31 December 2008

Top Financial Stories 2008

I generally ask myself at this time of year what were the biggest stories of the past twelve months, in business/financial news.

By "stories," I don't mean themes, such as "Bear market in bank stocks" or "volatile crude oil prices." I mean stories, such as one might have seen in a particular newspaper on some specific day.

Of course, I choose the ones I do largely because they illustrate an important theme. But the theme itself isn't the story.

Further, I don't rank them, as in a top ten list. Usually, on this blog last year at this time and at my blog-city home for two years before that, I've simply given one "top" story from each of the twelve months of the year now ending.

This year has been so wild, though, especially its second half, that I haven't been able to stick to the one-a-month presentation. I've ended up with a list of 18 big stories, two per month starting with July.

All that understood, here we go!

January. Frenchman Jerome Kerviel loses 4.9 billion euros for Societe Generale. $7 billion. The story started off the year with a bang. Kerviel leap-frogged past Nick Leeson as the all-time most rogue-ish "rogue trader."

February. A jury in Hartford, Conn. convicts a former AIG exec of skullduggery.

The executive in question was Christian Milton, once AIG's vice-president for re-insurance. He was convicted of an effort to inflate AIG's loss reserve numbers.

March. The Federal Reserve backs a JPMorgan takeover of Bear Stearns. At one point, [i.e. the morning of March 17] the price was actually $2 a share for Bear's stock, although less than a week prior -- at the close of trading Monday afternoon, March 10, the market valuation had been $70.08 a share. It was hard not to think JP Morgan was making off with ill-gotten gains somnehow. In fact, the purchase price didn't stay down at $2. To resolve some problem in the documentation, it was eventually raised to $10. Bully. Still, the value-evaporation was breaktaking.

April. Food price increases cause riots, political crises, worldwide.

There would be a lot to discuss under this heading, were that my goal in this entry. Instead, I'll just ask about the use of foodstuffs as a surrogate for gasoline: what impact did that have in triggering the price increases or the result?

May. Yahoo successful in warding off acquisition attempt by MS.

A victory for Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo!, who remains its guiding spirit and has preserved its independence.

June. Voters in Ireland reject the Lisbon treaty, thus slowing Euro unity..

The world continues to wrestle with the whole idea of "sovereignty," in terms of nation-states or of broader or smaller units.

Hereafter we award two biggest-story prizes per month.

July. (a) Israel, of Bayou and Bear Mountain infamy, turns himself in.

The whole Bayou funds meltdown had more than a touch of the bizaare to it. Israel's effort to simulate a suicide on the Bear Mountain Bridge, the failure of authorities to discover a body in the Hudson, and his re-appearance and surrender just added the garnish to that meal of oddities.

(b) Crude oil prices peak near $150 barrel, head down.

Why did it get that high? Why has each barrel lost close to three quarters of that value in the months since? Which one is the anamoly, prices above $140 or around $40? which one will be the norm going forward? Reviewing this year just leaves me full of questions.

August. (a) Second circuit court hears arguments in CSX/TCI dispute.

This is fascinating litigation about proxy votes and the working of the equity swaps market. These aren't issues that will go away anytime soon.

(b) CME, Nymex agree to consolidation -- part of the much broader trend of the consolidation of exchanges worldwide.

September. (a) Bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, all heck breaks loose re: bank stocks or, for that mnatter, US equities generally.
(b) SEC emergency order bans any short selling of bank stocks

These two points rather adequately explain themselves. I'll only add that the ban later expired unlamented. Various restrictions of short-selling remain, but a simple ban on it is akin to a ban on pessimism. It is idiotic.

October. (a) Bush and 'leadership' put a TARP over troubles.
The acronym "TARP" stood for the "Troubled Assets Relief Plan," the keystone of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which became law on OPctober 3, after a turtuous legislative process that re-defined the Presidential campaign to Senator McCain's disadvantage. That isn't all it has redefined.

(b) Waxman hearings excoriate the credit rating agencies I'll just leave a link to my contemporaneous explanation of this hearing and its bovine idiom.

November. (a) Geithner an early cabinet choice of President Elect.
The Republicans during the campaign had sought to tag Sen. Obama a "socialist" (while a President and Treasury Secy of their party were nationalizing industries -- how odd!) Anyway, the Prez-elect's choice of Timothy Geithner as his own Treasuiry Secretary should have re-assured anyone who needed re-assurance on this front.
(b) Paulson completes the bait-and-switch with the TARP.
The outgoing Treasury boss has advertised the TARP as a fund for purchasing troubled assets. Hence, the name. Those purchases were meant to stabilize, without taking over, the banking system. But by one month out, Paulson was acknowledging that the real use of the money would be to make "equity infusions." In other words, takeovers.

December. (a) Bernard Madoff is arrested Dec. 11, one day after his sons had apparently revealed his pyramid scheme to the authorities.

You can't really call Madoff a "rogue trader" in the manner of Kerviel, the rogue with whom the year began. A rogue is a trader who gets a firm in trouble by going behind the back of his bosses there. Madoff was the guy with his name on the door. Call him a "rogue principal" if you like. Still, his fall gives a nice sense of symmetry to the year.

(b) Dec. 16, Federal Reserve lowers federal funds rate to a range between 0% and 0.25%, record territory. Three days later, the Bank of Japan followed suit, lowering its benchmark rate to 0.10%.

Wow. Funds rates are dropping like crude oil prices.

Whew. I'm sooo happy this year is over.

28 December 2008

From Schopenhauer

"The truth was not found, not because it was unsought, but because the intention always was to find again instead some preconceived opinion or other, or at least not to wound some favorite idea, and with this end in view subterfuges had to be employed against both other people and the thinker himself. It is the courage of making a clean breast of it in face of every question that makes the philosopher. He must be like Sophocles' Oedipus who, seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigible enquiry, even when he divines that appalling horror awaits him in the answer. But most of us carry in our hearts the Jocasta who begs Oedipus for God's sake not to enquire further; and we give way to her, and that is the reason why philosophy stands where it does."

From a November 1815 letter to Goethe.

This is a fascinating conjunction of ideas, given the latter development of psychoanalysis. Schopenhauer starts off here describing what Freudians call "defense mechanisms," i.e. subterfuges employed by a thinker against the thinker himself. Then he illustrates such subterfuge by a reference to the myth of Oedipus.

The way in which that myth is invoked here is importantly different from the way in which Freud would use it. But I'll spare you the full compare-and-contrast essay. Go and enjoy the last day of the old year's last weekend.

27 December 2008

From September's Travel Diary

I just uncovered this while cleaning my unkempt desktop.

Some selections: "Newark: I'm afforded the opportunity to upgrade to 'business class.' I take it. Not clear on the difference. More leg room?"

Washington airport: "I buy some Korean currency, the won. About US$200 worth. Comes to 190,000. But that's a sale, not a proper exchange."

"Tokyo: Brief layover waiting for the Seoul flight. Nothing exotic about the airport layout. I get to hang out in the biz class lounge, thanks to that Newark upgrade. Comfy chairs, a cup of tea, a rack of newspaper. The life. Passed through the security checkpoint but WITHOUT having to take off my shoes."

"Hotel, Incheon Korea. How far is Seoul? Not sure -- I'll see if I can get the bus there cheaply. I like the hotel room, although the shower has an intimidating control panel -- looks NASA inspired. Fortunately, there's a less intimidating bath tub."


That'll be enough. You don't want my impressions of, say, the Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong. The above will let you know two things about me: I'm very easy to please with even the slightest whiff of luxury. I'm also very easy to intimidate.

26 December 2008

The SEC's OIG and Einhorn

Someone at the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Securities and Exchange Commission has evidently read David Einhorn's book, FOOLING SOME OF THE PEOPLE ALL OF THE TIME.

For the OIG has sent its semiannual report to Congress and it says it "has a pending investigation into an allegation made in a recently-published book that a former SEC attorney may have taken confidential investigative materials with him when he left the Commission and provided those materials to a company he went to work for as a lobbyist."

The reference is apparently to Mark Braswell, a lawyer for the SEC who left that agency in September 2003 to join the Venable law firm.

Thirteen months later than that (according to the Einhorn book, p. 258) Braswell registered as a lobbyist for Allied Cpital. Einhorn had been publicly very critical of Allied's accounting practice since May 2002. Indeed, that criticism, the range of reactions thereto, and Einhorn's reactions to those reactions, constitute the plot of his book, which was published by Wiley in June 2008.

So it naturally caught Einhorn's attention that Braswell, who had questioned him in the manner of the "bad cop" in a "good/bad cop" interrogation, about the May 2002 speech and about his relationships with other fund managers, turned up as a lobbyist for Allied.

Indeed, exclusively for Allied. "Braswell was not generally a lobbyist [for Venable]. Indeed, we couldn't find a record of any other lobbying clients."

Then Einhorn asks the question that the OIG is presumably now asking itself: "How could it be proper, or even legal, for a lawyer who obtained confidential material from us, including e-mails, trading records and testimony about Allied, to leave the government and go work for Allied while our dispute was ongoing?"

Mr. Braswell has said that he has made no inappropriate disclosures to Allied about SEC cases and that he's followed all ethics rules.

I have no reason to disbelieve him. But it does seem to me a good example of the reason why agencies have inspector generals. It isn't just a Danny Kaye movie.

25 December 2008

From JM's Nativity Ode

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
And spekl'd vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould,
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

Yea Truth, and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Th'enamelled Arras of the Rainbow wearing,
And Mercy set between,
Thron'd in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering,
And Heav'n as at some festival,
Will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.

[lines 135-148].

I love these lines, and the vividness with which they display hope, the most forward-looking of the virtues.

Merry Christmas

21 December 2008

Some anniversaries

Today, is, of course, the winter solstice, that moment when the sun gets as low to the horizon as it's going to get and begins its long rise.

The solstice doesn't always fall on the 21st -- that moment can come on the 20th or the 22d. But it does come today this year (at 7:04 EST),to be precise.

The 21st is also remarkable for the following anniversaries.

This day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Currie discovered radium;
in 1913 the first modern crossword puzzle as published in a New York newspaper, the creation of a Liverpool-born journalist, Arthur Wynne;
in 1958 Charles DeGaulle was elected the first president of Frane's fifth republic; and in 1968 Apollo 8, which would successfully orbit the moon and return to earth with its three-astronaut crew, launched itself majestically from its Florida pad.

Just because the sun often stands still on this date, it doesn't follow that human history must.

20 December 2008

Don Giovanni performed

How was the performance Saturday evening?

Wonderful. Everybody was in fine voice, acting up a storm.

I particularly admired Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Leporello. This is a great "Sancho Panza" type of part. The distinctions between Quixote and Giovanni need no enumeration, but in each case we remember the pairing of an intense and extraordinary protagonist with a man-of-the-earth. In each case, the sidekick is played for laughs yet is also the source of much of the pathos of the whole.

The curtain opens to a castle, and D'Arcangelo is the only human figure we see. His character is waiting upon his master, the title character, who is up to no good inside.

D'Arcangelo introduces himself/Leporello to us in a complaint about his boss, Notte e giorno faticar . Then we hear a scream from within, and the action is underway.

Later, the Don seeks to seduce a peasant gal (Zerlina) on her wedding day. Zerlina was played by Isabel Leonard, a mezzo soprano. You'll see a photo of Leonard, though not in character, at the top of this entry. Here, by the way, is a link to a review of a recital Ms Leonard gave in March, as covered by The New York Times. There was some business with a red shoe of hers that I enjoyed.

Zerlina has to win back her fiance after a brief interlude with the Don -- not brief enough for Masetto's liking. She does the winning back by offering Masetto her shoe, and getting him to put it on her foot Prince Charming style.

That was a fine dramatization of Zerlina's character. The Don relies not upon his good looks or charm -- with women of classes lower than his own he relies for seduction upon the fact that he is a Don, and he can offer them (falsely of course) the chance to be a Dona. He plays, if you will, upon the Cinderella fantasy.

The final scenes were staged somewhat differently in this performance than I had come to expect. In the scenes of Don Giovanni that are shown in the movie Amadeus, for example, the upright graveyard statue of the deceased Commendatore comes to life and shows up at dinner at the Don's home.

But in the staging at the Met Saturday, there was no upright statue. There was only a figure lying horizontally on a coffin or coffin-like structure in the cemetery.

Nor did anything very statue-like show up at the Giovanni dinner. There was, rather, a forbidding spectral figure behind a scrim. There was always sdome ambiguity as to whether the Don and this ghost were in the same "space," even when the Don sought unsuccessfully to free his own arm from the spirit's grasp. Presumably the Don entered the ghost's world forever when the floor beneath him gave way.

All in all, a superb evening.

19 December 2008

Don Giovanni

Of the two operas I've now seen live (surely enough of a sample to make me an aficionado!), I can say that Don Giovanni is easily superior to Manon Lescaut.

In saying that, I'm not judging between them musically. The fact, though, is that with Manon, one has to forgive the absurdity of the libretto, excusing it on behalf of the music. With Don Giovanni, the libretto, the drama, stands securely on its own two feet. The actors could speak instead of singing these parts and the resulting play -- while hardly the same! -- would be worthy of an evening.

So, with all due reverence to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, let us also pay a little homage to his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, an engraving of whom I've uploaded here. This wasn't their first collaboration. Da Ponte had worked with Mozart on The Marriage of Figaro.

With Don Giovanni, Da Ponte was working from the traditional materials regarding the Spanish rake "Don Juan," of course, but he added as much as he received.

The gist of the legend is this: a libertine rogue kills the father of a girl he has either seduced or attempted to rape. He later encounters the graveyard statue of the dead father and jovially invites the deceased to dine with him that night. The ghost or animated statue accepts the invitation, comes to dinner, and drags the Don away to hell.

The immediate precursor of the Mozart/Da Ponte work, in the development of these materials, was a one-act opera by Gazzaniga and Bertati, called Don Giovanni Tenorio. This brief work (designed to be half of a double bill) premiered in Venice in February 1787. The two-act Mozart/Da Ponte work premiered in Prague in October of the same year.

The story would continue to inspire great artists -- Byron comes to mind:

I want a hero, an uncommon want, when every year and month sends forth a new one
Til after cloying the gazettes with cant, the age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I could not care to vaunt, I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan.

I've rattled on quite enough for another entry, yet I still haven't said anything specific to the performance of Don Giovanni in Lincoln Center on Saturday, December 13, 2008. You'll have to wait one more day for that, I fear.

18 December 2008

Lincoln Center

Continuing the story of this past Saturday....

We caught a bit of a college basketball game on television before getting a cab to Lincoln Center. We saw that Marquette was winning against a team described on the screen and, so far as we could tell, in the announcer's patter too, simply as IPFW. So we wondered who the heck was IPFW.

Our best guess, putting our collective heads together, was "Institute of Photography at Fort Worth." So we had an image of tall Texan photographers competing with the Marquette Golden Eagles.

Turns out that IPFW actually stands for Indiana-Purdue at Fort Wayne, about whose sports teams (the Mastodons) you can read here.

Anyway, we left before the result of the game was decided, shared a cab with a kindly woman heading to 60th street, and arrived at Lincoln Center.

The Metropolitan Opera House there features a couple of striking murals painted by Marc Chagall. I'll upload one of them, above and to the left of this text.

The opera house also features wonderful chandeliers. I got a good view of the most striking of them the last time I was at the Met, back in February (to see Manon Lescaut) when I sat in a gallery, up with the gods.

For this trip, though, Cicily and I had orchestra seats, and back far enough so that the balconies rose up above us, cutting off the great chandelier from our line of sight. Alas.

I'll say something about the actual performance tomorrow. Today I seem to have gotten myself onto the physical description of the Met, so I'll make a historical observation attendent thereto.

Ground was ceremonially broken on the future Lincoln Center by President Dwight D. Eisenhower back in May 1959, when I was seven months old. As soon as Ike turned that first spade of earth, the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein struck up Handel's Hallelujah chorus. Who was the Messiah by implication? Robert Moses?

There is an irony in Bernstein's participation, for Lincoln Center was planted right in the middle of the neighborhood that Bernstein had celebrated in the Broadway musical "West Side Story." Well ... I don't know if "celebrated" is the right word. That musical didn't end happily, IIRC. Anyway, the neighborhood was transformed for better or worse (no doubt for both in different respects) into a cultural hub.

And so, 49 and a half years after that ceremony, Christopher and Cicily take their seats in the orchestra section of the Opera House for a performance of Don Giovanni. So moves the universe, wheels within wheels.

17 December 2008

More on the Frick Collection

I won't make heavy-water out of this, from the point of view of aesthetic theory or my own psychology, but in the event anybody cares, I've asked myself which among all the works at the Frick were my favorites. We'll leave aside now my fascination with Vermeer's unorthodox cartography.

One of my favorites was a pre-Renaissance Italian work, "The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain," an image of which I have uploaded here.

This is by Duccio di Buoninsegna: and no, I hadn't encountered that name before this trip, either. But his painting wonderfully captures the moment in the fourth chapter of Matthew when the devil takes Jesus to the peak of a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of this world, offering him them all in return for homage to Satan. A varity of wealthy but fragile looking cities (the capital cities of various kingdoms presumably) are improbably clustered around Buoninsegna's mountain.

Another favorite from my trip was also a work with a New Testament theme: Claude Lorrain's The Sermon on the Mount. I'll supply a link to this one for your delectation.

These two artists worked in very different times and places, but both works have a narrative impetus. Both represent fine art in the service of a story already well known to their viewers/market. I frankly think the narrative quality may be more important than their specifically Christian themes in their appeal to me.

After we left the Frick, Cicily and I began a search for an appropriate spot for lunch. We discovered a French restaurant with a "Gay Paree" theme, which seemed an appropriate follow-up to our morning.

After that repast, we walked downtown, in a leisurely fashion but getting as far as Macy's, then taking an endless series of escalators up to the "North Pole" for a peek at the real Santa. And there were still hours to go before the inspiration for the whole trip, the performance of Don Giovanni at Lincoln Center, of which I shall write at last tomorrow.

16 December 2008

Last weekend

I don' usually add to this blog on a Tuesday, but this week I'll give you an expanded schedule, in order to celebrate the fulfillment of one of my New Years' resolutions for 2008 -- I had said that I would watch an opera at the Met while wearing a tuxedo. Check.

There was much else to my weekend in Manhattan too. There was the Frick collection, for example. Let me start with that.

Who was Henry Clay Frick? He was the enterprising fellow who in 1871 created the Frick Coke Company. It consisted of a beehive oven that turned coal into the coke used in turn to produce steel. Years later Frick entered into a partnership with Andrew Carnegie, because Carnegie needed a secure supply of coke for his expanding steel manufacturing empire.

The business history of that time is fascinating, but let us return to his eye for art, which would seem to have been superb.

The Frick Collection, somewhat (though it appears only sporadically) updated by his heirs remains HQ-ed where he wanted it to be, and is filled with a variety of works in many media from many countries and periods, including great works from the Italian renaissance up to those of the impressionists and post-impressionists of his own era.

One of the first paintings we saw when we walked into the place was, as it happens, a Dutch baroque work, a Vermeer that I have described on this blog before.

The painting I have in mind is "Officer and Laughing Girl" and I first encountered a reproduction thereof as the cover art for a book, Vermeer's Hat, which I read earlier this year.

I found the painting quite compelling, even as cover art, chiefly because of the map. Behind the man and woman seated at a table, and just above their heads from our perspective, there is a large wall map. I stared at that for an hour the first time I saw the book, trying to figure out what part of the world the map depicts.

Eventually, I got it. Part of the problem is that the orientation of the map treats WEST as "up." We are so accustomed in the early 21st century to seeing the north edge of a map as up that this is literally disorientating. Dis-occidentalating too.

The other problem is that Vermeer has painted the land as blue and the water as brown, rather than the reverse.

Once a viewer has made both of these adjustments, he can see that this is a map of Holland.

So I knew of this painting, and had even discussed it recently with the friend who was my companion as we walked into the Frick building. (She had used it to tweak me about my literalness, "are painters allowed to do that???") But I had no idea of its provenance, and was delighted to see it.

Indeed, nearly too delighted. I was excitedly pointing out the features of the painting that fascinate me and, in my absorption in the moment, my pointing finger must have gotten a bit too close to the painting. Some sort of alarm went off and a security guard asked me -- nicely but firmly -- to step back.

I hope the readers of this blog enjoy the painting too. And not just in the tiny pixellated form above. Get thee to Manhattan.

Still here? Okay. Anyway, I'll say something more about the Frick tomorrow and then on Thursday and Friday turn to the other elements of my trip. Including the aforementioned opera.

14 December 2008

Whitman about Carlyle

On a list serve that I run I was asked not long ago by a fellow who described himself as an archivist for Alcoholics Anonymous whether I knew of any passage in which William James referred to certain religious experiences as being of the "educational variety."

The AA fellow also mentioned that as he had heard the phrase (he had gotten it second hand) James meant specifically by these experiences of an "educational variety," those that aren't immediate stroke-of-lightning conversions, that represent a gradual turning about.

I couldn't give him a precise use of that phrase. I was reminded of this passage, though, which is a quote from Walt Whitman to which James devotes a footnote in VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. I like the passage and will reproduce it here. You folks can make of it what you will.

"There is apart from mere intellect, in the make-up of every superior human identity, a wondrous something that realizes without argument, frequently without what is called education (though I think it is the goal and apex of all education deserving the name) an intuition of the absolute balance, in time and space, of the whole of this multifariousness, this revel of fools, and incredible make-believe and general unsettledness we call the world; a soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things, all history and time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous, like a leashed dog in the hands of the hunter. [Of] such soul-sight and root-centre for the mind mere optimism explains only the surface."

This is part of a critique of Carlyle for the simple reason that Whitman believes Carlyle has never acquired the vision he describes, and thus failed to become a "superior human identity." Carlyle is the "mere optimist" of the final thrust.

I think it may have been what the archivist wanted, because the word "education" is in there twice, and in precisely the sense that would have impressed the founders of AA. Whitman is contrasting "what is called education" with what is truly "worthy of the name."

Also, the archivist had in mind the "educational variety" of experience as a drawn-out process, that Whitman had in mind -- as James was passing along to his reaers -- the notion of a certain intuition as a "goal and apex" of such a process -- which doesn't sound like a one-off stroke of lightning!

13 December 2008

Anita O'Day

A couple of weeks ago I saw a documentary on the life of jazz vocalist Anita O'Day, at the Real Art Ways theater in Hartford, Conn.

I heartily recommend it to lovers of jazz -- or, for that matter, to anyone with an interest in recent American cultural history -- where "recent" includes the 1940s and '50s.

Personally, I'm fascinated both by jazz and by that history. Also, I'm intrigued by the documentary film as a genre.

If you want to know more about the movie follow that link.

12 December 2008

Kudlow's cheerleading

About one year ago:

"There is no recession. Despite all the doom and gloom from the economic pessimistas, the resilient U.S economy continues moving ahead—quarter after quarter, year after year—defying dire forecasts and delivering positive growth. In fact, we are about to enter the seventh consecutive year of the Bush boom."

So said Larry Kudlow, cable TV economics maven. It's important not to let these blowhards go utterly uncorrected as the realities they denied smack us in the face. Its important because otherwise naive folk might think Kudlow is saying something of significant the next time he bloviates.

So let the record show: a boom is the necessary preface to a bust. Bubbles can't burst until they've been blown. The "Bush boom" for which Kudlow was still cheerleading even as it disappeared, like the Clinton boom before it, was a central-bank promoted drinking binge, necessitating an awful hangover.

And geniuses like Kudlow are the alcoholics at the party who are always saying, "I've only had two or three."

That's how an alcoholic counts, by the way.

One, two, three, four, two-or-three, two-or-three, two-or-three.

11 December 2008

Recommended Reading

Just a quick link for today.

On getting Beyond Enron in our understanding of energy derivatives trading.

The authors of that piece cite an article of mine in a footnote, so they're to be commended for their good taste.

07 December 2008

Words & Pictures

A new book by Jenny Uglow takes a look at what the author calls a "peculiarly British tradition," the close relationship between many Brit literary texts and their illustrators.

I haven't read the book, but a notice for it caught my eye in yesterday's Financial Times.

Ms Uglow, who grew up in Cumbria, is of course perfectly entitled to focus her attentions in such a study upon her own nation's literary traditions: the relationship between Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel, for example.

But the tradition of great narrative illustration is hardly confined to the British isles. Even when that is where the texts came from!

The classic illustrated version of Treasure Island is still that by which N.C. Wyeth illuminated R.L. Stevenson's story, after all. And Wyeth (1882-1945) was as American as Stevenson was a Scot.

Just thought I'd mention it.

06 December 2008

A Passage to India

Inspired by a recent viewing of the classic movie A Passage to India on a DVD, I decided to get a hold of the famous novel.

I'm reading through Forster's classic now, with great delight.

There's a thoughtful bit early on that involves two missionaries, Church of England presumably, and their debates with one another about the theological consequences of evolution. Or ... I think that's what it's about. Tell me if I'm wrong.

The missionaries, Graysford and Sorley by name, didn't make it into the movie at all (unless there's a bit I've forgotten already). They are present in the book so far as I can tell not as plot elements but as pieces of scenery -- local color. And here's the passage by which I'm intrigued:

Not one shall be turned away by the servants on that verandah [of "our Father's house"], be he black or white, not one shall be kept standing who approaches with a loving heart. And why should the divine hospitality cease here? Consider, with all reverence, the monkeys. May there not be a mansion for the monkeys also? Old Mr. Graysford said No but young Mr. Sorley, who was advanced, said Yes; he saw no reason why monkeys should not have their collateral share of bliss, and he had sympathetic discussions about them with his Hindu friends. And the jackals? Jackals were indeed less to Mr sorley's mind but he admitted that the mercy of God, being infinite, may well embrace all mammals. And the wasps? He became uneasy during the descent to wasps, aand was apt to change the conversation. And oranges, cactuses, crystals and mud? and the bacteria inside Mr Sorley? No, no, this is going too far. We must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing.

Now there's a fascinating slide down the Great Chain of Being!

05 December 2008

Heading to the Met

I'm going to NYC one week from tomorrow -- December 13th -- for an evening performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

This time I've rented a tux in advance. I know I risk looking goofily overdressed, but hey: I haven't worn a tux since a mid-1970s prom best forgotten. I'm bloody well gonna wear one in 8 days.

But enough about me. What about the opera? Here's the story.

And the cast? Erwin Schrott has the title role. Dorothea Roschmann is Donna Elvira: Tamar Iveri, Donna Anna: Isabel Leonard, Zerlina: Matthew Polenzani, Don Ottavio: Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, Leporello: Joshua Bloom, Masetto. Kwangchul Youn plays the The Commendatore. Lothar Koenigs will conduct.

Ms Roschmann has only recently stepped into her role. Before Dec. 1, this production's Elvira was Petra-Maria Schitzer.

Going back a bit further, in the Vienna premier of this opera, in May 1788, the part was originated by a soprano with the lovely name Caterina Cavalieri. And wikipedia tells me that Catarina had studied voice with ... Antonio Salieri.

I imagine he was teaching her well, when he wasn't too occupied cursing his own mediocrity.

04 December 2008

Happy Birthday, Thomas Carlyle

The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle was born on this day, more than two hundred years ago: 213, to be exact.

His reputation as a philosopher and a man of letters has suffered something of an eclipse in recent decades. He's probably best remembered today as a name to attach to the "great man theory of history," because of this book: http://www.questia.com/read/1444983#|

Carlyle's examples of history-defining heroes in that book?

Mohammed (the hero as prophet), Dante and Shakespeare (the hero as poet), Martin Luther, John Knox (the hero as priest); Johnson, Rousseau, Burns (the hero as man of letters); Cromwell, Napoleon (the hero as King).

Notice the back-and-forth structure there. Carlyle's book starts with religion, proceeds to literature, returns to religion, returns to literature, and only at the end arrives what his first readers may have been impatiently awaiting throughout -- European political history.

But of that another day.

At the peak of his influence, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Carlyle was chiefly thought of as the author of an odd book called Sartor Resartus (the tailor re-tailored), in which Carlyle poses as an editor trying to reconstruct the life and work of a German "philosopher of clothes" named Diogenes Teufelsdrockh.

It was Carlyle as the author of Sartor that James often approvingly cited. In "The Dilemma of Determinism," for example, Carlyle figures as the great enemy of subjectivism, the voice ("so chaste and sane and strong" James calls it) for the view that it doesn't matter how you feel, what matters is what you do.

So toast Carlyle on his birthday. And tip a tailor.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.