The Sweatiest of the Liberal Arts

Drew Hyland in The Point -- "Plato understood full well what every athlete learns quickly, that the oft-expressed opposition between play and seriousness makes no sense at all. In an intriguing remark in his dialogue, the Laws, Plato has his lead character, a man simply called “The Athenian Stranger” (perhaps Socrates, returned from the dead) remark to the sober-minded Cretans with whom he is discussing the proper education of youths that “the real opposite of play is neither work nor seriousness, but war.” Especially given the common use of the vocabulary of war to describe athletic experience (the football staff room at Trinity College in Connecticut is referred to as “the war room”), this remark should be at least as thought-provoking to us today as it must have been to the Greeks. What would our play have to become if “the real opposite of play is neither work nor seriousness, but war”? At the end of the passage, Plato has the Stranger conclude that we humans should “spend our lives making our play as noble and beautiful as possible.” What would that mean for an adequate education and a fulfilling life?"

The rewriting of David Foster Wallace

"Among the more dispiriting aspects of the Wallace canonization is how much it has been built out of his suffering — the way the cult has revived, for precisely the post-therapy, post-Romantic, self-help-soaked culture Wallace described and intermittently deplored, the Romantic picture of the depressive as a kind of keen-eyed saint."

A.J. Liebling: The Morest

Opening excerpt from A.J. Liebling's 1962 essay, published in the New Yorker — The city of Chicago is like a friend of mine who often complains about the service he gets in restaurants. Over the last thirty years, I have seldom seen him when he has had no tale to recount of indignity, inconvenience, or what he considers sheer larceny suffered. He orders clams Posilipo and the waiter brings him calf’s liver, or a small steak and the waiter brings him a large one—which my friend, a hearty eater, devours rapturously, congratulating himself on having found a restaurant with such generous ideas of smallness. The waiter then charges him for a large steak, now irretrievable. My friend says, “I ordered a small steak,” and litigation looms. Another waiter, deeming his pourboire inadequate, will say “Thank,” instead of “Thanks,” and my friend, sensitive to such shades, will slowly simmer for days. “I gave him fifteen and three-eighths per cent,” he will say. “X gave him fourteen per cent, and he said ‘Thank you, sir.’ ” The odd thing is that my friend does not hallucinate these disasters. They happen before witnesses. If four or five of us have a drink together, everybody except this unfortunate man will get what he ordered, but if my friend has asked for an Old-Fashioned without fruit, the waiter will bring him a Rob Roy with an olive in it. If a waiter—even one who has never seen him before—drops soup, it will be in his lap. His faith in catastrophe is justified so continually that if he were a betting man he could have by this time parlayed a nickel into a large fortune simply by saying to his table companions at every meal, “I’ll bet that my spaghetti will be overcooked,” or “I’ll bet that there will be fruit flies in my wine,” or “I’ll bet that they will have just run out of the kind of cheese I want. Name your cheese from the bill of fare, and I will lay seven to five that if I order it they haven’t got it.”

"Chicago suffers from the same kind of magnetic or inductive pessimism. On my next-to-most-recent visit there, in 1953, Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight champion of the world, was defending his title against Jersey Joe Walcott, from whom he had won it in Philadelphia nine months earlier in a battle that ranks with Mons and Spotsylvania for sanguinary obstination."

Great moments in luxury cruise ennui

From the eponymous essay in David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: "This one incident made the Chicago news. Some weeks before I underwent my own Luxury Cruise, a sixteen-year-old male did a Brody off the upper deck of a Megaship -- I think a Carnival or a Crystal ship -- a suicide. The news version was that it had been an unhappy adolescent love thing, a shipboard romance gone bad, etc. I think part of it was something else, something there's no way a real news story could cover.

"There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir -- especially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased -- I felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture -- a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents a fear of death. It's maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I'm small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It's wanting to jump overboard."

Hitler, continued

An excerpt from Ron Rosenbaum's updated afterword to Explaining Hitler:

One regret I have about the original edition: I did not deal with the deeply misguided regard for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, perhaps the most fraudulent aspect of the conventional wisdom about what might be called “Hitler culture.” Chaplin’s meretricious and in fact genuinely, historically damaging The Great Dictator is a film I’d seen long before focusing on this book and had taken for granted the conventional wisdom and knee-jerk approbation. And forgotten it. But its “courage” is one of those myths that really needs re-examining because it persists to this day. The myth that The Great Dictator was a bold challenge to Hitler or that it somehow damaged his cause. Quite the opposite.

It may be too late, but I feel an obligation to set the record straight. I’m recalling now how shocked I was when, after being invited to “present” a showing of it at the Harvard Film Archives, I actually watched it for the first time in years.

It was shocking on two levels. First, the fact that in his alleged anti-Hitler satire, who does Chaplin blame for the hostility his Hitler character has for the Jews? Jewish bankers! Jewish bankers turned down the Great Dictator and it’s all about getting even with those Jews. The Jews’ misfortune was their own fault, in effect. That’s the explanation Chaplin’s film left in its audience’s mind — probably the first impression much of America had. In addition, the impression that Hitler was a harmless joke, nothing to worry about. That’s what he told America at that crucial moment in October 1940 when the film was released. People seem to forget this when they get all misty-eyed about how great The Great Dictator is.