Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some Surprises in Aristotle’s Topics

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post about Aristotle’s very pragmatic book on argumentation, the Topics. In the treatise, Aristotle describes arguments in terms of battles: each party looks for ground from which to attack, for instance. And in war, as they say, all is fair; the goal is to win. So, in the service of winning, Aristotle advocates using as much logical and rhetorical legerdemain as one can get away with. Forget the truth; just force your opponent to give up his position and adopt yours. For instance, he says, mix up the order of the points you need to establish so your opponent doesn’t know where you’re going. If he doesn't see the relevance of a point you’re making, he’s more likely to say what he really thinks and much more likely to concede the point.

This whole deceptive approach surprised me last year when I started the book. In other books – where Aristotle means only to train the reader in a search for truth, not to prepare him for battle – there is no discernible element of trickery. The life of a philosopher, according to Aristotle, is the most virtuous life possible. This year, in finishing up the Topics, I’ve found a few more surprises.

The first surprise has to do with a theory of perception that I previously associated only with modern studies in psychology. The goal of a definition, the Philosopher points out, is to make something more intelligible, so naturally the definition should be composed of terms more intelligible than the word being defined. But what is more intelligible? Usually, Aristotle says, the “prior” term is more intelligible, by which he means the more general or more basic term. X is prior to Y if X can exist without Y but Y cannot exist without X. Animals are prior to horses: animals could exist without the existence of horses, but horses cannot exist without there being animals. Aristotle would call the term animal “absolutely prior to” the term horse.

But sometimes the absolutely prior is not prior for us. In an example that reminded me of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland , Aristotle explains that a point is prior to a line, a line prior to a plane, and a plane prior to a solid. According to the basic formula, the point should be the most intelligible. But for us, a solid is more intelligible than a point. So while it may seem that teaching a subject should always begin with the tiniest elements and then putting them together to build larger patterns, sometimes we have to start with the big picture and break it down instead. In other words, Aristotle taught the principle of Gestalt psychology two millennia ahead of its time.

The second surprise addresses a problem I just recently blogged about: Plato’s notion that the Idea of a quality has that very quality. Plato said, for instance, that the Idea of redness is red. I always groan when he makes this mistake. Solidness provides a quick counterexample. A solid object like my desk has solidness. The things on the desk don’t bend it and don’t fall through it. If I swing my fist toward it, my fist will stop when it reaches the desk and make a sound. None of this is true of the “idea” of solidness in my head; I couldn’t swing my fist at it if I tried. No, Plato’s Ideas aren’t exactly the ideas in anyone’s head, but they don’t have any more physical solidness than my thoughts do. In a delightful surprise, I found Aristotle enjoining the reader to attack an opponent’s definition by showing that the predicates don’t apply to the Idea as well as to the object itself. Now, Aristotle didn’t believe in the Ideas as existences independent of all minds. But he knew many of his opponents did. So why not use their misguided belief to advantage?

My last surprise came in a passage on critiquing statements about relative terms. Look to see, Aristotle recommends, if your opponent has referred an activity to an intermediate goal rather than to its ultimate goal. Does he say, for instance, that some person is studying a craft in order to please his teacher rather than saying his goal is mastery of the craft? Then he is wrong; he should concern himself with the ultimate goal: mastery. But here Aristotle admits, as if he hasn’t thought about it before writing what comes before, that not everyone actually thinks this way. Most people, he concedes, prefer an activity to the cessation of the activity. The journey, we would say, is more important than the destination. The biggest surprise, a very pleasant one, is that Aristotle admits to being wrong.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Increase Your Word Power with Dickens – 2012

In the first year of this blog, I posted a vocabulary quiz based on words I associate with Charles Dickens and loosely modeled on a long-running Reader’s Digest feature. The first quiz included these ten words: alacrity, capacious, encomium, ignominy, lucubration, obsequious, obstreperous, paroxysm, sagacious, stentorian. If you read that post, no doubt you sagaciously committed your capacious mind to lucubrations so now with stentorian voice you can bestow an encomium upon yourself for your alacrity without suffering any ignominy. Did that sentence give you a paroxysm? Forgive me for being so obstreperous.

For 2102, I’ve picked a new list of ten words, several of which I have come across again recently in Bleak House. Here are the definitions:

a. biased
b. compensation for employment
c. diligence; persistence
d. embellishment; decoration
e. emotionally steady
f. given to speaking in adages, especially moralizing adages
g. punch bowl; punch
h. to rebuke
i. to address an absent person or inanimate object
j. to express disapproval of

Now match those definitions with these ten words:

___ apostrophise
___ assiduity
___ deprecate
___ emolument
___ equable
___ garniture
___ jorum
___ objurgate
___ sententious
___ tendentious

The Answers:

In my first post, I offered three theories as to why Dickens used these words: (1) they have more intensity because of their length, their rarity, or other features, (2) they can be used for humorous effect, and (3) Dickens probably just liked them. Theory no. 1 certainly applies in the case of deprecate: those hard consonants in the middle sound judgmental. And I would rather suffer a rebuke than an objurgation. Rebuke sounds like Dubuque, and who has anything against that honest city? But an objurgation sounds like a dreadful ordeal. And equable sounds businesslike, like some equable people.

This set includes a couple of words that suggest yet a fourth reason for using them: a coupling of brevity and precision. It’s much more efficient to call someone sententious than to say, “You know how he always gives you some trite saying to make you think he’s smarter than everybody else?” And what other single word means the same as apostrophise? We all do it – we all talk to people and things that can’t answer as if they could. But isn’t it better to use the one word than to say, every time you want to say it, that someone spoke to an object as if it could answer when really it can’t? As a bonus, Dickens, by knowing the word for this peculiarly human habit, thinks to have his characters do it, making them sound more real in the process.

Be assiduous in learning these words. After you have added their garniture to your daily vocabulary, you can celebrate with a jorum.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Looking Up with Dionysius

The phrase in the title of today's post means at least three different things. First it refers to all the looking up of information on Pseudo-Dionysius that I did last week. But more importantly for today is a second sense, the sense that Dionysius looks better to me as I continue reading than he did at first. My last post addressed some problems I was having trying to figure out who and what I was reading. But after three more days, things are looking up.

After a long, dense beginning on God’s existence above existence, Dionysius turns to the divine names of Goodness, Wisdom, and Life. God’s goodness, Dionysius explains, is above all good things and is their source. His wisdom is above all wise things and is the source of them. His life is above all living things and is the source of them. At this point Dionysius takes what seems at first a side track into a discussion of evil. I can see very well here how Aquinas is indebted to Dionysius, as the earlier writer argues clearly that evil is not a thing but a lack of a thing. Evil doesn’t exist except as a lack of goodness, and then only a lack according to a thing’s nature. Aquinas, actually, makes this point clearer with an example. Blindness is an evil in that it is a lack of sight, which is a good. But a stone’s lack of sight is not an evil, because it is not in a stone’s nature to see.

Having established his point about evil, Dionysius can use it to put all the first four divine names in perspective. Since God’s created world includes only things that are not complete and perfect (only God is perfect) and God called his creation good, even those absences, like the stone’s absence of sight, are good. From Plato and Aristotle, Dionysius inherited the idea that all things are good in so far as they exist. But, he adds, in God’s creation, even the non-existences are good. So, the Goodness of God is over all things existing and not existing. His Being (“Tell them I AM sent you”) is over all things existing. The Life of God is over all living things. And the Wisdom of God is over all rational things. Each name covers a smaller subset of the whole and corresponds to a higher category of creature. But Dionysius is careful to say that in God, Goodness, Being, Life, and Wisdom are equal and inseparable. While I wondered last week about Dionysius’ neo-Platonist tendencies, it was this point that convinced me he was teaching Christian doctrine, not neo-Platonism.

The final sense of the title comes from Dionysius’ explanation for how we can know the God who exists (or “hyperexists”) above all knowledge. Since He fashioned all created things from the wisdom of his own plan, we see traces of God’s wisdom all around us in every created thing. Dionysius then urges us to “contemplate, with supermundane eyes, all things in the Cause of all.” Using the things of the world, we look up toward their Source, ascending as far as humanly possible, but remembering that God is actually beyond all the analogies and conceptions we can come up with.

This week I start Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy. I suppose that experience will provide a fourth way of looking up as I contemplate the ranks of angels.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Pseudo-Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite

I’ve been looking forward to reading some treatises by Dionysius the Areopagite for a long time; Thomas Aquinas cites him frequently, and Dionysius’ view of the angels, as I understand it, played a large role in shaping Dante’s Paradiso. But in my first two days with On the Divine Names, I’ve found Dionysius disappointing and puzzling.

If you search for “Dionysius the Areopagite” on the internet, you’ll find “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite” and “Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite.” Chances are, the writer was neither named Dionysius nor a member of the Areopagus. Scholars of the last hundred years or so have determined that the works that come down to us under the name have nothing to do with the Dionysius whose interaction with the apostle Paul is mentioned in Acts 17; the language of his books is more consistent with that of a few centuries later.

So why do the books have the name of the Biblical Athenian on them? Dionysius eventually became the bishop of Athens, a recognized authority on Christian doctrine, and it was common practice in the Middle Ages to put an older authority’s name on a book. To a culture that thought more about passing down teaching than about coming up with original ideas, the practice wasn’t necessarily meant to deceive. Let’s say I wanted to write a tract on issues of music theory taught by my professor at Iowa, W. T. Atcherson. I might call it “The Music Theory of W. T. Atcherson.” Then suppose I wanted to remain anonymous for reasons of humility and respect. I would hope that my document accurately represented Prof. Atcherson, so readers from future centuries wouldn’t be far off if they mistook the words on the cover to mean that they were looking at a book called The Music Theory, and that it was actually written down by W. T. Atcherson. So this author putting the name of Dionysius to his work doesn’t bother me. The problem is that the author of On the Divine Names claims to have been present at the burial of Mary, along with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. Even trying to set aside my modern sensibilities about authorship, I can’t get around thinking that that passage was meant to deceive. Disappointing.

On top of being misleading at least once, the book uses very dense and difficult language. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that On the Divine Names teaches neo-Platonism in Christian terms. Another site says it teaches Christian doctrine in neo-Platonic terms. I don’t know. One way or another I’m reading phrases like “goodly progressions from the whole Deity.” And using these mystical terms and dense sentence structures, the author starts out trying to say that God is beyond our comprehension. But he can’t just say that; he has to demonstrate the concept by using language beyond comprehension. I couldn’t help thinking of William James talking about Hegel and other virtual “lunatics” who go around and around incomprehensible terms in ways that sound wise because they follow the rules of grammar and rhetoric. Very few of their readers succeed in getting the intended message of such writing into their heads, and only after a great deal of effort.

After a “goodly” deal of effort, I think pseudo-Dionysius is trying to say that God doesn’t exactly exist, since He is the source of existence, but that he “is” above existence – not that his non-existence is lack of existence but rather a hyper-existence. Puzzling.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

There's Nobody You Can Shoot

Near the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad returns home from prison only to find a bulldozer about to knock his family homestead down. When Tom asks the driver what he’s doing and why, he hears something about banks and foreclosures. Not caring about such things as much as he does his house, Tom threatens to shoot the bulldozer driver. Doesn’t matter, the driver replies, the bank’ll just send someone else tomorrow. Then I’ll shoot him, too. No, they’ll send another the day after that. Then tell me who’s sending you, and I’ll go to the bank and shoot HIM. Finally the bulldozer driver makes Steinbeck’s sociological point. Don’t you get it? he asks. Your house is coming down, and there’s nobody you can shoot.

I couldn’t help thinking of that scene when I read these words in Bleak House, spoken by Mr. Gridley, a victim of the interminable procedures of Chancery Court:
The system! I am told on all hands, it's the system. I mustn't look to individuals. It's the system. I mustn't go into court and say, 'My Lord, I beg to know this from you – is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?' My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn't go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied – as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don't I? – I mustn't say to him, 'I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!' HE is not responsible. It's the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here, . . . I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!
I’ve drawn comfort from Tom Joad’s lesson on occasion. When my employer, for instance, tells me I will earn so much money over the next fiscal year, and then explains that I will actually only begin earning at that rate in October, I tell my self: there’s nobody you can shoot. When I add up the paychecks from October to the next September and find that they still don’t add up to the amount I am promised, I console myself: there’s nobody you can shoot.

But as much as it helps in many frustrating situations to think that no one person can make everything better by pressing a button or filling in the right form or dying by GSW, I believe Dickens’s view excels Steinbeck’s in a few ways. First, Dickens’s Mr. Gridley recognizes that the system is the creation of individual human beings. Second, he implies that a person’s denial of responsibility is no sure sign of actual absence of responsibility. And third, he acknowledges a court higher than that of Chancery at which the great Judge will render judgment without appeal.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

London Fog Surrounding the Lights

Two days ago I wrote about some passages from Bleak House that praised invincible goods: love, duty, courage, happiness, and life. Today, maybe because I’ve reached the point in the book where the shadowy forces have started plots (both in the criminal sense and in the literary), I’m contemplating some darker passages – passages that paint the evil face of our world, sometimes in just a couple of lines.

After young Richard Carstone’s first visit to the Court of Chancery, that magician’s box where legacies vanish in decades of legal costs, he has this to say:
To see that composed court yesterday jogging on so serenely and to think of the wretchedness of the pieces on the board gave me the headache and the heartache both together. My head ached with wondering how it happened, if men were neither fools nor rascals; and my heart ached to think they could possibly be either.
And there we have the fallen human state in a nutshell. I may think I’m not a fool or rascal, but everyone else thinks the same thing about himself, and still we live in a bleak house that could only have been built by fools and rascals. As much as we want to blame someone or something else for our woes, in the end we must submit to the realization that we cast our own shadows and dig our own graves.

Later in the book, Dickens’s present-tense narrator calls an overfull, pestilent city graveyard “a shameful testimony to future ages how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together.” Blaise Pascal called man “an incomprehensible monster,” “a chaos, a contradition,” “the pride and refuse of the universe.” Dickens uses that contradiction in this indictment of a culture both civilized and barbaric, and then caps it by pointing out that his blind compatriots dare to boast of their monstrosity.

Dickens had a talent for capturing dark images of human nature with accuracy and a cold beauty. But dark images can only be seen in the presence of light. In the sunless recesses of the deepest cave, smoke would be no darker than anything else. It would present itself to an observer only as a smell, taste, and feeling, not as a sight. But light a torch, and suddenly the smoke is black. Dickens’s torch burns bright, indeed.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Lights Shining in the London Fog

Bleak House begins and ends in the London fog. Those two words sound romantic to some Americans; one company sells coats and umbrellas on the good feelings associated with the phrase. But the London fog of the nineteenth century was not a meteorological phenomenon involving water vapor. It was smoke – the black smoke of an Industrial Revolution in full stride. In Bleak House, the so-called fog fills the streets, surrounds St. Paul’s, covers signs like a poison ivy, and hides secrets.

But of course Dickens finds light in the darkness. The story includes in its roster a number of good-natured fools and avuncular guardians, and its narrative includes healthy portions of satire. On top of the happiness and humor, Dickens superadds his usual moral lessons, all of which blaze out in the London fog, which comprehendeth not the light. Take this passage from Esther’s narrative, for instance, in reference to the teen-age love of her friends Richard and Ada:
They went on in their own wild way for a little while--I never stopped them; I enjoyed it too much myself--and then we gradually fell to considering how young they were, and how
there must be a lapse of several years before this early love could come to anything, and how it could come to happiness only if it were real and lasting and inspired them with a steady resolution to do their duty to each other, with constancy, fortitude, and perseverance, each always for the other's sake.
Notice that Dickens and his Esther approve of emotional love; Esther enjoys the young couple’s romantic silliness too much to stop it. But she understands that it has a proper place subservient to a love of persevering service to others, and that it only leads to happiness if it inspires this higher love. How might the statistics of our culture be different if more of us understood that romantic feelings themselves don’t constitute happiness, that true love is a commitment, and that people in relationship each have duties to act for the other’s sake!

In another shining passage, Esther reminds us that goodness doesn’t just stand strong in the storm but sometimes even depends on it:
It was grand to see how the wind awoke, and bent the trees, and drove the rain before it like a cloud of smoke; and to hear the solemn thunder and to see the lightning; and while thinking with awe of the tremendous powers by which our little lives are encompassed, to consider how beneficent they are and how upon the smallest flower and leaf there was already a freshness poured from all this seeming rage which seemed to make creation new again.
Our lives seem little indeed in the face of the “tremendous powers,” but the flower, even smaller than our little lives, finds freshness and new life in the raging storm. May we always sense the creation in the wind and see the light through the fog.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Human Mysteries in Bleak House

I’ve been reading a bit about literary point of view in fiction recently. For several decades now, it appears writers and critics have rejected the omniscient narrator that they see as the prevailing technique of the past (I’m not so sure truly omniscient narrators ever dominated fiction) in favor of a technique in which the narration has access to the thoughts of only one character. In fact, it seems standard for the narration not just to report those thoughts as if observed, but to share them as if lived. This technique usually converts thoughts to the past tense and presents them without quotation marks, but they represent quotations of the words in a character’s head.

As an example, let me propose a passage from a book that doesn’t currently exist.
Arabella checked her ticket once more. 14B. Dang. Center seat. Why couldn’t she ever sit near the window? She folded her body to squeeze it under the luggage compartment, somehow managed to pull her carry-on past the arms of the aisle seat, and fell into her place with as much of a thud as 115 pounds can make.

But after a couple of breaths, things didn’t look so bad. Old lady in 14A. Little old lady. Maybe this flight wouldn’t be so bad after all.

And then she saw him. Two-hundred-ten pounds of the best a gym can turn out, and an attitude just as buffed. Oh, please don’t have 14C. Closer and closer he came. Row 10 . . . 11 . . . 12 . . . 13 . . . Looking for a spot in the overhead for his duffel. Then – sure enough – 14C.

The entire trio of seats careened backwards as the behemoth sat down. Without a word or a glance, muscle-man pushed Arabella’s elbow off the narrow arm of the seat and thrust his own at least four, maybe five inches over into 14B territory. Jerk. Who did he think he was?
It’s not just that a narrator knows everything Arabella knows and sees everything she sees. There is virtually no narrator in this passage. There is no Bunyan writing under the pretense (?) of recording his dream. There is no Knickerbocker, the narrator of many of Washington Irving’s tales, to tell the reader whom he spoke with and how he found out the story he’s recounting, or to express his doubts about the story’s accuracy. (N.B.: Neither of these narrators is omniscient.) The words in my excerpt are almost entirely Arabella’s thoughts, translated into the past tense and the third person. Where literally Arabella thought at the time, “Why can’t I ever sit near the window,” we get, “Why couldn’t she ever sit near the window?” “Who does he think he is?” becomes “Who did he think he was?” “Jerk” of course needs no refitting. As for the rest of the narration, it has no apparent source; it just exists, as if statements of fact do simply, objectively, Platonically exist, floating through space like the opening words of a Star Wars movie.

In my understanding, the pervasive practice of following one character’s thought process traces back in theory to Freud and his interest in the monologues of the innermost recesses of the human mind, and in practice to James Joyce, who used it to great effect in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But I prefer much less direct contact with the characters’ streams of consciousness in my reading. I don’t care if Arabella calls the guy a jerk in her mind. I certainly don’t need to be told she does it; it's common, familiar behavior. I’d read with much more interest if I could see her wince. I’d love to see her open her mouth and start to say something. I’d love to hear what elliptical comment she makes about the jerk to the old lady.

With the issue of point of view on my mind, I came to Bleak House this month ready to test my vague memory of Dickens describing the sensuously perceptible much more than he channels the psychological. And my memory was not far off. So far in the book, I’ve found that Dickens sometimes reports a character’s habitual thoughts in an introductory description of the character, as, for instance, when he tells us that Sir Leicester Dedlock regarded those of the lower classes to exist for his comfort, and that he should be very much surprised to learn that they don’t think the same. But the narrator could base that summary on his observations from an unrevealed past. Once the scene gets going, all depictions of mental operations are gone; instead, we see Sir Leicester move and hear him talk and, as a result, get a much fuller picture of the psychological makeup of Sir Leicester than we would if we simply read the echo of his thoughts.

It could just be that I had the topic of point of view on my mind, but it certainly seems at this point (about 20% though the novel) that Dickens actually makes a theme in Bleak House of the privacy of thought. Both Esther in her first-person narrative and the third-person narrator who alternates with her speak several times of supposing what a character thinks. One passage speculates on what various farm animals think. The narrators even talk about other characters not having access to anyone else’s thoughts. The present-tense narrator says, for instance, “Therefore, while Mr. Tulkinghorn may not know what is passing in the Dedlock mind at present, it is very possible that he may.”

Not having direct access to characters’ thoughts is good. No access prompts more interesting, vivid descriptions of human action. No access makes for realism (since I don’t have direct communication with anyone else’s thoughts in real life). No access means mystery. I like finding out about fictional characters the same way I find out about real people: by observing, interpreting, and scratching my head in puzzlement. And Dickens regularly lets the reader do just that. I blogged last year about a motif in David Copperfield of characters dealing not with other characters but with the images of others that they carry in their own heads. In Bleak House, the inaccessibility of some characters is even built into their names. One character is named Nemo; I don’t remember, but I suspect that I will learn more about this “Nobody” later in the book. Another character is named Quale; one could pronounce the name like that of a former Vice President, but it could also be pronounced in two syllables, in which case it means a perceived property distinct from any underlying subject. Do I know the real Mr. Quale? No, I do not. Do I want to know the real Mr. Quale? Based on what I have seen so far, most assuredly not. But I definitely enjoy reading about him and speculating.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dickens and Ishtar

Hype is an ironic trickster, a purveyor of self-negating prophecy, always accomplishing an end contrary to that of the task entrusted to it. “Urgent,” shouts the envelope, guaranteeing that the contents are anything but. “New and Improved,” exclaims the box, ensuring a product of an efficacy exactly equal to that of last year’s formula. “The Greatest Legend of All Time,” boasts the movie trailer, making certain that the advertised film will act as a soporific.

Negative hype works in the same contrary way. Having heard Ishtar called the worst movie of all time, I watched it prepared to find any merit at all as a virtue beyond all expectation. So naturally, I liked it. In fact, I laughed loudly at the scene where Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty start composing their first song. (It’s true that I fell asleep during the second half, but we’ll credit that to the late hour and ignore the fact that I’ve never seen fit to go back and finsh watching.)

Sometimes negative hype comes not from an outsider but from our own memories. Dickens’s Bleak House disappointed me when I first read it. I had read A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, and enjoyed every page, but Bleak House just didn’t seem to stack up. My mind had probably hyped Dickens to a degree that he couldn’t possibly live up to. But now in 2012, the process is working the other way: remembering the book as a disappointment, I can’t believe how good it is on a second reading.

I know one thing that annoyed me the first time was the use of present tense for half the book’s chapters. I found them boring before and tried to get through them as fast as I could for the more accessible, past-tense, first-person memoirs of heroine Esther Summerson. Maybe I’m just older now. Or maybe it’s that I just read The Hunger Games in December. But whatever the reason, the present tense has a powerful effect on me this time around. The topical backdrop of the whole book is the Court of Chancery, where civil suits typically lasted decades. The present tense works perfectly in chapters concerning the Court by conveying the absence of time and progress that plagues Chancery. Dickens also uses the present tense to describe the routines of the Dedlock family whose seven centuries of ancestry, he says, have distinguished themselves chiefly by accomplishing nothing. Reading about the Dedlocks in a tense with no temporal horizon, I get the impression that their characters are in – well – deadlock.

I don’t know what else bothered me in my first reading. But one more thing I like this time is the way Dickens shows character shaping perception. For instance, everyone praises Esther for being thoughtful, but she -- because she is thoughtful -- can only see the praise as a sign of a good heart in her laudator. As another example, Bleak House itself has been named so by old Tom Jarndyce, who saw in it only cobwebs and decay -- but then Tom felt ruined by Chancery and put a bullet through his head one night. The more contented John Jarndyce, on the other hand, has fixed up the house and decorated it to the point that Esther finds it quite the cozy home when she first sees it. To the pure all things are pure.

And that last point suggests to me a new reason the book seems so much better than it did thirty years ago. Maybe I’m looking at things more like John Jarndyce now.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Qi and Cheng

I’m a fan of wargames: big complicated games with hundreds of pieces and 32-page rulebooks. I’ve played them for forty years with my dad, with my friends, and with my son. But I’m a terrible player. As much as I like to read about the American Civil War, I can’t beat my son at Bobby Lee. It doesn’t matter if I play North or South: my army is decimated by the end of the first year. I played the Allies once in a monster game of World War II; the game ended with the Japanese and Germans meeting and shaking hands in Kansas City. So I come to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with several goals in mind: to read a classic, to learn about ancient times, to learn about the Chinese, and perhaps to gain some game strategy.

The Art of War strikes me the way so many Asian stories and films do: as a mixture of the exotic and the familiar. Sun Tzu’s terse, enigmatic writing style prompts a different kind of reading strategy than (I suppose) a U.S. Army manual would: I want to search it backwards and forwards for clues as if it were a mystery novel, to roll the words and concepts around looking for the hidden connections as I would with a proverb of Solomon, to prod and poke and pull every corner as if I were trying to get inside a Chinese box. That experience places me in a foreign land. And yet Sun Tzu talks about terrain and supply and order of command, concepts familiar from reading Civil War history, from playing games, and from looking out the window or at my budget.

The most interesting concept in the book explores the relationship of Qi and Cheng. (My edition, which introduces these terms in an editorial note, uses an old system of transliterating Chinese and spells the first word “Ch’i.” An internet search through material as confusing as that Chinese box I was trying to get into a minute ago suggests that the initial sound is now rendered with a Q and is pronounced like CH but with the tongue touching the lower teeth.) According to the translator, Lionel Giles, Qi and Cheng “are mutually interchangeable and run into each other like the two sides of a circle.” To begin with, Qi means “lateral movement” and Cheng means “facing the enemy.” But Qi, which seems to be moving away from battle, is actually the way to attack, since, as Sun Tzu says, all warfare is based on deception. And Cheng, which looks like readiness for battle, is actually a deception. The attack is the deception and the deception is the attack. Qi and Cheng.

Thinking about this circular dialectic, I start to read other parts of the book the same way. Success depends on the commander’s knowledge of the enemy, of atmospheric conditions, and so on. But then success depends on the enemy’s ignorance. Knowledge and ignorance. Victory requires speed: the army must avoid long campaigns or seiges that tire the men and dull the weapons. And yet since victory depends on the enemy’s mistake, the army should wait for the right opportunity. Haste and caution. A stupid, reckless soldier weakens an army; on the other hand, the good commander knows how to use his own weaknesses as strengths and sends the stupid man forward because he has no fear of death. Stupidity and intelligence. The examples go on and on, culminating in the ultimate paradox: the best commander with consummate knowledge of all the technique of battle knows that the greatest victory captures the enemy without battle.

Taking one step back, I start to think that the familiar and the exotic that I encounter here are also mutually interchangeable. Sun Tzu’s recognition that sure ideas are mysterious sounds inscrutably Asian at first. But I’ve actually found that the most important things are the hardest to define; so that thinking isn’t so foreign after all. And while a principle such as “Attack from high ground” sounds familiar and simple, I find it quite slippery in execution. Play a wargame with me sometime, and you’ll find out.