Carlo Rotella, “The Greatest”
Carlo Rotella grew up on Chicago’s South Side. His native-son meets hometown-boy-makes-good panache is evident in the essays he writes, several of which are gathered in his recent collection Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories. At times lyrical, engaged with its subjects as a take-home assignment on interpersonal craft, and always formidably on-point in the swings it takes at our inimitably fallible humanity, Rotella’s writing is immediately recognizable, as branded to the writer as to the cities, personages, complaints, and edification he elucidates. Who else would mix fencing clubs with the middle-aged white baby boomer homes of the blues, cigar-smoking CEOs of Focus Features with child-rearing crime writers, Homer with Muhammad Ali? Even his accompanying playlist for the internet blog Largehearted Boy is charged with the same frisson: you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the William DeVaughn out of the boy. His prose is “crisp,” as the outlets say, and the connections he makes jostle and reify our own naked encounters with the world. We’re lucky enough to run one of the essays published in the book—a riff on boxing, the Iliad, the comp-lit trafficking of a tagline, and Mr. Muhammad Ali—below. Here’s hoping you enjoy it as much as we do.
“The Greatest” by Carlo Rotella
Recently (as these things are measured), and after almost three milelnnia of not imitating Muhammad Ali, a Greek boxer named Epeus started saying, “I am the greatest.”
Epeus is a character in Homer’s Iliad; he makes a brief appearance toward the poem’s end, in book 23, during the funeral games for Patroclus. His moment at center stage begins when the bereaved Achilles proposes a boxing match, offering a prize mule to the winner and a two-handed cup to the loser. Epeus stands up to lay his hand on the mule, telling the assembled host that somebody else will have to settle for the cup. He freely admits he’s not much of a soldier, but he claims to be the best boxer around, predicts extravagant suffering for his opponent—”I’ll open his face and crack his ribs,” in one translation—and suggests that the opponent’s seconds stay close by to carry out the loser.
“Huge but compact, clever with his fists,” Epeus so effectively radiates competence that the rest of the Greek army, including many of the Iliad‘s most illustrious god-descended heroes, stand around scuffling in the dirt in discouraged silence until a minor hero named Euryalos takes them off the hook by accepting the challenge. Naive, dumb, or brave, Euryalos gamely mixes it up with Epeus, who knocks his block off. Although the various translations disagree about the exact nature of the knockout punch—some call it an uppercut and others a hook, while most are content to say in less precise language that Epeus smote the hell out of him—they all agree that Epeus sees an opening in the other man’s guard and ends the fight in a hurry. In my favorite rendering, Euryalos goes down “the way a leaping fish / falls backward in the offshore sea when north wind / ruffles it down a beach littered with seawrack: / black waves hide him.” It is the Iliad, after all, so he can’t just fall over.
In two recent translations of the Iliad—Martin Hammond’s excellent prose version of 1987 and Robert Fagles’s celebrated “modern English Homer” version of 1990—Epeus in his prefight boast says, “I am the greatest.” Neither translator has him add “of all time,” as Ali usually did, but “I am the greatest” has since the 1960s been one of Ali’s trademarked bits of the English language. (Another is that catamaran of a simile, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” which Homer would have appreciated.) Because Ali repeated his poetic formulas with such Homeric regularity, anyone who has heard Ali say “I am the greatest” often enough—and there was a time when most of the English-speaking world fell into that category—will hear his mildly hysterical but still Kentucky-soft voice coming from the mouth of Epeus.
It may be startling to notice that Homer has been made to execute a flawless Ali Shuffle in the mist of his own poetic footwork, but bear in mind that the original footwork resembles Ali’s in the first place. Fagles described it as an “ideal coincidence of popular usage and Homer’s language.” He told me, “I wouldn’t have done it if I had to drag the phrase in by the hind legs, but ‘I am the greatest’ comes so close to the Greek.” The effect, he concluded, was only to add resonance and depth to the original.
“I am the greatest” does not turn up in translations of the Iliad done prior to the rise of Ali in the 1960s. In George Chapman’s seventeenth-century translation, Epeus delivers a lilting “at cuffes I bost me best.” Alexander Pope’s eighteenth-century version has Epeus saying, “th’ undoubted victor I.” In William Cullen Bryant’s American Iliad of the nineteenth century, Epeus is matter-of-fact: “In combat with the cestus … I claim to be the best man here.” Robert Fitzgerald’s often colloquial translation of 1974, done well into the age of Ali, does not use the phrase either—his folksy Epeus weights in iwth “I’m best, I don’t mind saying”—so we must conclude that Ali’s effect on Homer has been uneven at best.
It is an uneven effect but a measurable one, so that we are obliged to ask what it might mean that Epeus—a character in a book—has fallen under Ali’s influence in recent years. When we call the Iliad a classic, we mean, among other things, that it is a living literature constantly given new resonances by the succession of historical moments in which it is read. It makes sense that Ali, who rose to worldwide prominence as television sports and news came into their own, has inflected our retelling of Homer’s boxing match. And the next line of Epeus’s speech—”I am the greatest … So what if I’m not a world-class man of war?”—now raises echoes of Ali’s famous refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War.
An expert punch, like a well-turned phrase, can take on a life of its own. Ali has given us plenty of both: punches like the near-invisible “anchor punch” that ended the second Liston fight so abruptly, or the series of punches that started Foreman on his long trip to the canvas in Kinshasa, his armor clashing around him; phrases like “I am the greatest,” “Float like a butterfly … ,” and “I got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” They come down the years to us and with us, kept fresh in popular memory, on videotape, in common speech and the talk of aficionados, and, strangely enough, in book 23 of the Iliad. The punches and phrases will outlive their author; they already have outlived his youth and vigor. As Muhammad Ali’s mouth and hands, once so insistently eloquent, slow down and eventually fall silent in the public forum, we are left to conjure with his handiwork and his words. They, and therefore Ali himself, enjoy the second life in popular memory that the Greek heroes held so dear.
1:47 pm • 2 November 2012 • 5 notes
Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768)
More in Air’s Appearance: Literary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660-1794 by Jayne Elizabeth Lewis
2:04 pm • 31 October 2012 • 2 notes
Zeitgeist: On Ditching the Monograph and Digital Print Culture
On October 14, Jennifer Howard wrote a post for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s College, Reinvented blog briefly outlining how short-form ebooks might change the face of serious scholarship. “Ditch the Monograph” considered how the short form might free up scholars to use forms better suited to the needs of their projects—evincing the monograph as the go-to vessel for knowledge production, tenure, and cultural dissemination. Howard mentioned the rise of the digital short—embraced by Princeton UP, among others, as a means of parceling backlist content into digestible highlights and by Stanford UP as a series of original e-books—as a possible inroads to demonstrate that short-form scholarship might be taken more seriously by the academy, ultimately arguing that though “disciplinary gatekeepers” might hold the key, it’s publishers and authors who should be leading the charge to the door.
Howard’s piece whipped through the publishing zeitgeist the same week that saw her Chronicle Hot Type article on digital art publishing, focused on Yale UP’s recent efforts with e-monographs. While the current struggle seems to center on finding viable electronic models that can negotiate highly illustrated topics—with red flags thrown up around issues of image rights clearance, digital technology, and the cost of image reproduction—the article’s stance, like Howard’s blog, was optimistic in tone. Chicago’s executive editor for the art, architecture, and ancient studies, Susan Bielstein, chimed in:
Three years go, she said, the Chicago press estimated it would sell 35 to 50 copies of an electronic [art] book. “Now we’re looking at closer to 110,” she said. “Even though the specific numbers are modest, the rates of change are explosive.”
This kind of prognosticating about publishing at a moment of technological change, though certainly nothing new, also generates its fair share of polemics. In the air last week? Colin Robinson’s (publisher of New York-indie OR Books) reformative romp in the Guardian, “10 ways to save the publishing industry,” which offered a reader friendly treatise focused on globally enabled, locally engaged, realtime publishing that acknowledged the complexity of publishing choices, while pursuing the benefits of a slow publishing model in digitally saturated times: hand-selling, good design, and curated content.
Scholar Andrew Piper (his own most recent monograph Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, just out this month, addresses many of the themes surrounding the resiliency of the printed book) wrote a post on his Book Was There blog in response to Howard, arguing why the aim of going “short and electronic” is not the answer. Piper deconstructs the short v. long binary, addressing the arbitrariness of contesting one form above another in a pluralistic publishing culture. He hones in the problem facing the short itself—at 35,000 words, it’s really a medium-length form of scholarship, the sort of thing that bodes well for article-entrenched scientific culture, but something that might not float in the humanities or social sciences, where complex reiterations of histories, argumentative lineages, and and exploratory details require time and space to literally lay down the grounds for academic claims. Piper doesn’t see the short-form ebook as a solution to print’s lethargy, but perhaps his most salient point has to do with an idea borrowed from one of those page-laden monographs: publishing’s imperative reliance on transforming human into social capital. Peer-review and production take time, sure, as Piper points out, and “there’s a window that can’t be surpassed.”
I’ve read and digested all of these pieces. My views in no way account for the views of the University of Chicago Press, but in order to save myself from live-blogging Linda Ronstadt’s shifting fashion preferences in the YouTube archive, I’ll append them here. Surveying all of this, I go back to Colin Robinson’s point about the reader—which Piper takes up in acknowledging the many, not “sole,” forms of scholarship. Walter Benjamin ghosts all of this, and so too do those publishers who could acknowledge that the present is historically situated and that it already foreshadows a future (technological, mechanical) not-quite-here that might be addressed, forestalled, or advanced by timely intervention. Why are we still chasing the aura? How can we not still chase the aura? Why is the aura a sad opera sold-out in digital real-time?
I think about Virginia Woolf hand-setting the type for The Waste Land in 1923, in Hogarth’s edition of 450 that responded to the speedier demands of dissemination at the heels of magazine publishing, acknowledging and resisting the power of commercial printing and its technologies. I think about the chapbooks of Lower Eastside poetry put out by presses like “C” and Angel Hair in the late 1960s, in response to what they advocated as the importance of communities, audience, and work produced at the margins of the mainstream, despite the saturation of new forms of media. I collect Melville House’s Art of the Novella and New Directions’ Pearls series, but I just as avidly read digital-only forums like Rhizome, dis, and Triple Canopy as loci for my generation’s serious media scholarship.
Was there ever a moment when publishing wasn’t always already (yep, that monograph) plural? And, necessarily so, the span, limitations, and horizons of its readers’ attention and interests? Despairing of the printed book, despairing of ebook, despairing of the short, despairing of late capitalism, technology, the Internet, the coming or not-coming shift in how we tenure our scholars and educators isn’t a medium itself. If Marshall McLuhan could dictate the electric light as a kind of pure information, then all of this is a kind of cultural filtration made possible the book. The book already contains the e-book; the e-book already contains the short; the short already contains the demand for new forms that respond to a seismic shift in our sensibilities. We’re holding up mirrors and trying to see ourselves tidily fit, fully subsumed producers and consumers, enraptured and embedded in our forms of scholarship.
The problem? We contain multitudes, yo.
2:45 pm • 16 October 2012 • 3 notes
“We come back in the end to Dr. Faustus, who was one of the most important folk heroes of the world of printed books and a rough contemporary of Don Quixote. Faust was a product of early modern learning, of all those books that were increasingly available to readers. Faust was Quixote’s serious side. Unlike the Don, however, who steadily devoured works of fiction, Faust tried to know too much about the world. He tried to surpass what could be known in a book, whether it was the Bible or the alchemical handbook. Faust, the fist, in other words, is our modern day demon, not Mephistopheles, his devilish double. Faust reminds us of the way books are totems against ceaseless activity, tools for securing the somatic calm that is the beginning of all careful but also visionary thought. If we believe in the value of rest, and the kind of conversional thinking that is makes possible, then we will want to preserve books and their spaces of readerly rest.
But Faust also reminds us not to hold on too tightly. He shows us the risks of grasping.”
—from Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times by Andrew Piper
10:36 am • 11 October 2012 • 6 notes
“I still haven’t read Augustine. I don’t understand Chomsky that well./Should I?/My friend at last comes back. Maybe the right words were there all along./Complicity. Wonder./How pure we were then, before Rimbaud, before Blake. Grace. Love./Take care of us. Please.”
—C. K. Williams, “The Gas Station”
Williams’s In Time: Poets, Poems, and the Rest (new this week)
11:32 am • 9 October 2012 • 5 notes
“The only character of the world by which to gauge reality is its being common to us all, and common sense occupies such a high rank in the hierarchy of political qualities because it is the one sense that fits into reality as a whole our five strictly individual senses and the strictly particular date they perceive. It is by virtue of common sense that the other sense perceptions are known to disclose reality and are not merely felt as irritations of our nerves or resistance sensations of our bodies. A noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.”—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
4:08 pm • 26 September 2012 • 19 notes
This week, from our friends at Salt Publishing: The Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein, edited by William Allegrezza—
“You might say that severe forms of oppression rob a people of its right to poetry—and the crisis for poetry, for the aesthetic, is to create a space for poetry again and again.
For that, anything less than invention falters. Sometimes that faltering can be exquisitely beautiful and sometimes the fall away from faltering can seem crass or crude. But the human need to create anew is no less strong than our need for lamentation. And even lamentation is not safe from the erosion of our consuming culture; even lamentation must be reinvented lest the dead be mocked and the living become ghost walkers, zombies of the tried and no longer true.”
—CB, “Invention Follies,” Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions
3:45 pm • 26 September 2012 • 1 note
An excerpt from Arthur Conan Doyle’s never-before-published Arctic diary (A Week in the Life)
From Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, copublished by the British Library and the University of Chicago Press, which makes public for the first time Arthur Conan Doyle’s notebook and sketches from his time as a twenty-one-year-old ship’s surgeon on an Arctic whaler
NB: Seals are clubbed.
Thursday April 15th
Beautifully fine day but we did a poor day’s work, about 46 I sink. Assisted in shooting 2 bladders. They took five balls each. A pretty little bird with a red tuft on its head, rather larger than a sparrow came and fluttered about the boats. No one had ever seen on e like it before. Rather a long beak, feet not webbed, white underneath, with a “pea-wheet—pea-wheet.” A sort of Snowflake. Georgey Grant got his trousers torn by a young Sea Elephant in the evening.
Friday April 16th
Steamed hard to the North West all day to see if we could see anything of the seals. Failed in seeing many, and only picked up half a dozen. Jack Buchan shot a hawk in the evening which the Captain with his eagle eye discerned upon a hummock, and detected even at that great distance to be a hawk. About 18 inches high with beautifully speckled plummage.
[3 DRAWINGS: “My idea of a hawk,” “The Captain’s idea of a hawk,” AND “The prey the Captain’s hawk is looking out for.”]
Saturday April 17th
Nothing doing all day. Only half a dozen seals again. We are steering South now with the Iceberg, a Norwegian. If we could only make it thirty tons I wd be satisfied. We have about 28 now I think. 26 degrees of frost today. Had singing in the evening in the mates’ berth.
[DRAWING ‘Saturdya’s Night at Sea, April 17th/80.’]
I began a poem on tobacco which I think is not bad. I never can finish them. Ce n’est que la derniére pas qui coute.
Sunday April 18th
A snowy drizzly kind of day. Shot a seal in the morning off the bows; it was just sticking its head over the water. Saw two large sea birds, “Burgomasters” they are called. Went to a Methodist meeting in the evening conducted by Johnny McLeod the engineer, he read a sermon from an evangelical magazine and then we sang a hymn together. Argued afterwards with him.
Monday April 19th
Started stuffing our hawk this morning, or rather skinning it, for that is all I can do having no wires. I opened the stomach, then got out the legs to the knees and the humeri, and then inverted the whole body through the hole, cleaning out the brain, and removing everything except the skull. The result was satisfactory. We got a few bladders today, and are going North now to the old sealing. The Captain seems not to like the look of the ice at all.
[DRAWING “A Snap Shot”]
Tuesday April 20th
Nothing doing all day. Didn’t take a single seal. Sailed and steamed to the North East. 72:30 today. Cleaned a couple of seal’s flippers for tobacco pouches, rubbed alum all over our hawk’s skin.
Wednesday April 21st
Absolutely nothing to do except grumble, so we did that. A most disagreeable day with a nasty cross sea and swell. No seals and nothing but misery. Felt seedy all day. Was knocked out of bed at 1 AM to see a man forwards with palpitations of the heart. That didn’t improve my temper.
1:29 pm • 25 September 2012 • 18 notes
“More than any of his peers, Hofstadter was sensitive to the increasingly urban and ethnic character of American life. Eager to embrace the future rather than commemorate the past, he rejected the conventional signposts that had for so long given direction to American civilization—a culture of capitalism, individualism, and isolationism. These established values, he knew, had long served Americans eager to define themselves as a Protestant, farming people. But the times no longer supported this vision—nineteenth-century liberalism collapsed in the 1930s. Its failure to solve either that decade’s industrial crisis or the ideological schisms that prefaced fascism’s war on the West and communism’s hold in the East elicited from Hofstadter a sharp intellectual response. His criticisms frequently drew blood and aroused strong opposition from both conservatives and progressives. And they had good reason to worry. Unencumbered by deep roots in the native soil of his immigrant father’s adopted country, Hofstadter enlisted the past to reveal the failings of a time-worn political tradition and by inference highlight the promise of what he believed was a more humane, cosmopolitan, and pluralistic postwar liberalism. Anglo-Saxonism and agrarianism were out. Ethnic diversity and modernity were in. As the old codes gave way, America’s need for fresh heroes and new perspectives encouraged Hofstadter to rewrite its history as a prelude to moving its culture.”
—from David S. Brown’s Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, cresting the wave of Michael Dirda’s recent revisitation of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
12:41 pm • 25 September 2012 • 2 notes
“And what we leave here is more than class; it’s the whole heritage of youth. We’re just one generation—we’re breaking all the links that seemed to bind us her to top-booted and high-stocked generations. We’ve walked arm and arm with Burr and Light-Horse Harry Lee through half these deep-blue nights.”
“That’s what they are,” Tom tangented off, “deep-blue—a bit of color would spoil them, make them exotic. Spires, against a sky that’s a promise of dawn, and blue light on the slate roofs—it hurts … rather—”
“Good-by, Aaron Burr,” Amory called toward deserted Nassau Hall, “you and I knew strange corners of life.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald (born September 24, 1896), from This Side of Paradise
12:11 pm • 24 September 2012 • 9 notes