Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


The Great Game:
The Struggle For Empire in Central Asia
by Peter Hopkirk
p. 1990
Kodansha International

  The Great Game is a name for the geo-political struggle between Russia and the U.K. for supremacy in the region that we today call Central Asia, the Chinese Far West and Afghanistan.  This struggle, which bears many similarities to more recent conflicts in this region, took place during the 19th century.

  The gist of the conflict pitted an expansive Russian Empire against the defensive British Colony of India (today's India and Pakistan.)  Then, as was the case in the 1980s, the concern was with Russian expansion towards the Indian Ocean.  In the 19th century, it was the British who got their ass handed to them by the Afghani's- in particular during the first Afghani War of the 1840s the Brits lost 16,000 men from their occupying force- during the course of their retreat- from an Army that numbered about 16,000.

   Aside from the to-and-fro of the British occupying strageically important countries like Afghanistan, the Great Game was a contest between the secret agents of Britain and Russia- trying to bring disparate Central Asian Despots "into the fold."  Along the way many people- British and Russians- lost their lives in ways directly and indirectly related to the conflict.

  The Great Game very much pre-saged the cloak and dagger aspects of the Russian/Western Cold War in the 20th century- secret codes, spies, murky geo-political ambitions- it was all there in the 19th century.  The Brits and Russians even had their own Cold Warriors- called Anglophobes on the Russian side and Russophobes on the British.  These partisan created their own body of literature that excited much popular comment, much as similar literature created excited during the 20th century cold war.

  I can't help but wonder to what extent the American Government was familiar with the narrative of the Great Game in the aftermath of 9/11, and why, exactly, they thought our intervention would end any differently then the intervention of the Russians and British in the 19th century. Afghanistan is a bloody place, best keep your distance, is my view.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


    I have a bit I do in conversation about "DANDIES VS. FOPS"- understanding the difference is key to understanding the meaning of personal style.  Both the Dandy and the Fop are archetypes for contrasting methods of the individual personality and it's relationship with groups of people.

    A significant similarity between the two types is that they are both hyper-conscious of their status vis a vis other people.  The "inventor" of the Dandy style- Beau Brummel- was an actual person, who came from an un-gentlemanly background- his father was a merchant- and his inheritance was only 20,000 pounds- a pittance in those days.

   To give you a yardstick for measuring how pitiable Brummel's inheritance was, in George Gissing's New Grub Street, an inheritance of 10,000 pounds is tantamount to making a woman "unmarriageable."  Brummel compensated for his lack of status by cultivating what today we call "a sense of personal style."  Unlike the personal style of the fop, which I will get to in a paragraph, the personal style of the dandy is reasonable congruent to the personal style of a modern man or woman:  rigorously hygienic, fastidious attention to matters of dress, sharp witted, careless with money.  Part of the "meaning" of Dandy-ism was, ironically, to strip away affectations from personal style.  How ironic then that moderns often use the word "Dandy" to mean a surfeit of personal affectations.  Really, that person is a Fop.

  The Fop precedes the Dandy in time. The Fop is a stereotype of the stylish man about Court from France, interpreted by English men about Court.  Unlike the Dandy, who's attributes could find him a men's magazine tomorrow, the Fop was stereotyped by affectations that have not ages as well.

  The Fop was characterized by garish white, pan-cake make-up, elaborate wigs, over-dressing and using French styles and vocabulary.  In almost every sense, except perhaps in terms of attitude towards money and spending, the Dandy and Fop are opposites- consciously opposed from the perspective of the Dandy.  For the Fop, the Dandy is simply an "other"- to be laughed at, until of course, the point in time where all the Fops became Dandies.  Ultimately, that eclipse was tied to the decline of the Court itself in the period of Brummel's life- 1778-1840.  The court based Fop was replaced by the city based Dandy.

  You can easily imagine a young Gentleman coming to London during the period of Brummel's ascendancy and "choosing" to be a Dandy rather then a Fop, while the reverse hardly seems possible.  I would argue that the Dandy added a concern with authenticity to the realm of personal style.  The Fop, a mincing, french speaking dude wearing a huge wig and pan cake make up, whatever else he may be (dashing, witty.) is not authentic under any circumstance- that's the whole point of being a Fop- to emulate something that nobody is naturally.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


New Grub Street
by George Gissing
Oxford World's Classics Edition
p. 2009; originally published in 1891

  There are two main problems with the idea and the execution of the"1001 Books to Read Before You Die" series  The first problem is that the editors use the word "BOOKS" to mean "NOVELS."  All 1001 Books to Read Before You Die are Novels, not one is non-fiction.  Even the books that aren't novels are there because they are antecedents of the novel.
   The second problem is the over-representation of the significance of works from the recent present.  In a book that take up close to 1000 pages (960 if you must know.) the last hundred or so years take up 800 pages- meaning 200 pages for every novel before the 20th century.  I would humbly suggest that if there are only a hundred or so worthy novels written between 1700 and 1900, there were the same amount or fewer in the 20th century, rather then another 800 or so books.
    The time immediately prior to that transition from the "long 19th century"- till 1914, to the twentieth century is a crucial period for the transformation of the Audience, similar to the transformation that occurred during the so-called "rise of the novel" in the late 18th century.
    New Grub Street by George Gissing is a solid attempt to portray the beating heart of artistic self awareness about the market.  This locale is London England in the late 19th century- late 1870s- 1880s.  His characters are Authors trying to succeed in the world of publishing- either by writing fiction, stories and articles in the London Press of the period- which has to count as the first modernish marketplace for Artistic product.  It's certainly the first Artistic marketplace where an Author could portray such a market place in a work of art.
   Although the style of Gissing's writing places him squarely inside the mid-late 19th century realist/psychologist tradition of novel writing, there are moments of self awareness that resonate with the modern reader.  The main characters- all male writers with varying degrees of Artistic self importance and worldly success range from Reardon- the "tortured Artist" who dies- abandoned by his heiress wife and forgotten by the public.  Harold Biffen- author of the "stream of consciousness" anticipating "MR. BAILEY, GROCER" is the fierce, uncompromising modernist Artist- he ends up poisoning himself.  Milvain is the knowing young hustler who "understands how the game is played."

  You could easily imagine the plot of New Grub Street transferred to any local indie rock scene in America or Europe, because Gissing so perfectly captures the mind-set of Artists struggles with the reality of the Market.

  The message of this book really hit home with me- call it the futility of artistic endeavor- because it takes place in West London- in the exact same place where I studied abroad... IN THE 90s.  Harodl Biffen's garret was three block from my dorm/hostel.  It was in London, during this time, that I essentially decided to pursue a legal degree rather then a career as a "writer."  Unlike me, Gissing's characters are all in on writing- to stop writing- as Reardon does later in the novel- is considered the ultimate disgrace and considered good cause for spoual abandonment.

  If I could have given advice to the characters in this novel I would have said, "GET OUT OF LONDON IMMEDIATELY!"

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