Diving Down the Rabbit Hole: Trying to Counter Birth Order Theory

Trying to convince people that birth order theory is not legitimate science is rather like trying to convince people that astrology is not real science--or, for that matter, that global warming is more problematic than true believers will countenance. All those missing correlations are swept away by the force of the theory. 

The problem with birth order theory is how much it depends on people finding the correlations they expect to find. I often encourage students to avoid writing about birth order theory simply because they make the same mistake as Sulloway: they locate and label a personality trait within a famous person, then assume that the famous person must be a firstborn, middle, or later-born child, often without even bothering to Google search if they are correct.

Only occasionally have I had a student admit, Wow, the research doesn't justify any conclusions at all!

Most birth order theory comes down to interpretation: how existing behavior fits people's expectations. Take, for example, an event that never occurred in my own family: a parent gifting a teen with a car. When the event occurs to the firstborn, the interpretation is that the parents are applauding the oldest child's maturity and good work habits; to the middle child, trying to making up for lack of attention; to the youngest child, spoiling.

But the act is the same.

In 2015, Julia M. Rohrer, Boris Egloff, and Stefan C. Schmukle from the University of Leipzig and Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz performed a lengthy investigation of birth order and its possible ties to personality. They used longitudinal data from a Great Britain study, data from an extensive study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and data from a German survey of households that started in 1997. They relied on within-family and independent assessments (within-family assessments tend to depend on "existing beliefs and stereotypes as well as contrast effects"--that is, people within families tend to define themselves by how they are like and different from each other using the rhetoric at hand). The researchers also made within-family and between family assessments. For IQ, they used self-referencing and outside testings.

They discovered that the only measurable, consistent difference in birth order is IQ testing--and even that is negligible. Older siblings tend to test higher than younger. Don't get too cocky, older siblings! Not only is the difference minor, Rohrer, Egloff, and Schmukle reference outside studies that postulate that (1) "older siblings profit intellectually from being 'teachers' to younger siblings"; (2) later-born children are prone to "slightly underestimating [their intelligence] and firstborn children slightly overestimating their actual cognitive abilities." There is an odd but consistent correlation between how intelligent people believe themselves to be and how well they test.

Other than IQ testing, the study found that "birth order position had no significant effect on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness or conscientiousness." The study divided the fifth of the Big Five personality traits--openness--into IQ (see above) and imagination. They found that birth order had no effect on imagination. 

The tone of the study is extraordinarily dry, only dropping into wryness towards the very end: "Brief self-report measures are also generally sensitive to detecting birth-order effects when such effects indeed exist."

In other words, within a family, family members will notice if a particular family member is good with puzzles or adept at getting along at parties or quick to spot humor in a situation. The same family is quick to discern how this relates to the person's position, or niche, within the family and to provide an interpretation: i.e. so-and-so gets along well at parties because he or she got more attention from our parents. Voila! Birth order theory is true!

However, the study's conclusion is unequivocal, if staid:  

"The central prediction of the Family Niche Theory with regard to personality could not be confirmed by our analyses . . . to conclude, birth order position seems to have only a small impact on who we become."

For those of you who are gnashing your teeth, I do have an alternative suggestion, having to do with families as blueprints--post coming at a much later date . . . 

Two Problems with Biographies: E.M. Forster Under Scrutiny

Two biographies/analyses of E.M. Forster indicate the problems with biographies.

The first, A Great Unrecorded History by Wendy Moffat, is selective to the point of occasionally, uncomfortably, being less than upfront. As a reviewer on Amazon caustically but perceptively points out,  "[W]hy, if Moffat is emphasizing the all-encompassing Sexuality Motif in her rendering of Forster's life, did she not explore the obvious?"

In other words, why is Moffat only emphasizing certain material, when so much more was available to her? And why does she fail to address potential issues? There are multiple places where Moffat should--but does not--stand back and say, "But of course, there's another side to the events in Egypt . . .  Readers may wonder why the Buckinghams maintained a different version of events. . . " and even, "But of course, Forster himself had differing reactions to his experiences." 

Forster was obviously something of a romantic idealist with a strong self-critical streak as well as a critical eye. He seems to have swayed between the version of his life that he wanted to be true and the version of his life that he accepted, in his droll way, as more likely. Moffat appears to prefer the romantic, idealistic version. Yet Forster often refutes this version of his own life--as any self-analytical person might do, dissecting, down the road, the version that seemed comfortable at the time. Moffat, however, accepts only the version that supports her thesis, often summarizing material rather than allowing quotes to speak for themselves: the quotes provide a far more complex reading. 

From a researcher's point of view, the biography not only fails to prove its thesis, it fails to noticeably or subtly address the opposition's objections. Ignoring the obvious and/or refusing to address the obvious indicates, as the above reviewer maintains, an agenda.

Having allowed for an agenda, I suggest that all biographers run the risk of "falling in love with" the subject. After all, getting to know someone so intimately is bound to encourage an attachment. I get this person. I know him or her.

So pedestal-creation (he was perfectly miserable! he was perfectly happy!) makes for an interesting but not all-encompassing or trustworthy biography.

On the other hand, the literary analysis--the biography portion follows the lecture chapters--of Frank Kermode's Concerning E.M. Forster seems to suffer from an opposite tendency, one  I encountered in my master's program. While studying critical analysis of popular culture, I came across scholars who desperately wanted to talk about popular culture, who actually liked it, but were far too embarrassed to be matter-of-fact and open about their liking.

Apparently, Forster is one of those "great" writers whom the academic establishment is vaguely embarrassed about--"great" but not as "great" as D.H. Lawrence or Henry James.

Kermode is not blind to this perspective and even seems to steady himself for the inevitable criticism (unlike Moffat, he is eminently aware of what outsiders might say) but the apologetic tone irritated me after awhile. In a passage about Aspects of the Novel, Kermode states the following:
[Forster discussed story and plot] simply and memorably, perhaps too memorably . . . The book was a big success though of a genre in which Forster might not have expected success. And that is good cause for congratulations: it was good that he, so skeptical about the value of all criticism, should test the opinion as a practitioner. Yet it remains possible to complain that in a book on such a subject he ought, perhaps, to have looked about him rather more . . .
I'm not making this up: in a single short paragraph in a lecture about Forster, Kermode qualifies any positive statement about Forster four times. I had to read Aspects of the Novel (for the first time) myself to realize how good it actually is and to appreciate that Forster crafted his lectures as carefully as he crafted his novels. Kermode seems to wish that Forster had used Aspects to create a list of "people I have read and approved of," but this type of list is precisely what makes so much literary analysis--and so many Hollywood biographies--so tiresome; Hollywood biographies focus on "all the people I know and approve of," but the result is an equally dull jockeying for status and position.

Kermode returns several times to this lack of position-jockeying in Forster--why didn't he?!--rather than accepting that Forster had darn good reasons, as a darn good analyst and writer, to limit his examples in Aspects of a Novel. He was defending claims, not soothing literary egos.

I accept that Kermode sort of admired Forster, but his analysis left me with the opposite impression. Although he seems to have liked A Room with a View, the bulk of his analysis reads as coming from a man deeply uncomfortable with his subject-matter. Since I am entirely capable of making up my own mind about Forster, I prefer reading material by someone who likes him (as he actually was) and his writing (as it actually is). Lionel Trilling, maybe?

The two issues--lack of critique; abundance of apology--may be inevitable to any biographer. When they can be solved, the result is impressive: the subject is objectively but not unfairly explored--the biographer is willing to question while still ultimately taking the subject's side.

It can be done! It is admittedly less than easy.
The successful biography

Titanic Movies

Re-post from 2013:

April 14, 1912, 11:40 p.m., the Titanic hit an iceberg.

April 15, 1912, 2:20 a.m., the Titanic sank.

Every decade since . . . someone produces a movie about the Titanic.

Actually, that's putting it mildly. Movies about the Titanic are like chick-flick movies: so many and yet . . . how can they ever really end differently?

RedLetterMedia reviews James Cameron's version. Below are a few more (as well as James Cameron's Titanic), starting with the latest television miniseries:

Titanic (2012)
Steven Waddington as Lightoller
This miniseries came out in 2012. It got almost no press. I only learned about it because I recently rewatched The Last of the Mohicans, and I wanted to know what became of Steven Waddington. What became of him is he ended up in a miniseries based on the Titanic; he plays pretty much the same character as in The Last of the Mohicans: the reliable, honorable Britisher (with a few flaws).

The miniseries has an interesting construction--each episode (there are 4) takes us back to the first day of sailing; each time we follow a different series of stories that overlap with stories already told or stories being continued. The most interesting story in my mind is the relationship between a ladies' maid and gentleman's valet. It's a sort of The Remains of the Day--on the ocean.
Two servants with an interesting story
This brings us to the main problem with these types of miniseries; they are soap operas on water. The events could take place just about anywhere: an island (with a mad man); a snow-bound villa at the top of the Swiss Alps (with a mad man); a boat floating down the Nile (with a couple of killers).

Okay, those are all Agatha Christie settings, but the same rules apply: dysfunctional people struck suddenly by tragedy--in this case, a boat that can't float.

Like with all of these miniseries, the writers utilize classic narrative requirements (problem, rising action) . . . right up until the boat actually sinks at which point, they are faced with a conundrum: pay off the narratives or allow for the randomness of tragedy?

The writers inevitably opt for randomness, possibly because they are afraid that if they don't, they will be accused of sugarcoating a terrible event. But such randomness plays havoc with everything else the writers have written. (And the truth is, most people's problems don't get instantly "solved" by a cataclysmic disaster.)

I do have to give kudos to this miniseries for maintaining its theme: the cruelty and pointlessness of the British class system. The theme is maintained at the expense of the facts (the 3rd class passengers were NOT locked below; no distinctions were made between members of various classes while the officers were loading the lifeboats--they simply wanted people to get off the Titanic). However, there are some fairly insightful scenes, such as the servants' dinner in which the servants are as snobbish about rank, if not more-so, than the actual aristocracy. 

And the movie ends with an image of classless solidarity--the survivors are marked not by their status but by their survival.

Other points of accuracy (or lack thereof): Captain Smith is portrayed surprisingly accurately. Murdoch's reputation is restored. Lightoller is portrayed as something of a flirt, which he really wasn't, but since he and his wife are now dead, I don't suppose anyone minds much.

Captain Rostron
My biggest complaint is that not a single story-line refers to or portrays the wireless operators. We see the stokers, the waiters, the servants of the passengers, and the servants for the passengers (as well as the servants for the servants). But not the wireless operators. I was flabbergasted. It's kind of like showing a movie about D-Day and just kind of leaving out references to Ultra. Or the RAF. I mean, huh?

The miniseries I would really like to see next: the Carpathia's response to the Titanic with Captain Rostron as the well-deserved hero!
James Cameron's Titanic (1997)
This is the movie that got me interested in the Titanic. I knew the Titanic sank, but I knew nothing else until I watched the movie when it came out in the theaters.
David Warner as Billy Zane's Go-To-Guy
And I was hooked!
I didn't care for the love story, especially since most of the time, I was rooting for Billy Zane and David Warner, but I was enthralled by the sinking: was it accurate? not accurate? what really happened?

Answer: the ship is nearly 100% accurate.

Everything else is about -10% accurate (my problem isn't with the inaccuracies per se; very few "historical" films are entirely accurate; my problem is with glaring and boring inaccuracies that are also stupid and vaguely dishonest--see below).

So inaccurate in some cases that Twentieth Century Fox ended up apologizing to the Town of Dalbeattie for slandering Commander Murdoch's good name: he did NOT shoot any 3rd class passengers (the few 3rd class passengers who found their way to the upper decks were not kept off the lifeboats); he certainly did NOT shoot himself (no guns were fired at all, only flares). Like a good British officer, he went down with the ship. Since Cameron blithely merged various officers' behavior, I can't help but ask, Why didn't Cameron change Murdoch's name?

Still, the movie got me hooked on Titanic, so I suppose it did its job.
National Geographic Video: Secrets of the Titanic 
This documentary tells the story of Bob Ballard et al. finding the Titanic. It is interesting but not quite as much fun as some of Ballard's other ocean treks, such as his exploration of the Lusitania. He is so darn reverent about the Titanic! I don't know if I'm a realist, a pragmatist or cold-blooded, but I have trouble thinking of a disintegrating hunk of metal on the bottom of the ocean floor as anything more or less than a disintegrating hunk of metal. Very cool. But not endowed with any more properties or meaning than its material self. (If I were to show reverence to the drowned passengers, I'd much rather go to Halifax than down in a submersible--but then I get terribly seasick on the open ocean.)
A Night to Remember, based on the book (1958)
This movie is quite good but rather impersonal. There's about fifteen minutes of intro and then the ship starts sinking. It is the most accurate movie out there and does a great job showcasing the brave, efficient, and reliable Commander Lightoller.

Unfortunately, the movie's impersonal accuracy makes it more like a documentary than a story, yet a documentary without the benefit of Ballard's discovery: the ship broke in two as it sank. Interestingly enough, there were passengers who thought the ship might have broken in two as it went down; however, the bulk of the survivors thought it went down in one piece, so that's what the movie shows. See this very cool CGI rendering to see how the Titanic did go down.
S.O.S. Titanic (1979)
This TV movie provides the pleasant surprise of Helen Mirren. David Warner shows up (again or, rather, first since this movie came out several years before Cameron's) as Lawrence Beesley, a passenger. In fact, the movie is mostly told from the passengers' points of view which is good because the crew's points of view contain far more inaccuracies.

Unfortunately, the stories don't hold together. Eventually, well, the ship sinks, so the movie ends.
One neat thing this TV movie does do is remember the 2nd class passengers--which is a first. Ha Ha.
Titanic with Barbara Stanwyck (1953)
Stanwyck plays an American woman who marries a pompous English man, then decides (18 years later) that her children are growing up to be prigs, so she has to take them back to Michigan or Minnesota (some place cold) to restore them to wholesome goodness. Her husband, played by the marvelously urbane Clifton Webb, follows her on board.

Eventually, the ship sinks and the husband proves that he is a pukka sahib when he goes down with the ship belting "Nearer My God to Thee" with all the other male passengers.

I recently re-watched this movie. The first half is actually pretty good; the characters are inaccurate but engaging. And the information about the missing binoculars and the iceberg telegrams is reasonably correct. Clifton Webb has great dialog and delivery; Barbara Stanwyck gives a stunning performance, and the marvelous Thelma Ritter (from Rear Window) shows up.
However, the second half of the movie is completely spoiled by the most annoying air raid siren noise in the world. Imagine listening to nails on blackboards for nearly 30 minutes. It makes the movie almost unbearable. And it's pointless. There was no air raid noise on the boat. Since the movie attempted verisimilitude with the telegrams, why give up the pretense for an unnecessary sound that makes the movie almost unwatchable? It's very odd. 
Titanic starring George C. Scott and Tim Curry (1996)
This TV movie is completely awful. It is fairly well-written: the passenger stories have continuity and the scenery is well-done. The accurate bits are REALLY accurate, indicating that there may have been an "expert" on the set who insisted on inserting accurate information at various places.

Still, it's horrible. The passengers are thoroughly unpleasant from two ex-lovers who take the opportunity to commit adultery to a villain/rapist played with excellent but unwatchable sleaziness by Tim Curry. I kept hoping Billy Zane would show up and start shooting people.

When Did Plinkett Become a Snob?

Plinkett reviews Titanic. He does a more than impressive job of explaining--in his crass, monotone way--why the movie is a better big picture/epic film than Lucas's Star Wars I, II, and III: Cameron knows how to put together an action flick! I came away from Plinkett's review with a slightly better appreciation for why the film did so well.

Plinkett then does an equally impressive job explaining why people like me hate the film: the dialog is wooden; the characters are simplistic (rich people=bad; poor people=good!).

He mostly ignores the extreme historical inaccuracies, like Murdoch shooting himself, concentrating instead on the accuracy of the ship and praising Cameron for at least bothering to work hard on the film and create actual models and special effects. However, at the very end, he inserts a 1-minute clip about what "really" happened on the Titanic, complete with a U.F.O. It is very funny and underscores his main point that the film is a love story, not a historical-action movie.

The only thing that bothered me about the review was the cliche-ending argument that people-liked-this-film-because-it-was-aimed-at-dumb-people.

Possibly the best movie ever made--
it was popular enough.
RedLetterMedia--well, Plinkett, really--has always struck me as something of a populist. He does such a stellar and hilarious job in the Star Wars reviews (and in various Star Trek reviews) explaining the attraction of popular culture. At the beginning of the Titanic review, he does a fairly decent job explaining the populist elements that make that movie attractive.

This explanation didn't need to be harped on--except he does. His reasoning is the same reasoning I get from people who think that I'm supposed to prefer Twin Peaks to, say, Columbo because Twin Peaks is "artsy" and "challenging" and "outside-the-box." It's very tiresome.

I prefer Columbo, and I have an IQ higher than 100.

Yes, Plinkett is right: many people don't go to movies to be intellectually challenged, but that isn't because--as Plinkett implies--because they are mass-culture zombie drones who prefer shopping at Walmart and going to Applebees because they can't think for themselves. Enjoying Titanic, shopping at Walmart, and eating at Applebees may be the favorite choices of many people--that's okay! These people usually find enough challenges in their work or their schooling or their home lives. They don't expect their entertainment to satisfy them in the same way that entertainment-buffs do.

And I like this!
Like me (an entertainment-buff), they expect different experiences from different things. I kind of hate Titanic but I did see it about 5 times in the theater because I got fascinated by the (inaccurate) history (I'd sit on the edge of my seat, armed with my latest set of factoids, waiting for the ship and the iceberg to collide). When it comes to popular movies, I happen to like Tangled and Toy Story. I also like The Man Who Never Was. I also like Moonstruck. I also watch stuff by Hayao Miyazaki. And sometimes even European foreign films, like Bread & Tulips.

When I go to see the equivalent of Titanic, I may or may not like it, but I expect it to be what it is: a fun, populist story. Sure, I've avoided Avatar as much as a person can avoid a movie. But I know outside-the-box thinkers who loved it. And I really enjoy, and occasionally rewatch, Jurassic Park as well as the first Pirates of the Caribbean; I adore Jackson's Tolkien series.
I rewatch all seasons of the Golden
Girls once a year. Oh no! Another
popular thing I like--oh, the shame!

When I go to McDonalds, I want McDonalds, not steak sirloin. Cause steak sirloin would be weird. I like Hershey's chocolate bars despite knowing that by "real" chocolate standards, they are the essence of average.

By the way, I've eaten at Applebees. And Lobster Shack. And fancy hoity-toity restaurants. And Mom and Pop places. And Indian food at home. And I shop at Walmart. And local stores. And Bullmoose (dangerous place for the wallet).

Plinkett makes the same mistake at the end of the Titanic review as Cameron does with his Titanic characters: all people of a certain class/genre fit into one category, or people-who-like-this-average-movie=dumb=like-all-this-other-dumb-average-stuff-too-all-the-time.

Since it is Plinkett, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that maybe his anti-populist attitude was on purpose. But he doesn't undermine his snooty attitude with a joke (like usual). So I'm afraid he has revealed himself as more snob than populist.

Too bad.

Mourning for Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman was born September 24th; below is a re-post about him:
* * *
When Phil Hartman was killed, I had no idea who he was. My knowledge of celebrities is rather piecemeal. For instance, I could tell you about Warhol's Udo Kier, but I didn't, for the longest time, have a clue who Jennifer Lopez was. Except she dated Ben Affleck, and I didn't know who he was either.

So Phil Hartman was killed, and I thought it was sad, but that's about all.

Then, about two years later, I got into the habit of watching Newsradio during my lunch hour. A half-hour of chuckles really sets you up for the rest of the day, and I love the kind of straight-man comedy that Dave Foley pulls off. And is anyone more adorable than Stephen Root? He's one of those actors who makes me laugh simply by showing up on the screen. Actually, that entire cast was great. Led, of course, by the marvelous Phil Hartman. Except that the name didn't register right away.

And then one day I was watching Kiki's Delivery Service and what do you know, the cat's voice is Phil Hartman's. And suddenly I realized this is the guy. And I went into mourning. Seriously. Maybe that doesn't strike many people as odd, but I don't usually get bowled over by celebrity mishaps. When Princess Diana died, my main thought was, "Well, she won't be in the news that much anymore" (I was wrong). But Phil Hartman's death was a real blow. I started thinking about the animation voices he might have done, sitcoms he could have been in. It was a real wrench.

Anyway, if you haven't seen Newsradio in a while, and you want to put on a black armband and laugh yourself sick over the great Phil Hartman, the Complete Series is out on DVD. Here's a representative clip from"Smoking":

Plotting the Small Stuff: What Bones Does Right

The latter seasons of Bones are not as classic as the initial seasons. However, Bones does one thing absolutely right throughout all its seasons, up to the final one (this year).

One problem that stalks later seasons of many shows is the need to CHANGE, SHOCK, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT! I address some of the reasons for that panic here. Generally speaking, it can lead to over-the-top soap opera ridiculousness that makes one pine for the "simple" days when the show was still unself-conscious and fun.

Bones had this problem (the Pelant sub-plot, for instance). However, it kept its stand-alone episodes fresh by doing what good comedians do: making a plot point out of something simple:

So, in one episode, Bones and Booth debate their daughter's birthday party. In another: the tooth fairy. Or whether or not their daughter bit someone. Or how they feel about their daughter selling cars (I LOVE how this episode ends: kudos, Brennan 😇).

What is so fascinating is how interesting these sub-sub-sub-subplots can be. I actually want to find out if Angela's show runs.
Bones uses iconic images to sell ability early on. The
amazing art created by the young cancer patient is
Van Gogh's Wheat Fields with flowers added.
TANGENT: I do get annoyed at how the Bones' production crew solves Angela's artistic "genius." All her art is derived from famous iconic images that the viewer may or may not recognize--like the stairs from Psycho; I don't think the idea is that Angela is derivative; rather, we are supposed to have this "oh, that's good!" reaction because subconsciously, we recognize the iconic nature of her photos/paintings. It still bugs me--why can't they use someone's actual art? After all, "Castle" writes his own stuff. You can even get his books from the library! Nick from Family Ties got his own art.
Returning to the point (making plot out of life) the less sub-sub-sub and more-plot of Hodgins in the wheelchair is strikingly well-written and gives T.J. Thyne, a respectable actor in his own right, a chance to shine his non-sweet-natured-Hodgins side (aside from being a jerk during the last 1/3rd of Season 11, Hodgins is possibly the best husband on all television).

The ability to make interesting the ordinary, normal, unfortunately sad plus happy everyday is a true gift. The Bones' writers get close to capturing slice-of-life, an admirable ability!

Lovable Character Actor: Tim Wylton, Mark Benton, and Alan Rachins

Three actors who encapsulate lovableness are Tim Wylton, Mark Benton, and Alan Rachins.

Tim Wylton plays Mr. Gardiner in the BBC Pride & Prejudice series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. His character is level-headed, friendly, non-groveling yet also non-presumptuous. Alongside the marvelous Joanna David, Wylton endows Mr. Gardiner with so much warmth and friendliness, they perfectly match the book Gardiners. Of course, Darcy would love these folks! Wouldn't anyone?!

In Poirot's "How Does My Garden Grow," Wylton plays a drunk yet still more lovable (and far more confused) man than his murderous wife.

In As Time Goes By, he plays the simple though occasionally canny Lol Ferris. As Lionel and Jean remark (in sum), it isn't pleasant to think of someone as pudgy and sweet and Winnie-the-Poohish as Lol getting beat up.

Mark Benton also shows up in an episode of As Time Goes By. I enjoy him as Martin Pond in Barbara where he plays the title character's son-in-law. He is also the thoughtful member of the chorus in Topsy-Turvy who suggests approaching "Mr. Gilbert" on behalf of Richard Temple, the actor who plays the Mikado (played in the movie by the remarkable Timothy Spall). Mark Benton's father-in-law on Barbara, Sam Kelly, ALSO shows up in Topsy-Turvy as the Savoy's amusing stage manager.

Like all these actors, Mark Benton has excellent comedic timing--and an utterly non-threatening demeanor.

Alan Rachins is the American on the list. He tends to play more bad guys than the others, including, even, a murderer on Diagnosis Murder. However, even as a bad guy he exudes a soothing presence. His threats are delivered in a kindly voice, which makes trusting him a non-brainer.

As Dharma's dad on Dharma & Greg, he is lovableness squared (and makes a good foil to grumpy Mitchell Ryan and Susan Sullivan).

Naturally, all these actors are working actors with a long list of credits in a variety of genres. Including Stargate SG-1!

U is for Updale

For U, I read Johnny Swanson by Eleanor Updale, the author of the Montmorency novels.

Updale has the remarkable ability to create characters--in this case Johnny and Montmorency--who are not entirely sympathetic yet engage the empathy of the reader. The first 1/2 of Johnny Swanson presents the background of a possible grifter. Understandable if not entirely likable.


With the mother's arrest, however, the novel changes considerably in tone and purpose. It's a fast read, and Updale does a fantastic job capturing the time period (England between the two World Wars). She also is quite willing to showcase the seamy, unpleasant side of human nature. Unfortunately, this makes the sudden and considerable niceness of the characters in the conclusion a tad unrealistic. My experience--and my reading of cognitive dissonance--is that people tend to stick more closely to their opinions when disproved, not less.

Cardiff Police 1930
It seems far more likely to me that the police in Johnny's hometown would continue to insist on the rightness of their arrest than to instantly accept the version propounded by Johnny and the Welsh police, no matter how accurate. They might even be a tad irritated with Johnny for showing them up and respond by accusing him of hiding information (even though they were the ones that wouldn't listen--hey, human beings aren't consistent!).

Consequently, I felt a little uncomfortable with the resolution. It seemed so entirely unlikely based on the prior half of Updale's novel.

I do highly recommend Updale in general, especially the Montmorency novels.

Nero Wolfe Redux

Nero refusing to leave his orchids.
When I first started Votaries over a decade ago, I split up my topics into separate blogs. The below post was originally posted with other posts about television (this was in the days before the "labels" feature).

Nero Wolfe

One of the great things about Timothy Hutton's Nero Wolfe [and the original Nero Wolfe, for that matter] is the morality of Nero Wolfe. It takes a bit of getting used to since it seems, on the surface, almost brutal.

On one occasion ["Prisoner's Base"], a woman comes to Nero Wolfe's brownstone. She wants to stay--in the same way she might stay at a fancy hotel (only safer). Wolfe rejects her proposition. Her attorney has offered Wolfe $10,000 to find her. But since she came to him of her own accord, he informs her that he will either (1) allow her to stay if she pays him an appropriate retainer ($10,000) or (2) give her 24 hours to run, and then follow her in order to obtain the $10,000.

She decides on (2) and is killed within 3 hours of leaving the brownstone. Wolfe sees no need to investigate: he is not responsible, has no client, and is peripherally involved. Archie disagrees and gets himself in trouble. Wolfe ends up resolving the case on Archie's behalf.

In an age still very much affected by chivalric impulses, Wolfe's proposition to the soon-to-be-murdered young woman seems callous (so it strikes Archie), but the more Nero Wolfe you watch [read], the more you realize that this hard self-interest is intrinsically honorable.

Debra Monk, a regular "player" on the show
In a later episode, Wolfe deliberately withholds evidence, to his own inconvenience, because the murder victim wished the evidence withheld, and he feels her (self-interested) choice (which got her killed) should be honored. The same episode contains one of my favorite pieces of Wolfe dialog. Speaking to his client, played by the marvelous Debra Monk, he states, "I agree with you that had you broken your promise [and told the police about the cylinder], Miss Gunther would not have been killed--but it was she who asked for the promise, so the responsibility is hers." 

Wolfe will take on clients and then release himself when a conflict of interest arises; in other words, he is not the type of detective to defend his clients out of personal liking no matter what; the one time he does defend a client despite lack of funds--a gardener--he does it because he wants the man to take care of his orchids, which the gardener can't do in jail.
Nero comforting Fritz

Wolfe will also defend a client for no money if he believes that he has an obligation (as he does with Fritz in "Poison a la Carte").

Likewise, he will withhold information from the police if he feels the information is not their business, yet he will respect a city ordinance not to enter his own study, simply because it is the law. He walks a fine line between deliberately subordinating justice to gain his own ends and satisfying justice to gain his own ends. And he never drifts off the line.

It is, overall, a consistent study of behavior that reflects, from what I have read and been told, Rex Stout's depiction of Wolfe in the books. The television series' plots (which are performed by the same "players") are simply a stylish backdrop against which Nero Wolfe and Archie argue over cases. Chaykin and Hutton pull this off (with more than adequate support from a stellar cast, including the marvelous Conrad Dunn) through rapid-fire dialog and fascinating reaction shots, but the complexity of Wolfe's integrity is the meat that the audience waits for. Without that underlying gritty hardheadedness, the show would be a more than adequate period piece but nothing more. It is the producers' willingness to keep Wolfe unpretty, unsympathetic and unsentimental that makes the show work. For 2 seasons at least!

The Echo in Forster's A Passage to India

In A Passage to India, while Miss Quested recovers from her reckless flight from the caves before the trial, she discusses her experience with Mrs Moore:
 "There is this echo that I keep on hearing."
 "Oh, what of the echo?" asked Mrs Moore, paying attention to her for the first time.
 "I can't get rid of it."
 "I don't suppose you ever will."
 Ronny had emphasized to his mother that Adela would arrive in a morbid state, yet she was being positively malicious.
 "Mrs. Moore, what is this echo?"
 "Don't you know?"
 "No---what is it? Oh, do say! I felt you would be able to explain it . . . this will comfort me so . . ."
 "If you don't know, you don't know; I can't tell you."
The echo is a trope in the book and is used with not so subtle artistry in the film. It is one of those things that English majors like myself love to speculate over. Here is my theory:

The echo is the gap between what our primitive selves desire and what the civilized trappings of society supply. To put this in Freudian terms, it is the gap between the id and the superego that the ego struggles over.

In the film, Lean replaces the car accident with Miss Quested
encountering Hindu statues of loving couples--as I
mentioned: not so subtle.
David Lean leans (ha ha) towards the sexual part of this equation and it underlies Forster's far more subtle ("cryptic" says one reviewer) definition. Miss Quested agrees to marry Ronny after their near accident with an animal--one of their passengers claims it was a ghost; either way, it is a force from the dark, primitive side of nature. Miss Quested enters the cave pondering with all the capacity of her frontal lobe if she truly loves Ronny. The novel's penultimate accusation arises from what she experiences, alone, in the cave--the echo arrives with it, only exorcised or mostly exorcised when Miss Quested is wholly honest with herself in court. Irritated by so much posturing over a tepid accusation, Mrs Moore exclaims fitfully, "Love in a church, love in a cave, as if there is the least difference."

All the difference in the world, Forster might have said, even though Mrs Moore is speaking--to a degree--for him.

Marabar Caves, based on the Barabar Caves (inset)
Forster includes more than lust in his primitive equation: he includes imagination as well as the fear of death (Lean alludes to both). The primitive self isn't simply the self that wants and pines for another; it is also the restless self that dreams of irrationalities (can those two things ever be untwined?). Miss Quested comes to India full of expectations and desires about the place and Ronny that come not only from her active imagination--the part that schemes and plans--but from her buried imagination, the part of her human self that yearns towards certain images and outcomes.

Miss Quested is practical, confident, self-analytical, honest, but she lacks the basic understanding--at least at the beginning of the novel--of that crazy poet from New England, Emily Dickinson: "But never met this Fellow/Attended or alone/Without a tighter Breathing/And Zero at the Bone."

"It's like dogs," says a character in Agatha Christie, defending the atavistic reaction of her child-self; "they know death and throw back their heads and howl."

These are responses that bypass reason and go right for the amygdala. Likewise, we can hope and dream for half-acknowledged things that reality can never give us because our primitive self propels us towards them.

The echo begins as early as Aziz and Mrs. Moore's meeting
in the mosque.
In the dissatisfaction between what we whine for and what we actually get lives the echo. And a great deal of fiction.

Which means, of course, civilization. Forster is no rebel--he isn't extolling the dismantling of civilization for the sake of the primitive whine. After all, as Agatha Christie would have acknowledged, children often remember things wrong. Basing day-to-day functioning on dreams and fantasies is hardly productive, especially since these are the types of desires and fantasies that are not wholly worked out in our frontal lobes (evolutionary psychologists spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what these desires and fantasies are). Societies function due to the civilized trappings we create. Do we create them to stave off the dark--the unexplained and uncanny? To control it? To master it?

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Forster seemed to think that the point was not to rip everything down and start over or even to run out and challenge the norms. He seemed to approach the issue with a little bit of fatalism and a little bit of optimism. Achievement occurs when one finds and makes a space for oneself that one can live with.

The letter to Miss Quested
In the movie, Lean gives Fielding the indirect line (Aziz is quoting him), "Stella [his wife] believes the evil of the Marabar has been wiped out." But in the book, the line from Stella stands without the insertion of "evil." Wiping out "the Marabar" doesn't refer to the false accusation. It refers to the characters having moved into spaces where that particular echo no longer haunts them. But that doesn't mean the spaces they have moved into don't have their own faint echoes.

Facebook is a Culture

Like any culture, Facebook has a language or lexicon of its own. That is, Facebook rather more, perhaps, than other cultures, is immersed in customs regarding communication. These customs refer to more than institutionalized markers (the thumbs-up, heart, or faces under each link); they include the types of information communicated, the rhetorical devices employed, the assumptions regarding response . . .

At the most basic level, the cultural communication of Facebook is NOT conversation.

For someone like myself, whose cultural and customized rhetoric is embedded in oral communication, this makes Facebook almost foreign territory. I should be clear: I am not saying that conversation is the only way to communicate. Nor am I saying that I am a conversational genius. I am saying that my communication "intelligence"--the devices I recognize or use when I interact with others--focus on the interrogatories, pauses, and building of conversation: You say something; I answer it; you respond; I concede something; you demur; I return to a prior point and elucidate.

This is not how Facebook operates. Neither, however, is it how blogs operate. Despite their modern "setting," blogs utilize classic written rhetorical devices. Blogging is not that different from essay writing, from formal to informal, from persuasive to analytical to informational.

Facebook is neither conversation nor essay writing. It relies on comment rather than exchange or organized argument. The comments are personal and entirely contextual--that is, they rely on an original picture or thought or post which then entails response--yet at the same time entirely non-contextual: response is sometimes determined by prior responses but only occasionally relies on them. Comments are often exchanged but rarely build towards an "end." No "conclusion" is anticipated.

It would be easy (and wrong) at this point for me to argue that Facebook is "shallow." In truth, it is no more or less shallow than any type of communal communication. It may not be quite like "shooting the breeze" with a good friend. But then, few things are. Neither is it the equivalent of the letter writing culture one sees among Romantic poets in the nineteenth century. That communication had its own customs and devices and produced its own mixture of profundity and chattiness.

Learning that conversational techniques don't work on Facebook--and recognizing that I am unlikely to learn Facebook customs (I'm not on Facebook nearly often enough to make that likely)--doesn't make Facebook "bad." From my perspective, while it makes Facebook something of a closed book, it also makes it rather fascinating.

Facebook is less than 15 years old. And yet look how, in that time, it has already created a sense of self or culture! Although the framework is imposed and some restrictions apply, the interpersonal culture is almost entirely a "grounds up" endeavor. Expectations, traditions, and uses are produced day by day by individuals. And yet, a common culture emerges, despite outliers.

From an anthropological perspective, Facebook proves how quickly people adjust to new cultural requirements. It also backs up the idea that culture is not something imposed from without. However much we might balk at our culture's restrictions, they are an interweave of multiple personal interactions and choices, not something we can blame on "the man."

Not even Mark Zuckerberg.

T is for Taylor and 1950s Literature

For a T author, I read All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor nee Sarah Brenner. I may have read this book--or had it read to me--when I was younger. If so, I didn't remember, so the experience was fresh.

Overall, I recommend it despite the beginning and the end.

The first two chapters reminded me of those "wholesome" books which revolve around a child's bad behaviors; each naughty behavior is  successfully corrected by the end of a chapter ("And then Ruthie learned to be kind to others!"). These types of books were likely not as prevalent in the 1950s as we tend to think they were.  Nevertheless, their existence explains the post-1950 explosion of darker children's books, such as the Goosebumps series and ultimately the Lemony Snicket volumes (in which the narrator matter-of-factly informs us that "all those nice things that happen to those children in those other books are not going to happen here").

The last chapter of All-of-a-Kind Family, a family of five daughters, wraps up with the birth of the family's first son.

I have nothing against the event itself, and if it had happened halfway through the book, I would have welcomed it as a delightful next chapter in this slice-of-life narrative. One of my favorite children's series is about the Melendys, a family comprised of two girls and, eventually, three boys. And I get a huge kick out of the Anastasia books, which include the birth of Anastasia's baby brother Sam.

But All-of-a-Kind Family resolves with the birth of the baby boy: the reader experiences pages of  adventures and day-to-day activities in a family of girls. Hmmm, thank goodness it's paid off with the birth of a male heir.

Not exactly the most elevating message for young female readers in 1951.

The middle of the book is what makes All-of-a-Kind Family a decent and worthwhile read. A family of children doing childhood stuff is mildly interesting (The Betsy-Tacy books are oddly engaging for being so entirely about nothing--my first writing experiments at 7/8 were Betsy-Tacy wannabes). A family of little girls in early twentieth century New York City is quite interesting. A family of little Jewish girls in early twentieth century New York City is fascinating.

Aside from the first two chapters and the last, the book revolves around Jewish holidays. It definitely falls into the slice-of-life genre (there's an unobtrusive subplot of Charlie and the library lady). It is similar to those pinnacles of day-to-day youthfulness, The Betsy-Tacy series and the Katy series (which latter was voted one of the most popular for young teen girls in 1995; it's hard to find now). Readers enjoy each holiday not through lecture, as a history lesson, but through the thoughts and behavior and enjoyment of the family.

Sometimes a little bit of drama ensues, as when the girls get scarlet fever. Overall, the book reminded me of the street sequences in The Jazz Singer (some of the most remarkably filmed sequences in any movie). Welcome to 1912 in Jewish New York City: enjoy!

Book to Movie: A Passage to India

Aziz, Godbole, Miss Quested
*Slight Spoilers* (I read the book and saw the movie for the first time this summer--there may be others like me out there!)

Passage to India (1984) is a faithful rendition of the book. It also proves, in passing, that Alec Guinness (as Professor Godbole) never fails a part (one is not supposed to think this--one is supposed to dislike Guinness in the part, but I find dictatorial Ivory Tower "film" analysts irritating, and I think what I think).

Actually, the entire cast is impressive. Plus, they are faithful to the book's characters.

As I mention in previous posts, I don't necessarily view faithfulness to the book as a requirement. More than anything I want the scriptwriter/director (both David Lean in this case) to admire the original text, to care about it, to want to make it work.

In this case, the care and admiration truly begins with the cast:
Victor Banerjee is so perfect as Aziz, I exclaimed on the fact several times during the film: sweet and carefree until the trial knocks him for a loop; extroverted; somewhat guileless; eager to please. Banerjee was 38 when he played Aziz and appears younger. Banerjee's ageless aura makes plausible Aziz's willingness to reclaim his former self at the end of the movie.

Dame Peggy Ashcroft gives Mrs Moore exactly the right combination of free-spiritedness, exhaustion at the follies of humankind, and generosity. She isn't an activist--she could/would never have taken on Dr. Fielding's efforts to help Aziz. But she effortlessly highlights why so many people, from Aziz to Miss Quested, adore her, honoring even the evocation of her name. She is a saint--without being saintlike (not an easy characterization to achieve: Forster based her on a beloved aunt).

Judy Davis as Miss Quested. Based on the picture on the DVD cover, I was a little worried about Judy Davis. Miss Quested is a level-headed, down-to-earth and not beautiful woman. The point of her not being beautiful is not that she is plain but that the trial centers on her gender and her Britishness, not her looks. It also highlights her integrity. Like Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice, she isn't seeking marriage and/or approval for the sake of marriage and approval. She also isn't being sought after. She is a free agent who acts according to her own reasons. Consequently, the reader (and the viewer) come to believe that Mr. Fielding is right to protect her at the end.

Judy Davis is, frankly, quite lovely. But like Joan Fontaine, she pulls off the girl-next-door look. And she has this stunning husky voice that sells her later testimony. Since the movie is hers (the book belongs to several voices), she is slightly more sympathetic than in the book.

Aziz and Fielding
James Fox as Fielding explained James Wilby (Maurice) to me. There is a definite bromance in A Passage to India, the novel,  between Aziz and Fielding. It is (slightly) toned down in the movie. I thought it would be removed entirely, but David Lean appears to have found it utterly non-threatening (until the final scene, which is unhappily not as sweet and sincere as in the book) to making his point. James Fox is blond, lanky, and refreshingly non-politically-correct in Fielding's sincere desire to help Aziz. Three years later when Merchant Ivory went looking for Maurice, it couldn't have found a closer correspondence to James Fox than in the younger James Wilby. Both castings may have been a fluke (as claimed); both were brilliant.

Nigel Havers as Heaslop is the only character who is somewhat unlike his book version. When Forster took against the pompous nabobs of his own class, he really took against them (as he admitted wryly; after all, he was one). Book Heaslop is so chauvinistic, dictatorial, full of himself and his "right" to behave like a condescending Empire builder, it is unimaginable why Miss Quested wouldn't have drop-kicked him off the field of her heart back in England. Heaslop is the type of "good old public school boy" in India that Kipling--who supported the Empire--loathed; Heaslop is also the reason one starts to side with political correctness after too much exposure to the type.

Nigel Havers is more clueless than obnoxious, making the engagement slightly more comprehensible. 
Another aspect of the movie that shows Lean's appreciation of the book is his reliance on the echo--What does the echo mean? More in a later post . . .