Friday, December 31, 2010

Profane and Sacred

The year is done, but it is not the new dawn of a sacred time.
It’s once again the ending of an ordinary year profane.
We’ll zero out the GDP and pray meanwhile the rate, the prime
Shall crawl so low the Dow will soar, and if the jobs they see a gain
That’s still all right if they remain in the private sector in the main.

Meanwhile there’s this weirdling feel in this basement where keys click
And bright neons light summer plants, that despite the great precision
Of calendars, where Greenwich Mean’s the universal measuring stick,
Something sacred still adheres, by orbital or high’r provision,
Not just to the ends of years but also to each cell’s division.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Motivation … For Humility

At a conference ages and ages ago—the subject concerned remote reading of electric meters using computers, radios, and software—I asked the kind of question from the floor that speakers rarely get but usually enjoy answering. The speaker said: “You want motivation, do you? Well, I’ll give you motivation.”

In that brief preamble to his answer, the speaker indirectly informed me that among the hackers, to whose community I’d long actually belonged, the word “motivation” also meant “a rationale.”

This morning I woke up with a strong motivation for humility. The dreaming self is, too, capable of thought. And the thought on awakening was: “How can we who must pass liquids, solids, and vent gases at right regular intervals behave as if we were the lords of the universe?” Our behavior toward our bodies reveals the very paradox of life. How sacred we hold machines that need their batteries recharged at very frequent intervals, machines that we must aerate at the rate of 12 times every minute—or Katie bar the door. Cut me some slack, but I’m reading Montaigne’s Essays (Brigitte’s Christmas gift to me) and the French Stoic was not averse to delving into odd things such as this. He mentions his own extreme reluctance to reveal his private parts (“unless moved by passion,” as he puts it). We surround our eliminative functions in physical and mental shrouds. Even in public bathrooms, as we enter them, we put on mental gowns of privacy and sort of look right through all others present; we have no ears for sounds we hear next door; we do not see part of that shoe under the economically abbreviated partition which belongs to that odd sound. During a 1,400 mile round trip at 70-miles an hour—during which the smallest mechanical failure, if it happens to take place in the right place and at an unlucky time would render these machines of ours inert and bleeding masses of expiring protoplasm—such sights and sound do indeed occur. But all this we carry in a kind of special luggage labeled “officially invisible”—while our minds contemplate news of lithium monopolies from thousands of miles away or alternately listen to breathtaking arias recorded in the 1920s…

Let us be comprehensive by all means. Those breathtaking young things yearning for love in Jane Austen novels, ah, yes, they too. All of us. Prisoners of matter. But are we? Really? Ultimately? Aye, there is the rub.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Recalling Arlie House

Back in the 1970s I once attended an interesting conference at Arlie House, just west of Washington, DC. Arlie House is a prestigious conference center out in lovely Virginia countryside. All those making presentations were members of the defense and aerospace industry. All those attending were bureaucrats, leaders, and opinion-makers in urban renewal. The message of the Military-Industrial Complex might have been summed up thus: “We have built fantastic weapons system, atomic and conventional. We have lifted people to the moon and brought them safely back. All the things that we routinely do are at a level of complexity vastly greater than anything involved in urban renewal and development, social welfare distribution, roads and highways, or you name it. Ask us to help you. We’re willing and able.”

I listened in wonderment. The single thought that occurred to me might have been put like this: “There is a big difference between the urban chaos and material nature that you shape into weapons systems, rockets, and delivery systems. Material nature has no lobbies. You are supported by a single budget deployed in a line-management thrust. You never have to find matching funds. If every infantry company had to collect money from the soldiers, to contribute to battalion, the battalions sending dollars to divisions, the divisions to corps and army group—just to come up with a 25 percent matching share for those new tanks, there wouldn't be any—new tanks. You operate under a single will and in a political environment incapable of denying the military anything.”

Monday, December 27, 2010

Libraries, Librarians

I’ve been very lucky to receive a complete and wonderful 1956 Encyclopedia Britannica for Christmas. On that more elsewhere, but it is at least one reason for today’s posting on libraries and librarians (ht here and the link here.). Not just libraries but librarians as well play an extraordinary role in the life of the Ghulf Genes, hence this link will be of interest to quite a few of you out there.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Last Candle

To all visitors and readers, Brigitte and I extend our best wishes for this sacred season and good fortune in the eleventh year of the new century.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fool's Heritage

A year ago June in 2009, I wrote a post on Till Eulenspiegel (here) and echoed it again a couple of days ago on the occasion of the solstice. In the earlier post I claimed descent from a fifteenth century court jester in Germany, a pretty good one, I assume, because his jests earned him a title of nobility. I can thus claim descent from a long line of wise fools, and did so stake the claim back then. The curious thing is that in such cases, descent does not run in the blood, but sometimes spirit and flesh do coincide. Our name then was Dorner—meaning of the or belonging to the thorn. When my ancestors went to seek their fortunes in Hungary (as iron merchants) they changed the name to sound more Hungarian. The Hungarian version of the name would make you think that we were from a place called Darna. No such thing. Our origins in Hungary, where the wandering ancestors settled, was called St. Martin, therefore the whole name is Darnay from St. Martin. The last two word in the label, család cimere, means familys crest.

Back when I wrote much the same thing, I did not yet own my trusty little Kodak. It was a birthday present I got in July of that year (the best of gifts, Monique!). Had I had it, I would have shown our family’s coat of arms. I thought I’d catch up with that now and show the picture. This version was produced in Hungary and the jester wears characteristic Hungarian head gear. In the original crest, the hat looked different. Did I mention that I was born in the Sign of Leo?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shortest Day and Longest Night

Till Eulenspiegel will start singing and laughing when the sun finally rises today, the shortest day of the year. I’m told that we’ll have about nine hours of daylight on this, the winter solstice. Not yet, not as I write this. An older post here has more on solsticial mechanics, and this one more on the sage trickster who was, as wise men tend to be, a bit of a contrarian. That wisdom tells us that we must be jolly because our times are dark. In light of that, it is also worth our while to celebrate the recurring seasonal events now that our culture has replaced our holy days with shopping extravaganzas. But the worm shall turn. And after it does it will be time to mourn, because what goes around comes around. The light is on its way now, more and more, Spring just around the corner. Notable this year has been the lunar eclipse that darkened the darkest day even more around 3:30 a.m.—but for us this was just hear-say because a dark cloud cover obscured the obscuration.
Image credit Wikipedia here.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Remembering Gerry

I’ve never found a centipede
Who had precisely hundred feet
A delight thus to discover—
Of words I am a mighty lover—
That the famous salamander
Begot the heinous gerrymander,
That causes borders to meander,
And lets a party pander to its kin,
That famed word’s papa having been
A governor weighed down by sin,
A gentleman called Elbridge Gerry
Who aimed the Fed’ralists to bury
In Massachusetts—the state, I meant—
Where pirouette-like borders bent
In 1812 and ever after
Until the next census disaster.

This in the cause of making additions to the world’s stock of light verse.


The Anti-Federalist doctrine
Favored the local o’er the Federal Brahmin
Claiming that states rights were at least equivalent
To any scurvy nationalist sentiment.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Weighty Matters

Why is some verse labeled “light,” but when it acquires gravitas it suddenly turns into poetry? Such abuse of language is surely poetic. In this usage the opposite of light is profundity, I suppose, depth. Sorrows are always weighty; we never say that “her light sorrows took wing with dawn.” My Norton Book of Light Verse (light, perhaps, because the humorist Russell Baker was its editor) contains some lines profound enough even for those with frowning brows—but none, I must presume, with the heft of Ozymandias. Deuterium, the defining component of “heavy water,” is a hydrogen atom that features a neutron in addition to its proton, whereas the ordinary hydrogen does without the neutron. Here we have heavy but not light. Winged profundity emerges from one of my very favorite titles for a novel. It is Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. That one will last you for a long, long walk in any season, even in the snow.

Added later: In fairness to the nuclear industry, the term “light water” is actually used there in the designation of nuclear reactors that are cooled with ordinary water, thus in the designator light water reactor. They use that phrase because some reactors are cooled using heavy water, so to make sure that the other kind is clearly identified, they use the word light by way of extra labeling. But light water is just water, therefore no one asks for a glass of light water...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fashions in Words

Words turn fashionable and then fade; they also undergo gradual changes in meaning. This occurred to me this morning jotting notes—because, long ago, I used to call my diary entries “neurotic writings.” Today it occurred to me that “neurotic,” and its root “neurosis” have gone out of fashion. In the 1950s, 1960s you heard the world all the time. Back in those days the word “hysteria” still carried a palpable linkage to its origin in “hysterical,” thus “of the womb,” thought to be a female “neurosis” arising from a dysfunction of the uterus. Hysterical laughter is uncontrolled—and therefore disorderly.

Now neurosis is as old as the United States. It was coined by a Scottish doctor William Cullen in 1776. It stayed happily hidden in the medical lexicon until Freudian psychiatry launched it into popular speech in the 1920s; by mid-century it was a pop word; since then it has almost disappeared. The dictionary calls it “a functional nervous disorder without demonstrable physical lesion.” This makes the word very handy and entirely dependent on how we define “disorder.” In a society where you’re supposed to be chatty, cheery, jolly, and adaptive—social, active, with-it, and grabbing the gusto—a moody, dark, questioning, and solitary temperament could and was labeled neurotic even when everything in the environment, viewed rationally anyway, would indeed strongly support a gloomy view. Has the world changed—or has language? Are more people quite naturally a lot more alert and questioning now that the credit card has maxed and the job’s gone by-be-bye? For a lot of people now looking outward produces a quite natural caution—and to give this stance the mildest label of “mental disorder” may not be fitting any more.

My favorite instance of a word that has changed value-tone is “gothic.” It used to mean rude, barbaric, backward but has now gained a more positive meaning. We no longer think of gothic cathedrals as forbiddingly ugly and of Rococo as divine. And lots of us these days use the phrase “modern architecture” much as the Baroque Era used the word gothic—with a face suggestive of revulsion—especially when it’s super-added to a venerable Renaissance structure by some hysterical architect known by only one name.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Welcome Seventeen

It always delights me when I note that another person has decided publicly to follow Ghulf Genes. Sometimes I mark the event. It delights me to welcome Julie Novak, a name with big reverberations from our Minnesota past, one of Michelle's closest friends in high school! Modern life scatters us, the web finds and reunites us. Our last memory of Julie had to do with North Dakota and a brief visit she paid to Michelle in Paris years ago. In the vast current of Time, old friends are cherished islands of permanence.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I Can't ...

One of my now-and-then reveries is attending a year 4010 seminar in the far-far-future. A learned professor is lecturing with exhibits on what he calls “probably the most strange of all mass delusions of the Age of Oil.” He continues speaking: “In looking for other parallels in ancient history, we have serious difficulties finding any that measure up—unless it is the equally strange custom of the prehistoric Incas who sacrificed humans on top of admirably constructed (for their time) pyramids. In their case, however, and in other instances of human sacrifice, we at least detect a plausibly rational explanation, thus possibly overpopulation. But the amazingly vast expenditures in the Age of Oil on a practice they called Advertising, which was the continuous and most artfully executed display of objects and concepts of all kinds—for no detectable reason—given that these times, due to oil wealth, were already overwhelmed by both, objects and concepts—presents an almost impenetrable mystery to our modern minds.”

The image is courtesy of Macy’s 2010 advertising campaign here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Musical Denial

From my deep cellar of wonderful Parisian wrought iron, herewith two more. Credit goes to Michelle Darnay-Parets photography. These graceful curves remind me that value systems can also be expressed in objects that talk silently to passers-by who, daily walking under them, dont see them any more. The pigeon, on the left image, remains loyal to traditional values...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Value Systems

One aspect of the subject—I’m once more talking about collectives—is the widespread feeling that large collectives share a system of values and that our public ills are the consequence of the loss or decay of this “system.” A diagnosis then usually follows—a search for some specific group or broad development that has caused this decay. A while back I published a personal note from Daughter Michelle on LaMarotte under the title Dilution of Culture. That letter of hers has become surprisingly popular on that site. A lot of people seem to be pondering the subject.

A “value system” is a curious sort of concept. Is it simply a modern phrase for morality? Yes, modern.  System is a modern word suggesting more than ordinary day-to-day behavior; and value is also neatly neutral; it can be used without a glance toward the Sky where, in other times, people thought values came from. The phrase also suggests something quite different than a word like habit does. It suggests something of greater coherence than is usually present in the public mind. How many people have actually worked out their own value system? A few have, of course. But the great majority today—and however far back we might wish to look—engage instead in something that Arnold Toynbee, the historian, called mimesis, imitation. People “pick up” a value system any which way, through contact with others. They rub shoulders. They hear people they admire talk. They expend very little thought of their own on the matter. They’ll register reactions, pro and con, to be sure. But such reactions aren’t thought. And (diverse as we are as a species) if some aspect of the “system” happens not to please them, there will always be others who feel the same way they do and will thus confirm the doubters’ misgivings.

The way that a value system takes hold in large collectives is an extremely complex process. Toynbee singled out elites as the source of such systems, although he would have preferred to use the term “culture,” instead. To be sure. Any system worthy of the name has to have a certain coherence and consistency; it requires thought and action in the development; it must have tangible results that are visibly desirable by the great mass of humanity that just lives life and gets its values catch-as-catch-can. The elites must be seen to practice what they preach. In every generation, a minority of people do engage in the labors of maintaining a value system or a culture. But these systems are not born equal. Some adhere closer to the truth than others, are genuinely comprehensive; others are based on a limited subset of human experience—thus the experience of an expanding economy, for instance. Value systems, therefore, obviously, are also engaged in a kind of competition. But only very few individuals within the great collective can even trace a particular value to its cultural roots. In changing times (and the times are always changing) most members of a society will indifferently hew to contradictory concepts of value, some taken from this and some from that tradition. Don’t let’s get philosophical, people will say. It works for me.

Genuinely comprehensive value systems are born of pain. None of us wants to experience pain. It must be present in us—or we’ll gladly look the other way. The paradox is that as collective wealth rises, simple and weak systems of value can win a greater following than the difficult and the demanding. At the cultural level, nothing fails quite so tangibly as great success. Sounds like a paradox—unless your own value system is comprehensive enough to teach you what the game is all about. And it isn’t about grabbing all that gusto because we only go round once. The darker note here is that as times worsen—and sooner or later they always do—the value system will also tighten, will become much more demanding. The elites that lead this change will become more admirable, suddenly, because the collective will feel the pain more than the elites. And therefore morality will see a rebirth. The dark note here? It isn’t that times will worsen but that the great majority will still only engage in a mimesis. Reality is a steep mountain.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How Old Are You?

At the conclusion of some movie I happened across when just surfing the channels the melody of a song suddenly caught me, a very old song—and yet I knew every last note of it. My God, I thought, that’s ancient. And musical memory is astonishing. Then I wondered if Ramona, written by Mabel Wayne and L. Wolfe Gilbert, for the movie of the same name, is as familiar to the young generations as to someone like me who first heard it, no doubt ten or more years after it had already become a great hit in 1928....

Here is a link to a YouTube version of this wonderful ancient melody, and below its concluding verses…

Ramona, I hear the mission bells above
Ramona, they’re ringing out our song of love
I press you, caress you
And Bless the day you taught me to care
I’ll always remember
The rambling rose you wore in your hair.

Ramona, when the day is done you’ll hear my call
Ramona, we’ll meet beside the waterfall
I dread the dawn
When I awake to find you gone
Ramona, I need you, my own.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Editorial Events

I am at present engaged in what we hope will be the last proofing of Anna’s Song, the last volume of the Ghulf Trilogy. The first two volumes have been available for a while now, but the third has lagged in time as we sort out the whole approach to publishing. We anticipate issuing all three books with new covers, and all typos removed, in the near future. I just now came across a parenthetically described painting made by an artist in the “famous” Anan style. I thought I’d reproduce it:
(The painting was a typical Santa Ana mirage. It showed one of the famous Kataklismos peaks, the Needle, and circling it two people using lash-on wings—which was quite common on that planet. They held hands. They were very far away—but, again in Anan style, this image was artfully constructed so that their faces appeared as if in close-up shimmering up from a dark pool formed in a hollow, mossy rock. Two old people, their faces not visible, stared into the waters of their youth.)
My doctors have also, coincidentally, decided that my body requires some very late but minor editorial fixes. Thus some jolly good medical events loom ahead. Improvements are always welcome, I think, no matter how late they’re made. Thus if entries are a bit sparse for a while, those are the reasons why…