Monday, August 31, 2009

BLT Ghulf-Style

August has fled—and a busy if also happy and rewarding period it has been! Now vactations are ending abruptly all over the extensive Ghulf domains. Children are returning to school. For the adults the pace of professional life will most likely intensify. Alas and alack.

I must close this period on a colorful note, celebrating my new camera and some of the perennial delights of ordinary life, which this lovely BLT will symbolize, one of Brigitte's casually accomplished arrangements in which the visual matters as much as the health, the taste, and the ambiance.

With September can begin the slow absorption of the events that marked our summer of many changes.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Field Service (AFS)

In 1914 as the Great War began, a 41-year old American, born in Indiana but resettled in Massachusetts, an economics professor at Harvard, but lately serving the government in various roles (National Monetary Commission, director of the Mint, and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury—thus rather decent accomplishments for his age) began organizing what became the American Field Service (AFS), a volunteer effort to provide ambulance services to the French Army. The man was Abram Piatt Andrew. With American involvement in the war, Andrew received a commission and continued to serve in France as a major, later as a lieutenant colonel. The volunteers, at the peak numbering more than 2,000 Americans, were all drawn from the ranks of university students; Harvard contributed the largest number. Many died in the war. A strange idea, perhaps, to organize this force. In Andrew’s background were postgraduate studies overseas. He studied at Halle and in Berlin in Germany and in Paris. Those experiences, no doubt, had a significant bearing. Andrew’s career continued in politics after the war; he became a six-term Republic Congressman from Massachusetts; his work with AFS also continued. Andrew’s picture courtesy of Wikipedia here

Between the world wars AFS launched a student exchange service. College students from France came to the United States, students from America went to France. This was the initial venture into a sector of service which, these days, constitutes the principal mission of AFS: international student exchange. Before that effort became permanent, AFS once more served as a volunteer ambulance service in World War II as well.

The modern AFS operates across the world and has become the largest international student exchange organization in the world. It is professionally managed but in execution, thus at the local level, AFS relies entirely on volunteers. Volunteers organize and run its branches, select families to host exchange students, select students to dispatch abroad, and they also watch over the entire process as students and their host families undergo a genuine learning—and human—experience.

Our family became involved with AFS around 1978. Monique heard of the program at school and wanted to go abroad. We backed this initiative enthusiastically and, in the process became active first as volunteers, then as a host family. From 1979 to 1983 Brigitte rose to become the head of the AFS branch for our immediate region, one of several in the Minneapolis area. Monique spent an AFS-year in Bolivia (1979), Michelle a year in France (1981). We hosted Roberto from Argentina, Delrine from Sri Lanka, and Ann from Denmark, each with us for a year, and—for a briefer period—William from Hong Kong.

AFS became, as these exchanges indicate, a big part of our life for a time. In addition to sending and hosting, our work involved annual cycles of family and student selections and demanded active involvement with students and families in what turned out was a large extended family, a kind of international clan, the kind of family that Ghulf Genes portrays. In the nature of things, we developed close relations to the Rotary program (now called Rotary Youth Exchange) and with Youth for Understanding, another group with a profile similar to that of AFS. We exchanged services—and when, occasionally, students could not get along with their host families, or vice versa, we all cooperated to house temporarily students who needed to be sheltered, calmed, loved, and resettled with another family—which had to be found, vetted, and supported in what were often difficult situations.

All this comes back because one of the fine people we met back then as an eighteen-year old youth, Bruno Crabbe of Belgium, is visiting us briefly as part of a family-and-musical sweep of parts of the U.S. and Canada that he’d just finished with Miriam, his wife and mother of four children. Both are accomplished musicians. We’ve kept in touch with Bruno all through these many years. This is our fourth encounter since his AFS days. We’ve met in Brussels, in Michigan, and in Paris in the past, now here again.

A footnote to this account. It seems to me that prizes like the Nobel, awarded for promoting peace, ought to be given to figures like A. Piatt Andrew—great leaders in the genuinely human sphere. Those with experience of such initiatives understand their enormous impact although you don’t see much on the surface or in the news. The impacts are real, widespread, last for lifetimes, but they take place entirely beneath the radar of celebrity.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My Muse at the Keyboard

I remember when you used to call
Me at my office saying that
You can’t recall some obscure DOS command,
And I’d then tutor on F7
Or control and then hit this or that stroke of
The keys.

You never failed to make some careful
Notes so that you would remember this
The next time you had need to lift a
Chunk of text from here to there or move
Some files from some obscure directory
To disk.

Sometimes you’d hold your peace for days on
End and soldier on with fortnightly
Reports, but then, your voice uptight with
Grim frustration you’d call to say, “It’s
All in caps, I just, dammit, can’t make it go

Ah, Windows. And the Internet, alas!
Now windows pop and ugly garbage
Fills the screen. Then frames appear and won’t
Yield to the mouse. Or everything is
Frozen up and only the damned hourglass
Holds sway.

My dear, for a mechanically
Minded lass you do not cotton well
To matters electronic. Male whiz-
And-bang embroil you in tumultuous
Tirades of rage. But help is on its way—
It’s me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fuller on Fame

In the current context, a couple of amusing takes. I note that Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), a clergyman and scribbler, observed: “Fame sometimes hath created something of nothing.” This line is widely quoted and remembered. The context in which it appears takes a bit of searching. He follows that sentence, used as a header, by saying:

She hath made whole countries, more than ever nature did, especially near the poles; and then hath peopled them likewise with inhabitants of her own invention,—pigmies, giants, and Amazons. Yea, fame is sometimes like unto a kind of mushroom, which Pliny recounts to be the greatest miracle in nature, because growing and having no root as fame no ground of her reports.
You can find this quote here. Another one I found quite amusing in the same spot is this one. It shows that the modern is ancient. Only the context changes:

Politicians sometimes raise fames (reports) on purpose,—as that such things are done already, which they mean to do afterwards. By the light of those false fires, they see into men’s hearts; and these false rumors are true scouts to discover men’s dispositions. Besides, the deed, though strange in itself, is done afterwards with the less noise, men having vented their wonder beforehand; and the strangeness of the action is abated, because formerly made stale in report. But if the rumour startles men extremely, and draws with it dangerous consequences, then they can presently confute it, let their intentions fall, and prosecute it no further.
I observe here that the language, English, is easily understood but phrased in such a fashion that it sounds quite old and oddly venerable even though it speaks of ordinary behavior easily observed on CSPAN and breathlessly reported on CNN. And it isn’t even metered and rhymed.

Social Physics

One of my most memorable professors in college, Gregory C. Huger, S.J., recommended to budding scholars that we extract eight quotes from every valuable book and file them on index cards with labels of our own choosing. Father Huger taught upper-level history. The presumption was that the tiny handfuls attending his lectures would pursue scholarly careers. He expected to see those cards on books that he’d assigned; consequently I still have a metal box with a score or so of such quotes. But I wasn’t bound on a scholarly career, and hence my note-keeping soon took a more chaotic and meandering turn. Rewriting is good, and if we could rewrite our lives mine would be splendid. I would then have kept better notes retrospectively. One quote I wish I had recorded was the statement I read somewhere that, in seventeenth century France, any person observed in conversation with Louis XIV had as good as made his fortune. The fact would be widely published by word-of-mouth, and the person would become a focus of interest. The statement left an immediate impression. It contains within it a kind of law of social physics. Many years later I once found myself, quite by accident, part of a group of people who’d gathered for the sole purpose of “networking” with one another—and as I watched this process, a most amazing and curious one, each personality attempting, as it were, to display itself to others, using bits of background information, but the information having no purpose whatsoever beyond self-display, I was reminded of that comment about Louis’ times again—much as I had been reminded of it, many times earlier, observing the Age of TV unfolding and creating minor and major celebrities, often out of virtual nothing except a circumstance that caught the eye of our era’s Ultimate Sovereign.

Footnote. To me he was then, and has remained, “Father Huger.” Today I used another handy note-keeping facility to discover my much admired professor’s full name, namely a search using Google, which rapidly produced the full particulars.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Brooding over prize holders and fame this morning as I brewed my early cup, it occurred to me that the actual experience even of very minor fame is rarely pleasing. In tracing this reflection back, I discovered that it began because Paul Krugman is the columnist for the New York Times today; he is the winner of a Nobel Prize in economics. When that prize came to be announced just shy of a year ago, it occasioned the kind of reflection that the Nobel committee often triggers: at the time the thought I had was, Would Krugman have received the prize for economics if he hadn’t been a columnist? Or if he’d been the columnist for, say, the Kansas City Star?

A sour thought, I grant you, but then the Nobel Prize reflects much more on the erratic character of Nobel’s clusters of committees than on the individuals who are their beneficiaries. The recipients are best judged ignoring the honor, a dubious blessing in these latter days: the money is no doubt welcome; the honor may actually be an embarrassment. It may be given for secondary or even accidental aspects of a person’s work.

But my thought this morning, as it meandered on, forgetting its triggering impulse, was that visibility produces unwelcome attentions. The person who has it becomes a reflector in which many others see themselves writ large. They project their own ideals and their own projects on a person who may share neither their views nor aims at all. The only commonality may be a mere label that roughly covers both. I had this kind of visibility for a while as an EPA official administering the Resource Recovery Act, and in the shining eyes of eco-activists I became the focus of an attention I found entirely inappropriate, indeed misplaced. And for those opposed to any kind of governmental intervention into the sacred market, I became the target of negative attention, the personification of a danger. Experiencing such celebrity, however minor, teaches you that “we the people” has quite another meaning in experience than in the lofty national rhetoric. Direct democracy? Please keep it on a leash. And please collect its waste in a plastic sack before you leave my yard.

When a finger points at the moon, please look at the moon and not the finger.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remembering Najibulla

My perspective is that of a person who was born in a small country that still called itself a monarchy then (1930s) and was ruled by a regent—although we did have a parliament. I was raised in an awareness of a unique national heritage (whether true or not), in a military family (think unenlightened), and in a Catholic culture (read backward). To be sure the heritage on my mother’s side of the family was modern—my mother was a token evangelical but did not believe any of that; she came from three generations of physicians; my grandfather was a Freemason, which in Europe meant atheist. On that side of the family dislike of all hierarchies was palpable, and I had it with my mother’s milk. But why all this? I think we absorb our values through experience rather than reasoning; we taste and judge the flavor of reality and incorporate that which we feel is genuine. My own general reaction to the world was and is shaped by this background. It was complex; the traditional element had very deep roots and the modernism I imbibed was passionate and fervent—as my mother felt it. And it is this combination that makes me look into the past and into the distance as yet another staged drama unfolds in far-away Afghanistan.

From my perspective any change in government, no matter what form it takes, is illegitimate if it takes place in the presence of an occupying military, no matter how that military, or its masters, interpret their own presence. For this very reason, now—now again—as also during the days when Hamid Karzai was first elected president, I once more evoke the memory of Mohammad Najibulla, the last puppet master appointed over the Afghanistanis, that time by the Soviet Union.

Najibulla was born in 1947 and died after being tortured in 1996. After a brief life, he’d plumb run out of patrons. The Soviets had abandoned him, the UN couldn’t be bothered to save him, and this own people—at last left sufficiently to their own devices to fashion their own real government—did not wish to be ruled by a representative of modernity’s most recent spawn, the communist variety. So they did away with him in a brutal manner, to be sure, but in these situations brutality is almost incidental.

There will always be ambitious individuals who, like Najibulla and Karzai, lend their energies to the “nation building” impulse of some external power which intends to impose its will on the organic formations of humanity when these latter interfere with the imperial will. If the geography favors the locals—as it certainly does those in Afghanistan—the careers of these Quislings tend to end badly.

By happenstance Brigitte and I are watching, courtesy of Netflix, the John Adams series produced by HBO in which the period of convulsions that marked the foundation of our nation are the background. What an irony that people are watching this series while the latter-day descendants of those revolutionaries try to impose our cookie cutters over what isn’t even remotely a “dough” in the Hindu Kush. And no one, apparently, sees this irony. Vision, evidently, benefits from getting an “unenlightened” and “backward” education.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Technology: Linear Advance

Nowhere are the urban roots of the word ‘civilization’ more evident than in the neglect which historians have lavished upon the rustic and his works and days. While the peasant has normally been a lively and enterprising fellow, quite unlike the tragic caricature of combined brutishness and abused virtue presented in Millet’s and Markham’s ‘Man with the Hoe’, he has seldom been literate. Not only histories but documents in general were produced by social groups which took the peasant and his labours largely for granted. Therefore while our libraries groan with data on the ownership of land, there is an astonishing dearth of information about various, and often changing, methods of cultivation
which made the land worth owning.
Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change, Oxford University Press, 1962

The quote comes from one of the most useful and enlightening books of history I’ve ever picked up. I read it in the late 1960s, a period in which I was myself deeply involved in studies of modern technology. The book provided an angle of vision of the past one rarely encounters, from the ground up, but from a higher ground than the immediate view of daily life—another neglected region of history. Much as perusing Brigitte’s college textbook on biology opened my eyes to the continuity between human societies and what, since then, I’ve called “chemical civilization,” so Lynn White’s book, bringing to view the work of really obscure specialists, made me aware of the fact that a generally cyclic model of history must be balanced, for completeness, with a linear view of technology. Technology gradually advances; the gains made are never entirely lost—although they may lie dormant when circumstances don’t favor development. The book is still available at reasonable cost here.

What White’s book illustrates is that waves of technological change have always stimulated and also shaped social development, but the processes have been slower and less noticeable in a single life time. His focus is on military developments arising from the invention of the stirrup—a mind-blowingly interesting story with surprisingly large radiations—on through developments in agriculture, including the development of the “modern” plow and three-crop rotation systems, both acting to transform agricultural society and enabling population increase. He ends with the development of inorganic sources of power—water, wind, and chemical. The books also happens to be written by someone with a feel for language. Unfortunately Latin quotes are left in Latin. White evidently saw his audience as other scholars, not as the illiterati of the next generation over; such quotes, alas, are not too many.

I would say more, but a fall from a ladder has produced two badly cut and richly stitched fingers. I am owed kudos for posting anything at all. What I would write about is the ultimate technological development of our times, energy, and how we may adapt to its inevitable disappearance… The less said, perhaps, the better.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One Ring

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
[J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring]

It seems to me that with increasing complexity, reality, as it were, becomes more dense, substantial, and therefore meaningful. The corollary? As a system declines, it breaks apart and loses its complexity. Its parts no longer talk; in consequence something is lost. One of the interesting phenomena observable in the centuries since the French Revolution (to pick a date more or less at random—thus to mark the passage from one state to another) has been the rise of “single-minded” explanations of everything conceivable, in and beyond philosophy.

To document this with a gesture or two, consider George Berkeley’s Perception (a radical idealism) and Karl Marx’s Materialism, Schopenhauer’s Will and Sigmund Freud’s Libido. In the political arena we have Patrick Henry’s slogan, “Give me liberty or give me death,” vulgarized into freedom as the only value. And then we have Friedrich Hayek, beloved of right-wing propagandists. He associated the rise of civilization with private property and gave the price mechanism the same exalted role as language. These two concepts, fused together, give us the one ring that’s supposed to rule us all, the Free Market.

I can’t help but contrast our stark, monistic world with that of the organically interwoven character of the medieval, with its great estates, its hierarchical arrangements, is complex balances of obligations, sophisticated philosophies, beautiful architecture, intricate morality, and its infinite, vertical vector.

Now I’m not stupid enough to think that the balance of evil has shifted. One needs but study those times to know medieval talent for mischief, its brazen embrace of hypocrisy, its depth of cruelty. We didn’t invent torture to deal with Al Qaida. But in that time, when physical life was a great deal harder, it was easier to find life’s meaning. In that system the One remained transcendent; in ours it has sunk into the fogs and mists; in its descent it has lost all virtues except power; and here it serves dark lords who cynically rule in secret.

Tolkien—as great poets sometimes succeed in doing—wonderfully diagnosed the sickness of his age. He also knew the solution. The power of that ring must be resisted. We must recover our gift to think and feel comprehensively. The least, it seems, must lead—the Hobbits among us, the stout, the brave. Frodo is everyman. In fear and trembling he climbed the steep sides of Mount Doom and tossed the cursed ring into lava.

A good start might be reading The Lord of the Rings rather than just seeing the movie. Good Lord! Three books? Look at all those pages, pages, pages….

Monday, August 17, 2009


The curious aspect of institutionalization is that, in its aspect of a habit, it automates behavior; if the behavior is beneficial (“a good habit”) all’s well. But institutionalization automates everything repeated often enough. In that aspect it is inertia. Ambiguous tool, the institution. It defends us against chaos but confines us within rigid limits. In fearful states we defend our prison as if it were a castle. And just as bad habits can form, very difficult to break, so also bad institutions come about and turn into laws we sometimes view as absolute.

Representative democracy was a worthy innovation, quite efficient. Let one trusted person, chosen by lot, represent many in collective decisions. The institution is much more effective than its unwieldy Athenian predecessor. That old thing required that the massed assembly of all the citizenry be present frequently—and one of its shake-the-head consequences was juries made up of five hundred people. Good grief.

Modern communications, the erosion of the meaning behind the word “representation,” the increase in population, which has made it difficult to reach what today are very large constituencies, thus demanding huge sums of money, the gradual morphing of these supposedly temporary jobs into careers, the shift in our time-sense (today two years in Congress are the wink of an eye, especially when you need to start running a year out and start collecting money the day after election)—all this has slowly deformed the original institution. It remains unchanged in concept but has become transformed into something entirely different.

The telephone, the scientific method, Pascal’s studies of chance having come of age, the rise in television and, within it, of news broadcast 24/7—all this has led to the rise of another institution called Public Opinion. The telephone has created ways of reaching people rapidly wherever they might be. We have accepted the idea that statistical samples produce true results that may be projected to the whole with minor, ignorable rates of error. Television’s power to focus attention on dramatic news—the more violent and contentious the more dramatic—has become greater as entertainment content has decayed because it is expensive. Television can thus affect opinion—not for long, to be sure, but effectively in the short span. It is a safe assumption that the majority of people respond to emotional stimuli without much reflection—else advertising would not have become the “institution” that it is. The combination of TV clueing and statistical sampling of opinion—and this process linked to the deformation of the original concept behind representation, has produced the entire truly weird institution that we now call politics.

The new idea, to spell it out, is that the people govern directly; the representatives are, as it were, mere nodes in a communication system, just pass-through devices; that the will of the people is effectively detectable by polling and that the machine-gun spray of TV news, focused on a single target, don’t really affect opinion; they are only supposed to “inform” or “educate” the public. Therefore representatives must act as public opinion directs; we know it by polling; and it’s scientific, therefore automatically good. And that’s the story of, that’s the glory of public love writ large.

Alas, collectively, we’re fit to be institutionalized.

The oppressive nature of institutions is, of course, as well known as their beneficial uses. But we see the evils selectively: they’ve got to be in the past. We speak about monarchies and the Catholic Church, laud the Renaissance, the Reformation. We applaud the DaDa movement for breaking the crust of artistic custom. We’re also all cubists now; and viva Picasso, Dali, and also (minor honors) pointillism. We don’t recognize institutionalized decadence even when the New York Times Magazine brings us images of it in content where it is indistinguishably present both in the ads and in the editorial matter. Creativity, alas, is not, repeat NOT, to work in the latest genres using the latest fashions. That is why that impulse, and those who feel it, are always out there somewhere, unshielded, in the wilderness.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

We Can Still Do It—If We Want To

Here is a bit of an experiment
To see why it is that modernity,
Perhaps (or not) to its own detriment

Has jettisoned the art of poetry—
Or, put more humbly, versification—
To communicate its own unique esprit

In all realms except erotic suasion
Or, in muddled prose-like verse called “free,”
To vent a stray emotion on occasion.

In laboring thus to gin up, count them, three
Stanzas, taking at least twenty minutes,
I note that thinking’s rather easy

But finding rhymes resembles pulling rivets
And keeping equal beats in every line
Demands a kind of balancing of budgets.

The effort this imposes is a sign
Of patience rather than of genius
Of dedication not of light divine.

By work the ancients said: “We’re serious
And mean each word we utter in this form”—
Except the few to flip rhymes gracious,

But don’t mind those, the object of this norm
Was to ennoble what just bubbles out
Like water from a spout after a storm,

To give the thought a form, a lash, a knout,
To twist it tight, to give it hold, purchase,
To make it stick in mind like brick with grout.

But hold. Some of that stuff was pious, righteous
Drivel—or sleep-inducing narrative
Of which a line or two’s still famous

And very few have managed to outlive
Their times except in towers ivory
Where studies of history are motive

Enough to stir around such-like debris.
Fashions morph. The novel has now replaced
The epic. The clergy’s gone, punditry

Rules, prose is king, and poetry’s misplaced.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Another Divide

Rest, rest, perturbed spirit! So, gentlemen,
With all my love I do commend me to you:
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack. Let us go in together;
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together.
[Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5]
The sense that times are out of joint is present at all times and in every clime, so much so that it seems to be a defining marker of existence. The root of the feeling is that the social landscape is disorganized; we can always trace it to groups, to institutional constraints—or lack thereof. Along with this feeling comes a totally unjustified nostalgia for another kind of order. In democratic times we yearn for royalty, in royal times for liberty, in isolated times for great families, for coherent clans; in times when families dominate, we long for privacy.

Disorder leads to polarization. Here is how: somebody must be responsible for it, and that somebody ain’t me. So it must be those people. And looking at those people, we soon recognize their common traits, ignore the traits we share with them, and now we have someone to blame. But our own desperate coping just adds to the disorder. And those people are doing the same thing. So it goes.

There is a kind of comfort in being, say, a Guelf or Ghibelline. We’re born into one or the other, we learn the ways of our party and find them, therefore, natural. There is a significant sense of exposure and solitude associated with rising above these natural polarizations, like being on a mountaintop without adequate clothing, the wind tearing through the sky. Not only can it be seen by others as indifference, but, to remain detached, one has to practice indifference voluntarily. You can see from the mountaintop but you can’t join in the melee, and it is precisely in the joy of battle that we experience solidarity with our fellow man.

These are real problems. The only way to see reality sharply is by reason, but the polarization that takes place is guided by feeling, by selective viewing, and by shallow penetration. To see things clearly produces the state of indulgence suggested by Madame de Staël: Tout comprendre rend très indulgent*. When people are irritated, they don’t want to be rendered indulgent; they want to be confirmed and want to be fed red meat. This, of course, applies to me as well as anybody else. That’s why I describe this situation as a problem.

As Hamlet says, “O cursed spite!” He expresses precisely the feeling I often have when, stopping in the middle of a passionate rant I realize what I am doing. Damn! The very state to which I aspire demands quite often that I stop indulging in passion and render myself indulgent of bottomless stupidy which, not surprisingly, does take on the semblance of unmitigated evil.

This much by way of trying to transcend the feelings of upwelling ire aroused in me by reading today’s morning paper.

* * *

These days a phrase like Guelfs and Ghibellines may appear like ostentatious display of learning. In the modern manner, I apologize for that. The words refer to what today we would call political parties. Guelfs, to be sure, have a somewhat more intimate relationship to Ghulf Genes because, long ago, I deliberately named a fictional, futuristic family—which was also much more than a family—for the Guelfs. Indeed, my own Ghulfs also had color-based branches, just like, in Italy, the Guelfs came in white and black varieties. But back to the background.

During the so-called Dark Ages, the Western Roman Empire was overrun by Germanic tribes; and the descendants of these became one branching of the upper layers, the aristocracies, of Italy. Both of these names were originally of Germanic origin, the Guelfs were from the Bavarian house of Welf, the Ghibellines came from the Hohenstaufen line, the name itself derived from their castle of Waiblingen. Two important parties or factions rose from these roots, divided politics, and produce endless civil wars in the Middle Ages, especially in Italy, dominated, as it was, by small city states. The Ghibellines were the party of empire, thus associated with the Holy Roman Emperor from the time of Charlemagne (the first of these) down through time. The Guelfs, by contrast, were aligned with the Papacy, which was the counter-weight to the imperial power. The world tends always to divide into parties, hence my choice here of these two—especially because we are in Ghulf territory here, and, despite aspirations to transcendence, I remain a Ghulf.

* * *

Last, one sentence in that speech of Hamlet's bothered me enough so that I rendered it in modified English for easier grasp. It is:

.... So, gentlemen,
I recommend myself to you, I do.
And what a poor man, like Hamlet, can show
You in the way of love and friendship,
In that, God willing, there shall be no lack.”

Presumptuous? Come on... All poets belong to the same union.
*That phrase is often misquoted. The correction necessary is indicated here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Architects' Lace

These pictures courtesy of Michelle, Ghulfdom’s permanent ambassador to France. She took the first photo during her recent vacation to Candes-Saint-Martin, a lovely old town south-west of Paris in the valley of the Loire. The name of the place, evoking St. Martin, famously of Tours, but born in Hungary—and furthermore lending his name and fame to our own family, which is known as Szentmartoni Darnay, gives this gate, photographed because it caught Michelle’s eye, special significance. The town is also south and west of Tours, where St. Martin ended his days and where Michelle lived and went to school… But on this subject some other time.

With that photo in her camera, Michelle read my post on Wrought Iron in which I evoke memories of Paris and of window sills. She went right out and took some pictures in her neighborhood. And those are now here to see, instantly, as it were, thanks for the invisible lace of electromagnetism. Until I got her e-mail I had not heard the charming description of wrought iron as “architects’ lace.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Well, just so—because I find them so beautiful. And the pictures came out so well, even if they’re kind of pop [kitschig], worn, and not very original. I don’t care. I like it. Smileyface symbol.
The citation is the full text of a blog post, translated from the German; it accompanies pictures of a white lily from two angles. To see the post, apply here. The site, by the way, produced by a busy young mother with a little boy, is aesthetically attractive and interesting in its choice of subject matter too; its creatrice need not apologize. But her commentary reminded me of the subject. I wonder, actually, how old this issue is and when it began to plague the artistic community. It’s certainly been around throughout my life. Originality.

Originality is paradoxical in that it escapes personal control and manipulation, and when it is present, it may be mistaken for the banal. The more we try to be original, the more our project is likely to fail—because originality is a state or background from which something arises; it’s not an objective. What we can achieve is novelty, but while originality may strike people as novel, novelty is not part of its essence at all.

Now that I’ve dipped my toes in the water—thought meanders thus, feeling its way—it occurs to me that concern with originality probably arises with decadence. It comes about when the artist begins to outrank his or her creation, and the creative effort becomes a public enterprise pursued to glorify the artist. I lack the knowledge and diligence at the moment, but signing works of art began relatively late, it seems, perhaps in the nineteenth, maybe even the twentieth century. The artist began as an anonymous skilled craftsman, became a figure of renown not unlike some architect of fame, turned into a figure almost of religious veneration—real saints having been banned— and finally achieved, with Salvador Dali, let us say, the status, in addition of pop celebrity. And it is in this evolution of the artist from plumber to culture hero that originality developed. Mere skill was not enough to distinguish the craftsman, who remained—see his or her labor in advertising, wall-paper and fabric patterns, “design,” so-called, and elsewhere commercial—from the figure who carried, as it were, the effulgence of secular divinity, the radiance of genius.

Originality, therefore, in its usual application, means illumination from on high, but expressed in a manner divorced from the traditional religious sense. Here I’m reminded of Charles de Gaulle’s pronouncement, in Algeria, trying to impress his then Muslim constituents there, saying, “I have baraka.” Baraka points to the same ineffable something which in this context we call grace, in that one originality—but which, in either case, means a mysterious inflow of something transcendent. Original. Ah, yes. Original.

Originality and authenticity both have the same rooting. They point to something irreducibly given. The authentic individual is a “self-doer,” acting from within. The original artist acts from the source. In both cases the action arises from a depth, not from the surface. Inside out, not outside in. But this correct description of originality produces further paradox. The real, the original, and the authentic cannot be grasped, categorized, measured using external, thus superficial, means. It takes originality to recognize it. And the courage to assert this recognition even if, on the surface, the work appears to be ordinary or banal. The lady in question—with whose blog post I began—saw the beauty in the flower, something of its authentic nature—which is there even if often seen before. She captured it skillfully. Then she bravely asserted that she liked it—even if others were looking for something more tricky and more “original.” Interesting case, even though I may have failed to communicate it sharply enough. So much original stuff—and strikingly so—merely says decadent to me. The kitschy lily speaks the truth no matter how often photographed before.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Long Footnote to "Property"

One must always remember that to the mind of the Middle Ages a man’s lawful property was an extension of his personality—an exterior body, as it were, and, like that body, a sacred trust to be used and not abused, either by himself or by others.

Thus wrote Dorothy Sayers in her commentary to Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXIV, the first of two that deal with the fate of thieves in hell. To this she added, “This accounts for the severe view which Dante takes of offenses against property.” Sayers had introduced this point in her commentary on Canto XI already, saying at that point:

Property is regarded, in accordance with Roman law, as an extension of the personality. Consequently, to damage or destroy one’s or one’s neighbor’s good is a sin of the same type as the damage and destruction of one’s own or one’s neighbour’s body.

Indeed, this view of property really arises from Natural Law. Not surprisingly, therefore, we find it present in most legal codes, not least in African customary law and in Islamic law. The interesting aspect of this interpretation of property is that, much as in John Locke’s thought, which as simply an updating, in is own time, of natural law thinking, property is linked to the body because it is linked to life. It is an “extension of the person” because the person depends on property in order to make his/her livelihood. Land, cattle and tooling were, together, the foundation of agricultural survival; tools and materials were the extensions of the craftsman without which he could not practice his trade. I would also note that we also experience this extension psychologically—and law recognizes this feeling. The following excerpt from Harmful Thoughts: Essays on Law, Self, and Morality, by Meir Dan-Cohen (Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 217) will illustrate that:

Tort liability often extends beyond the unintended consequences of one’s bodily engagements. The famous tort cases involve escaping water and straying animals, but for our purposes a more mundane example will do. An unexpected wind blows a vase out of my living room, and the vase lands on a passerby’s head. Even if I had not myself placed the vase or been otherwise involved, I would be mortified more intensely than, say, my neighbor, as we both helplessly watch the vase traveling toward the passerby, and I would be expected and inclined to rush to the rescue with greater urgency than any Samaritan who happened on the scene.

Notice first how closely the phenomenology here resembles the win-spilling case [described earlier]: just as bodily involvement was the source of responsibility for the win-spilling, ownership of the vase links me inexorably to the passerby’s injury.

We have here, therefore, a logical basis for property-as-extension-of-body (meaning its economic support functions), a psychological identification because we own something, and a legal recognition of that fact.

Now to this I would add some observations. First, property as an extension of the body for its maintenance made a lot of sense in pre-modern times when property, for the vast majority, was the means of making a living—be it by agriculture or trades. In those days property had a functionally closer association with life than it has today. If we were to bring natural law up to date, to modernize it properly, as Locke was doing for his time, we would include as an intimate core, of the concept of property, that which provides us our actual, continuous source of income—much like a shop-materials-tools or land-cattle-and-implements functioned in medieval and in earlier times. And that functional equivalent would be — our job! But we don’t have a right to jobs. Not like medieval man had to property. If you apply the life-liberty-property slogan to the ordinary modern human, you would see that, in our age, we are actually deprived of one element in this trinity—despite all the endless talk about the sanctity of property.

Worth thinking about.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Wrought Iron

Ever since, as a little boy, I used my grandmother’s great iron gate, or one half of it, anyway, as a generous swing, travelling with it, inward and outward, I’ve been inordinately fond of wrought iron. We can see quite a lot of it, if we are attentive, but our eyes glide over the forms without notice. Once a long time ago—I was in Paris then for an extended weekend in my Army days with almost no money in my pockets—I remember walking, walking, walking the endless avenues of now this and now that arrondissement and looking at what seemed to me an infinite presence of iron work decorating every balcony and window sill. On a day like today, with the temperature suddenly as elevated as the humidity, so that my fingertips actually adhere to the black keys of this computer keyboard, I thought I would let a picture speak for me. And, Inshallah, as the Muslims say, in future I might present other finds of the same sort. Herewith a piece of fence from Jefferson Avenue in the little city of Grosse Pointe.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Life, Liberty, and Property

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it,that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. [John Locke, Two Treatises of Government]

Locke [1632-1704] is the source of the slogan that heads this post. The words of the slogan are a modification of the quote shown above. In that same book Locke uses much the same phrase three times more. In one case he speaks of “life, liberty, or estate,” in another of “a power…to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate,” and finally he speaks of “life, liberty, or possessions” again, but this time leaving out health. From this we get Jefferson’s elegant edit in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The modified phrase also appears twice in the U.S. constitution, in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Both prohibit depriving persons of “life, liberty, or property”; in both cases the same qualifying phrase also appears: “without due process of law.”

In thinking about government and rights, Locke relied on natural law doctrines that find their rootings in antiquity. His own intention was to erect rational fences to defend the people against arbitrary government and offered justification for overthrowing rulers who violated natural law.

But natural law also deals with humanity in the collective, thus with communities and states, both of which, it turns out, are necessary features of individual liberty. Collectives also have rights, and these in turn limit individuals rights. Collectives may restrain some to protect others; they may defend themselves and, in the process, cause (at least indirectly) the death of their warriors; and they can require contributions necessary to maintain their activities. Life, liberty, and property, therefore, are not absolute rights but delimited in complex ways when the one and the many must both be accommodated in our thought.

Taxation is not theft. Extreme forms of right-wing thought maintain that it is, but what such advocates demonstrate is their own irrationality. We do have anarchists among us. But when such modes of thought begin to influence the masses, one begins to see the consequence of neglecting or outright banning ethics in school in favor of “social studies.”

Friday, August 7, 2009

Or Is It The Other Way About?

It is the parts, on the whole
That make us what we are.
It is the fingers, in the main,
That make the hands.

It is our thoughts, by fits and starts,
That make us who we are.
It is our lungs, our limbs, our heart
That make our soul, on the whole,
And our glands.

More Notes on the "Divide"

Several posts on Ghulf Genes deal with economics, always in a more or less cultural context; I tend to deal with the subject at a more technical/practical level on LaMarotte. Two entries in particular, one on wealth and one on disposable income have touched upon what I perceive as a gradually evolving divide in society. In both of these cases the mere presentation of the data consumed the space that I allocate per entry, a kind of limit I impose based on personal habits of reading things on a screen: too long and I get restless. But a consequence of that limitation is that I never get to the point that I am after, which is to ponder the underlying factors that produce the situation I spend so much time describing.

As I look back fifty years or so, it seems to me that the great divide began to open up at around the time when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Certainly from the time when I arrived here as an immigrant in 1951 until 1989 when the wall fell, the country underwent a kind of cultural winter. The spontaneous development, the natural life-cycle, of our civilization was suspended during that time—and resumed when the threat of the Communist menace retreated. Ample signs of relaxation began to appear in the early 1960s already, usually associated with youth and hippies. But at the more organized levels of society, the release of tensions awaited the Reagan years. And afterwards Western Civilization—more here than in Europe—resumed its natural vector. All right. This is a personal take. The official or ambient narrative is still that of Progress. Therefore whatever comes out of the future is by definition better, and the coming of the New World Order, the avalanche of technology, the waves of commercialization, the rights revolutions falling over themselves in a rush to ecstatic fulfillment—all this is viewed in positive ways. I try to view all this, including the dangerous cleft I see opening in the society, in a neutral way: before a higher civilization is rooted, the old one must pass away. Hence I ought to praise all signs of breakup. The sooner done, the sooner over. At the same time, I foresee that the future will be ugly; from a strictly rational point of view, I’d like to get there with as little damage to as many people as possible.

The core aspect of the divide, as I see it, is the disaffiliation of the major elements of the society, particularly of the haves and the have nots, a cultural-war in the making. The onset of this cleavage is clearly visible in the sharp drop in marginal tax rates applicable to the wealthy that took place during the Reagan administration. The rate fell by 30 percentage points in the 1981-1989 period. To see a quite revealing graphic showing fifty years of tax rates, I refer you to my post today on LaMarotte. In that post I also argue that high taxes benefit the whole population whereas low taxes benefit elites—another way to talk about the cultural cleavage.
One makes these observations because the picture that opens is fascinating. The practical aspects of such a blog, I fear, are nil. I’m engaged in contemplation rather than advocacy. The phenomena that I’m observing are beyond personal influence, as I think currently unfolding history will show. But what it is likely to show, in the longer reach, will be, I think, rather surprising. In the long haul the left will win, believe it or not. But not in the way in which, perhaps, we anticipate the outcome.

The parallel I now evoke is that of Rome—and that culture because it is the one most accessible to me. Rome’s “world wars” were a combination of the Punic Wars (Rome v. Carthage, Hannibal and Elephants, etc., 264-146 BC, in three separate waves) and the concurrent Macedonian Wars (the conquest of Greece, in four separate conflicts, 215-148 BC). In the wake of these vast and draining conflicts, Roman was left in sole possession of the world—at least as things then looked from Roma. But thanks to the enormous wealth that then began to flow from the possessions that Rome acquired, the same process of social division that I detect taking place here (under the slogans of Freedom, Markets, and Capitalism) began in Rome. The process featured a very powerful and wealthy ruling class and a population of ordinary people increasingly impoverished. Impoverished how? Imported slave labor displaced the ordinary farmer and craftsman. Within fifty-five years of the final defeat of Carthage began what is known as the Social War. The actual disturbances lasted only briefly (91-88 BC), but the processes that then began continued to be violent and eventually led to the fall of the republic. We would today label the two sides Right and Left: the propertied ownership class and the ordinary plebs. The leadership of both came from the aristocracy. Eventually the left, in the figure of Julius Caesar, won the field. Caesar? A lefty? Absolutely. We think of him as an emperor, but he came from a so-so neighborhood in Rome. You know. Small shops, modest houses, a brothel here and there. He was of noble background, poor, but he had lots of talent. And he was on the side of the people against the Establishment. Enantiodromia is one of my favorite Greek words: it means a process that transforms something into its very opposite. The Roman Empire was a left-wing enterprise that never again, after Augustus took power, let the wealthy oligarchs even touch, never mind hold, the reins of power.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Oldest Established—But Ever Changing...

Where’s the action? Where’s the game?
Gotta have the game
Or we’ll die from shame.
It’s the oldest established, permanent floating
Crap game in New York!

[Guys and Dolls]

I remember years ago reading—thus long before the U.S.S.R. came apart more or less voluntarily—all kinds of amusing tales about the Russian economy. One of these concerned a minor scandal. Evidently the largest Russian producer of chandeliers got in trouble. Sometimes days and sometimes weeks after its chandeliers were hung, the ceilings that they decorated came crashing down; the floors above became dangerously weakened. Why? Investigation revealed that the company, state-run like everything else, had to meet an annual output quota set by weight: so-and-so-many tons per annum. In order to meet its quota, the concern began adding extra weight to every chandelier it made, festooning each with hard-to-see clumps of lead. They juiced up the weight a little every year—until the ceilings came down.

Another story documented the hardest jobs in Russia. Those who labored against all odds were buyers engaged by enterprises. Why? Outputs were managed by quotas. The quota-setters never studied demand for raw materials. They set production quotas based on capacity. For this reason appropriate materials, parts, tools, and other components were never ever in line with demand. Buyers scoured the countryside bribing suppliers and gaming the system so that their enterprises would have the stuff to meet their quotas.

I read many more stories illustrating the system from within. Over time I reached the conclusion that the Russian economic system had to be in pretty bad shape. But the dominant message of the mainstream media was the awesome threat the U.S.S.R. represented—and the urgent need therefore to spend ever more billions on countering weapons system. When Perestroika removed the veil and the ideological threat was over, I was not very surprised to learn that Russia was, indeed, a basket case. But what remained in my mind was the big contrast between messages: the official line of our media and the scuttlebutt that reached me through the back channels of business.

The novel Nineteen Eighty-Four comes to mind.

These days the same sense of unreality haunts me when I keep hearing the phrase “war on terror” or hear references to Al Qaida. I don’t minimize the dangers of terrorist acts such as the events of 911, but remind myself that 419 also claimed a lot of victims (168)—and that anarchist events punctuated nineteenth and early twentieth century history as well. We don’t recognize that number, 419, quite so readily because—well, because the terrorists were ordinary boys born in the U.S.A. The event was not quite as dramatic and could not be exploited for political gain. But apart from sober realism concerning dangerous elements that can do a lot of damage and kill a lot of people, I simply do not see Al Qaida or any other similar group, homegrown or not, representing the same kind of threat as a major power might represent. Therefore I see in the current chronic and sustained hype the same kind of symptom as I saw in the decades-long drum-beat of anti-communism.

This sort of thing appears to be a disease that attacks all large modern political aggregations where mass media are used to bend the minds of the masses. The Gang of Four in China comes to mind, a cabal of leaders during the Cultural Revolution of whom Jiang Qing, Mao Tse Tung’s wife, was a leading figure. The Gang of Four fell on hard times soon after Mao died; they were arrested, tried for treason, imprisoned, but later released. The Chinese government exploited this trial to such an extent that, later, all the evils of the Cultural Revolution were blamed on the Gang of Four. I once heard the story of a man who, having accidentally upset a pitcher of wine, pronounced, looking at the mess on the floor: “Gang of Four.” In the same way, these days, I feel like invoking Al Qaida when my lawnmower won’t start.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Richer the Poorer?

I’m accustomed to using the lens of statistics to enhance my understanding of cultural phenomena. Here is such a glimpse. Consider that in 1958 disposable personal income per capita was $9,433; in 2008, the corresponding number was $28,741. These numbers are comparable because both are expressed in constant dollars pegged to purchasing power of the dollar in the year 2000. These two numbers tell us that in 2008 we had three times more real wealth per person than we had in 1958. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president at the time; the Interstate Highway System was under construction, had been since 1956. The highest income tax rate in 1958 was 91 percent on income exceeding $400,000 ($3 million in 2008 dollars); the top rate in 2008 was 35 percent on income above $357,700. To the best of my knowledge, no state, county, or school district tottered on the brink of bankruptcy in 1958. And college education was free to all residents of the several States of the Union.

These thoughts surfaced because Brigitte happened across an article on by Ralph Nader titled “Purloining the People’s Property,” available here. The article’s gist is that the situation has drastically changed. Our legislators are privatizing public functions with a kind of desperation unworthy of those we appoint to govern us. But I need not seek examples in Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Indiana, or Illinois. I have examples right here at home; the de facto bankrupt Detroit School System comes to mind when I look around.

The value of the statistical underpinning is that it shows, beyond question, that the causes of our deterioration are not really financial. Nor can we blame it on war. In 1958 the end of World War II was thirteen years back. It had consumed $4.1 trillion in 2008 dollars. The Korean war was five years back; it had gobbled up $320 billion (same basis) and, in its peak year, it commanded 4.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Something else has changed. Unfortunately we have much less precise access—if any, for that matter—to the invisible structures that represent a collective of souls. If we could see that structure unambiguously—as with patient effort we can see the financial structure—we would know where the problem lies and why it persists.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I Stand Corrected

Isn't this really the right image for your camera obscura poem?
Thus a comment from John Magee, but sent to me by e-mail, because the picture that he attached, shown on the left, would have given Blogger incurable heart-burn, I suppose. John was abolutely right. That very thought occurred to me as well, but the charm of the image kept me from learning how to effect the transformation that he so ably managed. — Amazing, when you think about it. That is exactly how our eyes actually see things—but just as an algorithm in the camera makes us see the image right side up, so the brain also turns things around.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rays of Sunlight - Three

The Camera

Inside the box obscure whose tiny aperture
Is smaller than a small gnat's puny single eye
The rays of light combine to paint an image sure
And accurate but curiously all awry.

What’s on the left out there, inside is on the right,
What is on top out in the world is here the base,
From which we must infer that single rays of light
Are needle-hard and, hitting something, bounce a ways.

Light from the floor comes up toward the tiny hole
And angles to the top of film to be exposed
(Those were the days) or the magnetic new control
That grasps and holds the light after the shutter’s closed.

As from below, so from above, directions change.
From left to right and those two also turned about.
He who first saw this must have thought it very strange
Until he gave it thought and had it figured out.

Magical camera obscura, Light meet Dark,
Be friends and weave us images splendiferous
With nature’s solar light or electronic spark:
Your invention was a deed benign and glorious.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Summer's Peak

A brief celebration of a gift and its giver. I received a little Kodak camera for my birthday. The world’s brim full of them so that, at large public gatherings, you can’t see the event, performance, or display because a sea of arms lifted holding cameras or telephones—one no longer knows which is which—blocks your view. But in the deep hole of the past where Brigitte and I live no such devices have been available until now. Monique had to test the little thing before trusting to wrap it, and one of the first images I found on it after learning the scary process of USB porting was the lovely celebration of summer’s peak that Monique produced by looking through the lens at a little piece of her own garden fence. Tomatoes grow behind those slats and a pear tree, tended by John over several seasons, is now finally spreading its branches over that fencing as well. Altogether lovely. My heartfelt thanks!