego experienced two average Midwest/East Coast summer storms this weekend and the city nearly collapsed.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Eliot, Daniela Deronda

The Toast once summarized all English novels with the phrase "fraught seating arrangements," which is a very accurate description of large parts of this book (as also of every book by Henry James, and a lot of Jane Austen, especially Mansfield Park, which is may be the epitome of her virtue revealed through extremely subtle gestures that only someone of extraordinary sensitivity could notice). 

I appreciate the value of manners and rules of conduct, but can't quite understand how the Victorians concluded that good manners simply are virtue, and the highest virtue is the best manners, such that the slightest deviation - a sideways glance, an insufficiently light smile, a too-long pause or alternately a too-brief one - could be taken to reveal the profound corruption (or even just an incomplete virtue, which amounts to the same thing) within. Sure, the actions reveal the man, but does that really extend to the actions of his eyebrows? 

For example, here is a line from the novel: "And Mrs. Meyrick's face showed something like an undercurrent of expression, not allowed to get to the surface." Notice that what this sentence actually means is that Mrs. Meyrick's face showed nothing and no one noticed it. But the precise nothingness that it showed revealed everything about her state of mind and loftiness of soul. Mrs. Meyrick is so virtuous that she communicates telepathically, and is perfectly understood by others like herself. Not to say that this level of exquisite sensitivity to both other people and to what is right in every circumstance is not admirable, just that it is...a very high standard, perhaps unattainable by those who have the misfortune of not being born into Victorian novels?

But even if we do take this standard as a worthy one, it still seems kind of cramped, like heroism is just the exercise of very good manners with great sincerity behind them towards all the people in your country neighborhood. The characters all have their heads stuffed with earlier modes of heroism - Dante and the art of the Italian Renaissance make many appearances, as do the novels of Walter Scott - but their own lives are so small that all they can channel these aspirations into is maintaining pleasant social concord. 

Well, that's not quite accurate, because the title character, who spends all 800 pages of the book looking for a great purpose to which to dedicate himself finally does find one that supersedes the boundaries of Wanchester. Which brings us to the non-Victorian society half of the novel, which is about how the Jews are a mystical race of prophetic unicorns in need of a national homeland. Back in high school, when I used to read about the 19th C. history of Zionism, I could've probably had a better idea about whether Eliot's mysticism-induced Zionism was plausible if not exactly mainstream, but unfortunately, because I was reading about the history of Zionism and other exclusively non-literary things in high school, I was not reading George Eliot.