Saturday, 27 March 2010

Verb song

In lower secondary, my German teacher had us sing "Ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutch" to the tune of "She'll be coming 'round the mountain". A few years ago, me and some friends were in Cologne and after a vicious pub crawl the only German phrase I could remember was this one, which goes to prove you remember things better when you have learnt them in a song. That is why I am proud to present...

The annoyingly infectious...


Friday, 26 March 2010

What Is Success?

If you google "What Is Success" and "Ralph Waldo Emerson" you should sooner or later find this poem:

What is Success
Ralph Waldo Emerson
To laugh often and love much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the approval of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one’s self;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived…
This is to have succeeded.

Bearing in mind Emerson's transcendentalist tendencies you probably would not think twice about its origin, in fact; very few seem to have done so lately. However, lovely and flowery powery though he was, a closer study would suggest that he was not the origin of this poem.
Not the author of "What Is Success"?

What seems to have happened is something like this. One Saturday in early November 1905, Elizabeth-Anne Anderson Stanley was sitting at the cleared dinner table in the house she shared with her husband A.J in Lincoln, Kansas. History seems to have forgotten the man behind these initials. Let us for all intents and purposes call him Adam.

She had just been outside preparing her Isis garden for the winter. She felt a certain commitment to her neighbours who were often visiting and complimenting her on her horticultural touch. However, at the moment she was exercising another of her talents. Pen in hand she was re-reading the article in "Brown Book Magazine". The George Livingston Richards Co. of Boston, Massachusetts would pay $250 for the best essay on "What constitutes success". Elizabeth-Anne, or Bessie as most of her friends called her, knew that she should at least try to win the prize. After all, she considered herself to be quite deservedly successful and she loved poetry, so if she could keep within the limit of 100 words she could do with the extra money. She started with one of her own experiences: "He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much ..."

Bessie Stanley

It was Saturday the 25th and a couple of weeks since Bessie had submitted her essay. Adam had had to help her with the length and some of the words, but the poetic rythm and the patriotic sobriety to the essay were all hers. Despite this, she had never really considered herself a likely candidate for the prize. Hundreds of other submissions had reportedly poured in from all parts of the country and there was probably someone out there with a more extensive career as an essayist than her. Just as she resigned herself to reading up on the reported turmoil in Russia and the newly established monarchy of her grandfather's native Norway there was a knock at the door.

The man at the door was wearing a tweed suit and gave them his card to verify his association with the "Brown Book Magazine". He said that her 96 word essay had won the prize and would soon be published in the magazine. At first she thought it some kind of trick; her husband was known to play practical jokes on her, and she laughingly offered him half the prize money in appreciation. However, when the man reproduced the draft she had submitted, reality dawned.

The following Thursday one of her local newspapers printed her essay:

"Lincoln Sentinel, Nov. 30, 1905
"What Constitutes Success"
A $250 Prize Story by a Lincoln Woman

Below we give Mrs. Stanley’s essay on "What Constitutes Success."

"He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.""
A month later, the Lincoln Republican added:

"Lincoln Republican, 21 December 1905

Mrs. A.J. Stanley not only won $250 by her prize essay, "What Constitutes Success"; but has won considerable notoriety. Her name and her essay has already been published in a large proportion of the newspapers of Kansas, as well as in papers of other states, and doubtless will be published in half of, if not in every state in the Union before the incident is closed."
Bessie and A.J. Stanley reportedly used the prize money to pay down their mortgage.

25 years later, in the 30's the a poetic version of the essay was included in the esteemed "Bartlet's Familiar Quotations" under "success". On the oppsing page, a quotation from Emerson was printed. Yet some years later, Bessie's entry had been removed from Bartlet's but was frequently quoted in Ann Landers' advice column in the "Chicago Sun-Times". However, as one of Bessies legal-minded decendant would later have rectified in "The Ann Landers Encyclopedia", the "What Is Success" poem was consistently misquoted and attributed to Emerson.
One of the Ann Landers'es

As an ironic twist of fate, he poem owes much of its popularity and survival to the Ann Landers column even though Bessie seems to have got the bad end of the deal. Ralph Waldo Emerson would never know what a lovely poem he had supposedly written, but irregardless of copyright, the poem lives on and inspires young and old 100 years after its genesis.
Sources:,,,,,,,, last visited 26.3.10
(Please note that this is my artistic renering of events as percieved and developed from the above material. Apart from the assumed verity of the above sources, I can hold no claim to have presented the objective truth and have adapted the story for continuity and appeal. Therefore this article makes no definite claim of the origin of the poem "What Is Success")

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Government Reports in Layman's Terms

(23 December 1991, Florida) This account of an aircraft accident is quoted directly from the National Transportation Safety Board report, with my translations added in [closed brackets] for clarity.

Aircraft: PIPER PA-34-200T, Registration: N47506

Injuries: 2 Fatal.

The private pilot and a pilot rated passenger [that's two pilots] were going to practice simulated instrument flight. Witnesses observed the airplane's right wing fail in a dive and crash. Examination of the wreckage and bodies revealed that both occupants were partially clothed and the front right seat was in the full aft reclining position. [the pilots had turned the co-pilot's seat into a makeshift bed] Neither body showed evidence of seatbelts or shoulder harnesses being worn. [they were lying on the "bed"] Examination of the individuals' clothing revealed no evidence of ripping or distress to the zippers and belts. [the clothes seemed to have been removed voluntarily]

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:

The pilot in command's improper in-flight decision to divert her attention to other activities not related to the conduct of the flight. [the pilots were distracting each other, so there were no one to fly the plane] Contributing to the accident was the exceeding of the design limits of the airplane leading to a wing failure. [as there were no one to fly the plane, it didn't]

As they said in "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"; "that was seen as a nice way to go"

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Tom Stoppard - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is probably Tom Stoppard's most famous and popular play. Drawing on Shakespeare and Beckett, the play is a study in theatrical wit and appropriation. The play has been made into a film featuring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth number of audiobooks which all follow the play more or less closely.

The setting and basic plot follows that in "Hamlet" closely. The two main characters, minor characters of the original play, are summoned to the Danish court to find out why Hamlet is acting strangely. At times they interact with characters we recognise from Hamlet, but they mostly interact with each other and other minor characters while the events we know from Hamlet are played out in the background. Occasionally meeting with Hamlet they gather that most of the members of the Danish court are mad, are sent to England with Hamlet and meet their anticipated ends.


The play is a commentary interpolating the plotline focusing on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into that of the original Hamlet play. Occasional snippets of the original tragedy serve as cues for the two characters to comment on the haughtyness and oppressive deterministic qualities of both the court and the original play. Rosencrantz' line "They'll have us hanging about till we're dead" (p.85) is quite exemplary; they find themselves to be mere tools to both the court and the playwright, devalued in their allotted passivity and obscurity. In addition, their dialogue directly targets the audience's notions of determinism, as indeed does the title of the play. A frequent use of idiomatic foreshadow (like "he murdered us" (p.48), "over your dead body" (p.71) and "we're finished" (p.96)) and numerous discussions concerning death works a constant reminders of the audience's premade assumptions. Such a response to assumptions in a play that is to some extent in opposition to the source text causes bewilderment, so much so that in the end the audience will be suprised to find the main characters being hanged.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves are comic characters in a mode reminiscent of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot". Both Estragon and Vladimir and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern form pairs with complementary personal characteristics, so much so that each character on his own would seem incomplete (see p.95). One might see the play as a product of two appropriations: the characters from "Waiting for Godot" in the plot, setting and context of "Hamlet". Also, the qualities of each character in one absurd play mirror those of one in another. The characters and their language is, as was the case with "Gertrude and Claudius"approximated to fit a modern audience. They neither speak nor behave in the archaic sense one may expect in a play based on Renaissance drama. The effect of this is that the approximated characters become more appealing and their actions and postulations more acceptable to a modern audience. Thus, a constant renewal of drama and literature is possible. (I similar process was the basis for the Katerina character of Dimitri Shostakovich' "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District". For more on effects similar to those pf approximation, see end paragraph of the above mentioned post).

The characters' humourous dialogue conveys a peculiar commentary on the genre and the seriousness of characters in the original play. Several of their discussions are parodical, such as one of their discussions on death on pp. 62-63. Mirroring the "to be or not to be" speech they discuss life after death and find they "have no control" and should not think about it. "You'd only get depressed". There is a child-like quality to the two friends, their innocence, wonder and ineptitude are qualities fundamental to the dialogue and plot progress of the play. However, the seemingly innocent humour can convey both criticism and an uncanny feeling in relation to the grim subjects under discussion.

Tom Stoppard

"Hamlet" being such a canonical text, appropriation becomes an easier task than it would otherwise have been. As the audience can be expected to know the plot and several of the lines, the appropriating playwright may use any number of tools to comment the source text. In "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", Stoppard transfers focus from Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius to the two marginalised friends. This is done by allocating all the incidents in the original play that did not include them offstage or in the extremity of the play (e.g. pp.28-29, p.43) or by having them comment on the intrusiveness of the original play directly (e.g. pp.65-67). It could also be done through introducing new stage directions into the original text, i.e. by making the characters act in a way not warranted by the source text (e.g. pp.26,28,84) or by reworking the text altogether. As in Updike, numerous references to the source text are given in rewritten lines from the play such as in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's verdict on Hamlet on p.108. In addition to this, by omitting sequences of the play and source text which the audience would surely be expecting (most notably the "to be" speech, the visitations of the ghost and the final showdown), the source plot is either represented as irrelevant for Stoppard's purposes or open to ridicule or critique.
"the characters from
   "Waiting for Godot" in
   the plot, setting and
   context of "Hamlet"
 Through devices such as those above the playwright brings marginalised characters to the front, questioning the priorities within the source text, pointing out missed potential, expands the scope of the source text and by extension gives the original play a modern touch. It is, however, important to note that in order to work as an effective qritique, an appropriation will to some extent have to depend on the object of its critique. The more effective the appropriative commentary would like to be, the more dependent it would be on the source text, thus somewhat undermining its own critique. To exemplify with "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", one might consider at least the plot, setting, themes amd genre of "Hamlet" fundamental to the appropriation's effect as a commentary. Could the critical relationship between between what Gérard Genette called the hypertext and the hypotext be dependent on the hypertext's proximity to adaptation (or indeed even the adaptation's proximity to the hypotext)?

I might have to address this issue in a separate blogpost...

All technicalities aside, however, I personally found the play to be very appealing. After a long row of tedious plays ripe with platitudes and infantile theatrical humour I needed a breath of fresh wit. The combitation of the appeal of the characters and the nature of their discussions aided me in my effort to remedy my sense of the fatality of drama, the fatality which ironically is omnipresent in the play.

Gary Oldman's excellent interpretation of Rosencrantz in the film might also have made a contribution...

Sources: Stoppard, Tom: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", London, 2000
Løfaldli, Eli: ""Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" Lecture", Trondheim, Spring 2010
Pictures:,,, last visited 9.3.2010

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Luminosity - reclaim your brain

I came across the Luminosity page today. There are a few of these "brain-teaser" sites around, but this one seems more recreational. The concept; you play a number of games where you test and improve your skills in all kinds of mental activity; spatial orientation, verbal fluency, task switching, you name it.

I for one especially like the verbal fluency games, but I recognise that I probably also should work a bit on face-name recall. If you are really into this sort of thing, you might even want to subscribe to get access to some restricted material. I prefer to skim the top, however, due to my quality-for-free attitude to the web.