Category Archives: general interest

“Opinions are not the rules for actions.”

 

If a picture is drawn of a tree whose title is nevertheless, “A Fish,” only one insane may say, “This is a picture of a fish.” Unfortunately, in social sciences such insane statements are still very numerous. Authors still do not understand that the labels and the real situation, the speech reactions of a man and his real behavior may be quite different. If in a constitution is written “all men are equal,” they often conclude that in such a society the equality is realized. If a man abundantly produces sonorous phrases, then for this reason he is judged as “open-minded,” “progressive,” “protector of the laboring classes” and so on, regardless of his real behavior. For the same reason, the periods of Revolution are styled as periods of progress and so forth. Such “thinkers” do not see what was clear for [Pierre] Bayle several centuries ago [in his Pensées Diverses sur l’Occasion de la Comète]. “Opinions (speech reactions and labels) are not the rules for actions, and men do not follow them in their conduct,” says Bayle. … [The Christians are those who, being smitten on the right cheek, turn to the offender their left one. I wish I could see such Christians. These examples show that between the labels and the real situation may be the greatest discrepancy. This is one reason for not relying on labels and speech reactions in the description of social phenomena.

— Pitirim A. Sorokin, Social Mobility

So wrote Sorokin in 1927. I find his words very true today.

 

— Roger W. Smith

Barbara Grizzutti Harrison, “Joan Didion: Only Disconnect”

 

Barbara Grizzutti Harrison’s Essay “Joan Didion: Only Disconnect” is online at

https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/103/didion-per-harrison.html

It complements my post

Joan Didion and NYC

Joan Didion and NYC

 

— Roger W. Smith

Joan Didion and NYC

 

Joan Didion – Saturday Evening Post 1-4-1967

 

Reading Joan Didion’s obituaries this week, I was reminded in particular of an essay of hers I had heard about. I don’t think I have read it before.

Joan Didion

“Farwell to the Enchanted City” (subsequently republished as “Goodbye to All That”)

Saturday Evening Post

January 4, 1967

I desired to read it. I wanted to see what she thought about New Yok City when she first moved there from California, in the late 1950s. About ten years later, I myself first relocated to New York and settled there.

What things about the City attracted and delighted her? Repelled her?

 

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When I moved to New York, it both fascinated (I found it intoxicating) and overwhelmed me with a sort of fear or numbness (emotional deadness). Meaning that it was so impersonal; the buildings were so tall, dominating the streetscapes; there was no nature; the people were all in a hurry and seemingly cold and impersonal, too busy and goal oriented to talk to you.

Everything depended on having money, of which I had very little.

I had been to New York a very few times before. The first time was in 1953 when my parents took me to visit the City for a few days. We stayed in the Edison Hotel in Times Square. (Rooms were four dollars a day.) Still there, I believe. (We must have been able to park our car.) I could not get over the experience of the Empire State Building. Being on the observation deck on the top and looking down at the cars on Fifth Avenue, which seemed like toy cars. The Automat. The little windows where you would put a dime or nickel in a slot and get a piece of pie. My mother wanted to see Greenwich Village. We drove around the crooked streets. I don’t think we ever got out of the car. I recall the cobblestones and that the car was jolting.

We took the Staten Island Ferry to cool off. It was July or August and one of those sweltering NYC hot spells.

 

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As a young man and adult, I grew to love and appreciate — so much — New York. See my post

“I went to the school of New York.”

“I went to the school of New York.”

for one way in which this was true.

The art movie theaters. The bookstores. Libraries. Most of all, the intellectual energy and appetites of the people I got to know.

In Massachusetts, as a young man, I would have been embarrassed to go to a movie by myself. In Connecticut, where I worked briefly, I was once asked to leave a folk music coffee house because I was sitting at table by myself. In NYC, no problem. I went to movies almost always by myself. Good way to spend an evening or a Sunday afternoon if you felt lonely.

Sit at a restaurant table by oneself? No problem. It was the same with half the other customers.

I would go to Central Park on Sunday afternoons and sit on a park bench feeling a bit lonely but like I was an amorphous participant in something. The bars were an oasis. A glass of beer twenty cents. Every third one free. The bartender was your and everyone’s friend.

One day in a subway station, I asked some people a question of some sort (maybe directions). They answered politely and helpfully. I told a friend of mine from college who lived in Flushing, Queens about this.

“Someone was actually nice to me in the subway,” I said.

“New Yorkers are people, too,” he replied.

Indeed.

Wonderful people. So full of energy. So interesting. Except when I first came the people on the subway all seemed so pale and sickly to me.

 

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So what was Joan Didion’s experience?

Read her famous essay (attached).

It’s really about her — instead of, at bottom, the City. It is very self-centered. It is surprising how much it seems to be built upon – – to be a tissue of — generalities. Of musings, inner thoughts. It does not convey much INFORMATION, substance.

You learn hardly anything about what New York was like when she was there.

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“Joan Didion: Only Disconnect”

From Off Center: Essays by Barbara Grizzutti Harrison

I do not find Joan Didion appealing. … I am disinclined to find endearing a chronicler of the 1960s who is beset by migraines that can be triggered by her decorator’s having pleated instead of gathered her new diningroom curtains. … more …. of a neurasthenic Cher than of a writer who has been called America’s finest woman prose stylist. … her subject is always herself. …

Didion uses style as argument. … for Didion, only surfaces matter. … Didion tells us, many times, and in many ways, that her mind “veers inflexibly toward the particular.”

To what in particular?

 

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Enough said. Read Joan Didion’s essay if you feel like it.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  December 25, 2021

 

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Facebook comments

December 25, 2021

 

Pete Smith

Interesting thoughts. But don’t most writer’s thoughts relate largely to themselves? Think of Truman Capote’s short stories, like Dazzle. Or Melville, talking as himself (Ishmael) throughout Moby-Dick. I don’t object to your objecting to Didion but were she still alive she might have the same complaints about those of your posts, including this one, that borrow heavily on your own experience. I think this is what makes your posts interesting, and don’t see why it wouldn’t also apply to Didion’s writing.

 

Roger W. Smith

Barbara Grizzutti Harrison’s essay is dead on. You should read it. You are wrong about my writing. Of course everyone writes about and from the perspective of themselves and their own experience. This post insofar as it relates to me is built on experiences I had that readers can relate to.

 

Pete Smith

Roger, I think your reply was hidden for some reason but you missed my point. I was not criticizing you for writing about your own history or own perspective; I was basically saying that that is what everyone usually does and that I found it odd that you were criticizing Joan Didion for doing so — and I was acknowledging that this did not mean you had to like her writing. . . .

 

Roger W. Smith

I was criticizing her writing — from a certain point of view (view of her writing); which of course does not mean that writers should not write about themselves. Harrison’s essay articulates what I was trying to say; I had not read it before. By the way, Melville created a character, Ishmael, that was sort of his alter ego, but to say+ that amounts to writing about oneself is not correct. I guess the best way to put it is that Didion’s writing seems overly self-absorbed and there is something missing content- or sustenance-wise that a reader wants to be able to take away. I read some Didion before, including one of her novels. I was sort of impressed then, but now have come to the opinions of my post.

 

Pete Smith

All I meant was that Melville’s writing, like Truman Capote’s and like much of yours, was based on his own personal experience — in his case, whaling. I can understand your comment about Didion’s self absorption but when she’s writing a book all about the tragic and terrible year of her husband’s death, I would guess it would be difficult for any passionate observer to accuse her of self-absorption.

 

Roger W. Smith

I have not read [Joan Didion’s] The Year of Magical Thinking. I began this post with one essay of Didion’s which disappointed me and, based upon which, I drew inferences about her writing which seem valid. She always wrote about herself in a way that Melville didn’t.

 

Pete Smith

Got it, but of course you understand that I wasn’t suggesting in any way that Melville and Didion wrote about themselves in the same way.

 

Roger W. Smith

No, I don’t think that (your first sentence).

 

Ella Rutledge

I’m no fan of Didion’s either. The only thing of hers I have read is The Year of Magical Thinking. (I think a negative review at amazon.com

called it “A Lifetime of Magical Thinking.”) She is a member of the NY literati and so they all praise her writing because she writes from their point of view. You, Roger, on the other hand, document and record NYC life from an “everyman” perspective. I hated that book. So shallow, so limited, in its view of grief, grieving, loss, death, faith, belief in anything other than the material world, of which she constantly reminded us with references to the best hospitals (reached by helicopter), the best doctors, Brooks Brothers suits, Hollywood and the Beverly Hills Hotel. Death is final and any tendency to hope for anything beyond is “magical” (or in her view deluded) thinking.

 

Roger W. Smith

Thanks very much for the incisive comments, Ella, What you say about The Year of Magical Thinking confirms what I have said. I based my comments (mainly) on the essay I read this morning and on Harrison’s devastating article about Didion. And, yes, I did see what I felt was a distinction between my own writing and hers — or do now — it wasn’t my main point, and I was thinking about her writing, not mine, but when I read her essay about leaving New York, I felt empty; and I realize now, in retrospect, that that is more or less how I felt years ago when I read “Play It As It Lays.”

“It was their whiteness.”

 

‘Is My Little Library Contributing to the Gentrification of My Black Neighborhood’

 

The New York Times has — since its inception, I would imagine — been regarded as the exemplar of responsible, objective journalism.

Of course, this pertains to news, but there must also be a high standard when it comes to the editorial/opinion pages.

How did this racist “guest essay” get published? Or, I should say, what is it doing there?

Let’s forget for a moment the anti-white racism. What about the value of this op-ed as an opinion piece, as a piece of writing?

I am sure the Times gets loads of op-ed submissions, and that it is not easy to get published there. This piece is a very weak, jerry-built screed — built on pernicious premises:

A library is not so much a marker of wealth and whiteness as it is an affirmation of community. …

… I saw a young white couple stopped at the library. Instantly, I was flooded with emotions — astonishment, and then resentment, and then astonishment at my resentment. It all converged into a silent scream in my head of, Get off my lawn!

What I resented was not this specific couple. It was their whiteness. …

It raises “issues” that should not be issues.

It is an insult to the Times‘s readers.

 

Roger W. Smith

   December 2021

dealing with a blow (death)

 

My wife and I just got the totally unexpected news from one of our best, dear friends that his wife died yesterday.

She had been ill for some time. She was immobilized, bedridden, for a good part (if not most) of the time, and needed constant assistance. Our friend, who is retired, had little time to himself. When he wasn’t at home caring for her, he was out doing errands such as shopping for food and taking care that other necessities were met. He never complained. That is not his nature.

Yesterday, our friend’s wife managed to attend Thanksgiving dinner nearby with a son and in-laws, accompanied by her husband. She died suddenly on the way home.

 

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I couldn’t help thinking of the worst experience, without question, I had of death; and probably the worst experience of my whole life: my mother’s death at a young age from cancer.

It nearly tore our family apart. Not because of any disagreements among us (in the nuclear family), but just because of losing our mother and our father his wife.

Two things that I shared with my wife on hearing the news today of the death of our friend’s wife were as follows.

 

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When my mother became gravely ill, and treatments appeared not to have been successful, I sank into a state of depression, as did my father and siblings. (Our father’s mental state — depression — seemed the worst.)  Yet, it was sort of “abstract,” in a way, at this point. I couldn’t quite contemplate my mother’s death.

By the time she died, a few months later, I had somehow — partly from talking about my mother’s condition with friends — become more realistic or “objective,” or however one might put it. I was no longer denying that my mother’s illness was terminal.

Yet, when my mother died, inevitably, after a short period during which she was at home briefly and then returned to the hospital, it was a terrible blow. The way I perceived it was: I knew in my rational mind she would not get better and was going to die, but not today.

She died in the spring. I made a visit to my father that summer. He did not talk about my mother, as I recall. He seemed less depressed than he had been a few months before.

I brought this up with my therapist. I said something to him to the effect of, my father looks almost happy. He is active again, enjoying life.

My therapist replied that this was normal: enjoying life. My father, he said, was resuming his life. His zest for it.

Death in such circumstances — unendurable to contemplate, something you are never prepared for — can also be a release and a relief.

Roger W. Smith

   November 26, 2021

I’m so glad I took high school Latin.

 

 

TENET – Robert Fayrfax -Missa Tecum Principium, based on the chant “In the day of Thy strength”.

 

Text follows:

Maria plena virtute from Seven Last Words from the Cross (votive antiphon)

composed by Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521)

performed by Tenet Vocal Artists. St. Ignatius of Antioch, West End Avenue, 87th Street, October 23, 2021

 

Maria plena virtute pietatis gratiae, mater misericordiae, tu nos ab hoste protege. Clementissima Maria, vitae per merita compassionis tuae pro nobis preces effunde, et de peccatis meis erue. Sicut tuus Filius petiit pro crucifigentibus, “Pater dimitte ignorantibus”, magna pietate pendens in latronibus, dixit uni ex hominibus “In Paradiso cum patribus mecum eris hodie”.

Mater dolorosa plena lacrimosa videns ruinosa Filium in cruce, cum voce raucosa dixit speciosa “1 lier clamorosa Filium tuum ecce.”

Vertens ad discipulum sic fuit mandatum matrem fuisse per spatium et ipsam consolare; et sicut decebat filium servum paratissimum custodivit preceptum omnino servire.

Dixit Jesus dilectionis “Sitio salutem gentium.” Audi orationibus nostris tuae misericordiae. O Jesu, rex amabilis quid sustulisti pro nobis per merita tuae passionis peto veniam a te.

Jesu, dicens clamasti, “Deus meus, num quid me dereliquisti” Per acetum quod gustasti ne derelinquas me. “Consummatum.” dixisti.

0 Jesu Fili Dei, in hora exitus mei, animam meam suscipe. Tunc spiritum emisit, et matrem gladius pertransivit: aqua et sanguis exivit ex delicato corpore: Post ab Arimathia rogavit et Jesum sepelivit, et Nicodemus venit ferens mixturam myrrhae. 0 dolorosa mater Christi, quales poenas tu vidisti, corde tenens habuisti fidem totius ecclesiae.

Ora pro me, regina coeli, Filium tuum dicens; “Fili, in hora mortis peccatis suis indulge.”

Amen.

 

Mary, full of virtue, pity and grace, mother of mercy, protect us from the enemy. Most gentle Mary, filled with life. pour out, of your compassion, prayers on our behalf, and release me from my sins, just as your son prayed for those crucifying him, “Father, forgive the ignorant.” Hanging between two robbers, through his great holiness he said to one of the men, “You will today be in heaven with me and your ancestors”.

The grieving mother, filled with tears, destroyed by the sight of her son hanging on the cross, spoke in a hoarse voice, pronouncing her feelings. “Wailing woman”, was the reply, “Behold your son.”

As he turned to the disciple, came the order to console herself that she had been a mother for a time, and just as she was worthy of a son so ready to be a servant; so he obeyed the instruction to be a servant completely.

Jesus spoke of his choice,”! thirst for the deliverance of the nations.” Of your mercy, give ear to our prayers, 0 Jesus. King most worthy of love, what you endured for us. Through the grace of your suffering I seek pardon from you.

Jesus, you called out, saying, “My God, why have you deserted me?” By the vinegar which you tasted, do not desert me.

“It is finished,” you said. Jesus, Son of God, take up my soul in the hour of my death. Then he gave up the ghost, and the sword pierced his mother: water and blood poured out from his tender body. Later, she asked for his body from Arimathea and buried Jesus, and Nicodemus came bearing a mixture of myrrh. 0 grieving Mother of Christ, what punishments you saw. You had the faith of the whole church, keeping it in your heart.

Pray for me, Queen of Heaven, saying to your son, “Son, forgive your servant’s sins in the hour of his death.”

Amen.

 

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Beautiful and powerful words.  The piety is felt everywhere, no matter which way one turns.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 27, 2021

a lynching

 

Southern Worker 12-12-1931

1 LYNCHERS_IN_SALISBURY_HAD_RIGH

2 EYE_WITNESS_TO_LYNCHING_TELLS_

3 Fellow_Worker_of_Lynched_Man_S 4 Gov._Ritchie,_Possible_Preside

4 Gov._Ritchie,_Possible_Preside

 

If you can bear it, read the news item, “Negro Worker Lynched for Demanding Pay,” in the Southern Worker, December 12, 1931, pp. 1-2.

There is an editorial on page 4.

Plus, I am posting a few other news stories from the time. The mainstream media gave the lynching only glancing notice. The Baltimore Afro-American was the only newspaper to give it serious coverage.

This is how blacks were treated then.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2021

“Don’t you ever forget that name.”

 

‘Don’t you ever forget that name’ – Washington Post 8-30-2021

 

President Biden made his way on Sunday around a quiet room at Dover Air Force Base, … with dignitaries and grieving families huddling together as the president came to speak to them privately, one family at a time.

Mark Schmitz had told a military officer the night before that he wasn’t much interested in speaking to a president he did not vote for, one whose execution of the Afghan pullout he disdains — and one he now blames for the death of his 20-year-old son Jared.

But overnight, … Schmitz changed his mind. So on that dreary morning he and his ex-wife were approached by Biden after he’d talked to all the other families. … Schmitz glared hard at the president. …. Eventually, the parents took out a photo to show to Biden. I said, “Don’t you ever forget that name. Don’t you ever forget that face. Don’t you ever forget the names of the other 12,” Schmitz said. “And take some time to learn their stories.”

Biden did not seem to like that, Schmitz recalled, and he bristled, offering a blunt response: “I do know their stories.”

 

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Re:

‘Don’t you ever forget that name’: Biden’s tough meeting with grieving relatives

By Matt Viser

The Washington Post

August 30, 2021

 

President Biden did not deserve this. It is the grieving father who, in my opinion, is wrong here.

Wrong to say what he did in the way he said it.

Biden did not, obviously, desire this tragic occurrence, and he is not responsible for it.

Admittedly, policies he recently implemented were an indirect cause for an airport attack in Kabul, Afghanistan last week that resulted in the deaths of thirteen U.S. Marines and service members. But Biden is not personally responsible. The suicide bomber and gunmen were.

Putting this aside, let’s focus on what’s appropriate, what is called for here.

You experience a death in your family. The mourners at the funeral or a wake make an effort to convey their grief and empathy, as do those officiating (a minister or priest, speakers at the service).

One should appreciate that they are there. That perhaps it wasn’t easy for them, that it evokes painful memories in them (such as President Biden’s own) of deaths they have experienced, that they are doing their best to be empathic and to express condolences.

That is all one can expect of others in such circumstances, whether the “others” are officials, family members, or friends. No one can ever share fully — experience fully — the grief of a grieving spouse or parent. To expect them to is self-serving and self-centered.

Everyone experiences in their lifetime moments of bereavement and personal grief. Others can recognize and empathize with yours, but they will never quite experience it (your grief) fully — which is to say, not the way you do.

Was it right to berate President Biden for not being sufficiently sorry (which was assumed with there being no basis for thinking so)?

No.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 31, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

a society in which “the individual … must be degraded,” “organized according to a reasoned scheme in the interests of the group”

 

  Avrahm Yarmolinsky, foreword – Dostovesky, ‘The Possessed’

 

The PDF file posted here contains the text of the foreword by Avrahm Yarmolinsky to the Modern Library edition of Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed.

[The Possessed] is book begotten of fear and wrath. Dostoyevsky had drawn indiscriminately on his memories of the Fourierist dreamers with whom he had associated in his youth, and on more recent phases of social and political insurgency, and he freely intermingled these elements. The result was an exaggerated, distorted, anachronistic picture of .gullible fools and fiends with a mania for destruction. And yet The Possessed testifies to the fact that Dostoyevsky was not without some insight into the nature of the upheaval from which he was separated by nearly half a century. It was to be such “an upset as the world has never seen before,” a transformation ruled by a violent intransigent spirit, and going beyond mere political and economic change. In the midst of the stormy events of 1905-06, [Dmitry] Merezhkovsky, on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Dostoyevsky’s death, spoke of him as “the prophet of the Russian revolution.” More recently, opponents of the Bolshevik regime have seen in The Possessed a prophetic anticipation of the events of 1917. But if he was a prophet, he was one whose vision was clouded by horror. At bottom what he feared was that the individual, whose needs, he felt, are of a spiritual and irrational order, must be degraded in a Socialist society organized according to a reasoned scheme in the interests of the group. [italics added]

— Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Foreword (excerpt), The Possessed, By Fyodor Dostoevsky; translated by Constance Garnett (The Modern Library, 1930)

 

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Reading works such as Edmund Burke’s  Reflections on the Revolution in France and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s The Sociology of Revolution has gotten me thinking about observations such as those made in the passage above; and so have recent developments in the US, where supposedly correct thinking people are being driven mad by abstractions to impose their “ideologically correct” edicts and sanctions.

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 2021

 

 

“I should have stuck to fiction!”

 

My older brother was the starting third baseman for our high school baseball team.

According to a story he told me, our English teacher, Robert W. Tighe, was in the stands watching a game one day in which my brother was playing, with an acquaintance of his (the teacher’s, that is), a New York Yankees scout. Mr. Tighe was, despite growing up in Massachusetts and attending college there, a diehard Yankees fan.

Mr. Tighe, according to my brother’s story — as Mr. Tighe told him afterwards — asked the scout, so what do you think of the third baseman? He is one of my best students. (I am paraphrasing.)

“Tell him to stick to his books,” the scout replied.

 

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The following is a passage from one of many politically oriented articles by Theodore Dreiser in the 1930s and 40s:

“Life is and ever must be an equation between all sorts of contending forces—in a fair and maintainable balance. Neither chemically nor physically nor socially nor financially can it be workably run off into unbalance. In chemistry and physics explosions follow—disastrous and frightful to behold. And of humanity, collectively and socially assembled under forms of government the same thing is true. Where financial or social unbalance sets in and a few, because of their extorted wealth, set themselves apart and above the many and fail to see how necessarily interrelated they are either for good or for ill, you have either (1) revolution and so a restoration of balance or (2) where equity is defeated and inequity prevails you have death of that land or nation. If you do not believe this, consider Rome that declined and fell with the arrival of the Caesars; Italy that plundered up to the days of Mussolini; France, the monarchical France that ended with the French Revolution; Autocratic Russia that ended with the Russian Revolution; completely Autocratic England that ended (for a time) with King John and Magna Charta [sic]; the Roman religious autocracy that ended with Martin Luther; Autocratic China that ended with the Boxer Rebellion. No equity or social balance—no peace and finally no government.’

from “Theodore Dreiser Condemns War,” by Theodore Dreiser, People’s World, April 6, 1940

 

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Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle: “You are no Jack Kennedy.”

Roger W. Smith (posthumously) to Theodore Dreiser: “You were no Aristotle, no Cicero, no Edward Gibbon. You should have stuck to fiction.”

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 2021