Friday, April 30, 2010

April's Over

April’s over but the clover, she is green.
May shall dawn, the lawn still fresh, tomorrow,
The trees still bright in fairy light in days ahead.
Past winter’s grime there is no time like Spring
Even if, alas, perennial although the grass,
This too shall pass into the summer’s heat.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hometown Heroes

All of us in this clan extend our joyful congratulations to Susie Turner. She was this year’s Gloria Doss Award Recipient at the 7th Annual Laclede County Home Town Heroes Breakfast, held this morning. The Gloria Doss Award is made to Red Cross volunteers. Gloria Doss herself was a volunteer.

Susie first became involved with the Red Cross in 2005. It was a case of “nothing propinqs like propinquity.” She was just doing a friend a favor. The friend wished to see what kind of volunteer work the Red Cross might have to offer, and Susie gave the friend a ride. As it turned out, Susie became the volunteer; the friend did not. Since that time Susie has been very heavily engaged in every aspect of the Red Cross program in her region. The major branches are fire response, national disaster response, the national hotline and service to the armed forces, case work, and administrative support.

What we look at closely becomes ever bigger. We’ve had a unique opportunity to see the Red Cross from up close through Susie’s eyes—and it becomes a huge, complicated, and demanding enterprise, with great benefit to millions of people, although almost invisible to the public. Being a Red Cross volunteer, at least at Susie’s level of involvement, becomes a fulltime job—and in times of disaster much more than a job. Susie’s boot camp was Hurricane Katrina. And one of the things you learn, looking at things closely, is that disasters of this type radiate all over the country—indeed all over the world.

The Red Cross dates back to a little-remembered but dreadful battle in Europe in 1859, the Battle of Soliferno in Lombardy. Henry Dunant experienced the horrors and began a passionate advocacy to establish a more humane way of dealing with victims of such disasters in his book, Un Souvenir de Soliferno. The Red Cross was formed four years later and has been serving humanity since—its hands and hearts people of the very first rank of humanity, people like Susie.

In our family, during the dark days of World War II, the Red Cross helped us locate relatives and reconstruct the torn network of relations. Most dramatically, the Red Cross found Brigitte. A young girl then, she had been sent west with fellow students to escape the approaching Russian front; she was lost—but found again—thanks to the Red Cross and the labor of its splendid volunteers. We’ve benefited from the work of this fine organization—and Susie, who has never ever stinted of her time, care, and concern for others, has been giving as she had received. We’re proud of her. And I am honored to be able to call her my sister.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Levin Hearings

The Senate’s Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations, under the chairmanship of Carl Levin (D, MI) conducted multiple days of hearing on the financial crisis caused by careless, not to say irresponsible, lending on housing and the securitizing of that questionable debt. C-SPAN, one of the serious, adult institutions that has stoutly sprouted in our so-so times knew that it should cover these hearings—and did so even before celebrity figures like Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, appeared. Brigitte and I knew we should attend—and paid our dues. Hearings of this kind never fail to evoke analogies to “drama,” “theater,” “clash,” “blame game,” and so on. Exaggeration is a feature of our times, and every even mildly notable event is labeled “epochal.” The two of us noted wryly that on all earlier occasions press coverage had been minimal; only one or two photographers lounged on the floor out of the senators’ view but facing the witness stand. Yesterday cameras—and protesters—filled the hearing to honor Big Money and Big Celebrity. An annual bonus of $9 million, paid to one man, certainly does signal that.

We admired Sen. Levin’s dogged, workmanlike, persistent, and entirely straight-forward approach to these hearings. He genuinely represented us anyway. We also noted John McCain’s brief appearance calculated entirely to play to his hometown audience; he is engaged in a hard-fought primary in Arizona. Now that was kabuki theater. The ranking member, whose name I shall neglect, attempted to blend an artful image of severity, sophistication, morphing surfaces (now-I-chastise now-I-praise), and sub rosa attempts to influence features of the now pending (and in our view hopelessly deficient) finance bill.

A novel insight emerged from this hearing for me. In scope it goes far beyond the narrower focus of the hearings. It came from Brigitte who, after listening to a series of exchanges, pushed the mute button to make an observation. She suggested that the huge fortunes spent on purchasing initially high-yielding “synthetic,” “pure paper,” and “symbolic” instruments by Wall Street diverted investment from genuinely productive uses into a species of controlled gambling. I saw her point at once—and it is a valuable point. Money seeks the highest returns. And how can a humble manufacturer compete for money with Lords of the Universe who’re fashioning wealth by magic? I’ll develop Brigitte’s insight later on LaMarotte.

The focus of the hearings was ultimately morality, and the core might be put this way: The meltdown was caused by unethical practices in the service of greed. Those who most profited from the vast eruption of phony wealth caused both the eruption and the damage it left behind. Here the sense of a drama on a higher plane was unmistakable. Two radically different value systems confronted one the other. And neither side could fathom how the other could see things the way it did. In watching this drama, however, I saw angels arrayed behind Senator Levin; they watched attentively. And as for Brigitte and me, we want to be on the side of the angels.

April Dress-Up

Ridge Avenue, Grosse Pointe Farms, about a week ago.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pop Music: Big Wheels

Brigitte and I have long treasured a small circle of pop musicians. We know and have collected their work. But my own very few favorites outside that circle come from long, solo trips by car. The transition between 1988 and 1989 saw me on the road at intervals. We were moving from Hopkins, Minnesota (an outlier of Minneapolis) to Grosse Pointe, MI (a suburb of Detroit). Brigitte had gone ahead and lived in a small house we’d rented for the transition—while I hung back at Saint Albans Hotel, as we called our Hopkins house, and wound down a looong decade of life in the north. At intervals I traveled to Michigan, down the west side of Wisconsin, through Illinois, touching Indiana, and finally across Michigan to the shores of Lake St. Claire. These were long trips and I listened on the radio. Two songs remained in my memory of that time, and I’ll link to one of them here.  It’s Big Wheels in the Moonlight, one of the songs in Dan Seals’ 1988 album titled Rage On.

There is something about highways—and especially the highways of America. You leave a world and enter another. It’s always been, for me, a very strange experience, a kind of reconnection with a reality that fades as you approach the great cities—Chicago in this case and then, at a distance, Detroit—and then altogether disappears inside them. And the songs you hear on the highway—and preaching that you hear when all other radio disappears in that void between large conurbations—they stay in your tissue and, in a way, remain. Big wheels are part of that experience for me. The other song? It’s The Locomotion, particularly the version sung by Kylie Minogue, which was on the air in that transitional time. I’ll link to it here another time.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tennis Critiqued as Art

Her pantomime was not sublime.
She grunted loads and uttered oaths,
But moved with grace, all fringed in lace...
My description? Contradiction!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spring Color Melange


During one of our sun-room musings the other day, pondering the wonders of American life, Brigitte and I fell to talking about that strange growth, Individualism. We tried to remember if the concept, in any form at all, had ever even surfaced during our lives in Europe, but we failed to find even a trace of “individualism” in the common heritage that we’d absorbed through experience or upbringing. Meanwhile, doing some digging, I’ve come to understand why. We both grew up in environments largely dominated by Catholicism, she in Poland and I in Hungary. Her own background heritage was Lutheran with Catholic branches; mine the exact inverse of that. Furthermore, while the seeds of individualism were European, the living plant that they produced never took root as ideology in Germany, least of all in that form of it which is linked to property.

An interesting history. In a nutshell—but, mind you, this is my synthesis of it, so grain of salt—it is in part a secularization of the traditional concept of the inviolable, immortal soul, in part a reaction to a rising tide of socialism born in the wake of the French Revolution. My way of making sense of modernity is to see it as just that: the rediscovery of discarded spiritual values in a new and shiny secular form. But let me sketch the history.

The concept arose, ironically enough, from an upsurge of utopian socialist movements that followed the French Revolution, notably Owenism, a movement begun by the Welshman, Robert Owen (1771-1858). Another such was Saint-Simonianism, named after Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint Simon (1760-1825). Owenites applied the word pejoratively to their opponents. Thus where you find socialism, you find individualism. Scholars suspect that the usage originated in France, possibly used by Saint Simon’s followers. Now the Owenites believed in communal ownership of property whereas individualists did not. Hence individualism was apparently already born with the Sign of Satan, the dollar or the pound sign, on its forehead. Owenism left its mark in the United States as well, in New Harmony, founded in Indiana around 1824. This utopian community barely endured for two years.

The word soon acquired a positive and religious aura thanks to the efforts of Millenarians and Unitarians. The first category refers to diverse movements over time that have focused on the End Times, almost always imagining these to be right around the corner. One such figure was James Elishama Smith (1801-1857), also known as Shepherd Smith (he edited a journal called The Shepherd). Smith had what you might call a colorful career. He was a Millenarian minister, prolific journalist and writer. You might sample some of his thought by looking at his 1854 book, The Divine Drama here. He eventually turned socialist, translated Saint Simon, and edited an Owenite journal. Late in his life he discovered the “universal” qualities of individualism. Universalism, by the way, was another ideological flower of the nineteenth century—“enlightened” humanity’s efforts, meseems, to reinvent the divine. Characteristically (the man had a wide range) Smith also discovered that individualism favored the accumulation of wealth: blessed from two sides, in other words.

Later on William Maccall (1812-1888), a Unitarian minister, also laid down some universalist justifications for individualism in his book Elements of Individualism (1857). You might wish to look at that book here. He starts out by laying out thirty-three articles of faith, of which the first one is: “I believe that I am an Individual Man.” Here is his brief commentary on that article:

The inference from this is, that whatever else may be the accidents of my position or the peculiarities of my lot, whether I be Christian, or Jew, or Unitarian, or minister of the Gospel, or healthy or the contrary, or rich or poor, or fortunate or unfortunate, my highest and noblest characteristic is that of being an Individual.

Maccall’s articles nowhere link individualism to property ownership, wealth creation, or any subject of the sort. His aim, rather, is to support his belief “that the Unity of the Universe necessitates Infinite Multiformity in the Universe,” which is an odd sort of assertion unless, in pondering it, the notion arises that that New Age was striving to build a concept of God from the bottom up. And in that schemed individuality finds its supporting role.

Yes, an interesting history. Remembering the past—it comes naturally to people of our age—musing back, we searched for the “universal” message we receive as children from our parents and our teachers. It had a different flavor. It had its roots in the parable of the talents, by and large, an obligation to develop them, but always in the context of helping the community. There were no Hidden Hands anywhere in our upbringing, no talk about enlightened self-interest either. There was no spot where God was not. And we never needed preachers to tell us that we were individuals. That seemed sort of obvious.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Future Findings now Foreshadowed

The Internet is not an environment directly comparable to—I’m searching for a phrase—“the pre-web world of books and readers.” But the web has masses of written materials intended to be read—and intended to be read in the same way as books or magazine articles were once written—namely with an expectation that they would get concentrated attention. The big difference is that all of the material on the web is held by computers. The environment is also interactive. In the old days authors did not have access to praise or vitriolic criticism jotted into margins. But precisely such interactions on the web could be tracked and studied. The resources we’re now accumulating may in the future give us insight not only into how the web performs as a medium of communications; the data may also illuminate how the “world of books and readers” once behaved. What it might show is that genuine readers—the kind that authors really write for—have always been and still remain a very tiny fraction. Rereading that last sentence, I think: “Yes, but that’s kind of obvious.” True. But sometimes the obvious is novel.

This came to mind yesterday. I visited the blog of the philosopher, Edward Feser. I’d been there before, but this time I followed a line of exposition across numerous posts and got a better feel. Feser’s is a genuinely popular blog with lots of comments—thus producing a wealth of material on its readers, those, at any rate, who spend time writing comments. Feser’s content is on a high level and his writing communicates with fluidity and grace. In the sequence of posts I read, Feser notes at intervals that his critics rarely seem to understand what he is saying—and do not read his or others’ writings with sufficient care to grasp the fundamentals. The comments—if one girds up the loins for the unpleasant task of reading them—largely confirm the charge.

In this family we are much taken with the concept of adequacy. We encountered it in E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed. (I’ve mentioned Schumacher before a number of times; to see earlier entries, please use the Index.) The concept goes deep into the past; it's also “obvious” and yet perpetually “young”; but the formulation which emphasizes adequacy comes from Thomas Aquinas in the context of truth. “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectusOn Truth, Q1, A1-3. Truth is the adequacy of the thing and the intellect. Put less mechanically, truth emerges when the intellect is adequate to the object it perceives. Schumacher quotes Plotinus (who goes back to the third century AD) as saying: “Knowing demands the organ fitted to the object.” The intellect is personal. It develops over time. Adequacy grows as the organ is developed. Conversely, when some people do not “get it,” bad will may not be the cause. They may simply be inadequate.

We all know—and it is a matter common experience—that when something new emerges, be it good news or bad—those who hear it have an urge to share. Waiting for my daughter Michelle to be born, I fell asleep in the waiting room; I was all alone. It was the morning of November 24, 1963. I was awakened by a young black woman, a nurse’s aide, I think. I emphasize: she was quite young. She shook me, shook me awake. As my eyes opened, her face was in my face. “They shot him,” she said to me with evident emotion. “They shot him.” She held a little radio but did not wait for an answer. Having informed me, she was off, running down the empty corridor. I was, no doubt, the first human she had glimpsed after having heard the news—and she had to tell someone. Who had been shot? Lee Harvey Oswald.

The urge to communicate appears to be innate. The capacity to understand, however, depends on slow development; it grows slowly and over the years. The truth, therefore, presents the picture of a mountain that narrows as it rises to the heights, and as we ascend toward its peaks, the number of climbers diminishes in proportion to the height. The decillions of bytes held in computer memories across the world may someday be subjected to critical analysis by computers of the future; that analysis will then, I think, present a scientific proof of these musing. A handful of people then will understand the findings; lots of other people will hear of the news in a sound-byte or two and soon again forget.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


“Polarization” is a rising word these days, but only its upswings can be dated. We tend always to be polarized about something. The current convulsion seems to have begun soon after Obama’s election to the presidency—when the Right realized that change might actually be attempted…and the Left to its horror that it might not. The deadlock in the Senate; the hysterical opposition to universal health care; the Tea Party; and the gathering storm over an as yet unnamed Supreme Court nominee are markers. I got to thinking... In the 1950s we had the communist-anticommunist split. That one had its flurries too, peaking in the McCarthy hearings. A century earlier we had Free and Slave, peaking in the Civil War. And fifty years before that time, in England, anyway, people were anxious that the French revolution might succeed more widely across Europe and come to England with the guillotine. Looking back produces disappointment. We don’t live in unusual times. The ultimate battle of Good v. Evil is not about to begin tomorrow; nor will it be followed by the End of History. The patterns repeat. The words of the song might change but not its melody.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Two—At Least

Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,
Die eine will sich von der andern trennen;
Die eine hält, in derber Liebeslust,
Sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen;
Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust
Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.

Two souls, alas! reside within my breast,
One wills to part, to rid itself, to cleave;
One would hold fast with savage love-lust
To the world with gripping hard organic force;
The other hoists itself by power from the dust
To the domains of higher ancestors.
    Goethe, Faust, Act I.

In my generation certainly—and I assume continuing to this day—that first sentence from this part of Goethe’s Faust—has served as a kind of marker in the lives of most thoughtful people who grew up in a German culture. The two souls within our breast are a matter of experience. Then as the years roll on and different ranges of experience mold us, we become aware of even more layering within. We discover more personae within ourselves, each the product of structures of experience that can be differentiated.

This came to mind today when, troubled by an article in the New York Times, I let myself comment on it without the usual restraints. To be sure, awareness of our various persons is better than ignorance. Attempts to force the self to express itself in a single mode is a kind of violence to nature. I’m well aware that I’m quite attached to many things that, from another perspective, I can view with equanimity—and that that attachment in itself, if it is permitted expression, can serve as a kind of teacher. But my own awareness of these differences causes me to put my thoughts on three different blogs, each with its own boundaries.

Needless to say, multiple personalities suggest a lack of integration. Here I turn to another great poet and storyteller for an appropriate image to sum up how to handle many selves each having its domain, its passions and its interests. I turn to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings:

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.

If we change the context here from the Darkness to the Light, the solution to the problem comes. There is one Ring that rules, and being aware of it—and its relation to the others—produces integration in the whole while leaving each other ring to rule in its own realm.

The translation of Goethe’s verse is mine.

Korangal and Marja

View Larger Map

This map shows a region our military calls “The Valley of Death.” The marker roughly indicates the location of the Korangal Outpost which we are now abandoning. Google shrugs when I ask it to find Korangal, but using the New York Times map inset today, I've centered the map on Sarkani, which approximately marks the location of the outpost. Jalalabad lies to the southwest, Peshawar to the southeast of this area.

View Larger Map

This map shows the location of Marjah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, the “site” of a major offensive launched in February against a center supposedly 80,000 people strong. This is the terrain map of the place. I search in vain for signs of a city worthy even of a little dot.

An accompanying story on this subject appears on LaMarotte here. I was incensed, and on Ghulf Genes I prefer to maintain a higher level of decorum, if that’s the word to use. At the same time, WordPress, which is LaMarotte’s platform, does not permit me to embed a map.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Third-First Narrative Style: Addendum

Herewith an e-mail exchange concerning an earlier post on this subject (which is here):

I am wondering if the story I read last night is, as I suspect, in what you call the Third-First narrative style? The story is called America First by Louis Auchincloss and appears in the newest edition of the American Conservative. I can not recommend the story, but just read the first paragraphs. Tell me, is this an example of that third-first style? —Monique

D & T

Blogs anchored to some extent in the quotidian ought to reflect seasonal recurrence. Those of us lucky enough can start our tax preparation journey, armed to the teeth with TurboTax Deluxe, until just days remain. Last year’s tax preparations—while they began around the same time—extended over several weeks of dreadful shenanigans. They were occasioned by the subprime meltdown in the wake of which I had to assault heaven and dig up hell in efforts somehow to salvage something from the ruin. This year the process took a mere four sunny hours—but the time was still long enough for me, in between punching in answers, to reflect on death and taxes.

My own take is that neither the one nor the other is unwelcome per se. One represents a transit of sorts, the other a necessary contribution to things collective—some of which we might deplore but most of which we actually favor. But it isn’t death, as such, nor yet paying taxes, as such, that make these words sound dreadful. It’s all in what leads up to them, people, not the mere fact of the matter. Signing the check if you owe (or looking up the bank’s routing number if you anticipate a refund)…closing the eyes in that last moment before you shuffle off the coil—those things are easy. But sometimes the path to either one of these events is rocky indeed. And sometimes not. Today’s event was (to be sure the fingers will remain crossed for a while)—not.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

True Art in Written Form

True art in written form is never just
A tale of life recounted blow by blow,
The tensions caused by violence or lust;
It is instead a distillate of flow,
The boiled-down essence of experience,
Life’s repetitious rounds, its ennui,
Its boredom, mud, its sand, its transience
Transmuted into points of density—
Achieved by shaping time’s own rigid frame,
Annihilating it when it holds naught,
Expanding it when spirit’s brilliant flame
Grows hot and something real is sometimes wrought.
True, high art will rise above illusion;
It portrays the spirit in its fusion.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Unless a narrow theme binds them into instant recognizability—this blog is about football, this blog opposes war—individual posts are like a scatter of random particles, and looking at any one of them in isolation may seem rather puzzling to the person landing on a page by happenstance. I note the puzzlement of many newcomers who, if arrested by the content of the post at all, then seek some shortcut to rapid classification by clicking on the “about” (or its functional equivalent) in search of clues about my ideology. In other less chaotic, dynamic, or confusing times other markers served this purpose: the person’s age, the uniform (clerical garb, the sword, the shield, courtly dress), marks of class, frowning demeanor, accent. That sort of thing is also present still, reflected by print. When I land on a site where the speling is bed and i isn’t capitalized and people do a lot of lol, I do know at minimum that I’m not reading folk my age. And my writing is for many a warning sign already—or a signal to relax. Wondrous, wondrous, phenomenon. Seeking this, seeking that. Many seek facts. They find them here but then (I realize) they’re really seeking something else. They seek authority. The information must be qualified. So let’s click ABOUT and discover if this guy comes with ample qualification to say that which he said. Let’s look on his chest to see what decorations pend there. (And word usage like that, to be sure, will signal phony, phony to lots of readers.) The same facts wrapped in rebellion, rage, approval, disdain, analytical dissection, historical precedents, modern referents, etc., etc., will please now this, now that individual. Humor alone will most likely arrest the majority and cause the visitors at least to read. Strange that, when you think about it. The restless classifying mind, fiercely determined to orient itself, Quickly, already! will be paralyzed by humor so that the soul hidden behind the intellect can, freed for a moment, have a moment’s enjoyment.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Turkish Context

I got to musing about the Ottomans yesterday—but in a modern context. We were discussing recent events in Iraq—and the ethnic patchwork that Iraq happens to be—and the power that once effectively governed it—the Ottomans for a long time, the “little sultan” Saddam Hussein more recently. The question arose: What does it take to stabilize such patchwork-quilts of hostile ethnicities? And the Ottoman techniques came to mind—namely an armed force and administrative apparatus which was, for centuries, an artificial culture-within-a-culture, above the ethnicities, disdainful of them but holding the sword.

The past in some ways is the present. We can see that if we suspend our faith in Progress. Change is certain, but what goes around comes around. The troubles in the Balkans had something to do with the USSR’s collapse. World War I began with a declaration of war by Austria against Serbia, one of the breakaway parts of the Ottoman realm. In the background were a series of earlier wars (Greek War of Independence, the Russo-Turkish War, the Bosnian Crisis, the First Balkan War) all of which were the consequence of a weakening Ottoman Empire. After World War I the Arab portions of the Ottoman domain became unstable—but had been in partial revolt earlier too. In the Middle East the Ottoman breakup has been followed by a century of frequently violent disorders—and no let-up in sight. Most recently the U.S. invasion has managed to destabilize Iraq. It remains to be seen if the American Way, not least its faith in democracy and money, will manage to subdue what hitherto could only be governed by force.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Devşirme, a Marvel of History

The Ottoman Empire lasted from 1299 to 1922, thus for 623 years. It was on the wrong side in World War I and dismembered in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920)—the consequences of which still linger, not least in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere. The United States was not one of the signatories; we get a pass there. The Ottomans had already lost the Balkan states in the nineteenth century—also leaving troublesome ethnic problems behind; these still also linger.

In my readings of history, the comments of one historian, either Toynbee or Spengler, remained imprinted on my mind. The statement was to the effect that the Osmanli (named in Turkish after their founder), were a herding people and treated their subjects as herders treat livestock—as valuable resources kept healthy for exploitation. Thus they suppressed ethnic conflicts but also avoided absorbing these populations into a common “national” pool. The notion of nationality hadn’t been born yet. One of the more interesting Ottoman institutions was the formation, from Christian populations, of a standing army by a method of forcible recruitment of young boys. The boys were renamed, raised as Muslims, and forgot where they had come from. They were employed as palace servants and functionaries, as religious, scribes, and, most importantly as soldiers. The institution was known as devşirme (“gathering”), often rendered as devshirme. The herders also, as it were, raised herding dogs and gave them special training.

The “gathering” began during the reign of Murad I (r. 1362-1389) and ended in 1648 when the special Janissary formations made up of such boys were finally dissolved. If we assume that the institution began with Murad’s reign, it lasted some 286 years. The boys were levied at four to five year intervals from rural families in the Balkans. Children of craftsmen were spared; taking them might harm local economies. The system originated in the desire of the sultan to raise an armed force loyal to his own person. The young recruits were technically slaves, but life has its ironies. In later times military leaders and rulers of provinces were drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of Janissaries and royal functionaries—so that the nobility later strained every fiber to cause its own sons to be accepted into the ranks of these titular “slaves.” The last had become the first, the slaves an elite. To be “gathered” by the sultan, once known as the “blood tax,” had become a road to fame and fortune as this institution evolved. And precisely this evolution also caused its ultimate demise.

The Ottoman Empire? Here is what it covered in 1683 (map courtesy of Wikipedia):

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Oldest Friend

My oldest friend, Philip Marshall Cavanaugh, sent this wonderful picture of himself the other day by way of marking his retirement from the commercial side of one of hobbies, the manufacturing and sale of Civil War era haversacks. Like me, Phil is still going, although he keeps going in the nineteenth century. We met in the Army. We became and remained close friends. Already then he was a walking encyclopedia of Civil War lore, and in the room we shared with several other men, we learned all about Robert E. Lee, Sherman, and the other stellar figures of that nation-defining event in American history—and also together listened to the great music of that era. Phil spent his post-military working life as a museum director at various distinguished establishments, ever deepening his understanding—while engaged as a member and participant in historical groups—not least an effective re-enactor of Civil War events. He appears here before us in the uniform of the Sons of Union Veterans—and signs himself as “Yer old buddy, Phil, sutler, retired.” Phil decided that it was time to draw back a little. He sold the splendid tent you see behind him—which occasioned this photograph.

Third-First Narrative Style

This style was pervasive in the last century and continues still to deform most fiction in the twenty-first. Narrative is artifice. I bow to that. But my enjoyment diminishes when I become aware of it. I become aware of it immediately when the story-teller is the character, yet the character’s voice is in the third person.

Gal dang it, she’d done it again, but he could never help himself. No. Couldn’t. Got him in trouble, all the time, even back in Tennessee, long before he learned to play the guitar. He always had to stick around—even though he’d been called “Slick” as long back as he could remember, long before that good-for-nothing drunk of a father of his left for California, and good riddance too.

The conventional name of this style is “third person limited.” “Third-first” is my name for it. It’s first person narrative without using “I”—and lacking the temporal distance from the events related that good narrative ought to have. A variant is to use several characters to tell the story, each using the third-first voice; the artifice then, of course, is compounded. So what’s wrong with it? Ordinary stream of consciousness does not produce a monologue. And natural thought will not yield exposition. To make it do so produces odd overtones. The convention is based on the premise that the reader must be grabbed by force, by sensory participation—lest he or she swoon into boredom. Identification with the character must be built in. We dare not let it happen spontaneously. As readers we’re supposed to feel that we’re the person, right here, right now.

The big downside here is that the essence of real narrative—events, actions, feelings, and thoughts recollected in tranquility—has been banished. The fiction becomes, instead, an attempt to make the reader experience something directly. But if an unexamined life is not worth living, a tale without a teller isn’t worth reading.

But storytelling is a familiar and natural phenomenon. Its components emerge spontaneously. Young writers are told: Show, don’t tell. Like any rule related to the high, this one too must be “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” A good story teller knows exactly when to tell and when to show, and these two elements in fiction are akin to light and shade, the artful use of both is what makes stories live. We need detail, we need panorama—in the right spots, to the right intensity. We need to feel, sometimes to see the red thread that gives meaning to the whole. In modern fiction, half the time, especially where the third-first is heavily used, there isn’t any theme at all. No sovereign eye watches the scene. The fictional universe is thus as godless as the big one that the author thinks he mirrors. (Women know better—they tend to use the first person by preference: personal, intimate.)

Third-person omniscient—meaning that a story teller is always present, however muted the voice—is the right use of “the third.”

All this came to mind because, in the library, I chanced across Royal Highness by Thomas Mann, a book I’d never read. I opened it and started reading the first paragraph. Ah, delight! The voice of a true story teller. I went and checked it out…

Monday, April 5, 2010

Functional Equivalents

Suicide bombing has a deeply irrational element: it targets the innocent. It is intended to harm a collective and, doing so, to influence collective behavior. But the only behavior this sort of thing arouses is rage against the people who sent the bomber—and against the collective of which those people are a part. Carpet bombing in World War II was a functional equivalent—but, being destructive on a greater scale, it was more effective if equally immoral. The drone is a closer equivalent—precisely in lacking effectiveness. It is a hybrid. Its operator can never have the information necessary to distinguish between combatants and others. It, too, is a distance-weapon and will therefore kill the innocent. It produces the illusion of being more precise but lacks the overwhelm of a downpour of bombs. Those who use this method—as those who send the suicide bomber—have yielded what little remains of moral high ground in warfare industrial style. Indeed all this really makes me wonder if “just war” doctrines still retain any relevance at all.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Celebrity Then - The Case of Bede

Some 337 or 338 years after his birth, we still encounter the name of a man known as The Venerable Bede in quotes or attributions—as in the last post. Here is an interesting example of celebrity then. No book tours, no TV appearances, no appearance on talk shows—but the sound-bytes still echo oddly—making us wonder what that “venerable” meant. Bede (born 672 or 673, died 731) was an English monk, famed for writing the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He was born in the region of Northumberland in northeastern England. He was sent to a Benedictine monastery at age seven near Durham to be educated and—never left. He became a monk, was later ordained a priest. Eventually, in 1899, Leo XIII named him one of the doctors of the Church (thus in company of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Theresa of Avila, and thirty others). He was the only native-born Englishman to merit that honor. He spent his life entirely in prayer, chanting, and in scholarly work. On rare occasions he visited friends, but never, as it were, even left the neighborhood. Yet his name echoes through time. The contrast between that time and this is truly astonishing. Indeed one has to look at the stretch of time from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries really to see an age that, to us, today, would appear radically different.

One regretful footnote. In looking up the Doctors of the Church, I failed to see there the name of a woman I genuinely believe belongs on that list: Hildegard of Bingen. But the mills grind very, very slowly, and in due time I may yet see my wish fulfilled.

Notes on Easter, a Singular Feast

It is a movable feast and hence not bound to a fixed date. It is tied both to the sun and to the moon, its time of celebration decreed by the First Council of Nicaea to take place on the Sunday that follows the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. The state ignores it, has to—that “separation,” don’t you know. Commerce has failed to exploit it. It celebrates a death (a non-starter in Modernity) and a resurrection (unbelievable to the Enlightened).

The Council of Nicaea took place in 325, thus in the time of Constantine as Christianity gained ascendance. The Council met to deal with Arianism, a doctrine that denied the reality of the Trinity. The adjustment of the calendar was peripheral business convenient to handle now that more than 250 bishops had assembled at one location, in a city which is now Turkey’s Iznik just south and east of Istanbul, hence fairly accessible for bishops gathering from Egypt, Syria, Persia, Greece, and Europe.

The word in English, Easter, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells me, comes from a Teutonic goddess named Estre, the Anglo Saxon goddess of light, and we have that by the authority of the Venerable Bede. It pleases me to find a goddess and a symbol of light in this festival. In German we called the festival Ostern, suggesting a similar origin. Estre is also written as Ēostra, and the Germans tell me that the Old Germanic Austrō stood for Morgenröte, the light of dawn, the aurora. Urbanism has swallowed the ancient religions whole leaving only the residual symbolism of rabbits and eggs. You will find me approving there too. Two religions still manage to guard the transcendental light even today—until, in the future, it shall burst forth more amply. Both come from the same source. One celebrates Christ’s resurrection, the other the Jewish Passover, that last festival harking back to the days of Exodus when the wrath of God passed over the Jewish people and did them no harm.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Attention Span

That last made me think about the attention span of Ghulf Genes visitors (I don’t mean you, Rare Exception) which is just long enough frantically to click on something else. But I better stop now lest I lose that most precious of all commodities, the momentary gaze of someone unknown, from somewhere undetected, brought here by Google’s magic or by Next Blog, and rushing on at light speed to bestow a nanosecond of his or her weightless attention on some other breathlessly quivering cobweb…

Stone or Tile

The most pleasing antiquities are made of stone or tile. All metals rust (okay, Gold, shut up for a moment). And whatever inorganic matter Life has temporarily awakened, formed into bodies, and then again abandoned rapidly or slowly decays into pathetic forms. There is something dreary and sad about a cardboard box full of 50-year old paperbacks...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Farewell World Focus

Tonight is the last broadcast of World Focus on Public Television. The program ran for only eighteen months, from October 6, 2008 through today. In that time it acquired an audience of 300,000 according to the program. We liked the program a great deal. It was a welcome change from the often technically flawed BBC International program that used to follow the McNeil Lehrer Report and Nightly Business Report. We were especially pleased by seeing Daljit Dhaliwal as one of its two anchors, the equally gifted Martin Savidge as the other. We got to know Daljit on BBC. World Focus, which we affectionately called World Crocus around here, provided that missing dimension in U.S. news coverage on television—international news without the peculiar slant of American Capitalism. The program’s excellent website, which will continue to operate until April 9, is reachable here. World Focus couldn’t find the foundation or public funding it needed to continue. Farewell. If you surface somewhere else, we shall watch you again…

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I Made This

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
        [Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: Prologue]

At the end of every episode of the X-Files series, after the credits have been shown, the last screen appears showing the fuzzed imprint of TEN THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS, and while this image lasts, the bright young voice of a boy is heard saying “I made this!” This always brings a slight chuckle because the child’s enthusiasm is infectious. And that voice, in a way, mirrors my delight in the words quoted above. I wish I had made this.

A translation into modern English is available here.