Saturday, October 31, 2015

Radio Greats: Halloween Party (Our Miss Brooks)

Our Miss Brooks was one of the most successful radio comedies of the Golden Age of Radio. It was broadcast on CBS from 1948 to 1957. It was brought to television from 1952 to 1956, where its adaptation of radio situation comedy to the television medium made it one of the shows that made clear just how much television could do with the sitcom genre. It even got its own 1956 movie, although that seems to have done only so-so.

One of the things that makes the series is Eve Arden as the terribly underpaid, dry-witted, and indefatigable teacher Connie Brooks. One of the things the show is usually credited for is being the first comedy with a female lead who was not a ditz or klutz or playing straight off a husband who was a ditz or klutz. She commonly finds herself in conflict with the fussy, manipulative principal of Madison High School, Osgood Conklin, and pines for the often clueless, usually cheapskate, and always a-little-too-shy biology teacher, Philip Boynton. Other common characters are Harriet Conklin, the sweet and honest daughter of Principal Conklin, and Walter Denton, the awkward, cracked-voice teenage boy who is Miss Brooks most loyal supporter and, to the horror of Principal Conklin, who cannot stand him, Harriet's love interest. Eve Arden's performances are often near-perfect; it is difficult to imagine a better fit to this kind of character. Which actually is ironic, since she seems to have been the third choice for the part, after Shirley Booth (who turned out to take the role too seriously) and Lucille Ball (who wasn't interested).

The jokes are not usually what we would call rolling-on-the-floor funny, but they are always fun. And the series ends up being funnier than the jokes -- this is a series that is massively funnier if you hear it than if you just read it. Our Miss Brooks predates laugh tracks; one of the reasons for the success of the series is Arden's ability to bring the live audience in on the joke, meaning that with even a minor joke told very drily, she often has them in stitches. A great deal of fun also arises from the interactions among the characters, each of whom is very different in personality and style, and each of whom is played excellently. Several of the actors went on to even more famous roles. Gale Gordon, who plays Osgood Conklin, went on to play Theodore J. Mooney on The Lucy Show; Richard Crenna, who plays Walter Denton, went on to play Luke McCoy in The Real McCoys and Colonel Sam Trautman in the Rambo movies, and received both an Emmy (for his role in The Rape of Richard Beck) and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Halloween is a good holiday if you like old time radio, because a major surge in the popularity of the holiday, and the transformation of trick-or-treating from scattered local customs to a national custom, occurred during the Golden Age of Radio itself. And Our Miss Brooks is a particularly good series for finding holiday episodes because it's a story set by a school, and school years, of course, are primarily structured by holidays. So that brings us to "Halloween Party", the episode I've chosen for this major comedy series.

You can listen to "Halloween Party" at the Internet Archive (number 56).

Aristotle and Ritual

Henry Rosemont Jr. has a very interesting SEP article on Translating and Interpreting Chinese Philosophy. One passage from it, with an example of how cross-cultural philosophical comparisons might be valuables:

Taking the Aristotle/Confucius comparisons, we learn just how much weight Confucius gave to rituals, family, customs and traditions as prerequisite for flourishing personal lives and social harmony, for example. The weight grows even heavier when we reflect that Aristotle said almost nothing about rituals, family, customs and traditions, though he dealt in great detail with great sensitivity in virtually all aspects of human life personal and social. By his silence on ritual matters he obliges us to look at Confucius’s insistence on those dimensions of human life again. He was deeply concerned with ritual performance; why?

In the same way we may obtain new insights into Aristotelianism: there are libraries full of commentaries on the writings of Aristotle gathered over the past two millennia, but it is doubtful that any of them commented on the significance of the absence of any concern with ritual matters in those writings. By placing Confucius alongside him the lacunae quickly becomes obvious, and invites our contemplation.

The point itself is excellent (and applies to any two historical figures whose philosophical interests were of sufficient scope to admit serious comparison). But Aristotle does say a fair amount about rituals. That's what the Poetics is, for instance; Greek tragedy and comedy were civic rituals. Much of Aristotle's Ethics and Politics could be seen as involving considerations of rituals as well. The real point of difference, I think, is that almost all the rituals Aristotle talks about are civic rituals, rituals specifically concerned with interactions as citizens, or are at least treated only to the extent that they are such. Confucius's interest in rituals extends over a much larger ground. This doesn't change the primary argument in any way, of course, and in a way makes the point again: an apparently simple difference on closer investigation can turn out to be more complex, raising an even richer crop of questions on both sides. And it also implies another point, raised by Rosemont's comment about commentators: even when one realizes that Aristotle does have at least some discussion of ritual matters, it seems that readers of Aristotle have tended not to focus on this, whereas readers of the works associated with Confucius have tended, if anything, to focus on ritual even more, and this raises intriguing questions about the different interactions between readers and texts in both philosophical traditions.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Poem Draft

This is a small joke that became a long joke, based on the opening of the Daodejing or Tao te ching.

The Tao at the Party

Snackable snacks are not enduring snacks.
Conversible conversation is not unvarying conversation.
What you can't have conversations about is the whole party.
What you can have conversations about is a lot of separate topics.
When people are quiet, you get what people don't say.
When people are babbling, you get just sound.
The two amount to the same;
they just show up differently in conversation.
That they are the same
is what people don't say.
Saying nothing about saying nothing:
that's how you do things right.

People treat fun as doing fun things.
That's boring.
People treat niceness as doing nice things.
That's mean.
Being quiet and babbling come from each other;
pleasant and unpleasant come from each other;
tiresome and engaging come from each other;
exciting and unexciting come from each other.
Music is differing sounds come together:
start with one side, you get the other side.
So the host will stay above it all,
guiding things without trying to force them.
It's not forcing them that makes it all work.

If you don't play favorites, you won't get resentment.
If you don't boast, you won't get jealousy.
If you don't try to please, you won't get restlessness.
So the host keeps things simple,
fills people's stomachs,
quiets their irritations,
and encourages them to stay.
The host doesn't try to please them or force things,
and those who are trying to force things
will learn that doesn't work.
It's not forcing things that makes it all come together.

Snacks are done well when there's always a bit more --
a lot of them! --
and they serve as starting-points for a lot of different topics.
They make things less uncomfortable,
solve difficulties,
tone things down,
and eliminate arguments.
There have to be lots!
Have some left over.
With snacks, no one cares who was invited,
or how long the party has been going on.

The whole party is not interesting;
it goes on as if people don't matter.
The host is not interesting
and treats everything as if it didn't matter.
When you take in the whole party, it's like a balloon:
you get more out of it when you don't try to take it in.
Spending all your time talking about it
is not sensible.

A swimming pool holds all the swimmers;
people just don't focus on it.
It's like the whole party:
it's there.
Work within it but don't bother about it.

The whole party is always there.
The reason it's always there
is that it doesn't do anything.
It just goes on.
Likewise, the host is the least important and most important person;
the host is just a function, not a person at the party,
and it's by not being one of the people at a party
that the host is the most important person at the party.

Entertainment is fluid;
it goes where it's needed without any effort,
and can work in any situation.
A bit like snacks, really.
If you throw a party, just do it where you can.
If you plan a party, just keep calm about it.
Good jokes require timing.
Good discussion requires sincerity.
Hosting requires keeping your head about you.
Solving problems requires seeing what they are.
If you don't freak out, what problems will you have?

Trying to keep control of things
is not as good as letting them go.
If you keep sharpening a knife, you ruin it;
if you keep collecting things, you lose them.
Working to throw a great party kills the party.
When you've laid it all out, just relax.
That's why you have snacks.

In Praise of the Worm

And yet I could speak at great length without any falsehood in praise of the worm. I could point out the brightness of its coloring, the slender rounded shape of its body, the fitness of its parts from front to rear, and their effort to preserve unity as far as is possible in so lowly a creature. There is nothing anywhere about it that does not correspond to something else that matches it. What am I to say about its soul animating its tiny body? Even a worm's soul causes it to move with precision, to seek things suitable for it, to avoid or overcome difficulties as far as possible. having regard always to the sense of safety, its soul hints much more clearly than its body at the unity which creates all natures. I am speaking of any kind of living worm.

Augustine, De vera religione XLI, 77, from Augustine: Earlier Writings, Burleigh, tr., (Philadelphia: 1953), as quoted in Enrica Ruaro, "God and the Worm: The Twofold Otherness in Pseudo-Dionysius's Theory of Dissimilar Images," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 82., No. 4, p. 591.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Radio Greats: The Flying Dutchman (The Witch's Tale)

The Witch's Tale was produced from 1931 to 1938 by WOR (which still exists, and is one of the oldest radio stations in New York) and distributed by the Mutual Radio Network. It would play an important role in the development of horror and dark fantasy as genres, being one of the earliest very successful attempts to bring those genres to radio. Moving from horror on the page to horror on the airwaves is not a trivial task, particularly because of the sheer variety of horror and dark fantasy stories, and the series had to do quite a bit of experimenting to make things work. Because of this, it is highly uneven -- but even its weaker episodes will often strike some impressive notes.

The series is hosted by Old Nancy, Witch of Salem, and her black cat, Satan. The part, also influential in how witches would be portrayed in later media, was largely shaped by the original actress, Adelaide Fitz-Allen, who had made her name in Broadway. Fitz-Allen would die at the age of 79 in 1935, and the series had to scramble for a replacement. During auditions, the producers were suprised to see a teenage girl hanging around, and even more puzzled when they realized that she wanted to audition for the old witch -- but the girl, 13-year-old Miriam Wolfe, was so good in audition, she was hired on the spot, and became the voice of Old Nancy for the rest of the series.

The episode I've picked out from the series is "The Flying Dutchman", from the Fitz-Allen era, which first aired in February of 1932 -- an uncharacteristically bright episode, but one that nonetheless (1) captures much of the ghost-story spirit of the series while also (2) telling a surprisingly powerful story about the hell that is pride and the redemption that is love and all (3) without tying the plot into knots and sacrificing story-telling to effect, which has always been a perpetual danger in the horror and dark fantasy genres. Because of the age of the episode, it's impossible to find a version with consistently good sound quality -- at that age one tends to be dealing with copies of copies of episodes that were originally themselves less than high definition. But if you can bear a few accidental record skips and an occasional moment where it is hard to hear exactly what is said over the noise of the sound effects combining with slight static, it is well worth your time.

You can find the episode in a number of places, such as Retro Radio or on YouTube from old-time radio enthusiasts.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Five Poem Re-Drafts


The heart still beats in Peter's hall.
The world still turns upon the cross.
In silent gardens shadows fall
on leaves that do not heed their loss.
In holy skies the stars still burst
and milky still the stream is seen,
as for that light the mind still thirsts
beside the lake of moonlit sheen.
How fair, how fair the evenings are
that bring a respite from the day!
And, sure and safe and lit by star,
the road of Christ lies where it lay.


Once long ago was princess in a tower,
her prison built of ice formed from her tears;
she sat and sighed in dim and distant bower
amidst a field of thorns that sprang from fears.
On starry nights she would remark their wonder
and sing a song of dreams her heart had had;
the stars, soon hid by clouds that rolled in thunder,
would sing responsion quiet, clear, and sad.


You are the most lovely of lovable things,
rising in splendor, aurora-arrayed,
roseate, luminant, aureate-splayed,
lightening worlds. The morrow-red sings
songs that will banish the winter-formed frost,
shining on ice that, translucent, transforms
light into iris in colorful storms,
hope iridescent. I would be lost,
broken, should brightness not rise in the west,
joy iridesce on the surface below,
breaking the bondage and service of snow:
you I behold, and by you am blessed.

My Vices

My dragons are so picturesque,
I know not how to kill them;
I watch the warm and sunny skies
as dragons swarm to fill them.

They grow from little friendly cubs
to mountains soaring high
with flames so fierce and searing hot
that near them all things die.

But, oh! when endless numbers fly
and chaos wreak on all,
I still can't kill the splendid things,
though all the world should fall.

Wave-Like Threads

Our God, who governs galaxies by subtle wave-like threads
and gives all parts direction, can He have set His tread
on such dry earthen lands as this old world, and cared
for sparrow and for lily small, unstarlike and so spare?
But wave-like threads still pinions form in flurry and in flight
and rippled space and time, with layers without fault,
builds up the gilded bloom; no prejudice constrains
the Highest to contempt of endless details strewn
throughout an endless space. Then shall the lily-plant
bemoan its lonely fate? No ground will bear complaint.
For God who makes the stars from myriad subtle things
makes us, and it, and all, and so we give Him thanks.

The Very Possible Spider-Planet and the Not-Impossible Living Library

Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part VII, with Philo arguing against Cleanthes:

The Brahmins assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence. Here is a species of cosmogony, which appears to us ridiculous; because a spider is a little contemptible animal, whose operations we are never likely to take for a model of the whole universe. But still here is a new species of analogy, even in our globe. And were there a planet wholly inhabited by spiders, (which is very possible,) this inference would there appear as natural and irrefragable as that which in our planet ascribes the origin of all things to design and intelligence, as explained by Cleanthes. Why an orderly system may not be spun from the belly as well as from the brain, it will be difficult for him to give a satisfactory reason.

What really makes this passage is the parenthetical expression "which is very possible". But Philo arguably overreaches here. A planet of spiders intelligent enough to make the inference that the world must be spun from a spinner analogous to the spiders would be a world of spiders intelligent enough to be considered designers of their webs. For that matter, we tend to think of spiders as doing something like designing their webs already, and certainly Hume, given his view that animals have at least basic rational capacities, cannot rule out such an idea. So the design inference of the spider-planet turns out not to be, as Philo wants to suggest, a rival of Cleanthes' design inference; yes, the spiders tend to think in terms of webs while Cleanthes tends to think in terms of machines, but Cleanthes' understanding of the design inference obviously does not apply only to machines. In fact, we've already seen Cleanthes' openness to thinking in terms of more than just machines in Part III, when Cleanthes gave his Living Library analogy:

But to bring the case still nearer the present one of the universe, I shall make two suppositions, which imply not any absurdity or impossibility. Suppose that there is a natural, universal, invariable language, common to every individual of human race; and that books are natural productions, which perpetuate themselves in the same manner with animals and vegetables, by descent and propagation. Several expressions of our passions contain a universal language: all brute animals have a natural speech, which, however limited, is very intelligible to their own species. And as there are infinitely fewer parts and less contrivance in the finest composition of eloquence, than in the coarsest organized body, the propagation of an Iliad or Aeneid is an easier supposition than that of any plant or animal.

Suppose, therefore, that you enter into your library, thus peopled by natural volumes, containing the most refined reason and most exquisite beauty; could you possibly open one of them, and doubt, that its original cause bore the strongest analogy to mind and intelligence?

(It's interesting that Cleanthes also insists on the possibility of the Living Library.) So whether the contrivance is that of machine, language, or web shouldn't affect the analogical inference in the least.

But there's also good reason to think that Philo is (in this part of the Dialogues) not taking aim at Cleanthes' design inference as such but at Cleanthes' Anthropomorphism. Here too Philo seems to overreach. When Cleanthes makes his design inference, he is not talking about the material of the world -- that is, he's not claiming that the world comes from things that could be considered machine parts, although that's consistent with his reasoning, but that the world comes from a cause that's like the human mind insofar as it designs machines and implements such designs. So why would the spiders on the spider-planet be concluding that the world comes from spinnets rather than from a cause that's like the spider mind insofar as it designs webs and implements such designs? There's no obvious reason why they should focus on "the belly" rather than "the brain"; the orderly system in a web is presumably not designed by spider "bellies" but by spider "brains", especially if the spiders are intelligent enough to know what they are doing, as they must be if they are inferring that there is a Great Spider designing the Web of the Universe. Philo's argument seems to involve an illicit shift.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Zhong Yong (Part II)

Chapter XII

If we follow Zhu Xi's account of the structure of the work, the first eleven chapters consist of essential ideas laid down in Chapter I followed by ten chapters of quotations serving to illustrate and comment on this first set of ideas. Chapter XII picks up the thread of Chapter I again by providing an additional comment by Zisi on the nondeviation of the Way. The essential idea is that the Way pursued by the noble is by its nature extensive in scope but intensive in its regard for details. The Way is such that even ordinary people may have something of it, but it is also such that even sages do not fully grasp it. If we focus on its extent, nothing else can encompass it; if we focus on its intensive character, nothing else can be more precise than it.

Chapter XIII-XX

The next eight chapters provide quotations to comment on and illustrate the ideas of Chapter XII. Correctly understanding the Way requires recognizing that all human beings have a sort of access to it because of their common human nature (13). Those who cultivate this nature properly and express it according to reciprocity (as expressed in the 'Silver Rule' of not doing to others what one would not have done to onself) are already, simply by that, close to the Way. The son who serves his father as he would expect his son to serve himself, the minister who serves his prince as he would expect his ministers to serve himself, the younger brother who serves his elder brother as he would expect his younger brothers to serve himself, the man who behaves to his friends as he would expect his friends to behave to himself -- these have achieved truly great things that even one such as Confucius would never ascribe to himself as possessing, as opposed to treating them as something to which to aspire and strive to achieve. (Note, incidentally, that while the principle of reciprocity is itself generally expressed in negative form, the 'Silver Rule', when combined with the primary relations of society, it quite clearly takes positive form.)

In addition, the noble restrain themselves in light of their station or place in society (14). Such men fit no matter where they find themselves. Petty people pin their hopes on luck; the noble seek to correct themselves and act well no matter what: "He does not murmur against heaven, nor grumble against men" (Legge tr.). The noble are archers: when archers miss the target, they think about what they did not do correctly.

The extremely obscure Chapter XV seems to suggest that the Way is gradual in the sense that one first begins to come to it by focusing on the nearest relations to head, and slowly extending oneself out from there. Chapter XVI, also obscure, seems to put forward spirits as examples of how to proceed: just as spirits are neither seen nor heard but affect all things, so the prince who governs according to the Way, acting out of sincerity (cheng, being true to one's proper nature), does not have to go to great lengths to make his authority manifest to the people, but people are affected by him even without directly seeing how. In a similar way, the mandate of Heaven is received not by grasping after it but by being virtuous (17); others are drawn to this and begin to act according to its pattern.

Chapters XVII, XVIII, IXX, and XX appeal to the examples of ancient kings for how the radiation discussed in the previous chapters works. One can see these chapters as building up incrementally, by adding richer expressions of the moral authority of the virtuous ruler, until we get in Chapter XX one of the most detailed discussions of this moral authority and how it radiates outward. The whole chapter could in itself be considered a definitive treatise on Confucian theory of government, since it depicts the ideal working of a truly moral government. Particularly as interpreted by Zhu Xi, it can be seen as depicting, using the ruler simply as an example, the power of cheng, usually translated as 'sincerity', the expression of the true and moral principles of human nature, the living of a life appropriate to a human being. It is around this concept of cheng that the next chapters of the work will coalesce.

to be continued...

The City Dreamed in Darkness Evermore

The City of the Titans
by Clark Ashton Smith

I saw a city in a lonely land:
Foursquare, it fronted upon gulfs of fire;
Behind, the night of Erebus hung entire;
And deserts gloomed or glimmered on each hand.

Sunken it seemed, past any star or sun,
Yet strong with bastion, proud with tower and dome:
An archetypal, Titan-builded Rome,
Dread, thunder-named, the seat of gods foredone.

Outreaching time, beyond destruction based,
Immensely piled upon the prostrate waste
And cinctured with insuperable deeps,

The city dreamed in darkness evermore,
Pregnant with crypts of terrible strange lore
And doom-fraught arsenals in lampless keeps.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Christopher Walken Reads "The Raven"

Fortnightly Book, October 25

The fortnightly book this time around will be Charlotte Bronté's Villette, a book I've been meaning to get around to reading for quite some years but never actually did so. In browsing through the discount rack at Half Price Books a few months ago I came across the Arcturus edition of the work and it has been sitting on my dresser ever since, waiting its turn.

Villette was the last complete novel that Bronté wrote; it was published in 1853, before her marriage in 1854 and her death in 1855. It was considered by George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to be her best novel, better even than Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre has been one of my favorite novels since high school, so it will be interesting to see how this novel stands up.

He Roams at Large, a Deserter

Look, the baptized person has received the sacrament of birth. He has a sacrament, and a great sacrament, divine, holy, ineffable. Consider what sort of thing it is. That it makes a new man by remission of all sins. Yet let him focus attention upon the heart, if what has been done in the body has been perfected there. Let him see if he has love and then let him say, "I have been born of God." But if he does not have it, he does indeed have the mark that has been infixed, but he roams at large, a deserter. Let him have love; otherwise let him not say that he has been born of God. "But," he says, "I have the sacrament." Hear the Apostle: "If I should have all sacraments, and have all faith so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."

Augustine, Tractate on First John 5.6, in St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 112-24; Tractates on the First Epistle of John, tr. by John W. Rettig, The Catholic University of America Press (Washington, D.C.: 1995), p. 191.