“Painter of Disquiet”

Roberta Smith remarks that by a certain point in the show “it becomes clear why [Félix] Vallotton is not considered a first-rate painter. Perhaps he was excessively skilled with too many options at his fingertips.”

It struck me as a wry dilemma to have to cope with excessive skill, but perhaps I divine her point. She describes the Swiss painter and printmaker as “an intriguing, talented but slippery artist.”

[The exhibition] reintroduces an artist who achieved early greatness in the relatively modest medium of prints and then either failed or declined to follow a single path in painting.

(Roberta Smith, “When He Was Good, He Was Breathtaking,” NYTimes, 1-6-20)

Side note: A substantial part of this article describes paintings that are not shown. It teases the reader and makes him wish the gorgeous verbiage were illustrated by its subject.

(c) 2020 JMN

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Knotty, Naughty “Not”

Americans need leaders who rise to the occasion, not [my bolding] worry about their own pocketbooks.

(The Editorial Board, “Did Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler Profit From the Pandemic?” NYTimes, 3-20-20)

I haven’t read this particular article, but my reflexive answer to the rhetorical query posed by the headline is, “Yes, of course!”

I’m going to engage in something more productive than confirming the obvious venality of corrupt public servants; I’m going to nitpick the syntax of the subheading cited above. It may seem a perversely trivial exercise for a brewing virus apocalypse.

Not so, I contend. Blinkered pols, hoarding hordes, flouting doubters, and concomitant ignorance, distortion, corruption, greed, incompetence, fallability, panic, delusion, and folly are readily available.

What’s in short supply is nitpicking over syntax, which I remedy here. This is the flawed subheading again for ready reference:

Americans need leaders who rise to the occasion, not worry about their own pocketbooks.

Here are three versions of it that fix the flaw:

A. Americans need leaders who rise to the occasion, not worrying about their own pocketbooks. (Adverb “not” governs an adverbial phrase of manner expressing “how” leaders rise.)

B. Americans need leaders who rise to the occasion and do not (don’t) worry about their own pocketbooks. (Adverb “not” is replaced by a negative verb phrase following a coordinating conjunction “and” introducing a dependent clause whose implied subject is a repeated “who.”)

C. Americans need leaders who rise to the occasion, not those who worry about their own pocketbooks. (Similar to B. Adverb “not” remains, but governs a dependent clause with a supplied demonstrative subject pronoun.)

The power of language and its potential to cure into poetry asserts itself the more we rise to the task of probing not ourselves and our own emotions but rather the thing outside us, the other, and its syntax.

(c) 2020 JMN

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There Used to Always Be an England

Beppe Severgnini reminisced in early January about what he and millions of Continental Europeans have cherished about the United Kingdom.

Above all, we were mesmerized by that quaint country, where the citizens had pounds and not kilograms, restaurants served meat stew and mashed potatoes, families enjoyed donkey rides on the beach in the rain…

Because we feel the difference in atmosphere, physical and moral. “The curious, damp, blunt, good-humored, happy-go-lucky, old-established, slow-seeming formlessness of everything,” was the way the author John Galsworthy put it in 1917.

… The home of the ideas was always London: The best writing, the best films, the best music, the best soccer, the best design, arguably the best art and some of the smartest young people were there. Even the best food, lately, as people from Europe — and beyond — brought their skills and traditions.

(Beppe Severgnini, “What Now for Europeans Who Love Britain?” NYTimes, 1-6-20)

(c) 2020 JMN

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Latinx Redux

Dr. García Peña has been involved in… the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures’ program in Latinx studies [my bolding]. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American heritage, used commonly in academia.)

(Kate Taylor, “Denying a Professor Tenure, Harvard Sparks a Debate Over Ethnic Studies,” NYTimes, 1-2-20)

Ms. Taylor helpfully clarifies “Latinx” in her parentheses, since it’s not likely to be on everyone’s tongue. I’ve confessed before how the term nettles me; hence “redux” in the title.

Linguistically, the striving for gender freedom in woke English can collide with the ineradicable genderedness of other languages. Ecce “Latinx.”

In assimilating “Latino,” a Spanish word, English inherited the word’s masculine gender marking. Absent that marking we get “Latin,” which is native and has its uses — indeed had considerable currency in the past, along with “Hispanic,” for labeling persons of, or descended from, Spanish-speaking cultures of the Americas and Caribbean. (The proverbial “Latin lover” was not a man who cherished the orations of Cicero. He was Latinx!)

Grammatical gender follows no discernible logic. In Spanish, it ranges from la mujer (woman) and el hombre (man) to la gente (people); el pueblo (town); la sociedad (society); el ambiente (atmosphere); el mapa (map); la luz (light); el tema (theme); la catástrofe (catastrophe); el cutis (skin); la piel (skin, too); el imperio (empire); la soberanía (sovereignty); and so on.

No noun in Spanish lacks gender. Articles, as well as adjectives that are themselves susceptible to gender marking, must agree with the noun’s gender (not to mention its number). “Agree with” in grammar-talk means to adopt appropriate markings: la pared pintada (the painted wall); el vidrio pintado (the painted glass); los dibujos pintados (the painted drawings); las nubes pintadas (the painted clouds).

To import a Spanish word into English is to import its gender baggage in one form or the other: masculine or feminine — “Latino” vs “Latina.” X-ing the gender suffix creates a scratchy neologism. Perhaps “Latinx” will catch on outside ivied precincts; perhaps not.

My pickiest beef with “Latinx” concerns its combination with “studies.” I suggest that the phrase it replaces — “Latino studies” — does not mean the study of Latinx-ers who are male. (It would require the sister discipline: “Latina studies.”) Rather, “Latino” classifies that discipline whose subjects are the peoples and cultures of the Spanish-speaking Americas — just as “Bible studies” are not the study of physical Bibles, but of the biblical canon in all its aspects.

But never mind; the distinction is academic.

(c) 2020 JMN

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Note to Self: Research This Mindset

Britain is a rich country and may fare better than others. But the N.H.S. is creaking at the seams after years of underfunding [my bolding]. A decade of cuts by successive Conservative governments has stripped the service of resources. Staff morale is low and retention is poor. We are already working at capacity.

(Jessica Potter, “I’m a Doctor in Britain. We’re Heading Into the Abyss,” NYTimes, 3-18-20)

I live in a state that’s been cherry-red since Ann Richards was defeated by ‘W’ in 1994. “Creaking at the seams after years of underfunding” is an apt descriptor for the Texas healthcare system, and indeed for the U.S. system in general. True to form, the Grand Old Party has striven mightily to splay, flay, and fillet Obamacare from the very day of its enactment, down to the present moment.

One of my projects for the new era of isolation and social distancing we live in is to research why efficient, equitable, well-functioning, robust public healthcare systems appear to be anathema to white conservatives in two “advanced” countries.

Related topic to explore: Why do conservatives such as Drew Pinsky, Rob Schneider, Sean Hannity, Sharyl Attkison, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Ron Paul scoff in various ways at the virus scare?

“This is not affecting people who are healthy,” Mr. Schneider said, falsely.

(Jeremy W. Peters, “From Jerry Falwell Jr. to Dr. Drew: 5 Coronavirus Doubters,” NYTimes, 3-18-30)

(c) 2020 JMN

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Dispatch from the Charwoman

I’ve received from a political entity email that closes as follows:

James, it’s never been more clear that the work we do at the HDCC matters a great deal. Our Democratic candidates are continuing to fight for health care coverage and other policies that will make Texas even stronger. We’re so grateful to have you on our team.

Celia Israel, Charwoman, Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee

I’m pleased to receive outreach from an organization in which even housekeeping staff is empowered. (“Are” empowered for my U.K. public.)

(c) 2020 JMN

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Disordered Stick Bombs

“… A steady state hysteresis caused by reversible slippage”: There are passages in this article about the study of bird nests that read for me like poetry written in the language of physics.

One effort to disentangle the structural dynamics of the nest is underway in the sunny yellow lab — the Mechanical Biomimetics and Open Design Lab — of Hunter King, an experimental soft-matter physicist at the University of Akron in Ohio.

“We hypothesize that a bird nest might effectively be a disordered stick bomb, with just enough stored energy to keep it rigid,” Dr. King said. He is the principal investigator of an ongoing study, with a preliminary review paper, “Mechanics of randomly packed filaments — The ‘bird nest’ as meta-material,” recently published in the Journal of Applied Physics. (He added that, obviously, the bird-nest stick bomb never explodes.)

I think of my friend who loves birds, beauty berry bushes, curious pursuits, and, like me, wry and resonant turns of phrase. These are among the passions that perk us up in unsteady states.

(Siobhan Roberts, “Why Birds Are the World’s Best Engineers,” NYTimes, 3-17-20)

(c) 2020 JMN

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