Saturday, October 06, 2007

"Of this Time, of that Place"

Lionel Trilling
Of any time, of any place...
(Image from Columbia University)

At 11:53 p.m., yesterday, a certain Mr. Costa Rica posted this flattering message to my September 22nd post concerning an article by "Paul Bracken on why 9/11 had little financial impact":
These articles are fantastic; the information you show us is interesting for everybody and is really good written. It's just great!! Do you want to know something more? Read it...: Great investment opportunity in Costa Rica: condo costa estate real rica, condo costa rica, condos for sale in costa rica. Visit us for more info at:
I rarely receive such effusive praise in comments ever since I set up "Word Verification" to ensure that only real people who truly want to leave a relevant message will go to the trouble of typing in the randomly generated string of letters.

Mr. Costa Rica must have felt so impressed by my 'good written' post -- which he rather mysteriously elevates and multiplies into 'articles' -- that he felt compelled to let me know how "fantastic" he found them.

I'm touched. Really, I am.

Unless ... Mr. Costa Rica is being ironic. Possibly, he's alluding to the words of Professor Joseph Howe in Lionel Trilling's complex, troubling short story, "Of this Time, of that Place," where Howe describes a badly written essay by his student Theodore Blackburn as "fantastic."

Upon reading that story when I was 19, I reacted in confusion to the professor's words of 'praise' for Blackburn's essay. Had Blackburn cheated, I wondered? He had written a terrible first essay and gotten a very poor grade but had begged for the chance to write another. How had he managed to compose a "fantastic" essay? I recall putting the story aside, puzzled by the odd but unforgettable story.

Years later, I read it again but with more sophistication, perhaps, for I was teaching it to my composition students at Berkeley. They were also baffled by Professor Howe's 'praise' for Blackburn's essay. This time, however, I had the answer. By 'fantastic', the professor meant that Blackburn's interpretation of the poem that he had been assigned to explicate was pure fantasy -- in the sense that Blackburn's interpretation bore no real connection to the poem.

Perhaps Mr. Costa Rica was using this word in the same way, which would thereby place his other words of praise in a different light. Thus when he writes of the "information" that I've supplied, exclaiming "It's just great!!", he's using "just" in the sense of "only," meaning: "It's only great!!" This can only be taken as an ironic twist to the commonplace expression "It's just great!!"

Doubtless, Mr. Costa Rica's entire comment is meant in irony, and most so when he informs me of the great investment opportunity in himself, for he's only pretending to deal in "condos." What he's really saying is that all of my posts -- my "articles," as he disdainfully refers to them -- are so badly written that they're uninteresting for anybody and that I might as well be spending my time in other pursuits, such as ... oh, I don't know, maybe surfing the internet for things as extraneous to my life as condominiums on the rich coast of an isthmus somewhere in the great big oceanic world...

I'll reflect on his suggestion.



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