Monday, April 30, 2012

An Old Raj Quartet Note

Pondering yesterday Yeat’s dark view of the Second Coming brought some additional associations, most notably memories of reading for the second time Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet. I had a post on that here back a couple of years. Something, something was there, a memory. Well, it surfaced finally. I had written a note on the subject of cultural despair—the same kind I now first noted in Yeats. It was a private diary entry. I dug it out, and it follows here. Apologies to those who do not know the story—and haven’t seen the television series (The Jewel in the Crown).

*     *     *

Nothing like entering a subject fully. One of the truly dark chapters in this opus, at least when read, is Sarah’s seduction by Major Jimmy Clark or, rather, the Major’s disquisition as they pause between two musical events in a fancy private Calcutta club. Now that harangue is mild, “lite,” almost inconsequential in comparison with, let us say, Hari Kumar’s interrogation by Nigel Rowan. But what Jimmy’s discourse shows is a despairing view of civilization even though it is presented with a cynical aggression by a young man from a very privileged position in society.

In this vignette as everywhere else Paul Scott is devastatingly honest. He is one of the very few twentieth century authors able to depict that time realistically yet without phony saving graces, thus without a gloss of idealism. That sheen is usually based, by others, on humanism or progressivism; in the first case, still-present traces of religious thought tend to be exploited with careful finesses—thus the emotional tonalities of it are borrowed without the cosmological structure on which they rest; in the second, collectivist idealism about “the people” provides a signal of hope, at least in novels; the people are seen as somehow embodying something greater than a person does. In Scott’s novel we never really penetrate the cloud bank above and the outcome,consequently, is an existentialist stance: there are those who know; but their knowledge cannot save them. The heroic figures are Aunt Mabel, Lady Manners, Sarah; but all three live without genuine light or hope.

I find this fascinating. This dark view of humanity is already present in Shakespeare, I would submit; but it is rarely put so honestly, exhaustively, so plainly as by Scott. His version at least is honest; but it doesn’t break the clouds. The taste, smell, texture of this culture explains why I’ve maintained a cultural distance from the Anglo-Saxon world, despite spending a lifetime living in its midst. The Celtic—and the culture that it has inspired—now that’s another matter. It has always had a transcending dimension. There is Paul Scott. And there is also Tolkien.

What is 1/3 of 2012

The answer is, Today. Our natural tracking of the year is by the seasons, more or less—and if not season then by months, but we don’t get very mathematical about it. But if for some reason you’re so inclined, April 30, with its 121 days (in a leap year), exactly marks the fact that one third of the year is over.

Odd phenomenon, time, when measured in this way or by the clock. What makes me aware of the length of time is waiting for the microwave to finish heating my lunch soup, for instance. The seconds roll off one by one, and I become aware of just how long, really, 32 or 19 or 12 seconds can be when that least pleasant of passive activities, waiting, has me in its grip. But in my natural mode of being, in which time has no real meaning, not in its nacked, ticking sense, sometimes, reading the end of a chapter in a book, I sigh and look at my watch—and behold, I can’t believe it, an hour has just passed in what seems like a flash—because I wasn’t really here. I was outside of time.

The illustration dates back to our exchange-student-hosting days; back then Anne from Denmark was one of our exchange-daughters. She gave us a fine porcelain oval to be hung from the wall. It hangs in that bathroom of ours with its new vanity. I see it every day. It acts as a corrective against vanities:

The late Piet Hein, by the way, was an accomplished scientist, mathematician, inventor, and poet with the gift of profundity and a light touch. Here is another of his nice short poems:


Nature, it seems, is the popular name
for milliards and milliards and milliards
of particles playing their infinite game
of billiards and billiards and billiards

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Widening Gyre

Speaking of inexpressiblely difficult impressions, experiences, and realities, humanity manages to express them in the poetic vein by using simple words in the right context to suggest a meaning—and hearing that suggestion, the heart nods and understands. Thus for instance:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
     [William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”]

What is it that that “center” cannot hold? We know exactly what Yeats meant, but analysis does not yield much more than paradoxical results. Does the center really hold—anything? Not in a geometrical sense. That “widening gyre” suggests, perhaps someone turning rapidly in place and, on a rope, extended by that figure’s whirling, a heavy object flies through the air. The turning figure is the center, then, and the force is so great that the fist unballs, the knuckles white, the rope slips over skin. And what is it the center holds? Well, all right. It is the falcon. The falconer holds it by some mysterious force—a relationship of unity. When that invisible something is present, the flacon knows to return to the fist. But whose fault is it that the falcon flies away; is it something in the falconer, or is it in the falcon’s mind? At the center—an idea. Has it lost its power of attraction—or have the flying pieces lost their grasp of it? Or is the problem really in some third element in this poetic equation, the force itself, which gets no mention? Has it changed polarity? And what is it that those “things” are seeking? Is separation something superior?

Yes. It’s true. We know what Yeats meant when he wrote the words. Something in us responds. Is that because we still, as it were, see the falconer as we glide high on rising currents in the mysterious air that has no name?

The Eye of the Beholder

One section of the New York Times we rarely even open. It’s the Arts&Leisure section, with Arts in bold and & Leisure in faded-grey. When people have unusual experiences, they say, instead of describing them, “It was, well, it was—I can’t put it in words.” Another equally apt phrase that here pretains are the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward, relating to obscenity. He said that defining it is hopeless, “But I know it when I see it.”

Today’s lead story is about money, really. It shows four images. One is of Elvis Presley as a guman, by Andy Warhol ($30-$50 million—the estimate of what it will bring at auction); one is Mark Rothko’s “Orange” (although it might also be called “Pink”), reddish rectangles ($35-$45 million). The third is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” ($80 million). The last is Roy Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl.” It looks like something I might have snipped out of any comic book—and that, presumably is the point of this oeuvre ($30-$40 million); the elevation of the extremely ordinary to the high status of “art” somehow speaks to something in the modern soul. Whatever.

What that lead page produces, with those pictures, is a sensation of dissonnance. All these things are “art”? Perhaps in a very elevated sense they are. They are if we buy into the concept that the artist’s role is not to aim at transcendental heights but, rather, to act as a mirror for society so that it can behold itself. Then these images are right on target. That’s what we are. And the limits of our transcendence are shown effectively by dollar signs clinging to large numbers—and those, of course, will bring the reverential sighs. Justice Steward is right on. I know it when I see it. 

Put the Hood Up, Get the Paper

A faint white sheen overlaid our rust-colored sunroom roof this morning at 7 am. A touch of frost, I thought, echoing the title of a Brit Detective series. The plants out there, the few we’ve put outdoors a little early, looked as if they hadn’t minded, but I got curious. So here we are, one day in the year, April 29. One place in the United States, Detroit. I thought I’d look back at this single day and chart the low temp for a decade. Here it is:

I had to choose “Detroit” rather than this suburb, because “historic” data aren’t published for smaller places, but in Grosse Point Farms the temperature was the same as in “Detroit,” 30° F. Moreover, the pointer lay on 30 on the hanging thermostat out in our yard as well.

One day, 11 years, one place. Not quite a sample of anything, but in my book of days April the 29th certainly displays a downward trend in temps. Averaging year to year changes produces a drop of 0.6 degrees in this period, but such things, in the greater realm, don’t even merit being called “noise.” But it gives me, numbers-gnome that I am, a rich sense of control to get these values and to chart them. But then, and real numbers-gnomes know this in their bones, even a local temperature requires, to be really representative, many, many measurements. We have two in our yard, and they are always a degree apart—and yet they are within about fifteen Monty-Python-John Cleese exaggerated high-steps apart. True knowledge isn’t power; it is humility.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Weave of Nature and of Man

A suitable overlay for the season from the treasure trove of some 400 photos taken by daughter Michelle.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Words Are Mere Grains

I am at the entrance of an experience, the reading of Virgil’s Aeneid. Having read one introduction, to C.S. Lewis’ translation of part of that work (Lost Aeneid), I’ve read Book I to the point where the verse presented here appears. Aeneid, the man, heading from conquered Troy to the future site of Rome, is storm-wrecked and blown to Libya, making landfall at a point near Carthage. There he and his company encounter the Goddess Venus and have an exchange. That exchange ends in the verse as Venus says her last and turns away. I thought I’d comment because the introduction brings several translations, to which I’ve also added Fitzgerald’s. The “literal” translations are the result of my diligent turning of dictionary pages. So herewith the texts:

What Virgil (70-19 BC) wrote:
Dixit et avertens rosea cervice refulsit,
ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odorem
spiravere; pedes vestis defluxit ad imos,
et vera incessu patuit dea.

In literal translation:
Spoke and turning pink neck flashed,
ambrosial hair’s divine crown odor
wafted; feet robe’s flowed to deepest,
and true gait revealed goddess.

The literal translation cleaned up a touch:
Said she and, turning, her pink nape shone,
the crown of her ambrosial hair wafted divine odor;
the edges of her robe drooped low,
and her gait revealed the true goddess.
C.S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) translation:
She turned, and at her turning came a fragrant air
Of godhead, and her robe grew long; ambrosial hair
Flashed, and a rosy brightness on her neck, and all
The goddess in her going was revealed.

Robert Fitzgerald’s (1910-1985) translation:
On this she turned away. Rose-pink and fair
Her nape shone, her ambrosial hair exhaled
Divine perfume, her gown rippled full length,
And by her stride she showed herself a goddess.
Gavin Douglas’(1474-1522) translation into Scots:
Thus said sche and turnand incontinent,
Hir neck schane lyke onto the roys in May,
Hyr hevynly haris glitterand brycht and gay,
Kest from hir forhed a smell gloryus and sweit,
Hir habit fell down covering to hir feit,
And in hir passage a verray god dyd hir kyth.

John Dryden’s (1631-1700) translation:
Thus having said, she turn’d, and made appear
Her Neck refulgent, and dishevel’d Hair;
Which flowing from her Shoulders, reach’d the Ground,
And by her graceful Walk, the Queen of Love is known.

It struck me, having worked a little myself, that words are mere grains, mere seeds. They promise meaning but the meaning’s really supplied by the reader’s mind.  The reader links the words and produces the relationships between them—which is palpable when one is looking at a literal translation—because the linkages don’t happen quite so fast, quite so habitually, spontaneously.  Reading that literal rendition, I was reminded of Chinese characters that, even if their meaning is familiar to us, appear to stand alone, solidly rooted in the ground, like stone figures. The habit of rapidly, instantly relating them one to the other to get a meaning is not present until we’ve mastered the script, the sequences, the freedoms and restrictions of a particular semantics.

Here the issues of translations are to the fore. What is true translation? That subject exercised C.S. Lewis—and the reason why he did his own. He much disliked Dryden’s formalism, as he saw it. Indeed, comparing my hewn-rock literal to Dryden’s version, one has a sense of seeing on the one hand something chthonic and original, on the other something ex cathedra with the hint of a simper.

Lewis died before he managed to do the whole job, but then Virgil himself never finished the Aeneid.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

André Vingt-Trois

The archbishop of Paris is so named. Michelle was baptized in Notre Dame Cathedral on Easter Eve last, a particularly meaningful event for Ghulfdom (link). I discovered the odd name of the cardinal in connection with that. The name, which literally means Twenty-Three, was shown as a last name, not as a number, but I still wondered. It turns out that the number is a name. The cardinal was the child of Armand and Paulette Vingt-Trois; he was born in 1942. The family believes that their distant ancestor had been abandoned as a child or baby and found on the 23rd of the month. Today Michelle tells of another view current in Paris, even more charming. It is that the archbishop was himself an orphan, occupied Bed 23 in the orphanage, and thus acquired his name… To be sure, the archbishop has wisdom and charisma to spare. If you possess the French, you can persuade yourself of that in this YouTube video of an interview on the French BFMTV channel (link). The early part of the interview—before it (inevitably) focuses on politics—is worth hearing.

Multiple and for us meaningful coincidences played a part in Michelle’s becoming a Catholic, among these the fact of baptism in Notre Dame Cathedral. I was under the false impression that all new converts were baptized there. Not so. Only eight of a total of 350 this year had that honor. Every year another parish has that distinction, and this year it happened to be the one where Michelle belongs, Notre Dame de la Croix de Ménilmontant. It turns out also that the archbishop’s career and Michelle’s life in France have certain parallels. The archbishop earlier served as the archbishop of Tours—the city where Michelle lived her earlier years in France and went to school, under the protection of St. Martin of Tours. How we intersect with St. Martin is told on this blog here.

The image of the archbishop is from Le Figaro (link); I hope they don’t mind my use of it here…

Monday, April 23, 2012

We Need a New Indicator

GDP is so yesterday. All it does is count every expenditure, and having totaled them all up, publishes the number, the worthy minions of the Bureau of Economic Analysis having labored long and hard—because it’s tough to find all of the expenditures—or their equivalents, all the receipts, reported as the Gross Domestic Income (GDI). We need something more meaningful, something now.

My proposal is that we develop the GDE. Those letters here should, in the future, be known to every breathing soul past twenty. They stand for Gross Domestic Elite. And just as the economic accounts are divided into two, so could the GDE. Here I propose GDE-W and GDE-C. The W stands for wealth and will measure how concentrated wealth becomes. The C stands for culture and will measure (alas) how culture declines. The ideal monthly and quarterly reports will happily say that GDE-W is up and GDE-C is down. The best of all worlds.

As the two old indicators are always supposed to produce the same number, so W and C will be complementary. If one goes up, the other must go down. Supposing a huge chunk of wealth is donated to a cultural enterprise. C goes up, but W goes down. So here, too, we can keep government honest in its reporting.

The new Bureau of Elite Analysis will have its work cut out—beginning with the problem that its initials are the same as those of the BEA, the GDP folks. But its all about toughness, isn’t it. When things get tough, the tough get going. GDE-W will be easier to measure because money is involved. One measure, the Gini Index, could be immediately applied. It measures income inequality—and I’m happy to report that Gini is pointing up—so inequality is increasing.

The GDE-C will be a little harder; BEA2’s motto therefore might be, “The difficult we do today, the impossible will take a little longer.” The C measure would, of course, sometimes go down, sometimes up. It went up today because, as a spokesman for BEA2 might  have noted at the morning briefings, that the viewership of American Idol is dropping sharply, hence culture is on the rise. But the other day I noticed that our principal NPR station has begun to fill the afternoon hours with musical programming—not actual music but talk about music and musicians, including long and intimate explorations of how this or that song came to be. The station has also decided to import the Canadian program Q, which is (you guessed it) mostly about music. If BEA2 already existed, I would immediately alert them of this fact so that it could be factored into next month’s C report. NPR is caving to the new; we should note that in real numbers!

Much work lies ahead. The Obama administration, wishing to create jobs, should make it Job 1 to announce the GDE and to form BEA2. Let’s roll up our shirtsleeves!

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Search for Unity

The endless electioneering battle reminded me that I have no memories of elections taking place in my childhood in Hungary. To be sure, I arrived roughly in the middle of a period when Hungary was titularly a kingdom, ruled by a regent, 1920-1946. But there was a diet in that time, and it held regular elections—indeed eight times in that period. Some 14 parties ran for office in 1920. The winner was a lash-up of interests, thus the Christian, Christian Farmer’s, Smallholders’, and Citizens’ Party. The name was a bit cumbersome; the party operated under various names until settling for Unity Party. This party also managed to win every other national parliamentary election after that—until Hungary’s Nazi party, called Nyilas or Arrow Party, took over as the country was under German occupation. And I saw that occupation, too, from the third-floor living room window of a tall corner building, standing there on a sunny morning with my Mother, and the German army was moving down the main artery of a city then called Szabadka. A green-white public toilet occupied one corner of the intersection, and soldiers were breaking away from the column to enter it. I didn’t know the purpose of that structure, and asked my Mother why they were going in there, and why only some… But that was later.

Unity had become very desirable by 1920. In the wake of World War I, the Communist Red Terror captured the state and, in its four-month rule, managed to bring both of my grandfathers in genuine physical danger by the gangs that enforced its will. This led to the regency of Admiral Miklós Horthy, and I spent my childhood under a royal regent—who had powers to call forth and to close the diet and to appoint the prime ministers. Elections, therefore, were not of much interest to a military family.

As I was looking recalling all of this, a vague memory did surface—particularly of those “smallholders.” Language evidently interested me from childhood on. When we lived in Minnesota the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) was dominant almost across the board—and that was the last time I remembered Hungary’s Unity Party and its farmers and smallholders.

Politics is ultimately sublimated war. The rhetoric on both sides (and on each side during primaries) is strongly marked by words of conflict. They fight, fight, fight for us. Defeat of the candidate or party is, in every case, the end of civilization. But in efforts to involves us, virtual warriors benefits by exaggerating the role of politics in our life. For me it amounted to, this year, about four hours spent in communing with the IRS with TurboTax by my side. When the sublimation fails, as it has in Syria, politics takes off its mask. But even combat without real casualties (assassinations aside), when institutionalized and heightened in intensity (end of civilization, etc.), can slip down the slippery slope. In our case majorities rarely much exceed 51 percent; elections thus produce victories for half and mark the other half as losers. The wise convention that after the elections we should all be united and, friendly in every way, pursue our real lives—that convention is looking ever more like a Ghost of Elections Past.

Genuine monarchies have advantages. The next ruler is largely selected by the dice-throw of genetic succession; where elected bodies help to frame the laws, their elections tend to be of less moment, thus a notch lower down. The inevitable wars also tend to be on a smaller scale. And, in general, such regimes tend to leave us, the smallholders, more or less in peace.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Philosophy as a Sport

My interest in philosophy, if it has to be assigned to some social sphere, has much more kinship to navigation, as at sea. For me it is an activity of orientation in non-spatial reality. But like all activities principally centered in the mind, philosophy may also be viewed as exploration, archeology, cathedral building, belle lettres (now that is rare), and also as sport. A champion performer in that sport is Edward Feser, with an eponymous blog, an Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher who takes great relish in entering the fray. Occasionally, just to enjoy the game, I visit his site. I did so most recently to read his “Reading Rosenberg, Part IX,” which I take to be round nine of a championship boxing match with one Alex Rosenberg, the author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (link). What surprises me is that it has lasted so long—seeing that Rosenberg’s thesis is “that neither our thoughts nor anything else has any meaning whatsoever,” to quote Feser’s summation. Thoughts are neurons, neurons are ultimately just fermions and bosons and haven’t a clue. One wonders, then, why Rosenberg wrote a book, intending (or rather not-intending, because there is intention either) to communicate meanings, his fermions and bosons addressing Feser’s presumably, and neither being home. That should have been the first punch thrown, and it should have been the end of things. Thus ran my thoughts after delving rather too long on Feser’s post—and the wonder arose why I was doing it. Then came the realization (Feser is such a great writer) that I was doing so for the love of the sport alone. It doesn’t serve for purposes of navigation.  Feser is saying that a discarded left shoe is not a compass.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Litanies of Given Names

Yesterday I poked fun at Simone de Beauvoir for having five given names only to be reminded later (I was collecting and taking out the trash), that I rank right up there with Simone: Arzen Farkas Gyula Mária Darnay. Okay. I only have four, but I match the French lady’s style by featuring a female given name as she does one male. Quite long ago I reached the conclusion—without any research—that the longer the list, the higher the social rank—or pretensions to achieve it. In my own case there was actually a title of nobility—although many families in Hungary had these, and the title was not bound to land-holdings. Simon de Beauvoir’s father was a legal secretary, but her mother came from banking wealth. In any case, baptism takes place when we are babies—and we can say neither yea nor nay.

Concerning that Mária in my name, it was not due to an eccentricity in my family but to a widespread custom in Catholic countries or families. Hence we have Erich Maria Remarque and Rainer Maria Rilke. This has its match in female naming in Hispanic languages where Joseph (as José) is added to female babies’ names. I’ve always valued the small reminder that within each man there is a woman—and Simone no doubt appreciated the presence in her of Bertrand. This custom speaks to the wholeness of the human being— however difficult to reach.

Today I thought I’d spend a little time looking at other philosophers. Here is a random selection arranged by the number of given names. Next to them I show the occupation/status of the father.

Father’s Occupation
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel       
Treasurer at the Duchy of Wurttemberg
Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl    
A milliner
Bertrand Arthur William Russell      
An aristocrat
Jean-Paul Charles Aymart Sartre      
A naval officer
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling                
A professor
Ludwig Joseph Johann Wittgenstein
A wealthy industrialist

Søren Aabye Kierkegard                   
Affluent family
Alfred North Whitehead
An educator, school founder

Thomas Hobbes                                   
A vicar
David Hume                                         
A lawyer
Immanuel Kant                                    
A harness maker
John Locke                                                           
A lawyer

Notably, in this list, a middle class background is the norm—as, of course, you might expect—although each person shown is an intellectual luminary. The list features but a single genuine aristocrat, Russell, although Hegel’s father was also up there, socially and professionally, close to a ducal throne. Among those with three given names, only Russell is English. And for what it’s worth, among U.S. presidents, the only one with three given names is George Herbert Walker Bush.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rara Avis

It is exhausting to read a book by a philosopher writing for philosophers—which describes a book I’ve just finished, José Antonio Antón-Pacheco’s The Swedish Prophet. Paragraph’s bristle with abstract references to countless philosophical traditions, usually in abbreviated form, so that to tease out the meanings intended, one must be an absolute master of those philosophies. But this only by way of introduction.

The experience caused me to look up, to be sure for the hundredth time, what schools like phenomenology and existentialism really mean. That I have to do this, despite having read all of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling at least twice and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and about half of Heidegger’s Being and Time—and once spending an afternoon with Brigitte in the long ago, studying, together, the first paragraph of Husserl’s Logical Investigations (a fun afternoon mostly filled with laughter), is at least suggestive of the character of modern philosophy.

Anyway, while reading articles on these subjects in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I was startled to come across a woman, Simone de Beauvoir. My God, a female philosopher. I looked her up in turn and discovered that her full name is Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir—thus multiplying her female presence by having several first names—but what is Bertrand doing there? I know the name, of course—but it wouldn’t have surfaced had I searched my memories for a female philosopher. The only one I’ve ever read, cover to cover, with great concentration, was Hannah Arendt (her The Human Condition). Arendt is associated with Heidegger, but she is readable. The other name, of recent acquisition thanks to a series on Siris, was that of Lady Mary Shepherd.

One thing triggers another. I tried a Google search on the phrase “female philosophers.” I got this Wikipedia listing (link). To tell you the truth, I was surprised to see so many. Wikipedia lists exactly a hundred. The ladies I’ve named are there—and in the center there is Hildegard of Bingen. Among the famous women in history she is the one I admire most, although I think of her as a poet, composer, and mystic.

The earliest of these is Themistoclea (600 BC), the woman who taught Pythagoras—and his fame, presumably, kept her name alive. She was also known as Aristoclea—and sure enough Wikipedia also has her on the list, separately, so that the list is actually 99 names long. That pleased me. Somehow it is much more fitting that this list should end on a more oracular number, as it were.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Depth Beneath

Right now I feel as two-dimensional as our friends out there—in the universe, but barely aware of it. Just trying to survive…on instinct.

By the way—the next time you call me “aristocratic”…
                                         [Two quotes of the Star Trek character, Counselor Deanna Troi]

Counselor Deanna Troi, played on Star Trek by Marina Sirtis, has long been, for me, the best-known paradigm for the culture of emotion. It isn’t the facts that interest her but how the other party feels. Troi is a great symbol. First of all she is a mixture, half Betazoid, half human. Betazoids have extra powers; they are emphats and telepaths. Next she is a counselor, presumably a fully-trained psychiatrist. That profession, needless to say, is Modernity’s equivalent of clergy. Not quite last she is a woman, the gender thought best to represent the somewhat secondary feeling state—secondary because, of course, episodes where feelings are the focus are quite secondary to the more robust Make-it-sos of most of the Star Trek episodes. Not quite last, as I say, because this figure of pop culture points at greater depths beneath. I try to point toward them in the two quotes that I produce up there taken not quite at random from this source.

A while back now I managed to transcend my irritation and disgust with the culture of emotion when the realization suddenly dawned that it’s a symptom of our culture’s decadence—but the turn toward emotion is itself a positive movement, even if it isn’t quite there yet. The culture of emotion at least restores the necessary duality of our nature. We’re all half-Betazoids—and sometimes, especially when things go wrong—we know it, too. The culture elevates emotion from the status that Modernity assigns it—namely glands releasing chemical signals, when sensitized by external events, the flood of hormones, and the actions that they trigger in turn. It asserts that emotion has another dimension—without teasing out what it is and giving it a name. That it is or at least exhibits something beyond the glandular is brought home by giving the emphat telepathic powers—which modern science only marginally credits to exist in the work of its marginal side-kick, parapsychology.

Now, of course, if you were born long enough ago, and therefore you have managed to have your intuitions confirmed by society—namely that you have a soul— then the culture of emotions will appear peculiar and limited. It never seems to point beyond the physical—which is what emotions seem to be. And when it does so point, as Deanna does, in the first quote above, the words uttered are swallowed up in action. TV series don’t give us much time to reflect. But yes. We do sometimes feel two-dimensional, present in a greater world but unawarely. The traditional understanding of reality has more dimensions—and they are arranged hierarchically. Is it then surprising that Deanna Troi is thought to be aristocratic? Not at all. She represents that hierarchy. That she should oppose that classification is also understandable. She is what she is, Deanna Troi, counselor. But please treat her like any ordinary Jane.

Quasimodo Sunday

It is today. And it is named for the words spoken at the beginning of mass (the Introit): “Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite…” “Like newborn babes just born into the world, [may you] reasonably crave [pure, spiritual] milk…” This is also called the Easter Octave, thus the eighth day following Easter Sunday.

Now most may think, having forgotten the details of Victor Hugo’s novel, that somehow the Catholic Church has named this Sunday after the hunchback. Au contraire. Quasimodo got his name because the priest who found the badly-deformed child on the door steps of Notre Dame did so on that Sunday—or, as Hugo himself suggests, giving both quasi and modo a more modern slant, maybe the archdeacon meant to say that the child was unfinished, quasi-made. In any case, quasi means “as” and modo in context means “just,” thus the text  literally begins “As just-born infants, etc.” The text used here comes from the first letter of Peter, 2:2.

The Biblical text is translated into Latin here with certain freedoms—or else English translations take liberties. I don’t know which. The King James version is: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” The Modern Language version: “Like newborn babes, be thirsty for the unadulterated spiritual milk.” The Revised Standard: “Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk.” The New English Bible: “Like the new-born infants you are, you must crave for pure milk (spiritual milk, I mean).” Finally, the Jerusalem Bible: “You are new born, and, like babies, you should be hungry for nothing but milk—the spiritual honesty which will help you to grow up to salvation.” I feel a little queasy about that seemingly inserted rationabile; whatever its origin, translating it as sincerity omits the element of the rational, taken barely; that word hints at the presence of an intellectual translator—into the Latin.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

From a Distance

Seen from a distance or through a glass darkly, human communities reveal their invariably amusing character. All depending on the viewer, other words may be substituted for “amusing”—“silly,” “dreadful,” “admirable.” A case in point is North Korea. We get from there within a day news of a rocket that blew up and a ceremony in which two giant statues are unveiled while dignitaries in uniform, and a sole little young man in black stand to watch the unveiling while fireworks explode in the sky above. The little young man watches the statues and probably ponders a future in which his bronzen simulacrum will join the other two. Those watching the ceremony in masses probably think unuttered words: “At least we know how to get the fireworks up there.” The equal silliness of our own rituals entirely escapes us—the contrast, for instance, between sighs of relief because a self-appointed peacekeeper in Florida will most likely be tried for murder—and of a presidential candidate standing tall before the NRA and solemnly pledging to protect our future Zimmermans’ right to bear arms.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spring Thought

A halo of yellow, the faintest green
Enfolds our trees in dream-thin sheen.
Spring flies so fast, its colors faint,
The trees are a communion of saints.

Musical Memories—with Twist

Sometime a chance stimulus leads to a string of associations—and they produce new, and amusing, insights. Here is such a case. I am quoting here from a letter I received this morning from my old friend Philip Cavanaugh:
A couple of days ago I heard the recording “Goodnight Irene” on an internet music site. I remembered this silly song from my high school days and remembered that it had been composed and sung by Peter Seeger, my favorite American Communist. 
I met Seeger twice, once in 1965 when I was working at the New Windsor Cantonment in Newburgh, NY. You once visited there in our 1725 house; we drank a lot of Ballantine Ale that night. The museum hosted a group of Czech students and invited Pete Seeger to come over from Poughkeepsie to their campsite and sing. Seeger is a delightful and sharp guy. That was the first time I had heard the song “Die Moorsoldaten,” and he sang some of the songs of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of Spanish Civil War-fame. I met him again a couple of years later aboard his reconstructed 19th century Hudson river schooner “The Clearwater”; he was then active in creating awareness of the terribly polluted Hudson river.

Anyway, after hearing his song I looked him up on Wikipedia, knowing he was in his 90’s and wanted to see if he is still around. He is, but while reading about his life I encountered the name “Hanns Eisler”; this jumped out at me, as this name appears on the dust jacket of a recording of the DDR national anthem I had bought in East Berlin in 1957. Reading further I found Eisler was indeed a Seeger friend. Eisler, Brecht, Kurt Weil were émigrés in the 1930’s who came to the US to get away from the Nazis. Eisler and Brecht ended up in Hollywood and Eisler composed music for American films during the war; in fact, he was nominated for an Oscar for his film score for “None but the Lonely Heart” starring Cary Grant. He had a bad time in the late 40’s and 50’s with the House Un-American Activities Committee and left the country, eventually ending up in East Berlin. He composed “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” [“Risen from the Ruins”] and it became the official East German anthem. He remained a staunch communist and defended not only the regime against the demonstrators of the 17th of June but also defended the construction of the Berlin Wall. So a one time American Oscar-nominated film music composer wrote the DDR’s Nationalhymne? Is that cool or what?
                      [Philip Marshall Cavanaugh, private communication]

Monday, April 9, 2012

Gresham’s (or was it Aristophanes’) Law

This city, it often seems to me,
That’s how we treat our finest citizens,
treats our best and worthiest citizens
the nobly born, our righteous men,
the way it does our old silver coins,
our best and brightest, the ones well trained
our new gold ones, as well. This money
in music and the dance at the palaestra.
was never counterfeit—no, these coins
Instead we use foreign bronze for everything—
appeared to be the finest coins of all,
useless men from useless fathers, red heads,
the only ones which bore the proper stamp. 
men who’ve come here very recently—
Everywhere among barbarians and Greeks
the sort the city at its most negligent
they stood the test. But these we do not use.
would never use in earlier days,
Instead we have our debased coins of bronze,
not even as a scapegoat.
poorly struck some days ago or yesterday.
     Aristophanes, The Frogs

Gresham’s law, attributed to the British financier Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), is complicated to explain in an age when we use paper money we can’t exchange for gold. So is the history of this law. But the concept first. To sum it up, if two currencies are present, the “bad” money will drive the “good” money out of circulation. So what is bad money? It’s money artificially overvalued, thus valued by government fiat. Supposing the currency is gold but the government introduces silver to increase the money supply and sets the value of the new coinage in such a manner that the silver coins required to obtain one gold coin aren’t actually worth what gold coin would fetch as gold. We’ve come a long ways since. In this day and age debasing the currency is handled in a much more sophisticated way. The money supply is increased simply by printing more money—the effect of which is to reduce the purchasing power of bills in circulation or held in virtual form in banks. The result is essentially the same.

The history is also interesting. According to a modern-day scholar, George Selgin, Gresham never framed such a law. It was done by the economist Henry Dunning McLeod (1821-1902). But long before McLeod “borrowed” a famous name, the same concept had been articulated by no less a figure than Copernicus (1473-1543), before him by philosopher Nicole Oresme (1320-1382) and a Muslim contemporary of his, Al-Maqrizi (1364–1442), who wrote about the Mamluk dynasty—which inflated its economy by stamping out huge quantities of copper coinage.

And, as my quote shows, Aristophanes (446 BC-386 BC) came in even earlier. It delighted me, therefore, to discover that the first framer approached the subject as I did this morning in looking up this law. Aristophanes enlarged the concept, in framing it, to the wider view of human affairs, commenting, as it were, on politics and on pop culture. What goes around, comes around—but what comes around may not have the same value as what had gone around.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Week of Weeks

With egg hunts over and chocolate bunnies having lost their ears, Easter’s over in the secular order as this day ends. In the liturgical calendar, however, Easter is just beginning. Easter Sunday marks the beginning of Eastertide. The season lasts fifty days. It’s called a “week of weeks” because seven weeks have 49 days, and with Easter Sunday added to make 50, the period takes us to the feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit; it falls on May 27 this year.

The graphic, which I have from liturgicalyear (link), shows the liturgical year. The Eastertide is shown in yellow on the upper right. The liturgical calendar has five divisions centered in the Christian faith—Advent, Christmas, Lent, the Triduum, and Easter—at least on this calendar. The Triduum is a short period of three days, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday; in simpler calendars it isn’t specially noted. Separating Easter from Advent and Christmas from Lent are periods called Ordinary Time.

I’ve known about this time division for a long time, but vaguely—much as I know that Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are all Chinese cities, but if I had to place them on a blank map of China, I’d have difficulties. Different conceptions of time have long interested me, but I’ve never looked at the Church Year in closer detail. Now that I’ve dipped a toe, I find it fascinating—especially the discovery of those vast green spaces of Ordinary Time.

Ordinary time is where we live in this secular world—where national and bank holidays sometimes produce brief respites. Above it is the liturgical year. It too revolves. And above that? A quote in a comment from Brandon yesterday pointed to yet another level. The quote was Crux stat dum volvitur orbis. It is the motto of the Carthusian Order, formed in 1084. It means The cross is steady while the world turns. The order’s symbol is the insert, from Wikipedia (link).

Saturday, April 7, 2012

In Notre Dame Cathedral Tonight

The web site of the Notre Dame cathedral has the following description of the Paschal Vigil to be celebrated at 9:00 pm French time (link); a translation follows:

Depuis les temps les plus reculés, cette nuit est une veille en l’honneur du Seigneur, et la veillée célébrée cette nuit, en commémorant la nuit sainte où le Seigneur est ressuscité, est tenue pour la mère de toutes les saintes veillées. Elle est le passage des ténèbres à la lumière, la victoire du Christ sur la mort. C’est pourquoi, dans la nuit, le feu et le cierge de Pâques seront allumés. La flamme du cierge pascal sera transmise aux fidèles. Comme dans des centaines de paroisses en France, des baptêmes d’adultes seront célébrés au cours de la Vigile à la cathédrale et la communauté des croyants sera invitée à renouveller avec eux la promesse du baptême, nouvelle naissance en Christ ressuscité.

Since ancient times, tonight is a vigil in honor of the Lord, and the vigil celebrated this night commemorates the holy night when the Lord was resurrected, the ultimate of holy vigils. It represents a passage from darkness to light, Christ’s victory over death. For this reason, in the night fire and the flame of the Paschal candle are lit and passed to the faithful. As in hundreds of parishes in France, adult baptisms will be celebrated during the Vigil at the Cathedral and the community of believers will be invited to renew, with them, the promise of baptism, new birth in Christ resurrected.

The celebrant is André Ving-Trois, the archbishop of Paris. One of the adults baptized there tonight and received into the Catholic Church is our daughter, Michelle. What more can we say? She has always known her own mind and knew how to pick an event. To be sure, this outcome surprised her as much as the profound conversion experience that led to it quite a while ago. My sister Susie is Michelle’s Godmother. Our prayers are with them.

As Outside so Inside

As television series go, House, MD (first aired on Fox in 2004) is worth a look. It stars Hugh Laurie as House, a diagnostician, in episodes that reveal the complexity of bodies—and hence of medicine—in a dramatic and vivid fashion. I watched a couple of episodes when the series first aired but found that this sort of thing simply can’t be watched when ads disrupt the narrative flow. Now the series is available on video and easily rented at our library. One feature of this series is the occasional sequences that show the inside of bodies using special effects. To get a sense of what these look like, here is a YouTube video called “Inside the Human Body” (link).

Long before all that (computers, Internet, YouTube, etc.) I got keenly interested in the physical inner world and, having studied it for some years, formed imaginary videos of my own by staring at photographs and picturing myself reduced in size enough to cling to the walls of arteries as the “traffic” flowed by. Indeed, as the years passed, I concluded that the insides of us are like the outsides—once we leave the “cell” in which we live. Our offices were on Telegraph Road for some years, one of western Detroit’s great arteries; I used to have to walk a ways on foot along this horrendous highway (to pick up my car at a nearby Honda place after servicing), and the same thought recurred always: I’m inside an artery and clinging to its wall.

Forests and mountains and rivers, great floods, earthquakes, and other natural phantasmagorias—sci-fi creatures, aliens, entities much like those that teem in coral reefs and in perpetual darkness deep beneath them open to our imaginative view; the main difference is that the outside, as it were, moves in a slower time dimension and thousands of years pass as the mountains form; everything is faster in the body.

The contemplation of such images sharpens the awareness that we are living in alien worlds, a great one and a small one, in a way lost in either. Is this the place where we belong?

Added Later: Having seen more of House, MD, I would now modify my first sentence above. The first season is rather stunning, but the series starts to slide in its second season already—where suddenly some of the characters’ character is forcibly revised and the fascinating medical issues are replaced by wondering who will sleep next with whom.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Name of the Day

Today’s name in German is Karfreitag. Freitag means Friday, but you won’t find Kar even in a large German dictionary. It derives from the Old High German word kara. That word means sadness, mourning, and sorrow. It is thus a fitting modifier of the Friday in question. Indeed, among the languages at least faintly known to me, German is the only one that gives this day its sorrowful coloring. In most others the emphasis is on the status or importance of the day, thus its elevated, holy character. This is also true in English, where the good of Good Friday employs one of the meanings of “good,” thus piety and holiness. In Hungarian Nagy Péntek means Great Friday. In French it is le Vendredi saint, which is also echoed in Italian (Venerdi santo) and in Spanish (Viernes santo). The Finnish is Pitkäperjantai, meaning Long Friday. That designation was also an English usage long ago and derives from the fact that the day was marked by Jesus’ long suffering faintly echoed by believers during long periods of fasting and prayer. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Feather Light

Journalists know a good story when they see one; they also know how to present it so that the reader/viewer won’t be disappointed. Today came news that T-Rex might have been a bird. How do our scientists know? Why, they saw the feathers in the fossil record.

Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported the story. ABC news put up several videos. But the striking thing is that we don’t see even so much as a hint of feathers in those videos. I ranged about and finally discovered a picture on the Canadian site (link) and (using the same picture) on the Winnipeg Free Press (link). In the Winnipeg paper one can enlarge the image. I for one don’t see any feathers anywhere.  More skillfully, from a journalistic point of view, the NYT brings an artist’s rendition. Here they are, those feathered creatures, running along, accompanied by prehistoric pelicans in the air and on the ground. Pleasing. Here is a link that shows this story.

We go from ambiguous stones and bones to vivid illustrations in one leap. The Canadians opt to disappoint their readers, it seems to me. Those oblong images of something might be feathers—or might not. And, in any case, what difference does it make? Let me go on to something useful and see what the latest news is on the development of a reliable time machine. Once that’s available, we could send a journalist back to the Cretaceous equipped with a sturdy camera for taking vivid scenes as well as tight close-ups of those feathers.


Herewith an addendum to my earlier “Elitism, Individualism” (two days ago). I did not manage to capture the feeling that served as the inspiration for that post. The feeling was something like this: “Odd that in a country where individualism is supposed to reign, elitism is roundly condemned. Shouldn’t elite achievement be prized instead? Isn’t that an implication of individualism.” I didn’t quite manage to say that. Much depends on precise definitions, and words like elitism and individualism thrive precisely because they’re handy labels. We read into them whatever we wish. Individualism is stretched to justify radical libertarianism at one end, free marketeering in the middle, and elitism as capitalist wealth at the other—but, in the last case, disguised using another word. Elitism is very suspect because it implies both gifts and unusual effort: natural endowments, social status at birth, and unusual abilities energetically developed. That flies in the face of individualism which, applied to the masses, is thought to mean that everybody is the same. The only activity that gets a pass is sports. There elites are fine and dandy. But it helps a little if the great athletic star started life in the slums and did not come from a wealthy family.

There ought to be a law. I propose it. Let all true individualists join me in getting it passed. It would outlaw the word “individualism” and all of its meaning in favor of “averagism.” As under the Nazis you had to prove that no Jewish blood tainted your line, so in our bright future, every person, before holding any job of worth, should be able to certify his or her absolutely average gifts and status. And those who don’t qualify? Well, we saw a lot of uninhabited little islands in the Florida Keys when we were down there. We should have a elite cleansing and make them live on those islands. Global Warming, as luck would have it, will cause them soon to be submerged.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

You’re Looking at a Solar Panel

Tongxiang Fan and his colleagues at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University examined butterfly wings under an electron microscope and discovered that butterfly wings excell in capturing heat (link). The wings are in two layers. The first is formed of rectangular and overlaid panels; this surface communicates with a second by very small holes, directing the heat downward. Thus the butterfly captures and holds heat. Nature seems always a step ahead of us when it comes to intelligent design. Little did we know, raising our Black Swallowtail butterflies, that we were participating in the solar energy industry—a few species away. We saw the butterfly I show at the Butterfly Conservatory in Key West, Florida. — Oh, yes. Dr. Fan and colleagues are also building a prototype sun-capturing device for humans based on the "butterfly technology"; in time it may be part of our lives too.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Elitism, Individualism

Elitism has negative connotations in this supposedly individualistic society because the meaning of the word has changed to mean “people who exhibit privileges, wealth, and position they did not personally earn.” They started with a better hand than most—be that through family, genes, energy, smarts, whatever. The word’s origins are in selection, choice (the Latin eligere). Someone has chosen, elected, or picked out these people—presumably because of their emergent qualities. Using the original sense, all those who win elective office are members of an elite—but such is the onus of this word, candidates make utter fools of themselves trying to show that they’re just Average Joes.

Individualism, of course, derives from the concept of something that cannot be further divided; in practice it means that you can’t saw a person apart to make two. We might as well say human. But we enlarge and distort such words. We have humanism, for example, which asserts that the focus is on humans—rather than the cosmic arrangements of God. Therefore individualism means a focus on the individual rather than powerful collectives able to influence all kinds of human outcomes.

For this focus to work ideally—which it can only do in an impossible world—every baby born would have to be kept to an average achievement, intelligence, beauty, talent, etc. Kurt Vonnegut made fun of this in his wonderful story, “Harrison Bergeron”; it features a Handicapper General.

Elite or elites are the modern terms for aristocracy. That word for me has always had an un-erasable ambiguity. If by “rule” of the “best” we mean the genuinely best, it is laudable. If we means a controlling ruling class that maintains itself by privilege, force, and manipulation, it is problematical. The notion that people should be judged by what they achieve using whatever fortune dealt them is a bit too complicated for use in the Age of the Sound Byte. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Older Mountains

On our way to and from the Florida Keys, we crossed the Appalachian region, entering it in Ohio and leaving it in Georgia. That experience brought various memories, not least one of old speculations of mine. We got to know the region when we lived in Virginia and spent some vacation events in Virginia’s portion of the Blue Ridge Mountain, a part of the range. “Country roads, take me home.” We sang John Denver’s song as we drove through foggy heights—and did so on the last trip again. One of our valued charities is the Christian Appalachian Project (link), and we are eager readers of its magazine, The Mountain Spirit. It is good to spend time in those regions of the world beneath the deadly radar of modernity—and to give them money. Now to my speculations. It always struck me odd that there should be two major mountain ranges running north-south through America (well, more or less), one immensely high, majestic, and daunting, the Rockies, the other relatively low and humble, and yet, and yet… Well, real! Real mountains nonetheless.

Today I discovered something about the age of mountains. The Rockies are young, the Appalachians are old. The Rockies were formed in what is known as the Laramide orogeny. That was a new word form me; it derives from the Greek for mountain (oros) and formation or birth (gene). The word means the process of mountain formation; it took place an estimated 55 to 80 million years ago; as mountains go, that’s young. The first part of that name comes from the Laramie Mountains in eastern Wyoming. The Appalachian Mountain Range was formed in the Ordovician geologic era (named after a Celtic tribe) about 480 million years; in mountain time that’s old. And the Appalachians used to be one of the tallest range in the then known world—although no one could then take snapshots from the plains. They are the humble mountains that they are thanks to the relentless workings of water, wind, and erosion. But the memory of greatness still lingers on.

The two images I present here are from Wikipedia (link) and from the Appalachian Regional Commission (link). The first shows the geological reach of the range well into Canada, the second the cultural region as defined by our history and laid over the mountains.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Fool's News

We’re in the process of deciding what paper to read in the morning. The local papers are no longer dailies; they still appear every day but daily delivery only takes place a few days a week; these days are selected to coincide with shopping days in the run up to which advertisers need assurance. The two papers (Detroit News and Free Press) merge, as it were, into a single Sunday edition. My scans (using HP) and their collage (using Picasa), shown here, tells you what met my eyes today, April Fool’s Day. (My mention of two brands above will surely be followed by checks in the mail...?)

We are so used to this sort of thing now, it’s difficult even to remember the sober black-and-white papers of the 1950s, when we arrived, with at best one photograph, sometimes not. The paper we read then was the Kansas City Star. This Sunday issue actually has an internal section intended for the grownups titled News+Views; but the front page is meant to appeal to an imaginary subhuman mass out there I’d call the Yahoos, but I doubt that many now associate that word with Gulliver’s travels any more.

The plan is to abandon this paper and also the daily New York Times; that paper is at least trending in this direction more and more. We think we’ll settle for the Sunday New York Times and, the rest of the week, for the Wall Street Journal. In that process we shall save ourselves a lot of money—necessary because we need it to fill the doughnut hole our Congress has graciously provided to decorate our pharmaceuticals coverage.