Papers, Papers, Papers

Papers, rules, administrivia, these too have their bards, and I’ve, for no particular reason, found myself reading a lot about papers and bureaucracy recently.

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French laws from the French Pamphlet Collections at the Newberry Library.

First, a review in TLS of a book by the aptly named Bruno Kafka on paperwork (sociologists get to study anything they want and call it science…doesn’t seem quite fair). Kafka’s THE DEMON OF WRITING Powers and failures of paperwork is full of stories about paperwork’s subtle and not so subtle influence on how things are.

A choice bit from the TLS notice (full review probably behind the paywall by now, sorry):

As proof of paperwork’s volatility, Kafka recounts a rich assortment of bureaucratic blunders, tracing what happens when official procedures fail or foster unforeseen outcomes.

In 1794, towards the end of the Terror, the actors and actresses of the Comédie-Française were saved from summary execution when the very files that had authorized their accusation abruptly vanished.

They owed their lives to one Charles-Hippolyte Labussière, a lowly clerk who had smuggled their papers into the baths, soaked them until they were “almost paste, and then launched them, in small pellets, through the window into the river”.

Labussière’s lesson, Kafka construes, is that while on the one hand “paperwork syncopates the state’s rhythms”, every so often it inadvertently “destabilises its structures”. In other words, if paperwork is a condition of possibility for state power, it is one which sometimes paradoxically renders such power impossible. In Labussière’s case, the files that facilitated the functioning of the security state were what revealed its vulnerability: from then on, “not only was power resistible; it was water soluble”.

This sort of instability was soon intuited by Saint-Just, who said of the proliferation of paperwork during the early days of the First Republic that “the demon of writing is waging war against us: we are unable to govern”.

Prompts the obvious response that that the last sentence could be updated today to “The demon of data is waging war against us: we are unable to govern.”

Second in the “paper” trope is the big number from Menotti’s 1950 opera “The Counsul,” about the efforts of a woman in an unidentified Eastern Bloc country to get a visa to leave, after her husband, a dissident, is targeted. Magda, after countless hours in the waiting room of the American Consulate, in which she fills out forms again, and again, finally loses it completely, doing a full-on operatic mad scene. (In case you were wondering, the required ingredients of an operatic mad scene are: one unhinged soprano, a recit, an aria (repeat optional, but recommended), a tempo di mezzo (middle bit, generally with choral interruption), and a cabaletta (faster, determined and emphatic, repeat strongly recommended, as is high note at the end, but these aren’t, strictly speaking, absolute requirements.)

Here is the scene with the original Magda, Patricia Neway, doing part of the scena, which comes at the end of the second act.


(By my lights the cabaletta starts at “What is Your Name?” FWIW, risk of camp nothwithstanding, this is a piece beloved by opera fanatics of a certain age. The singers who could bring off the role are revered.)

To end a poetic take on paperwork in the form of rules tipped by Poetry Daily :

Rule Book

At the age of ten you will be allowed
in the deep end. 52 inches will get you
on Thunder Mountain. You must be thirteen
with perfect vision to ride all-terrain vehicles.
Please, no unsupervised children. No idiots.
No mentally deranged wantons. We do allow
two siblings for the price of one on Wednesdays.
Eight Young-At-Heart’s for the price of seven
on Sunday at 2 p.m. Please understand that
we cannot make exceptions. The rule is
you must be 6’2″ with a chiseled profile
and brooding eyes. Size 32-C or larger to get
on the show. We do not accept coupons
or offer refunds. I sympathize
but just came out of surgery myself.
My kid is also sick. Are your eyes
at least two inches apart? We’re really looking
for someone with a better sense of the absurd
who is naturally blonde. Don’t feel bad,
we accept less than 1% of applicants.
Are you emancipated? On Atkins?
Have you checked all categories that apply?
Please don’t call to hear your status.
The process is fully automated, so
you should receive your results in the mail.

Lauren Shapiro

Words & Images

Going to try for a week curving back to posts that follow Goethe’s advice, beautiful picture, reasonable words, and a spot of music.

For today: a photo from a friend‘s trip to India (he is a software developer who does photography on the side, although he could do photography with software development on the side, judging by these photos).

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Some lines of Elizabeth Bishop from her poem, “Questions of Travel”

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

And for music, Alfred Brendel playing Schubert’s Hungarian Melody in B minor,

Reasonable Archives: NYPhil is Digitizing Everything

Okay, this is a little music/library geeky, I admit, but have been wasting some time pleasantly perusing the New York Philharmonic online archive (part of an effort to get 8 million docs, 7000 hours of audio and video online). You can see Bernstein’s notes on Mahler scores, among many other gems. It’s a particularly good fit for this orchestra, which, particularly in the mid-century, was always forward looking about media and access.

Their promo video explains things nicely.

Check out May 14, 1959, the ground-breaking ceremony for Lincoln Center. Attended by the President of the United States, with performances by Risé Stevens and Leonard Warren. Back when classical music had more of a claim to being common cultural currency. Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 12.35.36 PM

Unreasonable Words: Woodward Non-news News

Screen Shot 2013-03-02 at 8.17.51 PMAlthough I live in DC, I somehow missed the non-threat, threat “dust up” between the White House and Bob Woodward. Christopher Zara on IB Times anatomizes it amusingly, without quite avoiding the trap that he deplores.

Do you follow politics? Maybe you only think you do.

If we can learn anything from Bob Woodward’s strangely compelling kerfuffle with the White House this week, it’s that we may not be as politically well-versed as we think we are.

The legendary journalist and Washington Post reporter created what he now refers to as a “sideshow” after implying that he’d been threatened by a senior White House aide.

A classic Washington bit of media/politics hall of mirrors.

Stats: Demos on the Top Blogs

Pingdom, a service that monitors servers and web sites, has gathered some stats on the top 100 blogs (of some 157 million they estimate to be out there. Take a sip of your morning latte and reflect on that 157 million number a moment!; there are even five or six with the same name as this one.)

blog-readership-demographics-pingdom.001By their number crunching, the average age of a blog reader is 38. (By comparison, average age of somebody who watches broadcast TV is 51). The newspaper average is somewhere around 55, and print readership is declining of course.

Pingdom is surprised by the relatively old age of the average blog reader, although I wonder if the hidden variable is the fact that the overall population of regions where people read a lot of blogs, such as the U.S., is an important factor. Still some interesting points, and I’m abashed by how few of the top 100 blogs I read: only three, Gizmodo, Ars Technica and Laughing Squid, and only the last one regularly. A bunch are NYTimes ones, and I read it every day, without much paying attention to whether I’m on a blog brand or just the site. I wonder if Ars Technica is happy or unhappy about having “no reader over 64.” And if that’s really even true, not one, ever?

Beautiful Sounds: Van Cliburn dead at 78

Van CliburnVan Cliburn, perhaps the last of the breed of the classical musicians who were household names, is dead at 78. I started the day reading the well-done obit in the Times, and kept coming back to him as I worked through the day. An interview with Scott Simon on NPR captures his charm and a number of his touchstone quotes (musicians end up with formulas they trot out in interviews over and over again to answer questions that can’t really be answered in words). One was his love of opera, which started early, and corresponding emphasis on creating a singing tone in the piano. That is, getting the piano to sound like a voice, and going beyond its seeming limitations as a percussion instrument, a bunch of hammers and strings. (A pianist as different from Cliburn as Alfred Brendel makes the same point.)

He also gets at something in the interview that doesn’t get often mentioned: that playing for yourself, be it practicing or noodling around (which do I do more of? Hmm?) is totally different from performing, and often much more rewarding. A related point is that performing requires a divided self, and it’s being a listener that is the purer pleasure. (I think the same is true about reading, its rewards are much more lasting, and satisfying, than writing, which is, as Peter DeVries pointed out, mostly “paperwork.”)

I liked to think of him playing Chopin (another lover of opera) just for the hell of it, alone in the middle of night in his Fort Worth home, thundering through a ballade or caressing a melancholy prelude. Maybe even singing along a la Glenn Gould, an artist as different as he could be, but who is now probably playing piano duets with him.

There’s also a nice piece about him in the Fort Worth paper, and WQXR is streaming the entire program he played at the Tchaikovsky Competition from the broadcast a few months later in Carnegie Hall. (With Peter Allen announcing, before he got the job as voice of the Met.) That was in 1958. Fourteen years later or so, I heard him live (one of the few greats of that era I ever heard in person.) He was performing at Michigan State University, and had a full-house for a program of mostly Chopin. I went back to get his autograph, amazed by the feel of the event and adulation, as much as the music making, a lot of which went over my 10-year-old head.

One thing that I wish somebody would write more about, but I’m not qualified to do, is his connection to the Russian school of piano playing. This came to him through, among other influences, his Juilliard teacher, Rosina Lhevinne. His sound was certainly Russian to me, although such things are hard to really pin down. But in an interview, Vladimir Ashkenazy, listing great pianists who played Rachmaninoff with the authentic Russian sound, gave high marks to Cliburn. When the interviewer said, “but he’s from Texas,” Ashkenazy replied, “Ah, but Russian trained.”

Check out this master class of Lhevinne’s, where she’s coaching (and possibly terrifying) a young (and hunky) Misha Dichter. And singing, of course.

Reasonable Words: Oblomov

Still engrossed in Oblomov, and have just read a bit where the transcendentally lazy title character learns that there are big changes, including construction of a highway, coming to his ancestral estate, changing the nature of things. He laments:

“Oblomovka was such a quiet spot, away from everything, and now there will be the highroad, the fair! The peasants will take to going to town, tradesmen will be coming to us–we shall be done for! It’s simply dreadful!’

Stoltz laughed.

“Of course it’s dreadful!” Oblomov repeated. “The peasants were right enough, one heard nothing, either good or bad, about them, they did their work and were contented, and now they will be demoralized! They will take to tea and coffee and velvet trousers and leather boots and accordions…no good will come of it.”

Like a lot of the book, Oblomov’s out of touch dismay is played for a laugh, “accordions!”  but, amid the sighs and laments, he’s right: the past pulls irretrievably away, crumbling beneath our feet.

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Peasants harvesting hay in 1909. From the album “Views along the Mariinskii Canal and river system, Russian Empire”. Early–and vivid–use of color photography I learned about on the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture” blog. This is still Oblomov’s world, caught a few years before it would be blown away to bits.

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