This week’s New Yorker has a review of a new book, The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings. In the book, Hitchens traces disputes over the proper use of the English language over the last century, dividing its participants between prescriptivists, who argue for maintaining language’s rules governing writing and speech and descriptivists, who argue that language’s fluidity allows only description of its changing practices. He aligns himself with the latter while the reviewer, Joan Acocella, takes a more agonistic position, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of the various warring sides and observing that “nowadays, everyone is moving to the center.” While the book and review usefully discuss an interesting historical subject, the language war they present was more properly a culture war. Its skirmishes and battles concerned, not with language, but its civilizing effect.
Yet more on Aladdin:
Authenticity, however, has always been complicated where Aladdin is concerned. The stories of the Thousand and One Nights derive from Persian, Indian, Arabic, Turkish, and Egyptian folk tale and literary traditions that span several historical periods and were passed on orally for centuries within Islamic society and culture before being recorded. Extant Arabic manuscripts fall into two main manuscript traditions, the one Syrian, the other Egyptian, which differ in which tales they include and in what order. The various manuscripts share a common core of stories, which include an Arabic cycle involving the 9th century caliph Harun al-Rashid and others from his era, including vizier Ja’far and Abu Nuwas, and another group involving 13th and 14th century figures from medieval Cairo. They also share a narrative framework for the collection, the story, from 7th century Persia, of Shahrazad (or, as she is better known, Scheherezade), the new bride who begins, without concluding a new story for her husband, King Shahriyar, each night to avoid execution the next morning, eventually, after a thousand nights, winning his pardon and her life.
Continuing last week’s post about Aladdin:
The Disney film made Aladdin Arabic (and an accused thief instead of a ne’er-do-well tailor’s son) and renamed the princess of his affections Jasmine—from the original’s Badroulbadour (Bedrulbudour, Bedr-el-Budur, Badr al-Budur). Perhaps more significantly, its villain was not the African magician/sorcerer of the literary versions. Instead, following the 1940 adaptation of Thief of Bagdad, the Disney film’s villain was the evil and conniving court advisor, Grand Vizier Jafar (Jaffar in the 1940 film, played by Veidt, its star). The name and title derives from a figure who appears in several of the Thousand and One Nights tales and is loosely based on an actual 9th century historical figure, Ja’far al-Barmaki, vizier to the caliph of Baghdad. Another 9th century historical figure, the poet Abu Nuwas, who appears as a court jester figure in the Nights, provided the name for the thief in the 1940 film—which had divided the 1924 film’s title character into two: a prince, Ahmad, and a thief, Abu—and Aladdin’s sidekick monkey in the Disney film.
In Astounding Days, his autobiographical reminiscence of a youth reading science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke recalled that English fans learned that Woolworth’s was the best place to find the pulp magazines where the stories they wanted to read. “According to legend, all these ‘Yank pulps’ invaded the United Kingdom as ballast in returning cargo ships. Presumably it was worth disposing of unsold issues in this way, rather than recycling the paper.” Colorfully entertaining, Clarke’s recollection also illustrated the incidental—and often unseen and unconsidered—consequences of distribution for publishing’s sales and circulation.
I watched President Obama’s speech to Congress presenting his jobs plan last week and have watched and read some of the commentary on it, most of which as been favorable. While the plan may indeed create jobs and improve the nation’s economic situation, it still struck me as having the wrong tone. It wasn’t a jobs plan so much as another stimulus package.
In the difference lies the President’s slight, but still significant failure to address and communicate the issue politically. Clearly the nation’s economic situation requires attention and intervention, which many of the ideas in Obama’s plan seek to affect. But as with the administration’s response to the financial crisis of 2008, the presentation and justification for the plan was couched in the language of macro-economics, not moral sentiment. It aimed more to convince members of Congress to enact specific legislative policy than to address and affirm the concerns of the American public. While the one narrow aim was necessary–if probably also doomed to failure in the face of recalcitrant Republicans–its priority overrode an rhetorical opportunity for the President. The specific details he outlined, reducing payroll taxes, providing incentives for businesses to hire more employees, etc., would, if passed, help individuals and families in need and, indirectly, create jobs, but their very variety–as well as that indirection–diluted any focus his plan could have brought to bear on what is the one urgent issue for the public. In this case, it’s not the economy, it’s jobs.
Now that I’ve finished my book on popular science and science fiction in the interwar era, Astounding Wonder (University of Pennsylvania Press, March 2012), I’ve returned to another project on geography, race, and Asian Americans that I’m calling Barred Zones.
A few years ago, while teaching my introductory Asian American history course, I decided to personalize the subject of my lecture, truck farming. Most students who take an Asian American history course will learn that Asian Americans contributed significantly to American agriculture and farming, far more so than for their significant, but short-lived work on the transcontinental railroad. It is one thing, however, to learn about farming in the abstract, removed from its actual practice and experience, and another to consider it from the perspective of those who worked in the fields. It surprised many of my students that their Harvard and Berkeley-educated professor had any such experience.