Discord

In the London Review of Books, Paul Mitchinson investigates the damage that Leoš Janáček did to his career by his lack of tact (subscription required).

He persisted for years in misspelling (in multiple ways) Arnold Schoenberg’s name, and filled his copy of Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre with critical commentary. (‘Ass!’ he wrote in the margin next to a discussion of chord-construction on fourths.)

There seems to have been a little of this laying waste to normal human decorum even in Janáček's "most famous contribution to music: the 'speech melody.'"

In the summer of 1897, perhaps under Dvořák’s influence, Janáček began notating the tempo and pitch of the conversation he heard around him: the cries of children, the comments of neighbours, even the sounds of farm animals. In 1903, as his daughter lay dying of rheumatic heart disease, Janáček notated her strangled cries.

The real thing

After editing the late John Leonard for sixty-nine months, during which despite regular chemotherapy he never missed a deadline, Jennifer Szalai of Harper’s magazine looks back to their first month working together (subscription required):

I had the young editor’s tendency to err on the far side of caution. My queries to John weren’t many, but their phrasing was that of someone who had never met a hair she wouldn’t split yet was shy about wielding the knife. I recently opened up the Microsoft Word document on which we did most of our edits for that [first] column, last saved at 8:22 P.M. on February 11, 2003, and I saw a bold-faced query of mine after John’s reference to “a techno-rave, ZyloFlex body armor, and some stun-gun sex.” I had bolded “stun-gun sex” and added, “John: Just to clarify: Is ‘stun-gun’ meant metaphorically here?”

No, it most emphatically wasn’t.

DFW disproves fatalism

Fatalism is the idea that actions in the present aren’t decisive but are determined by the state of affairs in the future. It was given a serious formulation in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. For the New York Times Magazine, James Ryerson looks up the undergraduate philosophy thesis of the novelist David Foster Wallace and discovers that Wallace refutes it.

Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”

Armed with this small but powerful insight, Wallace was able to pick apart the machinery of Taylor’s argument.

All the gems of Samarkand

Why did Elif Batuman go to graduate school? Why did she go to Uzbekistan? Why did she go back to both places? Why did Pushkin go to Turkey? The answers are in Elif's terrifically funny memoir, part one of which is published in the latest n+1, and includes a lovely description of the sort of blackmail one may receive at the hands of academics, if one has made the tactical error of exposing the contingency of one's commitment:

"This doesn't look good," [the grants administrator] said. "You're backing out of your research proposal just because you aren't eligible for this particular job at Berkeley, this particular year?" She shook her head. "It doesn't look good. I like you, Elif, and I want you to succeed. That's why I'm telling you that, if you back out of your proposal now, the likelihood of this comittee ever awarding you a grant again will be very small."

Of all the circumstances that contributed to my ending up in Samarkand, this ultimatum was the most unexpected. Go to Uzbekistan now . . . or you will never get departmental funding ever again?