Shit that is not deserved

In his notes to Lolita, Andrew Appel says of Sammy Kaye, Jo Stafford, Eddie Fisher, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Guy Mitchell, and Patti Page that “their sentimental songs of love and romance were very corny, and backed by ludicrously fulsome string arrangements”.  My response was to suggest that Appel and possibly also Nabokov had tin ears*, and more specifically, that  “Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett were jazz singers who don’t deserve that shit.”  This elicited the following comment from one “marcol”:

“who don’t deserve that shit”

Who writes like that? Are you unable to express yourself?


Well, obviously I write that way.  If you ask me, I express myself OK,  but if Marcol has his doubts there’s plenty of stuff up for him to check rather than just asking. I’ve always  been baffled by the idea that you can make language richer by excluding a certain set of words. Profanity is a resource which can be overused like any other, but taboos impoverish. Warnings against excessive reliance on profanity are sometimes necessary for introductory and remedial writing students (during Thoreau’s brief  HS teaching career he had to make this point), but I’m not one of those.**

My comment was about jazz, and since  profanity is pervasive in the jazz world this usage was quite fitting.  (If you want a dose, read Miles Davis’ autobiography). In this context “shit” is not necessarily pejorative and means something like “stuff”;  it  can stand in for any mass noun or plural noun.  (As a singular, a shit is an individual of whom the speaker thinks poorly).

What’s really in question here is linguistic register. Most writing about Nabokov is academic, and the word “shit” outside scare quotes is inappropriate in academic writing, which  insists on Maude Lebowski gentility even when discussing nasty forms of transgressive sexuality. But guess what? I’m sixty-five years old, and those academic motherfuckers haven’t done a thing for me yet.  So why should I care what they think? (Since most of the next generation of PhDs will fail to get academic jobs and thus will be allowed to curse freely, maybe I can serve as a role model for them).

In my Daisy Miller piece I had a lot of fun saying “goddamn” and leaving off scare quotes. There are number of words and phrases in this piece which can be referred to in academic writing, but which cannot be used without distancing;  simply leaving off the quotation marks around these words changed my squib into an entirely different and rather odd kind of writing. Examples:  “put out” (vulgarism); “score” (vulgarism);  “booty”  (R.I.P. Mark Wahlberg); “lewd” (the society ladies’ judgment on Daisy);  “loose woman” (the society ladies’ judgment on Daisy  in the form of a vulgarism), and finally “villainous miasma” (James’s ludicrous overwriting) .

As for “ate more chicken than a man ever seen”, I don’t know how anyone would ever be able to work  that into an academic paper, but it’s an apt description not only of Alfred de Musset, but of Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, and nineteenth century  French literature generally (except maybe George Sand).


* All the evidence is that Nabokov wasn’t much involved in any kind of music, though Appel talks about his high musical standards. In his attitude toward American music, Kurt Goedel is an interesting contrast to Nabokov: according to his biographer Hao Wang, he came to prefer American to Viennese pop.  (With Sinatra and Ellington on one side of the line and Nazified versions of Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar  on the other, that shouldn’t have been a difficult choice). Of course, by the end of WWII much of Austrian culture (including Arnold Schoenberg) had migrated to Hollywood, which was the natural continuation of fin de siècle European decadence. (Ben Hecht, a scriptwriter who had a hand in dozens of great movies, began his writing career as a American decadent-expressionist).

UPDATE: In “Speak, Memory” Nabokov mentions his father’s “very early, and lifelong passion for opera” and adds that “along this vibrant string a melodious gene that missed me glides through my father from the sixteenth century organist Wolfgang Gran to my son.” (Portable Nabokov, pp. 52-3. Nabokov’s son was an opera singer).

** Wittgenstein’s teaching career was also short. It’s fun to try to imagine either one of these guys in a classroom.

Published in: on May 28, 2012 at 8:42 pm  Comments (5)  

Further Annotations to Nabokov and Appel’s “Annotated Lolita”

(Sure this is pedantic, but Nabokovists are supposed to be pedantic).

I wish that Appel had asked Nabokov about Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Chodorlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. For all their differences, Daisy Miller and Dolores Haze are classic American Girls ™, 70 years (and not many miles) apart —  Lolita’s mom Charlotte even calls herself an America girl. In Les Liaisons Dangereuses the innocent 14 year old convent girl Cécile Volanges is seduced (by an evil seducer, natch) but ends up liking it and wearing out the seducer, though of course her life is ultimately ruined. (Times change: she would have been married off at age 15 anyway.)

Laclos and Nabokov both get the teeny-bopper language down perfectly, which in the case of Laclos was quite an amazing accomplishment given the fictional and literary conventions of that era.  He got as much flak for Cécile’s illiterate French as he did for the evil of the plot. (more…)

Published in: on May 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm  Comments (12)  

Everything you ever wanted to know about Mozart and Salieri

Nadezhda Mandlestam (tr. McLean), Mozart and Salieri, Vintage, 1994.

Alexander Pushkin, tr. Anderson, “Mozart and Salieri” in The Little Tragedies, Yale, 2000.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart and Salieri,

Salieri / Steffan: Concertos for Fortepiano – Andeas Staier / Concerto Köln

 Peter Shaffer / Milos Forman, Amadeus.

Poe not an alcoholic.

Nietzsche not syphilitic.

“Oui, by the love of my skin, I shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin”.

Albert I. Borowitz, “Salieri and the ‘Murder’ of Mozart.”  The Musical Quarterly 59.2 (1973), pp. 268-79.

The Mozart and Salieri legend reached its highest point in the early 20th century, when Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam developed a metaphysics of poetry holding that for poetry to be great, the “Mozart principle” and the “Salieri principle” must both be satisfied. The “Mozart principle” (also called “the impulse” or “the work of the poet”) is what we would call “inspiration”, whereas the Salieri principle, “the work of the artist”,  was craft and laborious effort. Since Akhmatova and Mandelstam gave poetry an implausibly high ontological status, what they did was to designate fundamental aspects of the structure of the universe with the names of these two musicians, and while there may have been some (e.g. Theodor Adorno) who would have felt this justified in the case of Mozart,  giving that degree of importance to Salieri seems excessive.   Whatever happened between Mozart and Salieri, if anything did, was at best just a vicious instance of Holy Roman court intrigue, whereas at worst nothing happened at all and the story was nothing but a lying slander. These are not the sorts of things we generally want to put into our metaphysical  systems. (more…)

Published in: on May 20, 2012 at 8:46 pm  Leave a Comment