Monday, February 28, 2011

Wither Small Tenacious Cultures?

I’m reading the novels of Tony Hillerman again, and after the lapse of two decades and counting, they are both fresh and yet familiar. Yet so much has changed! And a thought that I had then now produces a different answer. Back then I viewed the Navajo life and thought that it preserved a genuine cultural deposit and lasting values—but it seemed to me that the relentless advance of modernity would sooner or later inevitably swallow it—despite the fact that large numbers (these days approaching 300,000 people) still lived a more or less traditional herding life in an arid and thinly populated region of the West. Today I wonder.

I wonder because the sunset of the fossil-energy age has become more and more visible, and as it approaches very great changes loom ahead. We remain altogether blind to it collectively, but in another hundred years the fossil sun will set in earnest with unimaginable changes to a peoples staring at computer screens today. With every increase in the price of energy, with every global conflict, with consequent disorders spreading, the Navajo way of life will become ever more adaptive and ours ever more threatened. Hence today I’m far from certain that the vast destructive spread of modernity will actually swallow up the Navajo. If anything they will become ever more ignored. Their way of life produces genuine values—while ours sucks the life right out of what still feebly remains of our pre-industrial traditions. And they will survive—changed but, once more living in harmony with the land and the mountains, better prepared.

Hillerman provides a painless way to obtain knowledge and appreciation of the sophistication and depth of the Navajo culture. It’s a whole lot more complex than reading a few web pages suggests. It must be seen from the inside, not through the distorted and facile lens of our sociology. I recommend his first three especially, The Blessing Way, The Dance Hall of the Dead, and Listening Woman. The early novels featuring Chee are also good. The quality gradually drops off as Hillerman, too, succumbed to the wasting literary disease of overproduction that plagues our times.

Strange to imagine how brief modernity will seem to generations in the future as they look up at a bright and star-filled sky again—star-filled because the harsh light of technical civilization will have dimmed.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Urge To Explain

Herewith some further notes on yesterday’s perhaps too-dense riff on Graves. Staring at the darkness before sleep rescued me last night, I wondered why some delight in the most obscure discoveries and bring them to the world still mostly shrouded in mystery—while others bend themselves into tortured pretzels to make even the simplest things as intelligible as possible. Graves delighted in his discoveries but also complained, with some bitterness, when specialist scholars, undoubtedly as deeply versed as he was, ignored him—this especially regarding his discoveries of Celtic roots in The White Goddess. Paradoxically Graves also greatly admired other ancient riddlers among the Celtic poets who hid secret wisdom unfit for those who hadn’t penetrated the deepest mysteries—and never might.

One no doubt facile explanation waiting for me as I woke up this morning was that the urge to explain, to make things plain, may be the consequence of birth order—always assuming that the first-born is not an only child and that younger siblings are therefore present to instruct. Putting on my sweater, still in the dark, I thought: “I’ll bet you money that Graves was not a first-born child.” And, indeed, he wasn’t. He was the third of five children, significantly, I think, of a school inspector and Gaelic scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. And his mother, A.P.’s second wife, Amalie von Ranke, was a great-niece of a famous German historian, Leopold von Ranke. Ah! To be the third of five—in a family of this flavor. That, to me, explains a lot: parents bright as shiny new coins and infinitely wiser. They would, of course, understand whatever mysteries he brought them, Look Mom, Look Dad! He wouldn’t have to explain the mystery; discovery would be enough.

The first-born are always explaining to younger sisters, brothers. It is the hand that they are dealt—and if the requisite gifts are there anyway, it becomes natural. Clarity of explanation is a virtue at that level; the younger are stubbornly ignorant, it seems. They must be made to see. Hence—the urge to explain. Life, alas, isn’t democratic. First-borns are also loners, at least at first; or they certainly don’t suffer as much when left alone. Those in the middle tend, on the whole, to be more naturally at home in society, first-borns more at home in a hierarchy—provided, of course, that they are at the top; they feel almost naturally troubled by being in the middle. Deep sigh. So many challenges, so difficult to explain them all…

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mythic History, Historic Myths

One of the strangest poets who lived while I was young was Robert Graves, known to some for the movies made of his Claudius novels, to some fewer for his poetry, to fewer yet who found themselves puzzled by his three-volume The Greek Myths, and the handful totally baffled by his The White Goddess. Here was a famous man whose title should have been Impenetrable the Obscure—because he undertook to understand the most ancient roots of Greek and Celtic culture to a dizzying depth where practically no one could descend to follow him, observe what he was doing, and approve or critically correct. Not a way to achieve academic renown—hence Graves was gravely ignored.

I find his reading of the Greek myths fascinating, particularly his conviction that they were originally history, if entertainingly framed, embodying not only facts but also, later, artful revision of the same facts, the addition of spins and interpretation of these revisions as politics, power, and cultures changed, e.g., a matriarchal dispensation morphing into a patriarchal age; alternatively Graves held that some of these very old stories were simply invented by weaving a meaning around even more ancient frescoes or mosaics the original meaning of which had been lost.

Someday I might attempt to render the whole horrific twentieth century into a Greek-style myth of three or four action-packed pages simply titled Adolf and the Torch Nymph. By a reversal of Graves’ method (if I still had the years left to do it) I could write the story of Cain and Able as a ten-volume work tracing the prehistoric conflict between the first practitioners of agriculture in conflict with the then dominant herding culture.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Combat Outpost Michigan

View Larger Map

It’s time to say good-bye. The map you see here is a part of eastern Afghanistan, Kunar Province. The curving formation in the upper mid portion of the map, running down from the left corner, is the valley of the Pech river. The Kunar and Pech rivers meet at Asadabad. Combat Outpost Michigan is a spot on this map in the river valley almost exactly north of the e in the Google logo at the bottom, left. Up-river from it is Forward Operating Base Blessing. Down-river from it are Cop Able Main and Cop Honaker-Miracle, each being U.S. Military outposts. [I cannot annotate a Google map or I’d show the outposts.]

This is a very rough mountainous region where our forces have been unable to take genuine hold. A little less than a year ago in April I noted on this blog (here) that we were abandoning the Korangal Valley. That valley is the dark depression pointing right at Combat Outpost Michigan. Leaving Korangal Valley was evidently only a beginning. Now all American forces will be withdrawn from the Pech Valley, although Afghan forces will be left behind.

The New York Times this morning quotes one military official giving a rationale for this withdrawal. “What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything, they just want to be left alone. Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

Brigitte and I noted, oh, a month ago approximately, an absolutely glowing report in the Media by a Congressional delegation to Afghanistan. Everything looked rosy, upbeat. There was talk of a change in momentum, etc. Today’s announcement of withdrawal, couched in positive terms as redeploying troops to protect more populated areas, was made by Major General Campbell—not by General Petraeus (of course). Never mind the explanations; never mind the casualties sustained first in the Korangal Valley and then in the Pech region. What interests me is that rationale put out by the military spokesman. That might me right on, a bull’s eye, actually. The statement probably applies to the entire Afghanistani population, except for its Quisling leadership—and not just to the inhabitants of the Pech Valley.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Friends from the 19th

Some of my best friends live in the nineteenth century—part time. Herewith a photograph from my oldest friend, Philip Marshall Cavanaugh. I am including his own captioning of this interesting photo.

Just found this picture; it must be about 18 years old (1992). This is my old Richmond reenactment group, F Co, 21st Va Regt. F Company had been part of the old, elite Richmond “First Regiment” of antebellum days. A Company was “The Richmond Light Infantry Blues,” and I believe you had to be a direct descendant of one of the early Jamestown settlers to belong—or be incredibly rich; almost all members became officers when the war began. F Co was the unit of the nouveau riche. F Co also had several Jewish members, which made it somewhat unacceptable in Richmond social circles. The unit went on all the way to Appomattox, where it gave up its flag with only sixteen of the original members present for duty.

We were a good unit and our drill and dress very Prussian. I am in the front row with light colored tan trousers; the man at far end of the row, distinguished by a beard and black hat, is John Dent Griffiths, a great-great-grandson of Ulysses S. Grant. Our commander in front, Floyd Bayne, ran against Eric Cantor this year as the Libertarian candidate for the Richmond area.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Transformational Dynamics

In the 1930s, 40s, when I stepped or, rather, crawled onto the scene in Europe (but it was then the same pretty much everywhere) appropriate behavior had to be learned and learned the hard way. Code words are upbringing, manners, etiquette. Kinderstube in German, which simply means “children’s room” signaled where it all began. It was already there at the dinner table where rules guided the use of cutlery and “children are seen, not heard.” We had to learn the habits of society; it didn’t take place spontaneously. But these were habits. The applicable code words here are customs, traditions. Worth noting is that habits can be formed without much inward understanding of the whys and wherefores that lie behind them. My mother, fortunately, made sure that we understood more than simply behavior; she dug up the roots of it; we knew why it mattered. She knew full well that using one hand for the fork, another for the knife, was arbitrary—and that manners at table had a transcending meaning of which these arbitrary signs were simply symbolic tokens. We knew that, even growing up. This somewhat subtle distinction has strong bearing on what follows.

In the conservative lexicon (thinking of Burke now), tradition is understood as the slowly formed deposit of a collective value. At the broad social level, thus at the level of habit and behavior, customs and morals are the same—as the etymology of the word (mores, customs) indicates. The fact that traditions preserve bad habits as well as good is the source of the tension between traditions and the urge to break them. I view the subordination of women as one of these bad habits.

Long ago and far away it genuinely pleased me to encounter the word enantiodromia, a coinage by Carl Jung, derived from Heraclitus, meaning “counter-running” and used by Jung to indicate the tendency in nature, certainly in society, of things to morph into their opposites: growth becomes decline, decline eventually transforms into growth. Why is it that foreign words derived from people long, long dead have a curious authority? Why doesn’t opposite-tending have the same clout as enantiodromia? Is it a deeply rooted respect for…tradition? Probably. But the key to the Greek as well as the mundane English version of it is that this tendency is natural, thus that it belongs to a certain level of reality, the habitual, the behavioristic. It does not pertain to the higher level that my Mother never tired of linking to its mundane expression.

Easing the strictures of social behavior has been a powerful tendency throughout the years of my life—and always framed in positive ways, formally as “Question authority” and in thousands of informal ways relating to dress, language, the content of books and dramas, sexual norms, etc. Just how far this opposite-tending force has pushed its way to the front of the line—since my childhood—came unpleasantly to view last night. I was upstairs reading, late, when Brigitte called me. Quickly. You’ve got to see this. And we watched the last ten minutes of a reality show called Jersey Shore. Stuck in the past as we are, very abstemious re popular culture, neither of us had seen or heard of this phenomenon until last night. Enough said. We’ve come a long ways, baby…

But enantiodromia is natural, not human, as it were. Persistent and genuine pursuit of excellence and virtue does not naturally lead to moral collapse. Nor does persistent and genuine practice of vice naturally lead to virtue. Hence mindless liberation leads to license, license to decadence, and decadence, ultimately, to disorder—and disorder, as history shows, can last and last and last for many, many centuries. The turn-around actually requires a ray of transcendental light to fall upon the stricken population from on high. It isn’t natural or automatic. It is, as the philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev used to say, a kind of vertical descent of grace transecting the horizontal dimension of nature.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My Body, My Butler

We were sitting around talking. The subject was a news account I’d heard on BBC radio courtesy of our Public Radio very late at night, driving home. In that account a BBC reporter had said, talking about one of the Muslim countries, I no longer remember which: “They’re all on the Internet now, but, you see, it’s Facebook. Facebook for them is the Internet.” We were trying to make sense of this, Brigitte and I. The thought occurred that many of these countries have developed late. Large elements of the ordinary population are accustomed to getting their information from others with whom they interact daily—rather than from media. And a leap into the Information Age suddenly provides them with an electronic form of their natural source of information—gossip. And Facebook is the channel. Could that be the reason?

By steps and meanders, we were soon noting our very different kind of upbringing in war-torn Europe. For us the international, the global news always and ever trumped the local. “I was quite ashamed of myself,” Brigitte said. “Monique asked me the other day if I’d listened to the State-of-the-State speech, and I had to confess that I hadn’t. It’s too close to home in a way.” — “Yes,” I said, “and with newspapers too. All we’re interested in is the international coverage.” Then a memory intruded. “I bet,” I said, “I bet we’d feel the same way if we were Danes. You know, I remember my first trip to—what’s the capital of Denmark again?” — “Copenhagen.” — “Yes, right. I remember when I first went to Copenhagen. By that time I’d been a world traveler and kind of accustomed to sizing up a city quickly, you know, just a bus-ride from the airport. And I remember thinking, there, gosh, this is just a small city. But then I thought, can’t be! This is Copenhagen. But then my body, my butler, he said, ‘With all due respect, sir. It’s just a small city.’” I noticed that Brigitte was scribbling something on a sheet of paper. “What are you writing there?” I asked. She was laughing. She looked up. “My body, my butler,” she said. “You do say the oddest things. But that’s a good one.”

Yes. Food for thought. My body, my butler. He keeps the half-dreaming, half-fantastic young nobleman inside this old body firmly grounded in mundane reality…

Note to Logophiles

While on the subject (see yesterdays post cum comments), I thought I’d point to a site all of us suffering from this debility ought to know about. It is Word Spy, and this is as good an entry-point as any.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Eaves are Dropping

An eave is the over-hanging portion of a typically slanting roof. The roof slants in order to carry water as quickly as possible away from the structure before—water is like that—it will soak in, collect, seep down, and begin the slow process of returning the house to nature. The over-hang, the eave, of course, is there to protect the outer walls of the house. And this almost self-evident architectural innovation has had some interesting legal and linguistic ramifications.

The eave goes way back. I’m told that Greek Doric temples featured an eave, but the Ionic temples did not. The latter collected the water in grooves and spewed it out through the gullets of stone lions; these lions, in turn, are the original of our gargoyles (for more see here). Now with eaves present the water simply drips down to the ground. And the area into which the collected raindrops fall is called—and this is a noun—the eavesdrop. The Latin for it is stillcidium, derived from stilla or drop. And the Romans saw this drippage happening around Etruscan temples. The legal ramifications arose around this disgusted exclamation: “I don’t want your roof dripping on my property.” In Roman times this produced laws preventing owners building structures right up to their property lines. You had to keep back a ways. And in the Anglo Saxon legal canon the limit was 2 feet from the boundary—so that the owner had to suffer his own dripping.

Now to the linguistic aspect. First, our word derives from the Old English yfesdrype, yes, eaves and drop. But the ramification comes from the fact that the area itself, the eavesdrop region on the ground, is rather narrow, shaded by the roof, and very close to the wall. A person quietly standing there, on the eavesdrop, especially close to an open window, ideally further camouflaged from the outside by big bushes put next to the house, could, listening hard, overhear things that he or she might not otherwise hear. And thus we have the transformation of something that once was a noun into a verb. We have Google. And we also google, don’t we? I googled all this using Wikipedia and Online Etymology Dictionary. The illustration—it's best to make things very clear—is courtesy of

Meaningful coincidence? Yesterday I read, in a marvelous old novel, The White Woman, a crucial episode where Marian Halcomb, co-heroine of the novel, spends a couple of hours listening to a conversation, during a downpour, hiding on the eavesdrop and getting very wet and cold. Her resulting illness is a hinge in the plot. And this morning, suddenly, Brigitte looks at me and says: “You know? Eavesdrop? That’s lauschen in German. How did we get the word in English? The eaves dropping? What is all this?” — It’s a Ghulf Genes post, Brigitte. That’s what it is.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Puzzle of Anti-Intellectualism

One of the odd surprises for my family coming to the United States (and here I mean my mother’s and my own very junior reactions—but later also shared by Brigitte when she put foot on these here shores) was the curiously exaggerated American dedication to education oddly paralleled by the relatively low status enjoyed by teachers over what we’d been accustomed to in Europe, and not merely in compensation but also in expressions of respect. (“If you can’t do it, teach it,” just to pick a flitsam off the floor.) It was obviously and tangibly evident to me in my earliest days in high school—where I couldn’t help but observe something I’d never seen in Europe—not in any Hungarian, German, or in one large French school: the important role of organized team athletics and the status assigned to those who managed to be varsity or to cheer it on in short little skirts. Mind you, in Europe we had gymnastics every other day—not least games, like basketball.

This came to mind this morning when I received a muddled sort of comment to a post on LaMarotte. The post was on the earnings of private and public employees. Here it was again, a kind of smoldering, simmering, and half-hidden hatred of teachers. And in Wisconsin, of course, public employees—of whom teachers as a category are by far the most numerous, even including soldiers, sailors, and marines—are now revolting against a governor whose vocabulary (was that also the teachers’ fault) can’t seem able to spell the word taxes.

I discovered this morning that Richard Hofstadter had written a book on this subject, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). His name I recognize, but I haven’t read any of his works. His definition (which everybody quotes) is here (p. 7 of his book):

The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.
During my years in Europe, I also had plenty of contact with the European proletariat which, one presumes, should have the same resentments and suspicions, yet none of us in the family ever observed it—and this despite the fact that there, certainly in my generation, probably in the next one over too, the separation of the sheep (meant for intellectual training) and the goats (meant for trade training) took place routinely at age 11. In Germany the intellectual training continued in the Oberschule or the Gymnasium; the training in trades took place in what was called Real Schule—and it was heavy on the sciences, light on the humanities. Real Schule was training for Real-ity. Is it that democracy, American style, with heavy doses of individualism, etc., never fully developed in the Old World? That, instead, the class division, early on, into at least two layers, left a deep mark?

The ambiguity in America appears to arise because education has two effective meanings. In one of them the life of the mind is to the fore, in the other it isn’t present at all. In the other education is a kind of tooling aimed exclusively at achievement in the world—and it is this definition which gets the enthusiastic approval of the American public; I want my kid to advance in the world. Education is thus job- not mind-preparation. The second of these is barely noticed or, if pursued with vigor by some, those Some are dismissed as nerds.

The one exception to the prevalence of anti-intellectualism is the respect that doctors still enjoy—but their profession is caring for our bodies. And there we cut some slack. We’d just as soon be treated by minds developed as fully as possible before we let the rubber-clad finger go in or the sharp scalpel descend.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Visiting us, thus
Visiting Ghulf Genes—the famed
Katie the Beagle!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Parsing the Budget Battles

Politics is the art of the possible—said Otto von Bismarck.

The tragedy of the commons might be defined by saying: “It is present in every situation where most involved will gain by an action immediately but the collective will lose in the long run. The typical choice is almost always to realize gain now. Which is kind of tragic.”

Politics is the art of the possible, not of the optimal, because in modern politics, characterized by relatively rapid feedback systems, people who hold power only ever hold it by a slender margin. If their art is well-developed, they can therefore realize a small part of what they intend to realize, never a comprehensive program.

As I’ve just noted yesterday, politics is conflict between interests. In the long run an optimal solution would benefit all parties to a conflict, but each of the parties only partially. Whereas the extraction of the possible gain will always be greater for the dominant group. Therefore we’re mostly staging tragedies rather than comedies.

I discovered a concise formulation of this in E.F. Schumacher’s book, A Guide for the Perplexed. It made a strong enough impression on me so that I’ve cited it numerous times on this blog already. Schumacher made the distinction between convergent and divergent problems. In the first there is unanimity in what is to be achieved and how; in the other there is conflict. In divergent cases the problem is never resolved at the level where the participants in it live.

The reason why budget battles cause distress to most of those people whose time horizons are long and whose concern for humanity is extensive—thus includes the largest number—is that it seems as if a sensible and optimal resolution of the problem should be possible. And indeed it is. But it requires what might be called an engineering approach. Appropriate cuts combined with appropriate tax increases. But this cannot be done in a commons where the majority of the people participate in the process, if not directly then by reps.

We all know this perfectly well. In some societies, the Roman, for instance, dictators were appointed when serious change needed to be made. The downside is that those appointed don’t want to leave—and have to be removed by force. Cincinnatus is still remembered and revered—because he was the exception. After his dictatorship, he did the unexpected. He just went back to his farm. Order making—to reverse the tragedies slowly cumulating—happens after revolutions when a strong man makes order. Napoleonic reforms are still yielding genuine benefits in France and, by imitation, all over Europe. We make half-hearted attempts in that direction by appointing commissions, e.g., the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform; but we deny them real power to implement.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What’s The Issue?

Once during my days in Washington, talking to a senior Congressional aide—we were walking together down a corridor in the Senate—I was explaining a problem relating to the environment to him. He said: “Okay, okay. But what’s the issue?” I said: “I’m talking about a situation here. Why does it have to be an issue?” The aide now stopped in his stride and earnestly touched my arm. “Listen,” he said. “Around here nobody is interested in what you call a ‘situation.’ It has to be an issue. That’s the currency here. Issues. Whose ox is being gored. Situations…” He let that trail out by way of saying “way, way, way beneath all notice.”

Issue means a clash, and a clash is always between groups, organized groups. And for groups to come to the notice of the political sphere, they have to have power—clout and visibility. Furthermore they have to be aligned in some way with one of the parties. Politics is ultimately a contest between groups for power and resources. Political parties come about fluidly as aggregations of groups. Principles—and ideologies based on them—are supplied, are labels pinned on them later. Parties are bottom up social structures built of issues, of conflicts. Their interests are not in justice, say; their interests are in interests. Not surprisingly a party can remain an institutional entity even as its labels gradually change. The history of our parties illustrates this.

The people we call Democrats now were originally Anti-Federalists who represented small people, indeed they claimed all the people—a tired, over-worked little donkey ridden by a big fat banker. They were agglomerated groups threatened by Hamilton’s nationalist banking policies, originally very much opposed to Big Government and committed to states rights. Later they were known as the Democratic-Republican Party (1832); yes both names in the same party a good half of which was later pro-slavery. Little People-hood did not include the slaves. The Republicans formed around 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery to the new territories of the west. They were northern in origin and motivated by a desire to modernize the U.S. economy, which expanding slavery threatened. This, of course, put them in opposition to the slave-owning south. Their opposition to slavery was only partially pure—but, of course, that stance attracted the more advanced and religiously motivated segments of society, not least many Democratic-Republicans. Democrats have morphed into the party of activist government—although once opposing it. The Republicans are still trying to modernize the economy by a having become the party of capitalist ownership and those who fancy themselves aligned with it.

My point here is that seeking for a principled approach to governance is to misunderstand the nature of politics. It is entirely about interest and only ever incidentally principled. The principles can change, indeed morph into their very opposites. Thus liberals once were laissez faire in economics and intent on curbing government interference in the market, never mind individual freedom. That label, meanwhile, has become attached to the Democrats while those actually supporting such views are called conservatives—the very same people who, looking back a long ways, once advocated the divine right of kings.

The bald truth of the matter is that politics—and the higher it reaches the more true this is—is strictly about power and really nothing else. Or to put it more mildly, if principles come in conflict with a party’s interests, principles will be left behind. To view parties—or government for that matter—as structures of principles is to mistake a collective for an individual. We can demand principled behavior from individuals—especially if we can enforce our demands. Large collectives are not actually reachable that way. That is why the message is never in agreement with the facts on the ground, except by exception. Very rarely towering personalities emerge who, for a time, manage to give governance the semblance of principled behavior. Names that arise to me at random are anciently Charles the Great (the only reason why we remember one French king of yore) and more recently here figures like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR.

Monday, February 14, 2011

From a Valentine of Yore

February 14, 2002

For every time its own good rhyme
For every sun its daily run
My dearest valenthyme.

Time overlays with its pale haze
Our memories, youth’s mysteries
And love’s first fiery blaze.

Old streams run deep and all life feed
Old forests make dark groves of shade
Where owls old wisdom heed.

Yet for all that…

For me you are, by wide and far,
The youngest thing since the I Ching
The nightingale of early Spring
The breath of dawn, a milky fawn
The scented grace of my embrace
The love of life, the end of strife
A milk white dove, my own true love
The Lorelei of my own Rhine
My one and only — Valentine.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Whenever a revolution succeeds in toppling a regime—especially a notable and big one like the recent one in Egypt—I can’t help but think of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist. Back when his thought was carving up the landscape, I read his Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). Little of it remains in my memory now except the early chapters. In those he drew a dark picture of revolutions and of noble battles for freedom. Here is a man whose basic ideas I don’t share in the least. He was one in a long line of moderns who think that science can engineer happiness. Still, his characterization of revolutionary movements was down-right traditional, in other words descriptive. Human social life resembles waves. Waves have crests and troughs. The rising and falling periods are very much longer than the happy moment when, for a brief flicker of time, a wave is cresting.

A childlike fascination characterized media coverage of this event—and the more popular the medium, the more childish. As another wave, that of progressive thought, is now waning, the hope that progress isn’t entirely dead revives at times like these—and now the hope is that Egypt will transform itself into a society where the waves of conflict will be smaller but much more frequent. That’s what a democracy is. In a democracy the power is more distributed and the waves are smaller. Life turns more choppy, too. And all’s well while the wealth lasts.

Societies are also creatures of habit. Egypt has been under authoritarian rule as it were forever, back to the Pharaohs. I’ll be watching with curiosity how this thing actually evolves—while continuing my watch on Russia where, as best as I can detect it, the Tsar is still in power, and never mind details.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dine Play Shop Stay

A roadway sign advertising something. I saw it driving back from the airport this morning, and what with the rising sun half blinding me, I didn’t catch the name of the user of this slogan. Driving on, however, the words reverberated. It occurred that this must be some kind of recreation venue, and the four words attempt to capture in a single rhyming slogan the sum and substance of all things worth doing in this day and age. Now in this sequence dine, play, and stay are kind of fundamental. Dine stands for eating—check. Play stands for sex— check. And stay stands for having to sleep somewhere. Check again. What stood out for me was the third item in line. Shop. In our times shopping has been promoted to a kind of free-standing and inherently justified form of something worthwhile to do. Shop. Till you drop. After you drop, someone near and dear to you can…shop. For a suitable funeral service complete with an appropriate coffin and a concrete vault set in a tiny piece of real estate.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Numbers to Wrap the Mind Around

The other day we saw a 1997 movie, The Fifth Element, a vast brash sci-fi extravaganza. Later, looking up some names, I realized that the movie had cost $90 million to make, about $714,00 for each of its 126 minutes. Numbers like that fly through our consciousness like particles of paper debris in a storm barely noticed—barely noticed because we are so habituated, beaten into such flat pancakes, by the endless repetition. And that’s just movies. Today I discovered that Fifth Element doesn’t even rank as a particularly expensive movie. The most expensive are reported here, and the winner is the 2007 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. It cost $300 million or $1.77 million per minute, 169 minutes all told. Ah! Just wave the hand, shake the head. Driving to an appointment together, Brigitte invented a neat product on the fly. She suggested a hard plastic bubble sort of thing bicyclers might wear in icy, windy weather. We got to talking what price it ought to fetch, and we fell into disagreement. I thought I could tolerate a price of $29.99. She insisted that it would still sell at $39.99. That’s down here where the ants live. But up there in the sky are movies that cost nearly a million a minute to make. And, to repeat, That’s. Just. Movies. Is it any wonder that the real grown-ups can casually spend billions a day on reality shows like—Afghanistan?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Commodification of Letters

If Cervantes had lived in modern times, soon after the resounding success of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, his publishers would have started to press him for a sequel, and since that joust with windmills had been the image in the original, the next in the series would have been Don Quixote and the Dutch Giants, soon followed by a youth-oriented novel titled Rocinante Goes to the Derby. Rocinante, of course, was Don Quixote horse. Sancho Panza’s Extravaganza, subtitled The Little Mule that Could, would have come next and exploited a multicultural thematic. Dulcinea, Will She, Won’t She would be ready for the next Christmas season and attempt to capture a wider female audience. Dulcinea? Well, she was Quixote ideal, the Lady, in fact a peasant girl, and unattainable at that. In the original. Plenty of leverage still left in that. After that would come yet other explorations of live issues in that far-off time. By the seventh and last novel in the series, Don Quixote and Moctezuma, even the greatest fan of the hidalgo would have wearied of him, of Sancho Panza, and the ever richer historical and archeological detail that would fill endless paragraphs to make the page count come out right to justify the book’s price.

Thus are successful authors commodified in our day and age. P.D. James comes to mind; so does Frank Herbert’s Dune series—of which only Chapterhouse Dune comes alive a little. Too many authors suffer thus from success. Agatha Christy, the most prolific, oddly escaped a total wilt-down—perhaps because she predates the period of commodification.

Dictionaries don’t even mention the sense of commodity we use in ordinary language—thus goods of the sort where anybody’s brand will do. When I buy sugar I buy the cheapest, usually the Kroger brand. Sugar is a commodity; there is really no difference between one kind and another. The dictionary’s definitions—fitness, adaptation, convenience, advantage—while true enough are just a tad off-target. Commodification, a word coinage of Marxist origin, suggests the assignment of market value to things or services that shouldn’t really all be treated as commodities, thus as things where the qualitative differences can be safely ignored. Marx having grown horns over time—but the process having genuine benefits in the realms of business—the word has been modified for capitalist use, as it were, into commoditization. But it means the same thing.

Once a steady and repetitious market for something develops commodification has a tendency to set in. It affects all kinds of goods, not least natural products, and we note this when buying fruit. It neither looks nor tastes like it used to in the 1930s, 40s, 50s. Changes in the growing, harvesting, and culling of apples, tomatoes, strawberries, etc., have, in the subtle process of commodification, increased the size, shape, and appearance of the product—and have usually blanded out (to coin a verb) the taste.

The same thing has affected literary productions. I’m not sure (never having read a single one) but I suspect that the penny dreadful of the nineteenth century was an early example of this process. Since then commodification has deformed virtually all of the so-called popular genres of literature and I suspect (and only suspect because I can’t get myself to read them) the straight literary novels as well. And very much as in the case of apples and tomatoes, which once had unique and local character, so with the arts of the human creator the industry that now dominates distribution has worked its commodifying powers on the product. This, at any rate, is the conclusion I draw from a three-year project, roughly, of trying to find some genuinely entertaining mystery novels at various libraries. You can still, here and there, discover something special, but the predictable blandness of the rest is amazing. This process also works its stultifying magic on the occasional gifted writer—by forcing excess production on him or her…of which a fictional example is the Don Quixote series. People of less talent simply must conform to genre rules in order to get into print at all.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Orchids...

In winter...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Franz Werfel

Checking a neglected bookcase I came across a collection of short stories by Franz Werfel, in German, issued under the imprint of Fischer Bücherei that, together with RoRoRo saw me through my Army years in Germany. Last night I read the last story in the collection, “The True Story of the Restored Cross,” a wonderfully told but dreadful account of the Nazi party’s coming to power in a small town in Austria on the border with Hungary. The historical event took place in 1938; the story was written in 1942. It concerns a Jewish community and its Rabbi, who has befriended the town’s Catholic priest. The priest aids the Jewish families to escape to Hungary, not very successfully—indeed, horrified, he leaves with them. Dreadful, dreadful story. It makes present what has now been effectively forgotten, and even children who went through those times (I would have been two in 1938) are now in their seventies and eighties. The story-teller, who hears the account from the priest in America, asks the priest what he thought about these events in those days. The priest says: “I don’t know what I thought then. Nothing, I suppose… But today I think: Humanity must punish itself without a break. And it’s very logical—for the sin of lovelessness from which our whole misery stems, develops, on and on, from joint to joint.”

Werfel was a Jew born in Prague in 1890 and a very popular playwright and novelist. He underwent the flight himself from Austria to France to Spain to the United States—where he died, still young, in 1945. As he and his wife first approached the border with Spain, Nazi troops had just occupied the area and caused them to flee inland again mingled with masses of confused refugees and defeated troops. Someone suggested that they might find help in Lourdes, which was just thirty kilometers away. So it turned out. Werfel and his wife hid in Lourdes, passed from family to family to protect them and the families. Eventually they managed to move on. Werfel learned the story of Lourdes while hiding there and vowed to write it down if he ever got away. Thus came the inspiration for his most famous work of all, The Song of Bernadette, a world-wide bestseller, structured in five parts, each with ten chapters in imitation of the rosary, the story of Bernadette Soubirous.

The short story—which I had read before I knew the content of the paragraph above—and the story of that book are closely linked, of course: two related faiths fusing in each other’s aid in a time of dreadful trial. Where love is present, miracles happen.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Facts and Sympathy

In celebration of the month, another visit to the library the other day. I’m always looking for pleasing fiction guided solely by visible indicators, thus by the book’s cover and title. Now it happens that ma bibliothèque pauvre, despite being located dans un quartier riche is guided in purchasing new novels pretty much from bestseller lists—or maybe those two situations go hand in hand? Anyway, I thought, Why not? Try to read one. I picked one—but cautiously. I chose an historical novel set in mediaeval times and published a while back, not brand new. I won’t name either the author or the title because, in a way, I think the author innocent.

It’s interesting to discover that historical novels require both facts and sympathy. One of these alone just won’t suffice. This novel, set in the twelfth century, was very well researched in every detail—obviously so but I also later took time to check multiple facts in specialized histories of daily life. Yet the story’s feel was entirely wrong through and through…because the story-telling voice contained within it an interpretation of that society entirely reflecting twentieth century secular values. The story’s very language and narrative style also clashed with the setting. The whole was almost consciously written for the movies and in three-, four-line paragraphs to cater to the restless and the greedy. But the lady author is highly gifted. Really. She actually held me through about thirty pages. She’s skillful, vivid, entertaining, fast paced—and, yes, very popular. But the twelfth century, gazing into this mirror, would not recognize itself. Facts galore, sympathy none—and a plot deliberately…crafted, I think, is the now word, to highlight the author’s and her presumed audience’s revulsion for a time beyond the comprehension of either.

Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, set in the same period, have a quite different aura—but oddly enough also sound much more real and “today” than the current author, and this despite the latter’s rich embroidery in fact. The human is unchanging.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Void Indeed

A man named George Perec wrote a novel, La Disparition, in which he did not use the letter E even a single time. The book has also been translated into English, following the same strictures; the translation by Gilbert Adair is titled A Void. Daughter Michelle made me a gift of this book a while back, and it is fun to read within it. Here and there it contains famous English poetry but rendered entirely E-less.

Brigitte and I, yesterday, dictionaries in our laps, held a fascinating discussion. The subject? The differences between English and German, specifically that in German it is quite easy to avoid using words with Latin and Greek roots—and roots in other languages derived from these originals. Then A Void occurred to me—namely that writing a novel in English while avoiding “derivative” words like that would be far more difficult to do than simply to dispense with a single letter.

This and the next two sentences might be a case in point. The more abstract the concepts used, the more difficult to avoid employing words and phrases born somewhere else than in the British isles pre-Norman conquest. I’ll give it a college try and translate this paragraph into pure English next.

This and the next two sets of meanings marked by an ending dot might bring out what I have in mind. The farther from stuff the thought-marker in our head, the harder it is to side-step putting to work words or clusters born somewhere else than on the British island before the Norman overwhelm. I’ll give it a higher-learning-clan-abode stab and put this cut of writing into sinless English next.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Couldn’t Help Myself!

Here we go again. Once more the stimulus is a Goethe quotation and a translation of it on Laudator Temporis Acti here. The excellent translation Michael Gilleland includes is by R. Dillon Boylan, a nineteenth century author and translator—but coming from that period the rendering has an archaic sound that the German does not have. German has changed much less than English. Formations like knowest, thou, thither, and thee are out of place in modern English while their German equivalents kennst, du, dahin, and dir are very much part of modern German today. Hence I was tempted to give my own translation. It is much closer to the actual literal meaning than Boylan’s except for the last line. There I use the word dwell whereas Goethe uses the still prospective word move.

Herewith the German and then my translation:

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,
Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn,
Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht,
Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht?
Kennst du es wohl?
Dahin! dahin
Möcht ich mit dir, o mein Geliebter, ziehn.

D’you know the land where lemons bloom,
Gold-orange glows in dark leaves’ gloom,
Where soft wind from blue heaven blows,
Where myrtle silent, laurel high repose?
You know it well?
O there, O there
Would I, with you, beloved, dwell.

Love Your Library Month!

In this domain, I assure you, every month is Library Monthand every week is Library Week. At the urgings of my own Library (we e-mail each other frequently), I am also more than pleased to promote "Love Your Library Month." A wry chuckle escapes me. I've just finished posting an entry on the subject of love, and now, in a way, my library wonders if I really love it. Yes, dear, I do. I really do. But ours is a, you might say, polyandrous relationship, and with so many, many mates you may be unaware of One whose dedication is unflagging!


In pop culture and ordinary life as well, we hear the same question. The speaker is usually a woman, perhaps because women are, ah, more intuitive? The question is: “Yes, dear, but do you really love me?” In the usual context, this could be expanded. What she is saying is, “I already know that you want me—sexually. But do you really…” The vast range and complexity of that concept, love, once more came into my focus—and the thought once more arose that this question is asked at every level of human experience right up to the dizzying heights of theology. This gradation is recognized in language, in some much more explicitly than others, and English seems love-challenged, as it were.

In Greek three words are readily at hand: eros, philia, and agape. In Latin we have amor and caritas. In Hungarian eros and amor are rendered as szerelem, philia and agape as szeretet—although, to be sure, that last word is also applied to any kind of favorable view of a thing, as in “I like it.” The modern Chinese also have three words, ai, xihuan, and ren or jen, where the first is used in love-relations, the second means to like, and the third is benevolent and self-less love. In English we have love, friendship or liking, and love. Friendship derives from the Old English freogan, meaning to love, to favor, but the love-element hidden in the root is not quite visible in our use of the word. We have no word for agape because the Latin approach to it, as charity, has undergone change. I may be wrong, but the way I usually hear the word used is in a negative sort of context like “I don’t want your charity.” But this may be due to the hardening of our cultural arteries. It takes a certain loving quality to receive love as much as to bestow it—one of the mysteries hidden in the word.

It is the very quality of human experience, the physical fused with the spiritual, that renders the word love problematical—but only when a rift opens between the fused layers that form us. The more the sensuous is to the fore, the less the spiritual is perceived. In the well-formed individual an all-encompassing feeling for the beloved dominates; the erotic is present in it, but is not decisive. If she has to ask her question, there is a certain problem present in that relationship—but a much more precise vocabulary would not make it go away.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Technology of Fame

Since 1837, thus early in what might be characterized as the modern era, fame has had a major assist from technology. All of us know the famous, but almost no one pays any attention to the hard and complicated technology that makes them visible. A headline today made me realize that I had no really good idea what limelight really meant. It was a bright light, of course, used on the stage to pick out the principal actors. But lime?

To make limelight you need a source of pure oxygen and hydrogen, neither naturally available without fancy processing of air and water and not containable without fancy metallic vessels. You also need quicklime, calcium oxide, nicely formed into a cylindrical shape. You can produce quicklime by getting some limestone and then, in a specially fashioned kiln (implying high-order ceramic brick to build it), bringing it to a temperature above 1562° Fahrenheit (850° C). This process is known as lime-burning; it causes carbon dioxide to boil away, leaving quicklime, calcium oxide (CaO). You must rapidly contain the quicklime because it will spontaneous react to CO2 in the air and turn back into calcium carbonate, the main component of limestone. Complicated, isn’t it? And you are not yet done. Next you must arrange for pipes to bring the oxygen and the hydrogen together, mixing the two gases under pressure for later ignition. This arrangement, shown in the illustration (source), directs the flame at a cylinder of calcium oxide. The combination of this flame and the quicklime produces a very bright light, equivalent to that of an electric arc, the technology that later replaced this early tour de force in lighting. I could, of course, outline what it takes to make an electric arc, but let’s stick to the limelight.

The effect was discovered in the 1820s and developed by Thomas Drummond into a device by 1826; he used it for surveying; limelight was thus first called Drummond Light. It took another eleven years before the Covent Garden Theatre in London deployed limelight to pick out actors on the stage. And the actors in the limelight became the famous actors.

If you are on cable TV (lots of channels, in other words), take the wand in hand one evening, say at 7:10 pm, and simply, at a moderately rapid speed, scroll through every channel on your set. What you will see, I guarantee, is endless snippets of ads, violence, and the faces of people in the news or famed because they bring or comment on the news. Chances are the experience will not be pleasant, indeed might leave the impression of the extraordinary triviality and/or base character of what Big Brother shows us. Then, having shut off the set in weariness or in disgust, spend some time contemplating the fantastic technology that brought you these images and sounds. You might start by staring at the wand, still in your hand. Never mind the cybernetics and the circuitry, keep it simple. Just explain the batteries that make the thing work…

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What’s in a Name?

Looking up some statistics concerning Egypt this morning, which I’ve put up on LaMarotte here, I came across a fascinating discussion of the country’s name on Wikipedia. That got me to looking elsewhere as well. In the midst of my researches, I received a comment on my LaMarotte entry. Trying to discover the roots of that name takes one way, way back into the past, but the comment tipped me into the current moment again—and suggested this post. More on that comment at the end.

The people of Egypt, I learned, originally called their country Kemet or Kermet meaning Black Land; they had the rich Nile-fertilized fringes of the river in mind, of course. Another name, also appropriately grounded in experience, was Dershet, meaning Red Land—by which the inhabitants had in mind the vast rest of arid Egypt. In course of this excursion I also discovered that the region owed its development to climate change anciently. It pushed herding peoples south and east as the Sahara region dried out and became a desert around about 3400 BC.

The actual name of, Egypt, was originally associated with the city we now call Memphis. Its name was Hwt-Ka-Ptah, meaning the Temple of the Ka of Ptah. Other renditions of this name are Ha(t)-ka-Ptah, Hikupta, and, in late Egyptian E-Ka-Ptah, Linguists tell me that the hard consonants in this name, k, p, t were modified into q, p, t and eventually g, p, and t. The Greeks, who traded on the Nile a great deal, came to speak of Memphis as of Egypt, and they rendered the name into Aigyptos—which is the name that appears in Homer’s Odyssey. The Romans, who in most cultural ways aped everything Greek, rendered that as Aegyptvs. From there it got transformed, in French, into Egypte, and in Old English into Egipte.

Now in the Bible Egypt is referred to as Mizraim, who was the son of Ham and, by extension, the land of the son of Ham. Today’s Egyptians call their country using the Arab word Misr. It simply means “country.” Misr itself is thought to be of Hebraic derivation.

To this I might add that Ptah was the creator god of people who lived anciently in today’s Memphis. The word ka means soul. The Temple of the Ka of Ptah is thus the Residence of the Soul of God—so highly did the inhabitants of that city think of Memphis on the waters of the Nile: nothing but desert to the west. To see how little water Egypt has, check out the stats on LaMarotte.

Finally the comment. It came from Michelle in France this morning. She said: “Did you know the word Egypt is no longer available on Chinese search motors for fear of extension of the revolutionary energy?” Interesting! Well, I thought. I think I’ll give the Chinese a few other names to search on.

Darnay’s Disease?

Idly watching a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode last night, I was startled into full awakeness by hearing a major episode figure characterized as suffering from Darnay’s disease. Woah! I was sitting straight up. This occurs in Episode 131 no less, “Schizoid Man,” meaningful to a numerologically skewed sort of person like me. The year is 2365, and a certain Dr. Ira Graves—scientist, genius, warrior, cyberneticist—is dying of Darnay’s disease. He has no more than a week to live—but in that week he succeeds in transferring his consciousness to Lieutenant Commander Data, the android, who promptly becomes annoyingly arrogant, paranoid, and a skirt chaser. Wow, I thought. Darnay’s disease. I’ve been suffering from it all my life long, but something in my genetic makeup keeps me from succumbing to its usual prognosis.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Notes on February

February, by my calculation, celebrates its two thousand seven hundred and twenty-fourth birthday today, the month having been introduced into the Roman calendar during the reign of, and by, Numa Pompilius (753-673 BC), the second king of Rome and the successor of Romulus. In 713 BC approximately, Numa introduced calendar reforms and added two months to a year that, until then, in the West, had only had ten months. The story is told by Livy (59 BC-17 AD) in these words—the only authority we have for this event. The quoted text is taken from here taken from a work titled Books From the Founding of the City, usually rendered Livy’s History of Rome.

And first of all he divided the year into twelve months, according to the revolutions of the moon. But since the moon does not give months of quite thirty days each, and eleven days are wanting to the full complement of a year as marked by the sun’s revolution, he inserted intercalary months in such a way that in the twentieth year the days should fall in with the same position of the sun from which they had started, and the period of twenty years be rounded out. [7] He also appointed days when public business might not be carried on, and others when it might, since it would sometimes be desirable that nothing should be brought before the people. [Livy, Ab urbe condita libri, Book 1, Chapter 19]
The two new months, January and February, were added, one at the beginning and one at the end of the year, thus ending up in reverse order, all in efforts more or less to bring the months into conformity with the lunar calendar. The solar year’s length, 365 days, was already known in Numa’s time. If we divide that number by 29 days for the lunar cycle (in actuality 29.5306), we get 12.36 months, hence adjustments must be made. Herewith some other arithmetic:

365 / 29.5306 days = 12.36 months — more than a third of a month too many.

365 - 29 = 336 days

336 days / 11 month = 30.5 days. From this we get the alternating 30 and 31 days for months, but with seven months having 31 and four having 30 days, for a total of 337 days. That leaves 28 days for the 12th months, February, which under Numa was also the last month. Now since the year is actually 365.25 days long, every four years an extra day is added—again in February, the odd lady out, as it were. We owe the observation of that quarter day slip to the Julian calendar, instituted by Julius Caesar (100-44 BC).

Now another problem arises. The actual solar year, the time of the earth’s actual orbit around the sun, is precisely measured to be 365.2425 days in length, thus not quite a quarter of a day a year longer than 365 days. The upshot is that adding a day to February every four years adds too much time to the calendar, about 11 minutes every fourth (leap) year. For this reason, and to compensate, we omit the leap year every 100 years—unless the year is evenly divisible by 400. The exception is that if a year is divisible both by 400 and 100 evenly, the 400 carries the day and the 100 year omission of the leap year is therefore not observed. Five examples:

YearDivided by 400By 100By 4Leap Year

In the above I highlight the computation that determines the leap year itself. The rules: If evenly divisible by 400, always a leap year. If evenly divisible by 100, never a leap year except when also divisible by 400. If evenly divisible by 4, always a leap year unless also divisible by 100.

February is the oddest month—because it varies. And it was in that year that changes were made because it used to be the last month too. That changed in 452 BC when the then ruling powers in Rome, the decimvirs (“the Ten Men”—no feminism then) switched the positions of January and February—and the last became the second. The Ten Men, by the way, were a kind of constitutional committee with time-limited rule. When their time came to leave, they didn’t want to (surprise!) and had to be forced out of office…