Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pumpkin Final

Now that the last day of September has arrived--and having received encouragement from Monique to complete this task as well--I thought I'd show the last photo of the 2010 pumpin-in-the-compost-heap.

The pictures were taken on the tenth day of June, July, August, and September.

The plant has produced three dark little fruits. In  due time Brigitte may get around to harvesting the products of this great leafing. When that day comes, I'll try to bring you a kind of P.S. to this series. The plant itself, alas, no longer looks as showy as it should, hence it is time to say Well done and Good-Bye.

A Snapshot of Marriage

I mentioned yesterday hearing news that marriage as an institution seemed to be on the rocks. Today I went on a hunt for the actual data. Media sources all referred to statistics for the 25-34 age group and gave as their source, sometimes with links, the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey. Indeed, a press release by the Bureau had been issued last Tuesday, but despite wasting several hours, I could not actually discover any data specifically related to that age group and its marital status, not for 2009 nor for earlier years.

This sometimes happens—and makes me shake my head. I’m not an amateur in finding hidden data on the government’s statistical sites. In any case, in this process, I did find credible stats to reproduce the news, more or less. My figures are slightly better than reported for today and for 2000 (a higher rate of marriage)—but the trend is, alas, as reported in the media.

I got my data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey for 2003-2010 by using the table-making utility found here. I calculated data for 2000 from Table 1 in this 2000 Census report. And, running into lunch time, I extrapolated data for 2001 and 2002 to save time. Herewith I chart the data:

A decade’s worth of numbers do indeed show that marriage is at least temporarily not a life-style choice for many, approaching half of those in the age range where we tend to settle down. But in looking at this graphic I remind myself of a lesson I learned early in my long career looking through this strange lens: curves never keep on going upor down. Sooner or later the worm turns.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sound Bites

Shopping trips to distant Costco entertain because I listen to the radio. Thus I learned of the decline, and better yet the end, of men—by which respective authors meant the human male. Women are better educated, more ambitious, have more get up and go, earn more too, and the males, stripped of the role of family provider, evidently throw in the dishtowel, embrace drugs, ennui, porn, and depression.

The contributors (a panel, of course) consisted of two men, a female, and the host—all young and from the chattering class. The host contributed an observation of his own soon after I tuned in. He said that superior male strength no long mattered even in defense. The push of a button sufficed to annihilate the enemy. Then, later, a propos of long term projections, the tutorial female voice pronounced ex cathedra that this trend would inevitably continue. Her tone evoked the phrase “manifest destiny” in me; and I recalled Red hopes of witnessing the dawn of a classless society.

Pops of pop sociology. I wondered what the rangers in Afghanistan might have to say about the need of male strength and endurance as they clambered mountains riding donkeys carrying horrendous packs. I wondered about the lady’s time scale; what would be the status of women in, say, 2075 after the oil has run out? I wondered about the sample, if any, on which the findings of decline and end had been so firmly founded. I wondered how many families, and for how long, could afford the mountainous costs of educating offspring at universities...

A day or so later came news that women still make less money than men in the same jobs—and hence are less likely to be laid off. Poverty numbers flickered on my screen suggesting that the poorest of the poor are single women with children. I learned that the most certain predictor of future earnings was to be raised in a family featuring two parents at home. Pop. Pop. A bite here, a bite there. Snacking on the news. The problem goes deeper than male frustration at the leaven that causes women to rise. So many other things in that batter, I thought, later, and then back in the car again: on blog posts time is elastic, you see. Then, almost arrived at Kroger from Costco, I learned from the panel that marriage is disappearing altogether—except among the rich, where divorce is now evidently in sharp decline.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Mad Inventor

I wonder. Is the mad inventor a product of technological civilization, particularly our own? That seems to be the case. It is in secular, outwardly-oriented, and expansive times that invention, money, and fame come to be closely linked. But then, if collective human experience has a cyclic character, thus alternating between inwardly- and outwardly-oriented times, between ages of religion and ages of materialism, this would mean that the mad inventor appears, suffers or flourishes for a time…and then disappears again for a spell.

Looking into this, I latched on to patents as perhaps a good indicator. Some hard right to an invention would seem to be required really to motivate the mad inventor. Looking at the history of patents, I learned from Wikipedia that the first instance of a patent-right we know anything about arose in Italy in 500 BC, in the city of Sybaris. Technically speaking, to be sure, Sybaris was part of the Greek domain. Wikipedia learned this from Charles Anthon who, in splendid old-fashioned titling, still clinging to life 1841, wrote…

A Classical Dictionary: Containing An Account Of The Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, And Intended To Elucidate All The Important Points Connected With The Geography, History, Biography, Mythology, And Fine Arts Of The Greeks And Romans Together With An Account Of Coins, Weights, And Measures, With Tabular Values Of The Same


Wunderbar! Most historians use 500 BC to mark the beginning of the Classical period in Greek history. It follows the Archaic; and the Archaic follows The Dark Age. These are echoes of our own way of labeling ages as well. In our way of seeing things, the Classical begins with the Renaissance. Not surprisingly, therefore, the next mention of a patent in Wikipedia’s article is one for a barge with a hoisting mechanism issued in 1421 AD.

But patents remained spotty, you might say, until the Fossil Age dawned and suddenly real money could be made. To illustrate the sudden rise of Mount Patent in America, here is a splendid graphic, also from Wikipedia here.

As a government official, I saw my share of mad inventors struggling against all hope to interest somebody, anybody, in their world-beating invention. Many were literally white-hot and dangerously radiant. Here and there one or the other of them managed to make me spend full days, and sometimes two days—and I mean including dinner and into the night—listening to their strange tales and agonies. I was not about to be curt and dismissive; and it is the nature of such people, so searing is their faith, that to this day I’ve no idea whether I was suffering fools gladly or trying to be kind to the inspired but unlucky.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Word Economics

In a post on LaMarotte today I used the word frugality in a positive context. Reading the post to Brigitte elicited her comment that “frugality” suggests something negative to people nowadays, a kind of return to the Dark Ages, and that a more positive word ought to be used lest I’m misunderstood. Yes, to be sure. Words undergo inflation and deflation too. Financial discipline, one of the phrases that Brigitte offered, among others, has a modern patina; finance is acceptable, indeed almost sacred, and discipline carries the right meaning without evoking morality. Frugal had the same sort of meaning once. It issues from the dative case for fruit in Latin, the plural of which is fruges; that which produces fruit is useful, economical, and proper. The root meaning, therefore, can indeed be understood entirely pragmatically, but Brigitte’s sense that it has acquired a moral intonation in these days, perhaps because it’s not much used in ordinary speech—over against economical, for instance—points out the curious fact that morality itself has lost its bite. Why so? My guess is that it has been too closely associated with sexual morality, and there the modern mind recoils in horror. That starts to be meddlesome. Environmentalism is good, however, and a word like green has altogether positive connotations despite suggesting frugality in the use of natural resources—except, of course, for those who lag behind and rear up in horror because they expect that, behind that color, hides a bureaucrat intent on regulating industry.

Tracing frugal made me aware that English has essentially lost the dative case in grammar, still alive and well in both German and Hungarian. Strange, strange. In English we frequently, but not always, need to use an extra word (to, for) to indicate the dative case. In the sentence, We baked you a cake,  we can leave out the for or put it in (We baked a cake for you). The plural informal you in German is rendered as ihr, but the dative case is euch. No change in English. Good-bye dative case. Good-bye frugality. I’ll take out the recycling bin because I like to be green—and I’ve saved a syllable into the bargain. How parsimonious.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nature and City

The poet’s natural place is in a landscape, not a city. He who pictures nature red in tooth and claw is moved by an emotion inspired by human behavior rather than what we observe in nature. An interesting documentary on Civil War battle sites reminded me of this the other day. The site was Antietam. The show was a succession of images, of peaceful landscapes, but the producer alternated current day shots of hills and fences with photographs taken after the battle of the same scenes. The pictures taken long ago, however, also featured piles of bodies in uniform, the corpses grotesquely swollen by decay. Nature red in tooth and claw?

The mind wants to grasp reality and therefore simplifies and says: the poet’s place is in the landscape because Spirit permeates nature albeit in a muted, understated way. Predation is part, but a very small part, of nature—and has a utility function, like sewers have in urban settings. The city, by contrast, concentrates the peculiarly human spirit; hence it is a vastly more stimulating environment. But that which develops the human spirit is much more perceivable in unspoiled nature. What remains tangible of it in our vast conurbations is drowned out by noise and business, positively by excitement and distraction, negatively by conflict, anxiety, and, for many, misery.

Romanticism? Yes, of course. Big, sloppy symbols like Nature and City are easily debunked. Nature can be merciless and harsh; we could go to Pakistan to see that face of it; cities have charm, elegance, and symphonic orchestras. But if we contrast romanticism and modernism, for example, and ask ourselves which one describes reality more comprehensively, I’d vote for romanticism. It captures more aspects of reality.
---------------
Added Later: Only after this post was up did I look at other blogs and noted, with a chuckle, that Laudator Temporis Acti commented today on the same theme in its usual way, by quotes, here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Two Generations Over

Wrapping up the summer, running a little late, I thought I'd make note of the fact that Ghulf genes stalwartly carry talent from one generation to the next and then on beyond—as illustrated by this sketch rendered by granddaughter Stella Paret of me. It was one of serveral artistic gifts she gave me for my birthday.

The text, for those handicapped by Gallic, is “A writer who doesn't smoke a cigar—that's a journalist.” The quote is attributed to Christophe la Pierre. That name is also an invention. It delights me to think that for Stella, who just turned sixteen—indeed we both celebrated our birthdays together—the year 1998 would seem to be reasonably far enough in the past to lend authenticity to the fake quote.

The spelling is spontaneous, showing that you don't have to be a perfect speller to be a skillful écrivain. It also pleases me that she accidentally rendered fume as pume but did not mar the sketch by erasing this little oversight.

Picture credit: Magee Prowess in Scanning Inc.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Feudal and Capitalist Economies

Early last year I wrote about “Types of Economies” (here) and contrasted what I called “marketshare economies” and “capitalist economies.” I characterized the first as “feudal” because it tends on the whole to optimize in favor of large “tribal” aggregates, communities—and the other as “detached from the community.” I use the word marketshare because any economy organized to secure and hold share in a market, very often at the cost of foregoing maximal profitability, tends on the whole to benefit its stakeholders—its employees and its suppliers. Marketshare economies aim at control and stability. Capitalist economies aim at maximum profit; they enter and leave markets based on gains to be realized, not to produce values in the long run.

I come back to this subject today thanks to Monique Magee’s nice hat tip. She sent me a link to a chart published initially by Deutsche Bank (here) and republished by Clusterstocks. It shows in striking overlay the performance of two different economies during two different recessions. The first is Japan’s which I’ve always considered to be the “good” kind; and the other one is ours, which I’ve viewed as the “defective” kind. My favorite scholar on this subject, the Frenchman Fernand Braudel, spends three volumes (see reference above) on showing that the word “capitalism,” strictly speaking, should only be applied to the “defective” kind of economic organization of the world. But let’s move on to the chart. A comment then follows.

Ignore, for a moment, Deutsche Bank’s laudatory characterization of the American economy above the chart. This graphic shows the unemployment rate, hence we can also view it through the eyes of the laboring masses—the members of the wider community. The years for Japan extend from 1989 through 1995; the years plotted for the United States are for 2006 through 2010. The recessionary period in both is marked by the grey bars. Now here is a striking snapshot of the two kinds of economies I have in mind. In one the culture powerfully motivates the economic sector to maintain jobs and thus to serve the entire community. In the other the unemployment rate is much higher to begin with, and at the first sign of a turn-down, it sheds jobs without, seemingly, even thinking about alternatives.

It’s the culture, stupid, as I keep repeating monotonously…

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Marking Autumn

We make our farewell to the summer past and the autumn just arrived with this bouquet of “flowers,” perhaps the most spectacular product of our garden this season. The flowers are in quotes because it is the leaves of the Coleus that give it its perennial distinction. The flowers are lovely too, but they are delicate blues and pass rapidly in Spring.

This year’s passage from summer to fall had the unusual feature—we’re told that it takes place at twenty-year intervals. On the night of the autumnal equinox, the harvest moon is full. We were lucky: clear skies. We were out in the garden, near the Coleus in its half-barrel, and looking up saw the bright full moon with Jupiter marking a tiny but equally bright spot immeditately beneath it at the six o’clock spot.

The plaque above the Coleus is a favorite too. Here it is close enough up to make its meassage readable.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Picking on the Gypsies

The world-wide recession really must be serious—else Nicolas Sarkozy wouldn’t be picking on the gypsies in France and the NYT would not be bringing us stories echoing the European squabble. I note that it is now politically correct to refer to them as the Roma, a designation that, I confess, I haven’t actually heard used until the present happy times. It is technically correct, I assume, because Wikipedia tells me that the gypsies belong to the Romani people, originally from India. The French call them les bohémiens or les romanichels. In Hungary we used the word zigány, in Germany Zigeuner.

Born in Hungary, the gypsies were very much part of our lives, present as door-to-door fortune-tellers, admired for their music, suspected of thieving, and so on. You were supposed to avoid them as a child lest you be taken in secret to live a life on the fringes of society. Working on maneuver damage claims in Germany as a soldier in the Army, we often had to deal with the dislocation of gypsy camps. One of our most memorable experiences of gypsies, Brigitte’s and mine, took place on our one and only trip behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s. We were on the border with East Germany waiting hours and hours to be processed through to West Berlin—a very tense time it was too. In the midst of that a caravan of perhaps twenty cars and trucks arrived; they carried a large gypsy troupe. They too were crossing the border. To our absolute amazement, these people startled, baffled, and intimidated the East German authorities who, it seemed despite themselves, rapidly processed this little swarm to help them get out of the sacred system. And they were going in, not out of, commie-prudish East Germany. In the process most of us capable of reading and writing helped individual gypsies fill out their little forms. They didn’t know how to deal with that new-fangled whatsit, writing. They just came up to us to get some help, entirely unafraid, lively, and casually expecting help. I helped a young woman fill out hers. And they got the help they sought. Ask and you shall receive. They came hours after our arrival and left hours before our own departure. It left a big impression in my memory. They seemed to act out a claim to general humanity, transcending all this nonsense of borders and authorities.

Conflict with the gypsies, it seems to me, erupts when life’s conditions tighten and, in the process, humanity reaches out for handy scapegoats. Hence times must be tough. And in a knee-jerk reaction, the rest of us hit out at those who have a tough time hitting back. A shame that—whether in France or here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Flurry of Construction

I noted on LaMarotte that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has at least managed to produce some road signs announcing that constructions will commence one of these days. That’s the public kind, of course. But we’ve noted quite a flurry of private construction in this neighborhood, and that kind is visibly taking place. The folks across the way have added a big chunk to the back of their house to accommodate four children who’ve suddenly turned into teenagers. Two other houses have had signs out. Workmen’s vans have been preempting daytime parking on the street. Now we too have weighed in with a project of our own—some long-delayed plaster work to spruce up several rooms. Still ahead are other projects, not least the replacement of a garage that used to look like this A but now looks like this A. Before it completely topples over, it must go. Talking to the contractor, I’ve learned that he and others are very busy. Housing starts are dead in the water, but no one indicator always tells the whole story. Instead of moving, people are making changes to the places where they live. I’m sorting out the garage bit by bit in what amounts to—in that crowded place used mostly for storage—exploratory surgery. I emerge from the place looking like a chimney sweep. It makes for a change—and my hands are beginning to feel like sand paper…

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ancient, Ambiguous, Odorous Words

simplicity IS THE ULTIMATE SOPHISTICATION.” - L. DA VINCI
The above is from a Hyatt Hotels advertisement of their Visa card in today’s New York Times. I love the abbreviation L. for Leonardo. So sophisticated. Here is one of those wondrous ancient words; it has undergone so many cycles of use over time that quite contradictory meanings attach to it. The root is sophia, the Greek for wisdom—and I should really render it Sophia in honor of the Goddess of Wisdom. We find this root in philosophy, the love of wisdom; there its ancient meaning is preserved unsullied if also, perhaps, mostly unnoticed.

Precisely at the time when Greece emerged from its own religious (call it medieval) period—thus around the time of Socrates in the fifth century BC—the high arts began a descent into the world of commerce. Socrates was condemned to death by the state of Athens for supposedly corrupting the minds of the young—but the Oracle of Delphi considered him the wisest of men. In Socrates’ time emerged a profession of “teachers of wisdom,” the Sophists, who taught for a fee. Money and wisdom rarely mix well. Some of the sophists were, of course, genuine and serious teachers of philosophy; and far be it for me to deny the honest teacher his income. But many others—and they came, in the long run, to set the tone—“diversified” their product and began to teach cleverness in argument.

Here I’d note a more modern instance of ambiguous labeling. In the seventeenth century the Jesuits were accused of similar “sophistication,” so that the word jesuitical has a bad smell for those who know about such things. But the Jesuits are an upstanding and respected order, and I count myself lucky in having had them as my teachers.

In Greece we had an early split between philosophy and sophism—and lucky for philosophers that the language managed to produce a word that has retained its purity. The word itself, philosophy, was apparently introduced by Pythagoras, another fifth century figure. Rhetoric, the very serious science of oratory and of communications generally, suffered from an ambiguous reputation throughout its long, long history—having only been freed of this taint in modern times when, finally, we have differentiated advertising and public relations as the honestly dishonest forms of paid public discourse.

Isn’t it delightful, therefore, to see an ad in the New York Times lauding sophistication—the child honoring its parent?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Meaningful Coincidence

In light of the last entry, I experienced a very striking instance of a meaningful coincidence. Plasterers are coming tomorrow to do repairs on various rooms. In the afternoon, therefore, Brigitte and I got busy emptying rooms in preparation. This was very heavy work, and after hauling yet another huge bundle of coats from the hallway closet to the attic, I sank down in the upstairs “library”—which we refer to as Europe—and sat on the couch breathing hard. As I recovered, I found my eyes resting on the dark dustcover of a book called House of War. For some reason it had never drawn my attention. I couldn’t place its title or how it got into the house. The book was within reach, so I pried it loose and began to examine it. It was written by James Carroll, subtitled The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. It turns out that it was a birthday gift in 2006 which, for some reason, I had overlooked. I opened the book to taste its flavor and began to read the Prologue. Reading, it became obvious that I’d never opened this book before. Then, on page xi, the third page of the book, I saw this sentence—and, well, marveled:

The ceremonial groundbreaking for the Building’s construction, on September 11, 1941, took place sixty years, almost to the minute, before American Airlines flight 77 arrowed into the side of the Pentagon that faces Arlington Cemetery.
Now what are the odds of this happening by pure chance on a day like today, after writing the last post in the morning, especially its concluding paragraph?

Turk Louis

Herewith an extract from a family history I wrote in the 1990s — with the reason for my quoting it revealed only at the very end:

* * *

The city of Rastatt became for us, during this time, a sort of secondary center—and ultimately a point of departure [for America]…
     We were then all living in what had, until the end of World War I, been an independent country, the Grand Duchy of Baden, in the old days governed from what was now the city of Baden-Baden. The country had become divided in 1535 into two halves, Baden-Durlach to the south, an area that encompassed all of the Black Forest, and Baden-Baden to the north, where we were.
     The German states were all loosely stitched together then into what is now remembered as the Holy Roman Empire and, most recently, as The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, ruled by an elected monarch, the Kaiser. Nine of the greatest duchies of the realm elected the Kaiser, and their rulers were therefore known as “electors.”
     The Holy Roman Empire had initially been formed by the conquests of Charlemagne and had extended all the way from Italy to what is now Poland to the north.
     The Reformation first (16th) and then the Thirty Years War (early 17th century) had weakened this ancient structure over time. After World War I our part of the Duchy of Baden had become one of the Länder of the Weimar Republic (1919).
     How does Rastatt fit in? Well, one of the margraves of Baden-Baden, Louis William, born in Paris but the 21st descendant of the ruling family of Baden, the house of Zähringen, took office in 1677 and ruled until his death in 1707. He was the most distinguished of the margraves of Baden, having been a hero in the Austro-Turkish war of 1683-1699. He liked Rastatt and built a showy, ostentatious baroque palace there, known as the Schloss.
     The Schloss was an immensely long, multi-story building with statues of distinguished ancestors at regular intervals. They stood in the low spots between the palace’s many small towers. Dark, brown sandstone. In front of this structure extended a vast parade ground. A wall surrounded all this. A square stood outside and traffic ran along the wall. On the wall itself were yet more, almost countless, statues of princes and dukes and bishops and such.


The title, margrave, used to mean “count of the border.” This was a military title borne by a figure assigned to guard frontiers.
     The Germans call Louis William Ludwig Wilhelm, but in his times he was known as Louis and became famous as “Turk Louis.”
     He rose in rank from a regimental command in the Empire to become the supreme commander of the imperial army that fought in Hungary, Serbia, and Bosnia in the Turkish war. This war began when the French colluded with the Ottomans, and janissaries surrounded Vienna with an army of 300,000—an unprecedented number in those times. In 1683 a combined German, Austrian, and Polish army, under the command of Johan III Sobieski, the King of Poland, defeated the Turks and lifted the siege. Louis continued on, drove the Turks out of Hungary, and defeated them near Slankamen in Vojvodina, south of Subotica in 1691. With this action he freed Hungary of 160 years of Turkish rule.
     Not surprisingly, neither Hungarian nor Serb nor Bosnian history have much to say about “Türkenlouis,” preferring to applaud instead the local commanders who helped him.
     Perhaps an impulse of fairness moved the spirit that guides Hungarians to send us—alas unconsciously—to pay our last respects to Turk Louis on our way out of Europe.
     Louis’ wife came from Czechoslovakia. She was Sibylle August. She had nine children. Louis died at 52 weakened by the countless injuries he had collected in a life of active command.
     After his time Rastatt was Baden’s administrative center.
     Now we know.


* * *

And now for the reason for this quotation. I learned from Siris today (here) that the famous battle signalling the  ultimate retreat of the Ottomans took place on, ah, 9/11/1683. Didn’t know that. But the revelation certainly reverberated…

Grosse Pointe Wildlife

Friday, September 10, 2010

Uncle Aristarchus

In 1775 22-year-old Deborah Champion traveled from Westchester, Connecticut to Boston carrying a secret message sent by her father to General George Washington. She first carried the message under her bodice (corset) and later hidden under some food in a saddle-bag. I have this from a letter from a treasure house of letters referenced below. She managed to get through the British lines in the pre-dawn hours; she was taken for an old woman because she wore a calash. Reading eighteenth century letters is educational. A calash was a hood, a word that came from the French calèche.

Now, apart from the war-time tensions and the employment of young virgins to carry messages hidden on their bodies, something else left the most vivid impression on me reading this letter. Deborah traveled in company of an elderly slave named Aristarchus. Slaves in Connecticut? Yes. Learning about the relationships between slave owners’ children and slaves is also educational. Here is a quote from the letter Deborah wrote to a friend named Patience:

You remember Uncle Aristarchus; he has been devoted to me since my childhood, and particularly since I made a huge cask to grace his second marriage, and found a name for the dusky baby, which we call Sophranieta.
Deborah also refers to the slave’s wife as Aunt Chloe. On the trip itself she also encounters blood relatives—Uncle Jerry, Uncle Starkey, and Aunt Faith.

I got to thinking about Deborah and Uncle Aristarchus after reading this fascinating letter—and tried to internalize what it might have been like for a child, in those days, growing up in a household with slaves—and how that might have shaped a child’s the views of that wretched institution, especially under circumstances where the slaves were, as here they seemed to be, almost members of the family and addressed with honorifics children in those days, and in my own childhood too, used when talking or referring to elders. Regarding honorifics, I’ve had occasion to mention that subject tracing the Mma in Mma Ramotswe a while ago here.

---------------
Women’s Letters, America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler. Dial Press, 2005.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The House is Back

Two children on a trampoline—it was the first thing they’d installed—
Bounced high and cried out in delight beneath the shade of grand old trees
Behind the house that had gone south a year and then some month ago;
But it had started going south two years before that time—as I’ve
Related in these random pages a while back one April eve.
The signs of life began to sprout about a week ago when lo,
Behold an SUV with KY plates appeared and soon a rash
Of carpenters and plasterers and landscape architects arrived
And soon whole mounds of trash announced that normalcy would soon prevail.

And that is now.

All things therefore are looking up on Charlesvoix where once, and now
Again perhaps, auto execs did and still do take residence.
Kentucky plates suggest a state where foreign makers sited plants—
Where now the finally reviving two of the Big Three recruit
Freshly minted, trained executives anticipating private
Ownership, Gov Motors just a nightmare the public will forget.
The house gone south, meanwhile, stood empty, still, and uninhabited
And lost net worth enough so it's become a bargain at discount
With this result: it can go north again; it has been turned around.

The children shout
In glee and fright!

---------------
The prelude to this finale is here.

Who Wrote This?

The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay, on the weedgrown rocks along Sandymount shore and, last but not least, on the quiet church whence there streamed forth at times upon the stillness the voice of prayer to her who is in her pure radiance a beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man, Mary, star of the sea.
A post on Siris yesterday titled “Maris Stella,” put up in commemoration of the feast day celebrating the birth of our Lady, instantly recalled the passage above to my memory. So who wrote this? Out of its native context this passage has one kind of sound, within its broader context quite another. I think it was a sardonically rendered imitation of the sound and flavor of romantic novels written for women, and it forms part of that wondrous structure of sublime decadence called Ulysses by James Joyce. I read this passage in the summer of 1961 while a soldier in Germany. It startled me at that time—as I’m sure it was intended to. I resolutely ignored the context, drew a line in the margin in pencil to mark it, and, on the flyleaf up front noted the passage using the words “Ode to Isis 329”; the number was the page in my John Lane The Bodley Head edition of 1947, the gift of a very bookish friend, now passed away, Alvin Coger, a fellow seargeant. I couldn’t stand the book, but in those days I chewed my way through things like that to form my own opinions. Monuments to decadence. Joyce and Dali are two of my great saints of cultural collapse.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Store Will Rise Again

The other day I was remembering a great bookstore in St. Paul (in “Peacable Nature”). Today Brigitte discovered that the store had closed its doors in 2004 already after operating for thirty-four years. When we left the Twin Cities in 1989, that store was then still called, as it had originally been called, The Hungry Mind, but its owner-founder Dave Unowsky had sold that name to somebody and renamed his store Ruminator Books. Selling that name was one attempt to keep the place afloat. The story of the store is here, and worth reading by chroniclers of the never-ending saga of books. This is but a temporary bump in the road, I maintain. Books, and stores like The Hungry Mind, shall never entirely vanish, but we must cross the Desert of E before the great times dawn once again …

The Three Hundred Year Millennium

Societies are invariably layered. The small upper layer leaves its impression on history; the life of the vast supporting foundation is much less documented. What we see at the top is wondrous diversity of expression, the consequence of freedom from necessity. But in our blessed three-hundred year millennium, and what that means I’ll soon unpack, we’ve had the luxury of detailed historical research. Hence we have discovered that the brilliant flowers at the rising stems of societies are largely based on the exploitation of people who live on the edge of need. You might say that in the best societies the agricultural sector actually had some limited, recognized rights, in the better societies serfdom supported wealth and that slavery appeared only in civilizations fully in decay. Unfortunately for many, many people, civilizations can decay for hundreds of years; thus slavery played a dominant economic role in the Roman Empire virtually from its earliest times.

In theory majorities can overwhelm minorities, but to exert their power they must be organized. But when the majority is struggling to survive, it cannot develop and then organize. Humanity is also very adaptive—both to servitude and mastery. Once the masses are cowed, they will remain peaceful unless harshly provoked; and those above are quite adapted to their luxuries and able to stare injustice right in the face and ignore it stalwartly. Hence the existence of slavery in this very country; it was well-entrenched in a nominally Christian society and supported by a highly organized triangular trade—English manufactured goods to Africa, slaves to the New World, and raw materials back to England. We might call it globalization.

Now sometimes I picture myself unhappily as a kind of Cato the Elder. He was the fellow in Rome who never gave a speech without pronouncing, at the end of it, “Carthage must be destroyed.” Thus I find myself announcing—no matter what the subject—that “Oil is going to run out.” Yes. And it’s likely to run out in the current century. I call ours the three hundred year millennium because the Age of Oil (more precisely of Fossil Fuels) will have lasted no more than three centuries when it comes to its end. And in this time, and very temporarily indeed, we’ve enjoyed the blessings of millennium: we’ve managed to have energy slaves rather than the human kind. But as slavery in the United States in the nineteenth century illustrates, it’s not beneath a God-fearing and civilized nation—whose towering scribe of holy documents, Jefferson, enjoyed their services—to return to the traditional ways of humanity. You think it couldn’t happen? Now that’s naïveté.

People who speak savanarola, as I often do, are supposed to offer solutions to the problems that they raise. I don’t believe that the “problem-solution” pairing is relevant here. Vast collective phenomena cannot be fixed. But the insights of a few people in the generations before mine greatly helped me to cope with the rather minimal challenges of this rich millennium. Insight is valuable. And marching toward the future aware of what is in the offing, if passed on, will definitely help at least minorities to do what can be done.
---------------
For a more detailed discussion of the timeline presented here, see this kick-off post on LaMarotte.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Behavior Under Stress

True character shows its colors in times of stress—the reason why we praise sang froid and grace under fire. I’d also extend this analogy to a body under stress of alcohol; some are then mean drunks, others carry their liquor, and the best become markedly benevolent. We’re undergoing double stress these days—the stress of an economy hitting rocks and an election. Elections produce a combination of conflict and of giddiness. Displays of “true character” are all too visible in such interesting times.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Pogácsa - You’ve Come a Long Ways

In virtually every Hungarian fairy tale, when the young protagonist sets out on the great adventure, he or she (always very poor, of course) carries a supply of ash-baked pogácsa as the way-bread that will sustain. Pogácsa is most closely related to the scone of the Anglo-Saxon world. It is short-bread, quite crumbly, and the shortening used, at least in the fairy tales, is bacon fat. The old-fashioned, the real thing, was quite grey in color and looked like the inserted picture (courtesy of a Hungarian blog here). Pogácsas just like that were baked in our house—in an oven, to be sure, rather than in hot ashes as in the tales. We actually loved to eat them. They had a layered feel and crumbled in the mouth, and carried memories of bacon.

I was trying to remember the name and expected it to be hidden away forever, but suddenly it was there, about a minute after the effort of remembering. Ashbaked pogácsa—hamubasült pogácsa. Today I discovered that the romantic associations I’ve always had with this scone or bisquit have remained alive and well in Hungary. Indeed it is a very popular food product. It recently even hosted a national festival. And humble ash-pogácsa has come a long, long ways.

Wikipedia even has an article on the subject and shows a nice picture of the modern style of this product, shown here above another picture equally glorious. The sources in turn are here and here. Pogácsa may be also be made with yeast dough and combined with all kinds of fillings—cheese, pork, cabbage—and seasoned in all sorts of ways. What surprised me most, however, is that the Hungarian pogácsa and the Italian foccacio are close relatives, at least in name. Wikipedia tells me that the Hungarian name came from the Latin panis focacius (bread baked on the hearth).

Wow! That goes back a long ways. But then, come to think of it, Hungary was once Pannonia, a Roman possession, and St. Martin of Tours, the family patron, as it were, was once a Roman soldier who went west from Pannonia when a higher calling came. I bet that he carried a cloth full of pogácsa as he set off more or less bound for very distant Gallia.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Last Night I Saw the Stars

In this old creaky senile corner of Detroit
Of late the wires behind the residences smoke
Or display fireworks and we are told, “Avoid
Getting too near because if that there cable broke
It’ll come flying and it could electrocute
The careless stander by. And our ambulances
Can’t get here fast in this here time of the commute.”

After three, four such vivid events—sparks at night
Smoke by day—loss of power has now been organized.
Outages are timed, at ten a.m. or at midnight,
They’re unannounced so that we may still be surprised
Unless we’ve learned to note and mark a subtle sign;
It’s the appearance of a little red Honda generator.
Chained to a pole it feeds a box from its turbine.

A little Honda generator? Thanks Japan,
We needed that. Edison needs power too
To feed a panel there to read, record, and scan
The progress of its contractors as these aspire
To find the ancient flaw, transform the transformer,
Cut the branches, string new black and unfrayed wire—
And this as cooling fails and it’s just getting warmer.

Last night the power failed right at the witching hour
(The little Honda had arrived; saw it today.)
Flashlights guided us to bed without a shower,
But never mind, it’d been an almost frigid day.
Outside in the silent dark I saw the planet Mars
And lots and lots of strange white shiny glimmers.
In time I realized that I was seeing stars.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

It's a Bird, It's a Plane!

Having stayed out of the water for quite a while, at least two months—meaning that I’ve watched SyFy, cartoons, or Light Classical Music instead of wading in the stream of news commentary—listening to a perfectly sensible pundits’ circle like Washington Week, presided over these days by Gwen Ifill, produced a brief, temporary shock—until my old habits kicked in and the whole thing sounded normal again. The program last night focused on the President’s televised speech about Iraq; thus the talk was all about the President and how now, having “turned the page” on Iraq, he was bending all of his attention onto the economy. And there was more along these lines.

I knew the answers in advance, but I looked at the U.S. Constitution anyway to see if what I’d heard the pundits say had any relationship to the founding document—fully expecting to be in quite another world. I was right, of course—because memory serves, as they say. The word “economy” does not appear in the Constitution. To be sure, that word did not mean what it does today; it was applied to the household; “political economy,” meaning political arrangements, existed at the time, but isn’t used in the document either. The closest word in the eighteenth century to describe the reality we now call an economy was “commonwealth”; it signified public welfare and the general good. That word does not appear in the Constitution either. And it makes sense that it did not. The founding document was practical and down-to-earth. The last thing our founders imagined was that the executive power, which they vested in the President (Art. II, Section 1), was of such a nature as to manage the vast range of private exchanges between individuals. The President’s duties, as spelled out in the referenced article and section, include being commander in chief of the Army and the Navy, the power to make treaties (limited by advice and consent), powers to appoint officials and judges (advice and consent at the highest levels only), the power to make recess appointments, the duty to make a State of the Union report, the power to convene Congress in cases of emergency; and he “shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.” His general duties are stated in this oft repeated but totally ignored sentence: “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.” And that’s it.

The original president, carrying these duties, was also chosen by elected officials by means of a curious mixture of elections, appointments, and elections. Elected state legislatures appointed electors; electors so chosen would vote for presidential candidates; the candidate getting the majority of the electors’ votes became the president. The twelfth amendment changed all this, and with that change we set out on the road to the present. Elected officials were presumably smart enough to know that a man with the powers assigned to him, and these have never been changed, could not possibly be Superman. But the general voting public—and today that means anybody 18 or over—cannot be so presumed to think and—thus—that public will exercise its punitive powers on anyone who fails to be the Caped Crusader. Oh, look: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman.

This development, all in the name of empowering the citizenry, has produced—by means of vast public communications which are not, themselves, under any kind of constraint—a vast fantasy of what is possible. We act as if this fantasy had real grounding in powers. It does not. But we are so very sophisticated that we can make all this sound deadly serious. Presidential powers as they are versus what they are perceived to be—and the change in how presidents are chosen—are the factual underpinnings for saying the sorts of things I said yesterday, namely that politics is more like weather than human endeavors. That probably sounded airy-fairy, but you can trace it backward to actual changes in the Constitution.

Washington Week used to be called Washington Week in Review. Remember? I said yesterday that in the Media the trend is toward contraction, greater speed, less reading, for Zeus’s sake. This is a tiny example of that.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Synthetic Nature

One of the consequences of the television age is that a democratic duty that once required effort and concentration—copious reading at a minimum—has been oddly “naturalized.” By that I mean that news from very distant places—and on extraordinarily complex matters—now reach us as sounds and pictures—just like all of the things that reach us in our ordinary daily life. Watching news has a certain kinship to watching leaves moving in the wind; observing the leaves we see which way the wind is blowing.

We can and mostly do live our ordinary lives without much reasoning (unless our work requires it). Under a democratic rule, we could not perform our duties as citizens like that, with nary a thought. To be well-informed and responsible citizens demanded something more than casual, habit-based spontaneity. That’s still true, to be sure, but it doesn’t seem to be. Television news coverage, running 24/7 these days, produces the illusion that we are well informed—not by arduous reading of long, structured, printed accounts, including in-depth articles that grapple with complexity but by a kind of highly selective condensate of news rendered by catch-phrases, rapidly-moving images, and the entertaining real-time clash of opposing views.

There is no golden age I’m longing to recover. The well-informed, responsible citizenry has largely always been a myth—and the wider the franchise and lower the age limit the more mythic it has become. Over against this is the pleasing fact that many eligible voters do not bother voting. My intent, instead, is to note the interesting fact that matters inaccessible to our senses have now become a kind of synthetic nature we can monitor quite casually while doing something else—much like we might monitor the approach of a thunderstorm. In earlier times we had to make deliberate efforts. We had to rely on reports to see into the distance, and judging the credibility of those who brought us news was very much part of the job.

The very nature of the institutions creating this synthetic nature skews and bends the message we receive. They fiercely compete for eyeballs, and the mere presence of a pair will do. The motivation is commercial. News has taken on intense sensory forms; it’s more compressed; more brief; images flicker to hold our wayward attention; it's more and more embedded in implicitly emotional clusters. This entertains, and entertainment draws more eyeballs than thought or duty. These tendencies, of course, deform the theoretical aims of journalism—to inform a responsible public. The paradox is that we feel informed but we are not. The general movements of public opinion more and more resemble weather—somewhat predictable and somewhat chancy—and less and less reflect distinctly conscious, responsible human intentions.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Picking up a Chronometer

One of the most striking features of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War is how modern that account sounds to our ears. That war—I think of it as akin to our own world war—took place 431-404 BC, and Thucidides wrote his history in the waning years of the fourth century BC. He died in 400 at age of 60. Now unless one’s college studies are still as fresh as a daisy—and assuming that one actually had a course on Greek history detailed enough to look at this period closely, the clash between Athens and Sparta is one thing, and philosophy quite another; the ordinary modern mind does not link the two. We have pictures of Socrates surrounded by disciples suspended in a kind of philosophical fairy land; and there is Aristotle filling thick volumes. The linkage between history and philosophy is a little vague in most minds except those of experts. To make some links, I thought I’d take a look.

The Peloponnesian war had been underway two years when a woman called Perictione gave birth to a little baby boy (427). She and her husband, Ariston, named him Plato—and you can be sure they discussed it and agreed, because this was a decidedly upper class family. Ariston traced his lines of descent back to two kings; and Perictione traced hers back to the famed lawyer and poet Solon. At this time the man who would later become little Plato’s teacher, a man called Socrates, had just turned 40. That war took quite a while to end; it lasted 27 years. Plato was a young man of 25 when it finally wound down. And Thucydides was 56. It was twenty years after this—and another war, the Corinthian, was still raging—when Aristotle first cried out as a baby after being born in 384 BC. Plato was then 45; baby Aristotle had become a man of 37 when Plato died at the ripe old age of 82 in 347 BC. And in that year a major future political and military figure, Alexander, later dubbed The Great, was just a boy of nine. Aristotle would soon be engaged to be his teacher.

Sometimes it is worth consciously pondering that all these famous people were once babies and had to have their nappies changed.

I link these people chronologically here by way of underlining that the philosophical works we place at the core of Western civilization emerged in a political, technological, and militarily advanced stage of Greek civilization, as documented in Thucydides' work. And this age had a tendency, a direction—thus toward the expansive, the materialistic. It was a culturally modern time, the transition between what is called the classical period in Greece and the Hellenistic—the latter an overflow of Greek culture to a much wider region, the consequence of Alexander’s conquests. The classical period followed a deeply religious age from which very few “great names” survive. Why? Because we only value figures who’re like us. If we were drawing parallels to our own stage of culture, we’d be looking at a period extending roughly from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II, call that classical, and the period of global Americanization that followed and is our own time now; call it Hellenistic. What I’m after is the feel of things, and this, I think, properly captures that feel.

Why did I do this? I tried to answer a question. And it was this: How could it come about that a person brought up in a Catholic tradition and exposed to philosophy by the Jesuits, thus to a philosophy firmly centered on Thomism, would have developed a great distaste for the Aristotelian view of reality? The fault is largely mine, of course. It is true, of course, that Thomas Aquinas was a staunch, loyal, persistent Aristotelian, but he Christianized that philosophy by brilliant innovations. My fault—because what stuck to me was the Aristotelian foundation. Something in me clashed with it—and therefore I never did manage to advance to the brilliant innovations. I had problems with the base.

It has always seemed to me that Aristotle’s natural leanings were materialistic—and I was born into an age where—almost undetectable although it is—the spiritual focus is once more increasing; and it is this new, faint something that attracts me. Thus, in later times, I felt much more drawn to Aristotle’s predecessors, thus the Platonic, and what emerged later from it, the neo-platonic and mystical schools that developed from it across the board as the Graeco-Roman world slowly decayed. And this foray into chronology took place by way of getting a better feel for the times, the tempora. And, I would submit, the times then match the times now. And that explains my drawing back from the Aristotelian, however modified. I’m more poet than thinker; the content is less important to me than the smell.

Notice the interesting “materialization” of philosophy in this chronology. Socrates, a deeply spiritual figure, is the teacher of Plato, a metaphysician who taught by dialogue; he is the teacher of Aristotle, the logician and physicist, who, most significantly, rejects Plato’s eternal forms; and Aristotle is the teacher of a warrior and conqueror whose world was decidedly the here and now.
----------
I try always to promote this great edition of The Peloponnesian War: The Landmark Thucydides.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Soul Aloft

As Harriet followed Miss Lydgate across the lawn, she was visited by an enormous nostalgia. If only one could come back to this quiet place, where only intellectual achievement counted; if one could work here steadily and obscurely at some close-knit piece of reasoning, undistracted and uncorrupted by agents, contracts, publishers, blurb-writers, interviewers, fan-mail, autograph-hunters, notoriety-hunters, and competitors; abolishing personal contacts, personal spites, personal jealousies; getting one’s teeth into something dull and durable; maturing into solidity like the Shrewsbury beeches—then, one might be able to forget the wreck and chaos of the past, or see it, at any rate, in a truer proportion. Because, in a sense, it was not important. The fact that one had loved and sinned and suffered and escaped death was of far less ultimate moment than a single footnote in a dim academic journal establishing the priority of a manuscript or restoring a lost iota subscript. It was the hand-to-had struggle with the insistent personalities of other people, all pushing for a place in the limelight, that made the accidents of one’s own personal adventure bulk so large in the scheme of things. [Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night]
Harriet Vane, the heroine of this novel, is herself a writer of detective novels. This brief quotation records her thought as she returns to her old college and the ambiance of the place comes to surround her in a conversation with an old teacher. I marked this passage a long time ago. Oddly enough it came to mind when I read recently this passage in Plato’s Phaedo. The voice is that Socrates:

     And were we not saying long ago that the soul when using the body as an instrument of perception, that is to say, when using the sense of sight or hearing or some other sense (for the meaning of perceiving through the body is perceiving through the senses)—were we not saying that the soul too is dragged by the body into the region of the changeable, and wanders and is confused; the world spins round her, and she is like a drunkard, when she touches change?
     Very true.
     But when returning into herself she reflects, then she passes into the other world, the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives, when she is by herself and is not let or hindered; then she ceases from her erring ways, and being in communion with the unchanging is unchanging. And this state of the soul is called wisdom.