Monday, September 28, 2009

The Fountain Pen

I met my very first ballpoint pen at age nine in 1945, and immediately felt repelled. The object has come to symbolize decay for me. In those days people thought the new instrument amazing and advanced:  “Imagine, you don’t have to fill it!” But its performance left much to be desired, especially the early incarnations. Their ink flowed unevenly and frequently left little blobs adhering to the letters at random points. At nine, yes, even in war-torn Europe, I already owned a fountain pen; it was my prized possession, more honored and valued even than my folding knife. — I have to laugh. I glanced at my desk just now and saw—I hadn’t consciously noticed until the last sentence triggered something—a three-bladed folding knife next to three pens on my desk—still. Nothing’s changed in six plus decades.

But actually much has changed. The ballpoint pen has become better and better and better—cheaper and cheaper and cheaper too. Roller-balls and all sorts of other “markers” (as in Hank Dooda, his mark) have displaced it. And real fountain pens have been transformed from utilitarian objects of everyday use into symbolic tokens or collectors’ items. To be sure, there is a hardcore out there tenaciously clinging to the fountain men—in numbers large enough to maintain a large industry—but in everyday use, and in a visit to Staples or Office Depot, you look in vain.

Now, mind you, I’ve never been a Mont Blanc fetishist or anything even approaching that. I’ve never owned one. I’ve used Sheaffers, Parkers, Watermans, and Pelicans all of my life (still do) and liked them all. My most used pen has always been the cheap Sheaffer cartridge variety, fine nib. These used to sell for less than $3 and came with three cartridges to get you started. Then, some years ago, Sheaffer stopped to sell such pens and with a flourish converted to the roller-balls. And those of us who used the pens were “rolled,” as it were.

The secret of the fountain pen is in its nib, two pieces of metal joining at its tip. Using such an extension, the hand, the brain, and finally the heart receive a kind of faint, heavenly feedback, especially if the paper is decent. And on the paper itself, the subtle shifts in motion of now the left and now the right side of the nib itself leave a visual impression much more pleasing than the drab ball or roller-ball leave behind. At one point many years ago I discovered calligraphy. I bought myself a set of Osmiroid pens but only really used the finest nib—and for writing ordinary things, like diaries. The tactile and visual pleasure of using such a pen is difficult to convey. It occurs to me, pondering this, that the fountain pen, in an odd sort of way, represents one of the interesting points of fusion between sensory and spiritual experience. Writing certainly belongs to the latter category. I owe the photo to Greg Minuskin’s site: a place pen-lovers ought to visit.

The pen is mightier than the sword. Yes. But is the ballpoint? Or the roller ball?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Once Excursion, Now a Hop—One More on Travel

After we first settled in happy Hopkins, Minnesota, we soon learned that our town had once been a stop on the train route that linked Minneapolis to its chief resort, Lake Minnetonka to the west. Minnetonka is a big body of water with multiple, extended bays and a shoreline of 125 miles in length. The train once ran from the city to Excelsior, on the lake, a distance of 20 miles. Hopkins was more or less in the middle of that route, 11 miles from the Minneapolis. Trains no longer ran to Excelsior from Hopkins in our day, but the rails were still on the ground when we arrived; they’d been removed by the time we left.

We soon found Lake Minnetonka, just a brief drive away. In later times our treasure, a modest blue-white yacht we’d named Serendipity, lay anchored in one of Minnetonka’s bays. For some years we threw money into a hole in the water (as the saying has it), but it was money well spent: the memories of that time still gleam; they remain while money still keeps flowing out.

Palics Water Tower

But no sooner had I learned of this relationship—town and lake resort—than I remembered Lake Palics in what was then Hungary. Palics (now Palić in Serbia) was a mere 5 miles from the big city where we lived, Szabadka (Subotica now). The emblem of Palics, still there today, is its water tower. Five miles is no distance in this day and age, but in the wonderfully sunny times that memory preserves, going to Palics was a genuine excursion. Nobody owned cars. We went by streetcar. And, indeed, the two concepts were preserved in verse by one of Hungary’s poets, Izidór Milkó (1855-1932) in this fragment:

Uncle Dóri looks towards Palics
And wonders if the streetcar’s on its way.
The same in the original (to please the Hungarian reader, if there ever happens to be one):

Dóri bácsi Palics felé tekint,
hogy jön-e már a villamos.
The idyllic, sunny, and magical sometimes combine with the shocking, painful, and dark. It was in Palics, where mother and her children were summering—as we did every year in a rented cottage—that news came that my Father, fighting on the Eastern Front—indeed just a few miles east of Lodz in Poland where Brigitte lived as a girl—had been severely injured and his left arm had been amputated. And a few weeks later he came there himself, with the empty sleeve of his uniform tucked into a pocket.

But let me, having paused, startled by this memory, continue my comparison. In Hopkins too, no doubt, families took the train from the station to spend a weekend on the splendid lake. Excelsior indeed—and even in our day, some of the splendor remains, I mean on shore: the water and the sky are ever and unchangeably the gift from above.

Hopkins Depot, now a Café

Funny thing. Hopkins actually owes its name to the building of this artery, the name of a man, and that man’s self-assertion. The town, then called Village of West Minneapolis, wished to take advantage of the railroad and built a station house. They persuaded a man called Harley H. Hopkins to sell them the land for the depot. He finally agreed—but only if they put his name on the building. As this picture shows, they did. And the people, coming and going by train, saw that name. And the place, consequently, came to be known as Hopkins. Eventually the city elders caved to the inevitable, the vox populi.

The Sopot Rainbow Fountain

Brigitte, in her childhood, spent her summers on the Baltic at the still thriving resort of Sopot. That place, as always in such cases, was a mere hop by car (about 8 miles) from Gdynia to the north and Gdansk to the south. In her case vacation was a real trip because she first took the train from Lodz to Gdynia (200 miles); but the distance from there to Sopot is now a hop but then was an excursion, still accomplished by taking a train. Now beaches are the same all over the world, and in their dunes of sand and roaring surf almost generic; therefore I choose here to illustrate Sopot by one of its parks and a fountain known as the Rainbow.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia available here: Palics, Hopkins, Sopot.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reading, Studying

In reading books that give me facts, I can always learn something of interest even if the penumbra of interpretation the author radiates strikes me as wrong. Interpretation is a species of valuation, to be sure; it is always possible that the author’s system of values has influenced his choice of facts; but in the realm of givens, many other sources are available to check that.

In looking at books largely about values—thus most philosophical works—I always first try to discover the author’s fundamental orientation. By that phrase I really only mean his epistemology. An example: let’s say that the author is a thorough-going empiricism. In that case the motive for going on—if on I go—will change. The only real content the author can possibly give me is the truth of empiricism itself, namely that nothing reaches me, or ever has, except through my senses. The logic of empiricism suggests that any other derived values will have a sensory basis. Such a book will attempt to persuade me, to be sure; the author will argue and reason; but his own starting premises suggest that reasoning itself has only a sensory basis. And, furthermore, I already know what such experience can teach me about values, as in “Don’t jump off five-storey buildings.” I may go on and read some or all of the work anyway, but for other reasons: to find out how people with such an orientation see things. But then I switch from reading about values to increasing my general awareness of people and society. The content doesn’t interest me as such. I become more open when the author’s epistemology makes room for reason and intuition as genuinely separate sources of knowledge. Then, possibly, all else equal, there may be something of interest in the opus.

Studying a work is the next level up from simple reading. Here I make distinctions between personal and professional study. I’ve studied a lot of things for professional or vocational reasons; the effort often requires the strong exertion of the will because the materials may not be pleasing. I devote personal study only to those works that pass my own test: I have to share their authors’ orientation.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wrought Iron Revisited

                   Cast Iron Railing                               Wrought Iron Component

One of my correspondents, Paul Rodriguez, whose own intriguing website, The Ruricolist, is reachable here, commented on my earlier post about wrought iron wondering if I preferred wrought or cast. “I do find them distinct,” Paul wrote, “since in New Orleans (I'm sure you know) each has its own dominion, wrought iron in the French Quarter, cast iron in the Garden District. My own preference is for wrought iron.” Well, Paul assumed too much—namely that I knew something about the subject, which, reading his e-mail, I did not. But I’ve since then become minorly aware of the difference—and, having looked, agree with him. Wrought is the way to go.

As always, in these matters, lifting the carpet reveals much more than you’d expected. Wrought and cast iron are produced by different processes, the first by blooming mills, the last by re-melting pig iron from a blast furnace with scrap. Wrought iron is porous and contains some slag; blooms or masses of it must be hammered to fuse the metal and to remove most but not all of the slag. The wrought kind if very tough, hard, and easy to weld—whereas the cast stuff is more brittle because it contains carbon. A genuine wrought iron railing, therefore, is twice-wrought, you might say: in the metallurgical production and later by the fabricator who hammers the pieces into shape.

I show examples of each above, from the same source, accessible here and here. As you can see, the cast product can also be quite fancy, but a close examination of such objects will reveal the differences. The human element is much more present in the wrought variety, and something in us does pick that up.

Mirrors of Projection

It was in C.G. Jung’s writings that I first encountered the rather useful concept of projection. Jung held that the collective unconscious holds permanent energetic structures he labeled archetypes (“primal patterns”)—an old, old concept with a hoary history… Plato’s ideal, eternal forms were of this category existing somewhere in a transcendental space, the very model and source of all things visible; in scholastic times they were transferred to the mind of God; during the Enlightenment Locke, for instance, brought them back to earth and suggested that archetypes were simply things out in the world that our minds turn into patterns. What goes around, comes around. In the transitional twentieth century, the archetypes go back into our chests, and if we seek to trace them further, we find them in that quasi-divine collective unconscious which was Jung’s reinvention of divinity. They reside there in Platonic silence, energize us, and we project them out into the world. There you have the root of this conception. The archetype of “father” is projected onto leaders, of “mother” on the nanny state, of “evil” onto capitalism, socialism, the red menace, or Muslim terrorism. Jung wisely suggested that people should withdraw their projections in order to mature.

Let’s walk hand-in-hand for a moment with this archetype of the Wise Old Man. Jung thought that the mirrors of our projection take on the energy of the archetype itself, and that, by projection, we thus form god-like entities that rule us in our turn. Not bad when you think about it. The rational way, Locke’s way, is much less exiting. Without the psychic energies that reflect malignly from so many structures of reality, CNN’s coverage of news would become—as it already is for the aware—a crashing bore. If we genuinely saw the reality behind today’s bogey-man, Al Qaida, we wouldn’t get very exited—much as in McCarthy’s day careers and reputations would not have been destroyed had we really looked at communism as it really was. When we don’t see reality, it turns into a mirror. It reflects back what we are.

Okay. But what is your solution, Mr. Darnay? And what does science say about this subject? A solution? I don’t have one. One of our more interesting projections is that the world arrays itself in a series of problem-solution sets, and if we can just get enough people behind us, we can get the problem solved. If this state of affairs troubles you, look for a solution within. Turn off CNN, for instance, or decline to participate in polls. Now as for science… Or should I have capitalized that word?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Travel Now and Then

Once the children of the World War II generation have passed away (and count me as one of them), few immigrant will be able to say that they reached these shores crossing the Atlantic by boat. We sailed from Bremerhaven in Germany and arrived way down there in New Orleans thirteen days later (that number again). The long trip (over to New York took half that time) came about because we thought that we’d end up in Texas. But our sponsor died while we were on the ocean blue; unseen and unheard by us, our sponsoring organization labored away and found us a new sponsor in Kansas City, where everything was up to date.

Yes. Thirteen day at sea—not counting long em- and debarkations, each lasting a couple of days. And ours was a fine ship, the USS General Muir; it escaped retirement after ferrying troops to fight Hitler to bring the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the homeless and the tempest-tost, the wretched refuse of Europe’s teeming shore, to New Orleans. Like many things I count this as a grace from on high. I spent the entire voyage at a port rail contemplating the Atlantic and communing with dolphins and flying fish. I went through, hoping no one saw me, two pretty rough storms; I watched the ocean turn from frowning northern vigor to smiling southern charm. And the first American land my eyes beheld were over-grown wild islands in the vast estuary of the great Mississippi—by the shores of which I later lived for many years—after years encamped next to one of its great tributaries, the wide Missouri. And I once actually jumped across the Mississippi at its place of birth in Lake Itasca in Minnesota. I was with a French geographer, an exchange-family brother of Michelle’s, but we got there by—car.

Right up to and somewhat past my years of adulthood trains carried people. A train took us from New Orleans to KC. A train took me to Chicago, twice, once when as a member of the Lillistrator, the Lillis High school’s high school paper, we all attended a journalism convention there for youngsters—and I came back madly, desperately in love! And again when, having won my state’s oratory championship (and had my picture in the Kansas City Star), I went to the Windy City to compete in the national contest held there. A train also took me part way back to Europe as a soldier, the segment from Kansas City to New Jersey, but the last leg of that long trip was, alas, by air. (Brigitte insists, having read this minus the parenthetical that I’m now inserting—and it fits here best—that I confess putting her and our children on the wrong train in Newark, NJ, on the way back from Europe—and this her first experience of the Land of the Free, with Monique still fed from a bottle in her portable crib. Well, Okay. I do confess it. Wasn’t all roses and contemplation, trains. The ladies always know how to keep things real…)

These thoughts because an old gent in the neighborhood reminded me of trains. He is 84, so that makes sense. And on my walk later I pondered travel, now and then. And it occurred to me that I learned in a visceral way just how far Europe and America lie apart on this great water planet. I remembered endless train-trips, the time they took—and the time they gave, consequently, for reflection on life, people, and to read thick books. We always lose by gaining something—and also gain by losing something of the frenetically new. The old had its adaptations and its compensations; the new offers much relief, and ought to: it causes stress we didn’t feel, in the Anno Long Ago, because it was spread very thin across vast fields of time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Today being the date of the autumnal equinox, I thought it appropriate to present here a ...

              Litany to the Sun
Fierce force
On high
Dread god
So nigh
Burns hard
Dries dry
Green makes
Roofs fry
Clouds dim
Winds fly
Night hides
Dark lie
Dawn rise
Deep sigh
Red sinks
Huge pie
Looked at
Blinds eye
Plow deep
Grows rye
We live
That’s why
Sun dims
We die
Fierce force
On high.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cultural Landscape

The word in German (Kulturlandschaft) has just a little more bite, but to explain that fully would take up space. People who really possess multiple languages so that these manifest spontaneously in the head experience this problem now and then. The same word in another language simply conveys much more or has an extra dimension, what sometimes people astutely call a resonance.

When I first came to America I felt alienated because the architecture was all wrong. Leaving town I always had a sense of liberation, of once more being home, of breathing properly again. Soon we moved to another house, across from what we called Guillam Park (in Kansas City). Near us, easy walking distance, was the Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery; it topped a hilly region surrounded by upscale but tightly clustered and massively tree-shaded residences. The Gallery rapidly became for us a focus, shrine, object of weekly pilgrimages. From up there, on its stately terrace facing South, our eyes could sweep over expanses of cultivated gardens and lawns—and in the far, far distance, but visible, stood Midwest Research Institute (the arts and the sciences, as it were, arrayed face to face). Little did I dream then, in my edgy teens, that someday I would work there.

The picture here presents a view of one corner the Gallery in the distance, but as seen from MRI. In the foreground is the Volker fountain. It features St. Martin of Tours on horseback—a figure who looms very large in our family in many ways, not least in that he forms part of our “noble” name: Darnay of St. Martin. A charming feature of this fountain is the figure of a naked angel, a young boy, high a-top a pole, playing a flute but holding it the wrong way around—and wearing a wrist-watch. MRI isn’t visible but is behind the photographer.

Very nice. But this area, the Nelson Gallery raised, science in the flatlands, this imprint of culture, was, alas, just one of a few pocketses (as Gollum in Lord of the Rings would have it) in an otherwise theme-less and sometimes ugly, vast spread of structures, buildings, parking lots, and billboard-bearing thoroughfares. By contrast any small town in Europe—and especially in Italy, say—has another imprint difficult to capture analytically. But you sure as hell know that now you’re looking at a cultural landscape. Everything fits it. Everything proclaims its presence, somehow. It is the look of Christendom. (The next shot I owe to Michelle’s site, here.)

Back in those days I didn't understand the matter fully. In those days I used the labels Europe and America, and I assumed that Europe had culture and America lacked it. But many years later I received the needed corrective. We set out from Paris by car to drive to Tours. Yes. Our family’s links to St. Martin are densely woven. Having finally left the city behind, we began to pass through a landscape that—oh, my God—looked just like America, in general and in detail, and worst of all, in spirit. And I realized the truth. What I called Kulturlandschaft was simply the past, its traces still shaping the wax of matter from another time. And what I beheld in the United States, and increasingly everywhere, is the shape of values current in Modernity. The old persists—but it has become the achievement of small groups or individuals. “The sea of faith was once, too, at the full…” (Coleridge).

Sunday, September 20, 2009


As I am preoccupied with pleasant enough but mechanical matters at the moment, I thought I would avail myself of the virtues of an image, as in: A picture’s worth a thousand words. I call this “The Man in the Tree,” an ever-thought-provoking presence that comes into view on one of my many walks in my neighborhood. The thought that unfailingly comes each timeI look at this tree just before crossing the street to its side is: As this man in the tree so are we embedded in the material. Clicking the image will enlarge it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Natura Naturans

Even a great mind unfortunately caught in an infinite loop, what in computer jargon we call a “hang,” will sometimes produce a nice phrase like that. It sounds better in Latin than saying “nature naturing,” and if heard by a much lesser mind than Spinoza’s, but one open to poetic melodics, it has a charm that sunny walks at summer’s end will rapidly confirm. (Best to click through for a larger view.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Inklings

Almost everyone knows what The Lord of the Rings is all about, and many know that its author was J.R.R. Tolkien. Certainly in the English-speaking world, many people would also recognize the name C.S. Lewis and might even spontaneous come up with his best-known work, The Screwtape Letters, an elderly devil coaching a younger one (Wormwood), the latter charged with corrupting a single “patient,” a man in war-torn England. The book was published in 1942. Children—or parents with children—will also know of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


A lovely and reassuring thought. But, let’s pick on something other than cement
and concrete next time, Ok? [Monique’s comment on “Lessons Learned Looking Down”
available below]
A long time since we used to ride, all three,
The two of you out to Loretto bound
And I to work thereafter. On the way,
No radio in the Bug, we’d make its sound
And often sang a favorite melody
The music, words, still in my memory:

Barges, I would like to go with you,
I would like to sail the ocean blue…

We little dreamt or then suspected that years—
A decade or more full of adventure
Later—barges would still bring joy or tears,
For cement had then become the venture,
Your work and means to earn your daily keep,
In furtherance whereof barges must ply,
If ice did not obstruct the river’s sweep,
From docks in New Orleans up to the nearby
Ports in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Oh, Red Rock—and the water down there green
And shaded—later on the new Grey Stone
In Cincinnati’s construction-rich marine
Environment, a monument, capstone
Of your achievement, your work in cement!
No wonder word went round that Dominique
A man, from Europe, of Spanish descent
Had taken over at Red Rock. Monique
They met—in awe at that—only later
At trade-show time and noted feminine
Charms and traits, and no mistake, a Daughter
Of Cement, no son, red rock outside, inside jasmine.

For reasons such as these, my daughter dear,
I’d never dare to question or attack
The stuff itself, the trade, or your career.
The picture pleases, The Lady on Horseback
Succeeding in rough games just wearing jeans,
Flying to Spain, to Mexico on trips,
Waiting for barges, weather, ocean ships...
That grey stuff, dear? It’s welded to Ghulf genes.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Stray Reflection While Reading Paradiso

Some day after I breathe my last and to the heavens I shall rise
Like Dante I too shall expect to meet my own true Beatrice!
A claim like that you might surmise is just a dream of Paradise
But in this life my Mother here might there await me in the Bliss.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lessons Learned Looking Down

The concrete is modernity, the hole an act of God (let’s say)—
Or careless limb-work by tree-cutting men. The green thing's life itself,
Tenacity, and upward thrust of still awake humanity.
The picture, in entirety, remains ambiguous. One take
On it might go like this: “Poor plant. How dumb you are, how brief your fate.
In this well-off community, the city will soon mark a spot
With orange spray across that slab, and crews will break the damaged stretch,
Never even see your chlorophillic signature, and cover
Up your greenish heritage with fresh cement and harder aggregate.”
Another walker may well take the longer view, behold the little
Plant, feel its great faith, intuit what it knows, hear its quite different
drum, and in that beat discern the slogan WE SHALL OVERCOME.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Music surely is the most mysterious of arts—and it pleases me, oddly, that the Muses collectively are called what they are. On the surface it may appear that music vibrates the emotions alone, hence is so commonly used as the setting of more accessible meanings in its many hybrid forms, thus linked to words or coupled with the action of a play, opera, or film. What exactly is it? I hear the music with my ears but feel it in the chest, and the very highest forms of it deceive me into a mental levitation, as if I had lost my weight and find myself lofted, don’t know how, into great heights while I remain, it seems oddly, on the ground. The poets struggle to give this expression, as T.S. Eliot here tries (in The Dry Salvages):

Music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
I must leave this for now, but wished at least to say a word on the subject after listening to Mattapedia again (by the, for me, immortal Kate & Anna McGarrigle) and feeling the urge to return to hear it again.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

More on Change—And On What Comes Around

Having chided Dorothy Sayers for using the archaic second person forms of address in translating Dante, I looked about for samples of old English ready to hand. A good example on my shelf downstairs—testifying to strange ambitions to which occasionally I fall prey—I discovered a copy of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. It appeared between 1590 and 1609. Spenser’s writing is a sample exactly 400 years old, a nice round number, far enough away to have a certain strangeness, and yet not quite so strange as we encounter, say in Chaucer, whose The Canterbury Tales go back roughly 840 years.

Here is a sample of three stanzas from Spenser, lifted from Book V and Canto V. It tells the story of Artegall’s defeat and capture by the evil Radigund. The latter, by the way, is female. Here is how their combat began:

So forth she came out of the citty gate,
With stately port and proud magnificence,
Guarded with many damzels, that did waite
Vppon her person for her sure defence,
Playing on shaumes and trumpets, that from hence
Their sound did reach vnto the heauens hight.
So forth into the field she marched thence,
Where was a rich Pauilion ready pight,
Her to receiue, till time they should begin the fight.

Then forth came Artegall out of his tent,
All arm’d to point, and first the Lists did enter:
Soone after eke came she, with fell intent,
And countenaunce fierce, as hauing fully bent her,
That battels vtmost triall to aduenter.
The Lists were closed fast, to barre the rout
From rudely pressing to the middle center;
Which in great heapes them circled all about,
Wayting, how Fortune would resolue that daungerous dout.

The Trumpets sounded, and the field began;
With bitter strokes it both began, and ended.
She at the first encounter on him ran
With furious rage, as if she had intended
Out of his breast the very heart haue rended:
But he that had like tempests often tride,
From that first flaw him selfe right well defended.
The more she rag’d, the more he did abide;
She hewd, she foynd, she lasht, she laid on euery side.

Shaumes — wind instruments like flutes.
Pight — pitched.
Eke — also; old Germanic; in Germany today “auch,” a modern word, is a synonym.
Aduenter — adventure? Not sure.
Rout — meaning a pack, a word once used for groups of knights as well as wolves.
Dout — can’t find the meaning, but I just read it as “bout”
Foynd — feigned.
The reader will also have inferred that U is sometimes voiced as V and V as U.

What delights me about this sample—which but for spelling and a few strange words is quite ordinary and easily understood English—is that violent, ass-kicking, lord-it-over-men female TV characters are evidently “back” again; they’re quite at home in Spenser’s tale and evidently serve the same purposes of titillation. Spenser makes a huge and flamboyant show of writing a thousand-page poem about all of the virtues, but the book attracted its readership because it was soaked in sexuality. I discovered that when, having gotten my U’s right and learning the meaning of a few recurring odd words like eke, the sense of the narrative began to penetrate. To be sure, the sexuality is a kind of endless tease, but it is there on virtually every page.

* * *

Now two examples from Chaucer. Another 400-plus years back. Here, sometimes, the strange words are much more numerous—and a background in German and French help a good deal. But it amused me to find, in the second sample (both taken from the beginning) an obvious reference to battles with Islam and a veiled reference, as it were, to Aljazeera, although the actual word refers to Algeciras in Spain. Gezira meaning “island” in Arabic, thus it’s a common enough geographical reference.

Still, what goes around, comes around. We begin with the first lines of the Tales:

WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot,
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engender’d is the flower;
When Zephyrus eke with his swoote breath
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender croppes and the younge sun
Hath in the Ram his halfe course y-run,
And smalle fowles make melody,
That sleepen all the night with open eye,
(So pricketh them nature in their corages);
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeke strange strands,
To ferne hallows couth in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of Engleland, to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful Martyr for to seek,
That them hath holpen, when that they were sick.

Swoot — sweet.
Holt — grove or forest
Croppes — twigs or boughs
Corages — hearts, inclinations
Ferne hallows couth — distant saints known
Holpen — helped.

Herewith the third stanza:

A KNIGHT there was, and that a worthy man,
That from the time that he first began
To riden out, he loved chivalry,
Truth and honour, freedom and courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his Lorde’s war,
And thereto had he ridden, no man farre,
As well in Christendom as in Heatheness,
And ever honour’d for his worthiness
At Alisandre he was when it was won.
Full often time he had the board begun
Above alle nations in Prusse.
In Lettowe had he reysed, and in Russe,
No Christian man so oft of his degree.
In Grenade at the siege eke had he be
Of Algesir, and ridden in Belmarie.
At Leyes was he, and at Satalie,
When they were won; and in the Greate Sea
At many a noble army had he be.
At mortal battles had he been fifteen,
And foughten for our faith at Tramissene.
In listes thries, and aye slain his foe.

Farre — father
Reysed — journeyed
Thries — three; and listes are tournaments.

Friday, September 11, 2009

English and the Second Person

In the development of English, the second person pronouns have been swept away by time—as have their verb modifications. This change has produced a gulf between our times and all written forms of the eighteenth and earlier centuries. I’m keenly aware of this in reading Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante—and, alongside hers, others’. The convention is to preserve the second person forms found in the original Italian—which are still there today. Even with long exposure, these forms simply refuse to melt into my mind, will not digest, linguistically speaking, and hence they act on my faculties as tiny grains of sand might if in the peanut butter on my bread.

I learned three languages before I encountered English: Hungarian, German, and French. The second person is still alive and well in all three. It’s used in ordinary spoken and written language; no artificiality attaches to them. The English “thou goest” sounds stilted, not so the German “du gehst” or the French “tu vas.” In all three of these, and others, there are even words to describe the act of speaking in the second person. In Hungarian that word is tegezni, in German duzen, in French tutoyer.

Those of us who grew up speaking languages with this extra dimension are all aware—not intellectually but viscerally—of the extra potentials present in having an informal (second person) and a formal (third person) way of addressing another human being. In English we use the formal “you” in both cases. In German (just to stick to a single counter-example), saying “you” (“Sie”) to someone always carries an implied formality. In he world of ordinary business, this usage is so routine as to be, on the surface, indistinguishable from the same sort of interchanges in English; but one immediately knows that the environment has changed, loosened, as it were, when intimates, be that in the office, in the neighborhood, and in the family revert to second person modes of speech.

I smile, remembering something. When tensions arose between my Father and my Mother, my Father used to switch to the third person address in speaking to Mother. It was a way of signaling displeasure… And the little boy listening, knew this perfectly well. Now, in writing a memoir in English, the poverty of modern English prevents my giving a natural example. For us the second person is unnatural.

The expression, in speech, of distinctions in class, rank, or age relies, in other languages, on this facility. In English we have to signal these distinctions with added words like Sir or Ma’m or simply more courteous and deliberate forms of speech.

The very fact that language tools, if present, will be used to their fullest—especially by poets—produces the dilemmas translators must resolve. In the translations of Dante, preserving the second person, despite its rankling dissonances for the English-speaking ear, has been the choice. I would not go that way myself. What I would ask myself is this: How would Dante have attacked this chore. And my guess is that he would have preferred to use the modern English to its fullest extent to communicate as fluidly as possible the real essence of his vision. And if, here and there, the “thou-ye” and the “thee-you” tooling was missing to signal rank or stature, he would have found a way around it using other means.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Amusing Coincidence

After I completed the last posting on St. Paul Cemetery and of the columbarium at St. Paul’s church in Grosse Pointe, I had lunch and went on my walk. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I thought I’d visit the columbarium. I headed out that way. Approaching it from the west, all I could see at first was its wall. As I neared the wall, the strident sounds of heavy construction reached me. The closer I got, the more obvious it was that they issued from the columbarium itself.

“Good God,” I thought. “I just wrote about cemeteries picking up and going away. I wonder if that’s what’s happening right now! What a coincidence!”

I arrived and, indeed, workmen were all over the place, the crypts had been opened, slabs of stone lay in mounds, clouds of dusts rose, the shriek of stone saws rent the air. Good Lord. The two pictures capture the scene, the first from the west looking east, the other from the lakeside west. Clicking on the images will enlarge them. I approached one of the masons. Sigh of relief. No, the ashes were not about to move. The crew had been engaged to add more crypts.

The first shows how deep the crypts are. The second shows the width of each. The names of the deceased appear on the horizontal topping stones.

Even with work underway, the pictures give some hint of the kind of quiet and sheltered place this is. Workmen now rest near the two benches, in the shade, where on my walks I sometimes sit for five, ten minutes and contemplate the past that rests here from life’s turmoils.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mapped in Stone

On my walks in the “Pointes,” as we call this inner-most of all cluster of Detroit suburbs—settlements sandwiched between the city to the west and Lake St. Clair to the east—I have access to two cemeteries. The first is a columbarium, crypts placed in two waist-high structures and others placed in the walls that surround this facility which is open to the sky. Each crypt holds ashes. This secluded facility—with a pair of benches for contemplatives who wander there—is part of St. Paul on the Lake, a Catholic church. As the name implies it looks out over Lake St. Clair. The other is a cemetery located a good ways to the north and much more inland. It fronts on Moross, one of our major avenues. A large and much-weathered stone in that place announces that it is St. Paul Cemetery. Strange. I looked into this and discovered that even cemeteries sometimes “pick up and move.” St. Paul’s used to be where the columbarium is now. But what with the expansion of St. Paul’s, which extends a good ways to the north of the church itself and houses St. Paul on the Lake Catholic School, extensive playgrounds, and housing for nuns, the old cemetery was dug up and transported elsewhere long ago. And before it finally settled on Moross, it used to be in another location. We are a mobile society. Even our departed are on the go…

Speaking of transportation, anyone local to this area will immediately recognize the names on the gravestones that I feature today. They are also the names of major avenues. I’ve arranged them in geographical order, running from north to south. All four of these prominent families just happened to be members of St. Paul on the Lake, a church established in 1834. At present banners hang all over the ground of the church celebrating its 175th anniversary.

That word, columbarium, derives from the Latin for dovecote. These, of course, are structures of small compartments. In the funerary uses of this structure, each cote holds cinerary urns.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Culture of Emotion

We speak not strictly and philosophically, when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. [David Hume, Of the Passions]

This well-known passage by Hume (1711-1776) should be read in its full context to bring out its full bouquet. That context may be perused here, but I will try to give the highlights. As Hume understands emotions, they are basic and prior to reasoning. They are produced by the prospect of pain or pleasure; they are comprehensive intuitions of the totality of a situation in which reasoning is summoned only to illuminate causes and effects. “A passion is an original existence,” as he puts it, thus not a concept; it is akin to facts like feeling thirsty, sick, or being more than five feet high. Reasoning, by contrast, rests on concepts; these Hume considers as mere representations, “copies” of authentic reality—like (as we might say) photographs rather than flesh and blood. Let me sharpen this. Hume arranges reality in such a fashion that conscious reasoning becomes a secondary activity, subservient to raw reality. The last, the raw, he considers authentic. After a lengthy elaboration of this point, he concludes this passage by saying:

In short, a passion must be accompanied with some false judgment, in order to its being unreasonable; and even then, ’tis not the passion, properly speaking,which is unreasonable, but the judgment.

Welcome to Modernity. I discovered the quotations cited, and read the richer context in which they are embedded, in trying to understand what may be the roots of our modern “culture of emotion.” I have something of an aversion to the Enlightenment and have not studied its luminaries, least not Hobbes and Hume, but one is sometimes obliged to look. I came this way because, in another context, I was again reminded of pop culture’s favorite question, especially when it wishes to signal sensitivity. That question is “How do you feel about that.” Feeling is authentic. Thought and feeling are opposed. And the implication of the question, almost always, is that in some way the gruffy hero, doing his usual insensitive rampaging, is not “in touch with his feelings” and needs to be—gently—reminded.

As I encountered Hume’s views on passion, I thought: Well, well, well! Wouldn’t you know it! What philosophers scribble gradually soaks into the soil and becomes reflexive wisdom two, three hundred years later. Not surprisingly, the entry on “Emotion” I found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, while it mentions Plato’s and Aristotle’s views (barely), relies entirely on figures from the Enlightenment—and their modern elaborators. Not a single prominent thinker of Christendom is so much as mentioned. These are the experiences which cause me to agree with writers like Pitirim Sorokin and, more generally, with the cyclic historians.

Not that, mind you, the modern analysis of emotion is “all wrong,” or anything like that. This is a vast and complex subject, almost permanently vexing because the body-soul duality is so effectively resistant to conceptual parsing. My point here is cultural. In spiritual (ideational) periods, the higher aspects of soul-function are stressed, in materialistic (sensate) times those closer to the physical and sensuous get the nod. If the two were absolute equals, this wouldn’t matter, but if a hierarchical order places one above the other, demoting the higher will have tangible consequences for social well-being.

But the most ironic and meaningful aspect of this modern tendency—this emphasis on emotions—is that in many, many cases the motive behind this invocation of emotions in popular art is nobler than its expression. It has become impossible to appeal to the spiritual ranges in humanity; the impulse to do so, however, is still present. Therefore a word like “feelings” is used to point at something that really transcends mere feelings. Conversely, in media commentary we also encounter frequently characterizations of events or performances as “spiritual” when, in actuality, they are just emotional. My sense of discomfort arises, I think, because I’d just as soon hear a spade called a spade.

Monday, September 7, 2009


From btdarnay to adarnay (Wed, 11 Apr 2001 9:30):

Hey, hey, hey A. Darnay - Where yesterday’s poem did you lay? I thought it was mine to keep...

From adarnay to btdarnay (Wed, 11 Apr 2001 10:07):

Yesterday’s poem you did file
Into your monstrous e-stuff pile
I last saw it next your mouse
In your office, in our house.
I did not take it, it is yours
I did not take it, that’s for sures.
Thus spake the cat, the one in the hat,
And slapped his hands, and that is that!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Graves and the Goddess

One of the strangest books I’ve ever read—perhaps the strangest published in the twentieth century—is The White Goddess by Robert Graves. He himself describes it as “a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth.” Indeed those words appear on the cover of my latest copy of the book (1997). The first copy, which I got in the 1950s, eventually fell apart. I still have it, in four pieces. I keep returning to this book—and must have read it at least five times, all five hundred pages of it.

The use of the word “grammar” has a scholarly odor. Another strange book I once perused was Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives. Lots of people write “Grammars of ….” The meaning in these cases, to cite Webster’s, is “The elements or principles of any science or art.” So there you are: the elements and principles of the language of poetic myth. What makes The White Goddess memorable, fascinating, and indeed sometimes maddening is that Graves avoids intellectual reduction and uses the language of poetic myth itself to weave his subject. It becomes accessible, therefore, only, as it were through absorption. You have to be adequate to it. Not surprisingly, Graves felt ignored. In the Foreword to the revised edition he acknowledges all those who helped him assemble the vast material he used. Then he complains: “Yet since the first edition appeared in 1946, no expert in ancient Irish or Welsh has offered me the least help in refining my argument, or pointed out any of the errors which are bound to have crept into the text, or even acknowledge my letters. I am disappointed, though not really surprised.” Nor am I. If you step off the trodden path and go in search for strange flowers or beasties, you will be on your own. And those you meet are likely to be as wild and strange as you are.

The organizing principle behind the poetic myth, as Graves saw reality, was the Goddess herself—and poetry is ultimately the relationship of soul to the divine. But to say this much is to say nothing at all. The book must be experienced. To enter Graves’ forest of myths it is best to jettison orthodox structures of how, why, and where the divine will manifest. The heart will learn something even though the intellect will rage at times like a chained dog sensing shadows in the night.

Graves was a prolific writer. He wrote a two-volume work on The Greek Myths, he wrote a war-memoir (Good-bye to All That), novels, and his “grammar.” He once said of these activities: “I raise dogs to keep a cat.” The cat was his poetry. I always liked that as a good program for the writer: make your money the ordinary way and thus preserve your sovereignty. For Graves prose was the “ordinary way.”

I owe Graves for introducing me to Sufism. Once, anciently, I chanced across a book by Idries Shah entitled The Sufis. I picked it up to see what it might be about. I opened it, saw that Robert Graves had written the introduction. Not checking further I bought the book. Thus stood, stands, my relationship to this poet.

Graves like all poets was open at the top of his skull and had strange experiences and—because of them—strange beliefs. He thought he could journey into the past and experience it as if he were there. Time for him was reversible at least. Mad—like Swedenborg, like Boehme. One of the more memorable snippets of this book, to which I return at times, is a short poem of his, published in Collected Poems (London, 1975), entitled “On Portents.” Graves introduces the poem thus (p. 343 of Goddess):

Time, though a most useful convention of thought, has no greater intrinsic value than, say, money. To think in temporal terms is a very complicated and unnatural way of thinking too; many children master foreign languages and mathematic theory long before they have developed any sense of time or accepted the easily disproved thesis that cause precedes effect.
I wrote about the Muse some years ago in a poem:
If strange things happen where she is
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb, and the unborn are shed—
Such portents are not to be wondered at
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.
This gives a glimpse into this forest. For more, you need to wander in…

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Original Somehow...

Sometimes color has a magical effect, and some people have an eye for it! Aesthetic sensibilities are everywhere, even in hidden small streets one passes through on a late summer walk.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Endormement—Just an Idea

Those familiar with theories of cyclic history will have heard of Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), a Russian-born but U.S.-settled sociologist. He wrote Social and Cultural Dynamics, a four-volume work, in which his theories are laid out. I’ve mentioned him in one of the early posts here once before. Among such systematizers Sorokin differs from others because he associates cycles in history—at least here and there, when he is not driven by moral outrage—with what looks like a natural tendency for people to go to extremes, to recoil from them and change their ways, and then, in turn, to go too far in the other direction. He identifies three periods which he calls ideational, idealistic, and sensate. In the first cultures turn inward and emphasize the spiritual, in the last they turn outward and emphasize the material, and the middle term, always transitional, is a synthesis of the two. Idealistic periods mark the change from one dominant orientation to the other. Within our own history, the Medieval period (Christendom) is associated with the ideational, the Renaissance is the middle term; it marks the transition to Modernity which, in Sorokin’s view is a sensate, materialistic orientation.

I’ve pondered this scheme throughout my adult years and find some merit in it. It’s great for labeling things in a facile sort of way, but if you take the ideas seriously, more is revealed. For instance: Throughout most of the Renaissance and well into the so-called Enlightenment, indeed still laxly holding the loyalty of the masses today, the religious viewpoint dominant in the Medieval times was and remains visible and active. The categories Sorokin imposes are elite views, not those of the ordinary people. Ordinary people are influenced, to be sure, conform to the elite opinion more or less, but they’ll continue to cross their fingers, to believe in God (and not just in the trenches) and—despite the orthodoxy entrenched at the moment—will on the one hand believe in a hierarchical reality in the gut in materialistic eras and manage, on the other, somehow to satisfy the flesh even in the most severely ascetic and spiritual periods too.

Thus I interpret Sorokin as saying that elites go too far in one direction and then have to change course. It is elites that exhaust the potentials present in certain ways of experiencing reality and then, drained of inspiration, turn about and behold value in the long neglected. At the very peak of humanity, however, but tiny in headcount, are individuals who manage to develop a true balance. The natural and well developed state is synthesis.

This is the sort of stuff I ponder on my walks—while avidly keeping a look-out for rabbits. It is amazing how many I manage to see. They hide very well. Seeing them, counting them, pleases me much. My top count is fifteen rabbits on a walk. Rabbit counting keeps my body and my senses busy while my thoughts range all over eternity.

Anyway, on one of these walks, it occurred to me a year or so ago that we may very well be going through another age of transition—and never mind the outer indicators which would entirely contradict this. The thought came to me in thinking of the Romantic movement—and figures like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Blake, Shelley. Byron belongs here too, but I’ve never read him. And so do Goethe and Schiller who—thanks to my years in Germany—are part of my heritage. The thought came to me. Lordy. These guys are like angels bearing trumpets, and just as the eighteenth began to yield to the nineteenth century, they all blew their trumpets to announce the coming of a new Age of Faith.

And then, as I walked along—no rabbits anywhere to distract me—I got to thinking. If what I sense is true, and we’re going through another Renaissance… Stop right there. The name isn’t right. It might be another idealistic period—in the course of which the spiritual and the material will be fused into another splendid vision—but calling it a rebirth isn’t appropriate. If what is coming is another religious age, down the ways, birth—a plunge into the harsh realities of matter, the slap on the new-born bottom, the screams of baby outrage, the messy removals of umbilical cords, no, none of this will do. Instead, approaching the more subtle orders of the spiritual, dreaming is more appropriate. So I got to thinking and devised a new name for our era. Obviously it must also be in French. And to satisfy the beady-eyed materialists, it should have a slightly negative tonality that they can exploit while the rest of us will know better. So herewith I offer the word Endormement. The times are getting ever darker—and therefore it may be time to sleep. And perchance to dream.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mysterious Attention

William James devotes fifty pages to the subject of attention in his two-volume Principles of Psychology. In my version of this 1890 work, published by Henry Holt and Company in 1923, the chapter begins on page 402 of Volume I. James calls attention an act of the mind. The mind concentrates on one of many objects—lifts it out from the undifferentiated flux of experience. He names attention’s opposite distraction or, citing the German word, Zerstreutheit, a word that literally means “state of scatter.” James continues to hew to this theme throughout the chapter. His focus is the act of bestowing attention. But the mystery of attention, for me, arises when I think about the object of attention, especially when that object is a human being. Why people pay attention is clear enough; why they seek attention is a little more fuzzy.

I notice, however, that once I frame the question, the answer begins to crystallize. The need to get attention appears to be the exact mirror of the need to pay attention. The agent who looks at something makes it more real—for him or for herself. The person noticed by the agent, similarly, becomes more real for being noticed. When I look at you, you become more real in your own subjective perception of yourself; when you respond by acknowledging my attention, I become more real in my perception of me.

Curious, in a way. We benefit from the confirmation of our own being by the attention of another. Merely to know that we are—as we surely do know, after all we are self-conscious—doesn’t seem to be enough. Arguably this has a practical grounding. If I want someone to act on my behalf, I have to draw his or her attention. Therefore babies cry. But experience teaches that attention has value in and of itself, yes, even when no practical pay-offs are present. People need attention in order to have psychic health. That’s why we must pay attention even to those who can’t repay the attention we bestow in practical coin. The lonely teen, the aging person, the single mother: they all need attention. When it is given, they come alive; when denied, they wither. Attention is a kind of sunlight.

Yet another aspect of attention supports the structure of our public communications. In order for me to influence you, I have to have your attention first. Therefore, in the project of having my own way, I must be sharply visible (not submerged in the flux), I must be noticed, my aim must be understood, and it must seduce you, in some way, to act along the pathways I suggests—rather than as my opponent does.

Serious journalism—let’s call it “beyond pamphleteering”—was based on the notion that unusual events, objectively reported, would draw the public’s attention and in turn result in reasonable actions as called for by the facts. Reporting on events was the foundation of this profession, “events” here defined as things that had actually happened, not merely things said. Journalism has drifted from that model for three reasons. Reporting on real events is costly. Genuinely newsworthy events are actually rare; it is therefore difficult to fill a daily paper, and never mind a 24/7 television cycle, with real news. Finally, the public has learned to feed the media with an alternative content which is sufficient for ordinary purposes, more or less: self-promotion. Thus the news, so-called, consist of seven parts fluff and three parts reported happenings. The fluff consists of commentaries by high-profile people on probabilities that may never be realized; we hear about intentions; we hear about possible future alliances or breakups; we are presented endless so-called analysis, not of events but of vague trends, pronouncements, and outcomes in the foggy future.

The payoff in all this is a little vague. But those in the news certainly feel that they’re more real than those who never get their ten-seconds of glory in the limelight. And some of those who do—as for instance ordinary people embroiled in some news event—become addicted to this radiance and make valiant attempts to stay in it by forming public action committees, associations, pressure and interest groups. This suggests to me that while attention is certainly a basic human need, the modest minimum we need is best obtained through friends and family. In its mechanized forms it is dangerous to our psychic health.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An Addendum: Mantua

Virgil was born in Mantua, in Northern Italy. And Dante was born in—and exiled from—Florence, located just to the south and east of Mantua, hence, no doubt, he felt more than merely a poetic kinship to the figure he appointed to be his guide in Hell and Purgatory. The map shows these two locations: these days, obeying a new interest in geography, I just go and look.

As I was writing the last post, a German phrase kept playing in my head, over and over again: Zu Mantua in Banden… I turned to Brigitte to enlighten me, and she produced more of the verse. The line comes from a poem celebrating a Tyrolean rebellion against Napoleon led by Andreas Hofer. His rebellion failed; he was executed in Mantua. And years later Julius Mosen wrote a poem titled Andreas Hofer, but better known in Germany, where we used to sing it as well, by the phrase that I remembered. I managed to find an English translation of the poem here—thus saving me a couple of hours of difficult translation. I could not pin down the translator’s name beyond the fact that it is W. The first verse in German, then in Latin, follows.

At Mantua, in fetters,
The Faithful Hofer lay;
To death, to death in Mantua,
Bears him the foe away;—
His brothers’ hearts they beat and bleed;
All Deutschland lies in shame and need;
And with it—land Tyrol.

Zu Mantua in Banden
Der treue Hofer war,
In Mantua zum Tode
Führt ihn der Feinde Schar.
Es blutete der Brüder Herz,
Ganz Deutschland, ach in Schmach und Schmerz.
: Mit ihm das Land Tirol,
Mit ihm das Land Tirol. :

En Mantuae e vinclis
Fidelem Hoferum
Ad mortem, vae, ducebat
Caterva hostium;
Divulsa est Germania
Dolore, ignominia
Et una Tyrolis.
Et una Tyrolis.

Oh. I should have humbly noted somewhere above, near the names of Virgil and Dante, that I too once lived in Mantua. It was, to be sure, just a development in Fairfax Virginia, but that name does sort of cling even to casual minstrels wandering the wilderness.

Reading Dante in Detroit

A few years ago Monique gave me Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran—and just tracing that experience would suffice for a post. For one thing members of my extended family (Ghulf Genes, you might say) include children born of an Iranian woman, hence blood lines connect us back to Persia too. Indeed, whenever a country comes into focus in one or another context, I can trace tendrils of relationship—and strong ones, too, either of blood or spirit. But here my only purpose is to justify the title of this posting, to indicate the same kind of tension between cultures that Nafisi had in mind when she sat down to trace her own experiences as a woman and a teacher.

Yes. I’m reading the Divine Comedy, all of it this time, and slowly, with real attention. This too runs in the family’s spiritual genes. My mother would have done that sort of thing in her advanced years and Monique’s mate, John, is prone to feats like that as well—a kind of heroic determination to achieve the impossible, which is to grasp the entire culture, ancient and near, even if only by a few grand gestures. When I began reading Purgatory, I smiled as I read Dorothy Sayers’ introduction, in the first paragraph of which she says: “Persons who pontificate about Dante without making mention of his Purgatory may reasonably be suspected of knowing him only at second hand, or of having at most skimmed through the circles of his Hell in the hope of finding something to be shocked at.” Or, Sayers may have added, “something to quote.” She should have put that into her general introduction to nudge people on, beyond the Inferno, which is, as its name implies, a very dismal place. And arriving at the base of Mount Purgatory, one is astonished (I was) at the sudden change.

Culture is, ultimately, a system of shared values. Great literature holds these values. Its neglect is therefore either part of cultural change or cultural decay. If the value system continues to be renewed by great new works of art and philosophy, the sliding of the awkwardly dated back into the past is no matter of regret. But if the new has lost its nicotine, as it were, like fake cigarettes intended to wean us of smoking, the loss is genuine.

The cultural process is sharply discernible in the Comedy. In the first two books Dante’s guide is Virgil, the Latin poet famed for his Georgics and Aeneid, the last an epic account of Rome’s founding. The stories and myths in which Dante himself anchors his values are drawn from Graeco-Roman sources and the Bible, his philosophy is based on “moderns,” like Thomas Aquinas, and ancients, like Aristotle. The time distance between Virgil’s death and Dante’s birth is 1284 years. In 2009, we are 688 years from Dante’s death in 1321. Hence, for us, Dante stands closer in time than the towering figure of Virgil stood to him. The speed of change, however, has been so great in modern times that Dante appears to us at least 1300 years back, subjectively, rather than a mere 700.

It’s much more difficult today to get even a feel for the vast extent of human culture. Dante published his Comedy, if you can call it publishing, by having parts of it copied by hand as they were written, entirely in response to the demands of his friends. Printing still lay in the future. Today we can get dozens of translations of the Tao Te Ching, for example, and the best literature of any country we desire to read. And we have languages to master if we really wish to be serious students. I could here write a post titled Reading Goethe in German, for example, or Reading Madács in Hungarian. I’ve done both. Goethe’s name everyone knows, but Madács is known only to Hungarians. He wrote the all-time classic play called The Tragedy of Man. When you expend your energy in projects like that, you haven’t got time left to make money, do you? Anyway, that’s my excuse for failing in the American Way.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lunaria Biennis

Brigitte presented me with a small, round, quarter-sized, paper-thin plant-pod this afternoon. This came after she searched through a massive thick gardening book and came up, glasses on her nose, shaking her head. She looked at me over her glasses and wondered: Could I possibly somehow determine what this plant even was!?
Good Lord! But, to be sure, with great confidence in my abilities to extract information from the Internet—after all I have the power of describing things—I went to work to see what this strange, wondrous plant, growing in silence in a very shady and hidden part of our yard, might be.
Before I started we got busy assembling more detailed information. Brigitte took one of the pods and gently pried it apart. It consisted of three layers, two on either side and, between them, a wonderfully silvery and yet translucent inner sheet to both sides of which the actual seeds, themselves rounded but notched, clung in a dark brown color.

In this Age of the Image, it is a very chancy assignment to find something in the global brain the name of which is, for the moment anyway, “a round, flat, paper-thin seed pod.” And thus I gradually learned just how many seed pods there are and the infinite variety in which they come. But, after staring at a couple of hundred (I’m wise enough by now to have included the letters jpg in my search from the outset), I discovered that our tiny friend and cohabitant was the Money Plant, Lunaria biennis, in some circles also known as “Honesty.”

And there they are—the pictures courtesy of Dave’s Garden, reachable here, indirectly guided by Seedpod, Seed & Seedling Images, an English site available here. The first shows the mature plant with its pods, the second a younger version in full flower. Oh, yes. On the way to the second site, I also perused, at great length, a USDA facility filled with several hundred encyclopedic entries, each with a great depth displaying photos of seed pods at every stage of their lives. I staggered down the stairs enlarged to twice my size with overflowing pride. Look, Mom, look what I found: Lunaria Biennis!

Pierre Lecompte du Noüy

Pierre Lecompte du Noüy, a prominent French doctor, wrote a book intended for a general readership titled Human Destiny, and evidently it was popular even in translation else I might never have seen it. It came out in 1947. I stumbled across it in our local library. Our library is small, despite the wealth around here—and no theme visible—unless it is to buy what seem to be advanced books of the popular kind. So here was Human Destiny, its subject, broadly-speaking, evolution. And I took it home to read.

Du Noüy was a distinguished scientist although he came from an artistic family. His mother was a well-known novelist, his father an architect. Little of that spirit clung to the doctor, however. In a somewhat minor key he belongs to the transitional generation in which I place figures like de Chardin and Jung—people who were emerging from the forest of science into the dim outer edges of light—and people who had real difficulty shaking the residues of materialism even though inwardly drawn to the higher ranges.

The book is one of those bottom-up theories in which spirituality is born of matter. In du Noüy’s case evolution ultimately produces what he labels “conscience”; he pictures morality as the future path of evolution. Conscience will somehow lead to another leap in some remote time. The doctor offers very meager hopes for individuals in that he seems to doubt that “souls” exist and thus continue beyond the grave. His focus of admiration is “human dignity.” He also embraces the piety that seems to have come down to us from the nineteenth century—held by scientifically inclined but well-meaning people (like my Mother)—that we “live on” through our deeds and contributions. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, etc. The man must have been a moral paragon to think that such a view could possibly inspire mankind to heroic self-denial; at bottom his vision offers no hope for the individual. But du Noüy was clearly not an intuitive, poetic type and therefore missed a whole dimension of his theme. He thought that the miracle—at least the last miracle—was the human brain—which tells me that he never pondered the paradoxes of consciousness or the mysteries of inner life. The book has a distinctly nineteenth century flavor. The New Age had been born (Mary Baker Eddy had died in 1910) but was still just a child…

Nonetheless Human Destiny is valuable. The scientific presentation—contra positivism—is very well, expertly argued. True, the book fizzles out as it advances and we discover that overcoming the body and embracing a purified form of Christianity is our destiny—and that thereby we shall create Spirit, as it were. But what struck me as most telling was that du Noüy ultimately gets stuck on the brain. He is satisfied with his solution because he finds “conscience” on the one hand and “free will” on the other—the two pillars of morality, which is his aim. He is moved by love of his ancient tradition, which I assume from context is Catholicism; the book is structured to preserve this tradition up to a point. But while the Catholic project is to save souls, the goal for du Noüy is in the world itself: ultimate salvation lies somewhere in the future when vast majorities shall have at last embraced the evolutionary project. In effect, while referring to this future, he doesn’t actually “go there,” as we say today. And his knowledge of the “other tradition” is quite minimal and deficient.

Du Noüy’s half-way stop, half-way in matter, not quite all the way out of it and thus in the pure light of spirit, arises because he saw evolution as a relentless but unconscious filling of every ecological niche, seeking and experimenting until it finally achieved us. He is stuck on the brain because spirit and brain seem absolutely fused, but the brain evolved, hence had to have priority. But everything depends on where you start. I find it much easier to see spirit as prior and matter facilitating its action in a material dimension. But never mind that. What du Noüy thought that he saw is the emergence of spirit; deep down he was a progressive. What I see when I look around is more of the same, with or without spirit. With humanity’s emergence—if emergence it was, rather than arrival—evolution certainly expands, but where it trends is the same old place. It continues to build even bigger structures: institutions, nations, and empires this time. These, in turn, develop ever better nervous systems, economies, and modes of controlling their cellular components, namely us, while retaining the same sorts of reactive but ultimately stupid behaviors that the dinosaurs already had. A lack of mind, of real awareness, is strongly evident despite the lively chatter. The collective does not seem to hear the little wisdom that it occasionally produces.

My own walk-about tells me that du Noüy was wrong in thinking that evolution will be collective. The natural tendency of aggregation into ever greater wholes continues, but the outcomes one envisions are rather ominous: devastating wars or ecological disasters. Like Teilhard de Chardin, who came well after him, du Noüy evidently anticipated some kind of new miraculous event suddenly arising from massed Christian morality. For de Chardin this was the noosphere; and that scientific priest even envisioned the hand of evolution hard at work in concentrating people along the coastlines and the waterways of the continents. He should see these cities now. Whatever else they are—and clearly they are an evolution, along with satellites, computers, and the Internet—they are not spirit in any genuine sense of the word.

Indeed, I get apocalyptic images as I look at the shape of the future. It seems as if, after man came on the scene, the locus of evolution shifted to mankind and new creatures are now arising from within the human mass as various semi-conscious collectives. They both exist as independent institutions and simultaneously form organs and functionalities of yet other larger entities. They exist quite independently of little cells that temporarily make them up. Lincoln’s War Department is the Pentagon today. It is the same entity but filled with all new people. People form all of these collectives but people don’t really control them. Collectives have a “life of their own.” Individuals in temporary charge of these new dinosaurs enjoy the illusion of enormous power; they become puffed up, inflated, by being suddenly so large. Yet they can almost never act entirely on their own so that, in collective decision-making, that radical, new, original something, the unity of spirit, of individual consciousness (or conscience, as du Noüy would have it) is compromised away into mere nature.

Sometimes these new, collective beasts eat one another—as Disney is now eating Marvel Entertainment. The digestive juices of the aggressor eventually deform, change, and absorb what had a distinctive character of its own.

As collectives have gained ever more in power—not just physically, as in employing everyone, but also as images, as entities, as presences, as actors—we have developed a dualistic view of morals, of rights and wrongs, and justice. We simply accept that these enormous actors (with a life of their own, remember) have freedoms and rights superior to our own. When one eats another and layoffs are announced, we simply accept this. We simply transfer cells from Enron to the State Unemployment Office. When the Pentagon violates employment contracts by “stop loss” decrees and thus holds people in involuntary servitude, we accept this because the Pentagon is one of those minor godlets, one of evolution’s new little leviathans, destined to live, a mortal godlet, to be sure, until its parent, the American Empire, someday dies in a great chaos of dissolution.

Evolution has continued, to be sure. The way we are proceeding, the far future seems to hold no animals or plants except those grown in vast mono-cultures by man for his nutrition. Man will have swallowed Nature whole, will have become nature; all individuals will just be cells of ever more complicated structures, all with a life of their own, and these lives shall have the precedence always. Distopia. Well, actually, it won’t really be like that. The age of the dinosaurs eventually ended. At current rates of so-called progress, we shall destroy ourselves as we now are. It’s almost certain. Something new will come eventually. The show might actually start over. It wouldn’t be the first time. Oil will run out…

The spirit is a radical phenomenon and cannot be set equal to the brain. For me the problem is to see how brain and spirit interact and what that means. The spirit is radical, but in its most meaningful forms quite weak and inconsequential. Du Noüy thought that freedom was a key—but I look around and see mankind in chains, the pawn of its own institutions.

For this reason it’s good to recall Jesus’ words when he said: My kingdom is not of this world. That must be true. The evolutionary vector opened by the dawn of mind points in a radical direction: out of this dimension. In our dimension the very force that ultimately brought forth brains—and perhaps thereby freed the spirit captured here by some cosmic calamity or placed here by some design—is still at work doing what it has evidently always done, by some half-conscious necessity: build more and more complex structures in very much the same old way. The spirit is radical and may simply be catching a ride, passing through, a stranger in a strange land, bound for somewhere else.

Repast Recalled

My gourmet chef she served me beets royale!
Their stems, dark lush, were still attached,
Their sectioned halves a rouge cabal
Of morsels octopus.

The soup with parsley’s rich mirage in bowl
Of steaming broth above
The cous-and-cous affirmed her role
As chef splendiferous.

Last came a fruit compote, a dish divine
In which the berries made of straw
And other fruit combined to brine
Nicely acidulous.

Truly her art is purest elegance
And carried off with flourish light
To minimize its relevance
To her own genius.