Sunday, September 30, 2012

Charles Williams Sees Reality, Part I

I am in chains, held prisoner in a cave. Iron fittings hold my head so that I can only look ahead of me, where dark objects appear and move on the far wall. During what I know as the night, I see mostly people and the objects they hold; their figures jump and flicker erratically. During the morning a stately forest takes its place in my field of vision, the tall noble trees standing firmly and then drifting to the left as they slowly shrink back into the ground over the course of about two hours.

Suddenly I hear noises behind me and see a new human figure on the wall, waving his arms and shouting incomprehensible things about “reality.” A few moments later, I have what I assume is a hallucinatory vision. Something like a man appears before me, only he is more than a man. Where men are all the color of the rock in the cave wall, only darker, this man has many colors. The colors make shapes appear where I never imagined shapes could be; you may think I am mad, but this man has details in his inside. No, it is not the inside, either. But if you can imagine a man lowering his arms to his hips and then think of where his hips would be within that dark outline, you might have an idea of what I see on this bizarre figure. Stranger yet, he seems to occupy a new, third dimension: some of these features appear closer to me than others, and – I wouldn’t blame you if you quit reading after you hear this news from the halls of insanity – he can move his arm not just up and down or to the side but across his middle without having it disappear, and then he can move it toward me and cause an urgent physical sensation on my chest.

“My name is Plato,” he says, “and I am here to free you and show you the reality beyond the shadows.”

“I know not what shadows are, friend,” I reply, “and I already understand reality – or thought I did. But you have already shown me a dimension I had never before imagined possible. So release me and teach me.”

“I am a man,” Plato says, “and the shapes of men you see on the cave wall are cast by such as I when we step in front of a source of light. The shapes you have seen all your life are but the shadows of things more real.”

“I have heard of light from my captors. They say it is the space between objects, that it is nothingness.”

“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” he says. “Light is the source by which you see all that you have seen. The shadows you call men are actually the spaces – the spaces between the light, and they are as nothing compared to it. Even the vibrant, three-dimensional Plato you see before you now comes to your eyes because of light. Come, let me show you.”

The chains fall from my limbs, and Plato takes me by the hand. I have seen people hold hands on the wall, but I have never felt it. We walk a while; he tells me we are walking out of the cave. How one can walk out of the world, I do not understand. But that I am leaving all I have ever known, I have no doubt, for suddenly I must close my eyes because of a strange, overpowering sensation.

“What do you see?” he asks me.

“Nothing.” I answer. “You said you would show me things, but you have blinded me instead.”

The story continues here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Three Degrees of Separation from Truth

Many graduate courses in music research require students to purchase a certain reference text that lists all the reference texts in musicology. Using this book, the student can’t look up any ideas or information about music. In the sections concerning bibliographies, the student can’t even look up where to find ideas or information about music; here he’s finding works in which he can find works in which to find ideas and information about music. I don’t begrudge the book its value. But requiring its purchase projects what I see as a misguided approach to research. Somewhere along the line, scholarship changed from being a pursuit of truth to being a pursuit of organization.

I had several classes like this in grad school. In the History of Music Theory, for instance, I learned what many theorists thought about music and, in some cases, what they thought about other music theorists. But never did we discuss whether these theorists from the past were right. Academic musicians never agreed on why minor keys came about or work for us, so we quit talking about it. Now the study of the subject consists merely in an exercise of learning what Rameau said when.

But music theory isn’t the only academic subject suffering the malady. I’ve been trying to remember where I read it for several days now, but I just can’t: somewhere in the last month I read the observation that the study of philosophy has become the study of philosophers. The passage stuck in my mind, if not its author, because it so strongly resonated with my experience. In one of the constant coincidences that attend my reading, when I started The Place of the Lion a few days ago, its author, Charles Williams, introduced me to the character Damaris Tighe, a philosophy student fascinated by philosophers and writing a dissertation called “Pythagorean Influences on Abelard.” Damaris has also written papers on “Platonic Tradition at the Court of Charlemagne” and on the parallels between Plato’s Ideas and the angels of Dionysius. She estimates that her dissertation will need no fewer than five appendices, including a three-dimensional map tracing connections to a hundred other ancient and medieval philosophers. She knows exactly who thought what about extramaterial universals, but she remains completely unconcerned about whether universals exist or how they affect her life. Her friend Anthony Durrant divides thinkers into people like himself, who like their philosophy “living and intelligent,” and people like Damaris, for whom it is “dying and scholarly.” But both of them are about to discover that not only philosophy but the ideal universals themselves are living and intelligent.

I could say that the story of their discovery symbolizes an encounter with God or perhaps represents a moment on their respective paths to God. But Charles Williams isn’t exactly an allegorist for all his rich symbolism. Although he doesn’t spell it out explicitly, I believe that Williams – Lewis and Tolkien’s fellow Inkling – would have said that the embrace of philosophy, as opposed to a commitment to scholarship in philosophy, is the reconciliation with God. God is Love, living and intelligent Love, and Christ is living and intelligent Wisdom. So philo-sophy, the love of wisdom, must literally, ultimately mean a life baptized in Christ.

Charles Williams is not for the faint of heart. Although his novels are relatively slim, they’re not quick reads. If you read one, for one reason or another you will read passages twice. But they are always worth the repetition. Reading Williams’s novels is like plunging your face into a running fountain of hearty stew; a lot of it, maybe most of it, will run down your face unassimilated, but what gets into your mouth will enrich and satisfy. I took in a lot more of Place of the Lion this time around than I did thirty years ago. The first time I plunged into this stream, I had never read Plato or Dionysius and had no way to understand half of the book. This time around, I’ve read things by most of the writers Damaris studies, and I know a bit of who said what when. But Williams reminds me why they said it and brings me face to living face.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Object Lessons

This past week I read the story of Sertorius, surely one of the best of Plutarch’s lives. Although it seems likely that I’ve read mention of Sertorius before, I don’t remember hearing of him and didn’t know anything about him. And yet Plutarch says he was the greatest military commander of his time: the time of the Roman Civil War just before Julius Caesar’s day, a period I have read about several times.

Sertorius rose through the ranks of the Roman army because of his brave and clever maneuvers, and his future seemed bright (well, as bright as the crimson light of a warrior’s glory can shine, in any case). But then he had to pick sides when Sulla and Marius broke up the Romans along class lines. His choice to follow Marius worked fine until Sulla gained ascendancy and banished Marius. So Sertorius, too, had to flee for his life. He took his private army – such entourages were possible in Roman times – to Spain. While he took control of several towns, Plutarch tells us that they were glad to be controlled and enjoyed Sertorius’ wise and benevolent rule. So his private army grew. Successful campaigns in Africa brought even more devoted followers.

With all this accumulating success, Sertorius started looking pretty dangerous to the folks in power back in the capital city. It’s not that Sertorius actively threatened Rome. To hear Plutarch tell it, he just wanted to gather a little bodyguard of fifteen thousand or so and hide out south of the Pyrenees running a few Iberian towns. He just wanted a little peace. It could well have been that Sertorius’ designs for peace were like those of the Hitler of Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be: I just want a little peace – a little piece of Czechoslovakia, a little piece of Poland, a little piece of France . . . . Whatever Sertorius actually intended, the Romans saw him as a threat, so they started sending forces against him. And yet time after time, Sertorius beat them back, often with smaller numbers.

Plutarch explains that while the Romans assumed war should be fought in open battles, Sertorius preferred those clever, daring raids on the wings, supply lines, detached forces, and so on. He also made a point of surveying the mountainous land around him and knowing every pass; then he could lure his enemy into an enclosed valley, do some damage with a surprise attack through the trees, and then flee, leaving the official legions with no knowledge of how big Sertorius’ army was or where it had gone. Essentially, Sertorius discovered guerilla warfare.

But a big part of his success seems to have come from several object lessons he gave to his troops. To convince the men of the value of striking and running, he had to convince them that the power of that strategy far outweighed any moral victory gained from a Romanesque display of courage on the open battlefield. So he gathered his group together and chose from among them both the biggest, strongest man he could find and the scrawniest, and then both the biggest and most scraggly horse, as well. Then with some special instructions to the two men, he announced to the army that the two would attempt to pull the tails off the horses. Placing the stronger man behind the smaller horse, and the smaller man behind the larger horse, he told them to begin. The strong man seized his little horse’s entire tail and pulled as hard as he could, while the small man started plucking hairs one by one. In a while Sertorius had the men stop and then showed the results to his fascinated troops: the strong man had accomplished nothing with his full-on attack except for angering the tiny horse, while the weak man had nearly eliminated the powerful steed’s tail. The lesson could almost be a fable by Aesop: slow and steady wins the race. The idea also reminds me of the Sun Tzu I read earlier this year: the feinting movement is the attack, and the frontal movement is the feint.

Plutarch spends quite a while on one other vivid method Sertorius had of keeping his army’s attention. Thinking all Spaniards and Moors highly superstitious (something Romans would never be), he figured he could better keep them in line if they thought he had direct access to the wisdom of the gods. One day his hunters brought him a white goat, kept alive because they considered the color unusual. Sertorius kept the goat as a pet and dressed its head in a garland of flowers. The men quickly grew to love the pampered goat and saw it as something of a mascot, so Sertorius decided to use it as an omen. He told his troops that his pet was a prophetic goat, and anytime he secretly received reconnaissance intel about the size or location of an opposing force, he would announce the news at assembly the next morning, explaining that the goat had told him the information in the night. When his army, during the next encounter, found the information invariably true, they began to believe in the goat.

Numerous conclusions can be drawn from all these stories about Sertorius. But today’s observation is that Sertorius’ vivid object lessons captured the attention of one twenty-first century reader just as well as they captured that of a band of mercenaries two-thousand years ago. I mean, really, who doesn’t like a white goat with a wreath of flowers on its head?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Re: My Hackles

I just had to write one more time about Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue. He got my hackles up. I’ve enjoyed 90% of the book immensely, but that other 10% is really bugging me. How the Vikings affected English, how new words are formed, where names come from, how British English and American English differ, why our pronunciation varies so much both from that of other speakers of English and, in many instances, from the spelling of the word – all these topics fascinate me, and Bryson has informative and entertaining things to say about each of them. But when he starts talking about rules and standards, he suddenly becomes crazy.

OK, so I know that English doesn’t have a linguistic academy regulating its use. (According to this list on Wikipedia, English is seemingly the only language that doesn’t have an academy.) And I recognize that, as a result of the lack of an academy, all teachers of grammar are self-proclaimed experts. I gladly characterize myself as a self-proclaimed expert on grammar and proudly join myself to the ranks that include Robert Lowth, an amateur grammarian from the eighteenth century who, according to Bryson, single-handedly came up with, among others, the rule to say “different from” rather than “different than” and the rule to say “the largest of several objects” but “the larger of two.” But I’m the first to admit (in many, many students’ lives, I’m literally the first to admit) that some of the rules of English grammar and punctuation are completely arbitrary.

But Bryson goes too far and says that the rules of English grammar are all arbitrary, that they make no sense, that they are illogical. Let’s take his disdain for Lowth’s insistence that we say “between” when locating one object with reference to two others but “among” when using more than two reference objects. Nonsense?! Bryson offers a lot of amazing details about the history of the language in other chapters. Can’t he look at the “tw” in the middle of that word and see that “two” played an essential part sometime in its history? That doesn’t mean we have to use the word in the same way Chaucer did, but at least the distinction isn’t arbitrary. As for the word “different,” we might have no discernible reason for saying, “This differs from that” and not “This differs than that.” But given that we do (and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone use the second construction), it’s completely logical and consistent to say, “This is different from that” and not “This is different than that.” The example Bryson gives to demonstrate this issue doesn’t even apply; I won’t bog the paragraph down with more details except to say that his example doesn’t compare two nouns in a way that could be rephrased as “X differs from Y.” So sure, if you don’t allow the premise, there’s no logical argument.

Bryson notes that we use a plural verb after “many” in a phrase like “many men were” but a singular verb in a phrase like “many a man was.” He says there is “no inherent reason” why we should do so and even that the distinction is “not defensible.” I admit that the second construction is quirky, but if it uses a singular article and a singular noun, then what’s not defensible is to say that it’s not defensible to use a singular verb. Does he think we should say, “Many a man were”?

Regarding the traditional rule that forbids splitting an infinitive, Bryson says (correctly as far as I know) that the rule comes from an antique thought that English grammar should conform in this case to rules of Latin grammar. (Since the infinitive consists of one word in Latin, it can’t possibly be split.) No, English doesn’t need to follow – and in many, many respects doesn’t follow – Latin rules. But Bryson shows the chink in his armor when, after listing several authorities, says, “All agree that there is no logical reason not to split the infinitive.” If he’s right, why didn’t he seize the opportunity to say, “no logical reason to not split the infinitive”? My theory is that Bryson, an excellent writer whose grasp of grammar is obviously more intuitive than conscious, has instincts based on a lifetime of reading that tell him it sounds better not to split. Come on! “Great is the LORD and to greatly be praised”?! “To be or to not be”?! I know Captain Kirk’s mission was to boldly go. But (1) is there any reason it couldn’t have been “to go boldly”? And (2) are we really supposed to model our grammar after a fictional character who left his communications officer and head nurse altogether out of the mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before”?

I could overlook it all – Bryson’s ridicule of rules he himself follows and the inconsistencies in arguments about consistency. But the gloves come off when he takes on Samuel Johnson. This man is my hero. To paraphrase Captain Kirk again, of all the souls I have encountered in my travels through great literature, his was the most . . . [mouth twitches] . . . human! I couldn’t resist that one. Actually I was going to say that of all the people I’ve encountered in my reading (both as an author and as a subject), he is the one I most admire and most want to be like. He had his flaws, to be sure; his devoted biographer pointed out many of them. But you have to make a really, really good case if you expect me just to stand by while you criticize Dr. Johnson.

Bryson says that “there were holes in Johnson’s erudition.” That totally gratuitous observation only says that humans aren't perfect; Johnson was one of the most erudite people ever to have lived. But then he goes even further:
Even allowing for the inflated prose of his day, he had a tendency to write passages of remarkable denseness, as here; “The proverbial oracles of our parsimonious ancestors have informed us, that the fatal waste of our fortune is by small expenses, by the profusion of sums too little singly to alarm our caution, and which we never suffer ourselves to consider together.” Too little singly? I would wager good money that that sentence was as puzzling to his contemporaries as it is to us.
I confess I had to read the sentence twice myself, but after the second reading it was perfectly clear to me. We fritter away our money because we spend it repeatedly on expenses each one of which (i.e., singly) is too little to notice. Boswell’s beautiful account of the life of Dr. Johnson says nothing if it doesn’t say that there was once a time and there was once a pub where people met and did in fact understand sentence after sentence just like this one and responded in kind. Bill Bryson! I wish you were here so I could take you up on that wager!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wordly Makehood

I’m going off-plan this week with Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, a history of the English language for the casual reader. I think I may have read the book before, but it may just remind me of things I’ve read in other books about the English language, including the scholarly history that Bryson cites fairly often. I know I read the chapter on pronunciation at some point  many years ago, because I found some notes in the margin in my handwriting. At one place, Bryson says that the “ar” pronunciation of the spelling “er” that still shows up in several words in England (Berkeley = “Barkley,” clerk = “clark,” Derby = “Darby,” and so on) survives in America only in the word “heart,” with a spelling change from somewhere in history that perhaps hints at the unintuitive pronunciation. But my margin note points out a second “er” word that Americans pronounce with an “ar.”

One fascinating tidbit that I don’t remember seeing before has to do with English speakers’ penchant for synonyms. Our language has often been praised as especially expressive and nuanced because of its many synonyms: “free,” “release,” “loose,” and “liberate” for instance. Bryson says that English is the only language that has a thesaurus or whose speakers have even recognized the need for such a thing. I knew we obtained many of our synonyms from the influence of various invaders of England over the centuries: Angles and Saxons, Danish Vikings, and Normans. What I didn’t know is that the early Angle-Saxon language showed an interest in synonyms before other languages made their contributions. The same Scandinavian people that added hundreds of words to English had virtually no impact on French when they invaded Normandy. A couple centuries later, when the Normans in turn invaded England, again they set their mark on the language of the island by importing thousands of French words. The English just love words so much, they welcome their conquerors by assimilating their language.

In the chapter entitled “Where Words Come From,” Bryson goes over five main processes that result in new words. In addition to adoption, he offers wholesale creation, gradual shift of definition, and error as sources of neologisms. But his fifth mechanism, addition and subtraction, got me thinking. Why is “forgiveness” the only word that combines a verb with the suffix “-ness”? Why indeed? Why is the suffix “-red” so rare when it seems so useful in words like “hatred”? Why do so many nouns from Anglo-Saxon roots have Latinate – and only Latinate – adjectival forms (“mouth” and “oral,” for instance, or “sun” and “solar”)?

So I’ve been thinking of new words I could use to talk about reading. Let’s begin with “bookly.” Why should I say I have a literary blog? First, if we have “night” and “nightly” and “mother” and “motherly,” why not “book” and “bookly”? Second, the blog itself isn’t literary, in the sense of being an expert in or aficionado of books. A bookly blog. I like it.

I searched a long time for new uses of the suffixes “-red” and “-ness.” The first hardly urges its utility when “-fulness” does its job so well. But it sounds so good in “hatred,” maybe because it works so interestingly with the “t” before it. So how about “excitred”? If a book is exciting, what quality does it have? Not excitement; the reader has excitement, not the book. So we need a new word. “The excitred of the book kept me up reading until the wee hours.” To go with it, I suggest “boreness.” Again, although a noun form already exists, “boredom,” that’s not the quality a book has if the book is boring; that’s the quality or the experience of the reader. “Boreness” also doubles the number of words made by adding the suffix “-ness” to a verb. I feel so productive.

A prolix book is lengthy, probably to a fault. But doesn’t “prolix” sound sophisticated enough to suggest that the extra verbiage has an elegance or highfalutin academic air? What if the book uses only the most common words and still has far too many of them. Well then, the book is wordsome. What if the author tries to raise the level of writing by adding more elevated vocabulary and more complex sentence structures? I propose that to do so is to densen the writing. What if the resulting prose is so dense I can’t understand it? If an object that fills me with wonder is wonderful, perhaps we could call such a book puzzleful or wilderful or stumpful.

My post has become stumpful, I fear, and definitely risks a wordsome boreness by this point. But I can’t stop without answering the puzzleful challenge of the first paragraph. The word spelled with an “er” but pronounced in America with an “ar” is “sergeant.”

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Plutarch's Secrets

As usual, in reading Plutarch this year, I’m enjoying the political stories and pondering his analysis of the morals of his subjects, but above all struck by the intriguing tangential remarks he makes about seemingly random details. Plutarch’s enormous compendium of biographies seems to be mostly about battles and stratagems, whether in the assembly or on the field. But at times he actually seems more interested in religion, philosophy, astronomy, and the arts. Truth be told, I often get confused in Plutarch’s long stories about military campaigns and end up rushing through the play-by-play, only to slow down during the color commentary. Much of the problem in the battlefield narratives comes down to pronouns. When one army is attacking another and Plutarch refers to each in rapid alternation, the pronoun “they” doesn’t clarify which army is the subject of the clause. And yet Plutarch resorts to pronouns routinely. The problem may be one of translation; I know Latin has different pronouns for the more recently named subject and the more remotely mentioned, and perhaps Greek does as well. The Latin forms work like our “the former” and “the latter,” although they’re rarely translated that way. In any case, I don’t worry too much about catching all the details in these action-packed passages, mostly looking instead for the other topics; since they happen to be among my strongest interests as well, I naturally feel an affinity with Plutarch and suppose that he enjoyed a secret love for them.

The little references to his secret loves come up fairly regularly, one or two in every biography. In his story of Nicias, the Athenian general blamed for disaster in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, Plutarch mentions a lunar eclipse that frightened the Greeks, and he takes the opportunity to go over a brief history of the science of eclipses. “Even ordinary people,” he says, knew that solar eclipses came about when the moon moved in front of the sun, but the cause of lunar eclipses remained a mystery among the general public. Anaxagoras had learned the truth but was keeping it a secret because of the bad reputation natural philosophers held at his time. The problem, says Plutarch, is that by giving natural explanations for phenomena in the skies, they seemed to deny divine agency. He credits Plato for establishing the good name of science by subordinating material explanations to first principles in divine providence. It seems obvious to me. “Ordinary people” deal with proximate and remote causes everyday: the ball went over the fence because of the motion imparted to it by contact with a swinging bat, but the bat swung because a batter decided to swing it, and he swung the bat because a pitcher delivered the ball to the plate. If western civilization had not lost the wisdom of Plato and Plutarch about the compatibility of material and divine causes, discussion between science and theology over the last two-hundred years or so might have been less heated and more fruitful .

A few pages later, Plutarch tells a delightful story about slave traders who gave preferential treatment to prisoners who could quote Euripides. I immediately remembered William Shatner once sharing with Johnny Carson that several former POWs of the Viet Cong told him they had kept their sanity among insane conditions by reenacting scenes from Star Trek. Stories in which the arts act as antidotes to the madness of war are worth slowing down to savor.

In his life of Crassus, Plutarch says that the Parthians were right to beat drums to frighten the enemy since “of all the senses, hearing most confounds and disorders us.” True? The bagpipe and the rebel yell on the battlefield and the creaky door in the haunted house movie provide persuasive examples. It’s a cliche of popular film analysis that Williams’s two-note theme frightened people more than the appearance of the shark. Are the violin shrieks of Psycho more disturbing than the picture of Janet Leigh’s scream or of the blood flowing down the drain?

A final example for today: in the comparison of Nicias and Crassus, Plutarch makes this observation:
One scrupulously observed, the other entirely slighted the arts of divination; and as both equally perished [in military disasters], it is difficult to see what inference we should draw.
Plutarch’s curtness seems to suggest a touch of irony. He may not have had any trouble at all drawing the inference about the effectiveness of divination, but maybe like Anaxagoras, he shrewdly kept his conclusion a secret.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Names of Weapons

Somewhere in the days of special features in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings DVDs, co-writer Philippa Boyens explains why they changed the character of Faramir from what they read in the novel. In the book, Faramir captures Frodo as he wanders the frontier looking for a way into Mordor and, discovering Frodo has the ring of power that Faramir’s father and brother want so desperately, says, “I would not pick up the thing if it were lying in the road.” Ms. Boyens claims that the line made no sense since the story up to that point has relentlessly emphasized the irresistible temptation presented by the ring. “Professor Tolkien made a mistake,” she smugly concludes.

A mistake?! Tolkien?! OK, OK, maybe J. R. R. Tolkien was capable of making mistakes. (For instance, he didn’t make his trilogy long enough.) But not in this case. Faramir should not have any desire for the ring, and his line makes perfect sense for at least three reasons. First, internal motivation: he wants to distance himself from his father’s and brother’s power-hungry ways. Second, narrative motivation: telling about characters with contrasting attributes brings out the interesting features of each. I guess Peter Jackson and his cronies skipped Storytelling 101. Third, consistency with common experience, both real-world and fantasy-world: some people just aren’t powergrubbers. The story actually shows many people wholly uninterested in using the ring for its power: Gimli, Legolas, Elrond, Celeborn, Sam, etc. Why not Faramir, too?

Elsewhere in the mammoth collection of special features, the same confused screenwriter says that they thought including the proper names of weapons would bog down the narrative. Right. You wouldn’t want to put too much detail into a thirteen-hour film; that might make it as dense and incomprehensible as a baseball movie in which the hero makes bats and names them “Wonderboy” and “Savoy Special.”

Here are four good reasons to name weapons:

1) Hand weapons have individual characters. They each fit the hand in a certain way. Each sword has a different center of balance, a different swing. Naming a weapon indicates its individuality.

2) Naming weapons in stories marks their ability to symbolize larger issues and higher causes. The word “sword” in the New Testament, for instance, usually refers to the Word of God, the highest Cause imaginable. Giving the reader or listener a symbolic link to the world of ideals takes the focus off the wielder of the weapon and his personal motivations.

3) Named weapons have identifiable histories. They have a maker, and they may show up in the tales of more than one warrior. Knowing the pedigree of a weapon sets a given wielder and a given battle in a greater historical context and deepens the emotional effect of any single appearance or use of the weapon.

4) The custom of naming weapons has a long literary history. Arthur has Excalibur, for instance. 

According to Barbara Reynolds’s introductory material in her translation of Orlando Furioso, Orlando’s sword, Durendal, is first named in the Chanson de Roland. For OF, Ariosto Italianizes the name slightly to Durindana. In Orlando Innamorato, Boiardo added to the legend of the sword; by making it originally Hector’s sword, he put it in the hands of a great tragic hero and connected Orlando’s story to the grandest epic in all of literary history. Knowing that in naming so many weapons in his fantasy epic, Tolkien drew inspiration from the writers of Arthurian legend, from the Chanson de Roland, from Boiardo, and from Ariosto, gives him a pedigree as awesome as that of his swords. Maybe Peter Jackson and friends haven’t read Homer, Malory, or Ariosto. Maybe they never read or saw The Natural. Or maybe they just don’t get it.

Perspective and context make all the difference. I have had enjoyable times on the streets of New York and on the streets of Boston. But no other experience I’ve ever had can match the view I enjoyed from a military plane one fall night in 1980, when I saw New York below me, ablaze with lights like the sand on the beach, the trade towers and Yankee stadium standing like tiny children’s toys, Central Park a mysterious dark rectangle in the middle of it all. Soon the orange glow of I-95 showed, wiggling its way up the coast, through the shimmering bulge of New Haven, like an egg the interstate snake had swallowed whole, and through the larger bulge of Providence, eventually getting tangled in the giant radial spider web of lights that marked Boston. I felt as if I could reach down and pick up the chunk of earth that holds those great cities and cradle it in my hands. It made me love those cities.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think a hot dog from a street vendor in NYC tastes more delicious after seeing the city from the air on a night clear as crystal, and those who just want to know where the nearest hot dog stand is. Philippa Boyens and I must be in opposite groups.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Absence of Editors

In his introduction to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translator Stephen Kalberg says that Germany held its professors in such esteem during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they didn’t deem it proper to submit a professor’s work to an editor. Well, that explains a lot. I’ve read quite a bit of impenetrable prose by German professors in the last year, and now I see an explanation for the trend. Oswald Spengler wins the prize for the highest wha?!-to-word ratio of my reading last year (see my posts here and here), and Weber apparently had just as little guidance from a professional editor. But the difference is, Weber had an idea that made sense and explained it successfully, if a little haphazardly.

I’ve had many editors critique, correct, and reshape my academic writing over the last couple of decades, and I’ve been the editor of one collection of essays. But I recently turned in my third book to a publisher and found out about a week ago that I will apparently have no editor to guide me to the final version. The publisher’s representative I’ve been talking to simply said that everything looked fine and that I should send him a pdf. So I guess I’m author, editor, and layout artist on this one.

The book presents my verse translation of a rhymed, metrical treatise on music theory by Guido of Arezzo, an eleventh-century monk who changed the course of music education for at least a thousand years with his inventions of staff notation and sight-singing syllables (like Sister Maria’s DO, RE, MI). Guido invented these tools to help boys in monasteries and cathedral schools learn more quickly and easily the thousands of melodies that Benedictine monks sang in their offices. But the older monks didn’t like his newfangled methods making things easier for the youth, and they expelled him. After Pope John XIX heard about the controversy and invited the ostracized monk to demonstrate his innovations, Guido taught John to sight-sing in three days. (At least, Guido claims to have taught John to sight-sing in three days.) Reinstated, Guido continued to teach, and his methods continue to help us teach even today.

Everything about the treatise – the Regulae ritmice, or Poetic Rules – seems designed to appeal to the adolescent male student of the Middle Ages. The lilting accents and rhymes themselves, of course, make school a little less like drudgery, just as they do with the alphabet song or Schoolhouse Rock. Guido encourages his readers to work hard and to pay attention, and even makes an occasional case for the value of other studies the boys are engaged in. At one point he argues that if a loud voice is what makes a musician, then we have to recognize the braying ass a better singer than the nightingale. Then he points out in an aside the value of logic. “See boys?” he says in essence. “Pay attention to your logic studies, and you’ll be able to call people asses.” Oh, Guido knew how to work with thirteen-year-old boys.

For most of the treatise, Guido himself seems not to have had an editor: very occasionally a grammatical error slips in. But I believe the last forty lines or so of the work come from the pen of another author, probably one of those frustrated rivals who thought Guido’s ways were too easy. The whole tone of the work changes. The breezy accented meter gives way to classical, length-based meter, and the level of the vocabulary rises. Gone are the appeals to a boy’s sensibilities. Gone are the explanations of the Greek words used. Gone is any sense of fun and wide-eyed discovery. In its place is a dour, error-ridden rehash of some of the material from the first part of the poem with the meaning sometimes convoluted beyond all recognition. So you can compare the effect, here are Guido’s most famous lines:
Twixt musicians and mere singers, distance is not minimal.
The latter say, the former grasp, the knowledge that is seminal.
For one who does what he can't fathom, we define an animal.
And here are five lines from the last portion of the treatise:
However, in these the relation is just a bit different,
Because if perhaps you might wish to write two to one voice,
Four will hold delta supreme in the midst of the rest.
An argument hems in and designates sounds drawn asunder.
When added they, bending, agree as a bound diatessaron.
Trust me, it doesn’t make any more sense if you know what a diatessaron is.

I just looked up Spengler and found out that he never taught in a university since he actually failed his doctoral dissertation because of an insufficiency of references. So I guess he did have editors at one time and just didn’t heed their warning.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Cholerics in Charge

For about thirty years now, I’ve been interested in the theory of temperaments that categorizes people as either sanguine, choleric, melancholy, or phlegmatic. The theory traces these temperaments back to four humours (i.e. bodily fluids): respectively blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Most sources – both reputable, printed sources and virtually every internet source except the one you’re reading now – say that the theory goes back to Galen. But I’ve read Galen, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not there. He makes similar divisions of people, the most interesting based on whether you live on the north, west, south, or east side of the hill, but he says nothing about the four temperaments I’m looking for. The earliest mention I know of comes in Elyot’s Castel of Helthe from 1541. Also of very dubious worth, by the way, are the charts you can find on the internet aligning these four temperaments with everything from David Keirsey’s personality scheme to Hogwarts houses. I know I’m melancholy, and I know I’m a Ravenclaw, but most charts don't line up those two.

The best, quickest way to display the difference between these four humour-based temperaments is to describe each group’s typical approach to a serious problem. The sanguine person tends to laugh off the problem and look at the bright side. The choleric quickly draws up a plan for addressing the problem. The melancholy person broods about it, perhaps ending up with a plan but equally likely ending up with a poem or a picture that expresses his anguish. The phlegmatic stays calm and comforts herself with the knowledge that this, too, shall pass.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has earned my fascination and attention over the last two weeks, and one train of thought has me locating Weber’s capitalists in the scheme of four humour-based temperaments. I thought Protestant Ethic was one of those books that all educated people knew about but none had read. But so far, none of my friends I’ve talked to about it have even heard of it. His thesis is rather simple, if surprising. Weber says that while all periods of history and all corners of the earth have known people who seek a profit, only the recent West has produced entrepreneurs looking to establish profitability. The new capitalism, he says, involves the dispassionate organization of labor and the reinvestment of profit in profit-making assets, but the real difference lies in the ethos, the thought that one ought to make as much money as one can; Weber first sees the familiar formula in Ben Franklin’s “Time is money” and “A penny saved is a penny earned.” The surprising part of the proposition is that Weber traces this ethic back to a network of doctrines held by Calvinists and Calvinistic Pietists teaching that material blessings are signs of God’s gracious election. The Pietist Richard Baxter represented the fullest expression of the Protestant work ethic when he said that one had a sacred duty to do the most with any business opportunity that came one’s way.

Without hearing any rebuttals, I’m totally convinced of the accuracy of Weber’s conclusion. But I’ve been thinking that the peculiar history of the West didn’t really produce any new kind of personality but simply put the cholerics firmly in charge of politics for a while and in charge of business for a long time. Cholerics can make decisions and plans based on reason without the distraction of feelings, and if the goal at hand is to make money, cholerics will find the way to make the most money. Cholerics aren’t necessarily evil; the world needs people who can do the right thing, the hard thing, even when feelings tell us to stop. Think of the surgeon who could saw off a gangrenous arm with no anaesthetic to give his patient other than whiskey, and you’re thinking of a choleric person.

But rationally pursuing monetary gain without thought for the pain of the laborers is a big problem. Reason tells the people running businesses to increase profits by lowering piecework wages. It tells them to consider the cost of safety measures according to an actuarial table of healthcare costs or lawsuit costs raised by injured workers. It tells them to call us during dinner to try to sell us cruise tickets!!! Wow, I’d like to see the power shift to someone besides the cholerics.

By the way, didn’t the description of cholerics make it sound as if the Sorting Hat would put them all into Slytherin? That connection seems obvious, but two of the sites I just looked up align Slytherin with the sanguine temperament. How do people come up with this nonsense?! I think I’ll write a poem about it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Listening to Books and Climbing Everest

A few years ago I went through a period of listening to books on tape and CD. I didn’t know at first how this would work for me. I’m not the kind of reader who gets lost in a book; my mind usually races from one thing to another as I read, and I often find I have to go back and reread a paragraph. So I wasn’t sure whether I could follow a tape without constantly rewinding. But the library had just expanded and reorganized its audiobooks, and there they all sat just waiting to be borrowed. I surprised myself when I found that my attention latched on to a voice more than it usually does to ink on the page.

I listened mostly in the car on my way to and from the office. But I also took audiobooks on long car drives. One year I listened to Anna Karenina on two trips to conferences in Texas and a round trip flight to and from England.

The skill and style of the person reading made a huge difference in my level of enjoyment. I listened to Cal Ripken Jr.’s autobiography in spite of a dull reader, just because the content was so interesting. But I gave up on the same reader’s rendition of Jeff Shaara’s The Last Full Measure.

On the other hand, I got to hear Bill Bryson read a couple of his own books: A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country. Knowing that I was listening to the author himself seemed to amplify all effects. The story, for instance, of his friend Katz filling his backpack with Snickers bars for a multi-day hike on the Appalachian trail made me laugh and ache at the same time, knowing that the frustration I heard in the reader’s voice was not just performed but actually relived.

Jeremy Irons should win some kind of award for his reading of Brideshead Revisited. He won an Oscar for playing the normal number of roles – namely, one – in Reversal of Fortune. But in reading Waugh’s great classic, he played at least a dozen, all carefully differentiated in pitch, tone, and cadence. Much, much less known but perhaps even more talented, a lovely woman named Mil Nicholson read Dombey and Son and made it available online for free. She hit the wonderful Captain Cuttle spot on, and her vocal rendition of Mr. Toots will now forever serve as my model Toots, against which all other Tootses must now be measured. An actor can be too good, though. Patricia Rutledge’s portrayal of the snobby Hyacinth Bucket makes Keeping Up Appearances one of my favorite TV shows ever. But she put so much romantic angst and desperation into her reading of Wuthering Heights, I ended up wishing I had read it instead and thus had the medium of the silent, written page to tone down the histrionics of Catherine and Heathcliff.

One of the most unforgettable scenes in the books I listened to came up in Conrad Anker’s The Lost Explorer. In 1924, Sir George Mallory said he wanted to climb Mount Everest because it was there. He went up and definitely got within a few hundred yards of the summit, but never came down. In 1999, Anker found Mallory’s body, frozen and mummified, face down with his fingers dug into the scree on a slope that led down to a 6,000-foot drop. What an image!

Today I just finished watching a documentary about Anker. I thought it was going to tell the same story but with pictures. Well, the footage was indeed spectacular, as was the 3D CGI that helped visualize the route of the expeditions. But Anker found Mallory’s body in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The next eighty minutes or so told the story of a 2007 expedition in which Anker tried to follow Mallory’s path with Mallory’s equipment to determine whether he might have reached the summit before meeting his death. When Anker searched Mallory’s clothing in ’99, he didn’t find a photo of Mallory’s wife, and Mallory had vowed to place the photo on the peak when he reached it, a situation suggesting that Mallory was on the way back down from the summit when he fell. Of course Anker didn’t find a photograph atop the mountain, which would have settled the question, but he did determine that the most difficult barrier near the top could have been bested with Mallory’s equipment. That only tells us, though, that Everest might have been conquered twenty-nine years before the first official climb, by Hillary and Norgay in 1953.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

An Idea about Epictetus and Christianity

Helen Hooven Santmyer’s “. . . And Ladies of the Club” tells a decades-long tale of several people from nineteenth-century Ohio, mostly Republican, mostly Presbyterian. One Presbyterian family in the book passes down a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius from generation to generation, and they find the philosopher-emperor’s stoicism not only compatible with but encouraging to their Christian lives.

I read and enjoyed Santmyer’s novel sometime around 1995, right around the time I got my Britannica Great Books set and began on the first ten-year plan. So I was especially interested to reach Marcus Aurelius in year 2. When the time came, I enjoyed the Meditations and learned from the book, but it disappointed me after the image I had built of it based on Ladies. In order to teach calmness in face of adversity, Marcus gives his reader a visionary reason to accept our place in the grand scheme of things, but then, as I read it, moves beyond that point to try to say that evil and pain don’t exist. That view may have helped him sit dispassionately in the arena doing paperwork while lions ate slaves on the sand before him, but ignoring evil and pain cannot be compatible with Christianity.

Then in year 7 of the original plan, I found the Stoic author I didn’t even know I was looking for: Epictetus. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus acknowledges the existence of evil and pain, but teaches his readers to learn to accept these experiences when they cannot change them: an ancient precursor of the Irish prayer for serenity. Change only what you can change, he says, and remember that your mind is generally the only thing you can change. Why wish for what isn’t so if you can’t make it so? From the loftiest perspective, whatever is, is in God’s will, so align your will with his.

Now this view seemed much more compatible with Christianity to me. I can’t go with the Stoic as far as saying that my life’s goal is emotional stability, but I can certainly use the encouragement to renew my mind, to submit my will to God’s, and to accept things I cannot change. I have sometimes thought about rewriting some passages of Epictetus’s Discourses to form a Christian devotional and meditational plan. Various Christians have written commentaries on similarities and differences between our faith and the philosophy of Epictetus; and offer two examples. But I’m looking for a practical guide, not an explanation. The Protestant circles I’ve run in like to talk about renewal and submission, but they generally view any systematic approach to these tasks as smacking of works-oriented, spiritless formalism. But I’d like to have such a thing, so I guess if I’m ever to have my wish, I’ll have to put it together myself.

. . . And by the way, does any novel in history other than Santmyer’s have a title starting with an ellipsis – or any punctuation mark for that matter? Whether they do or not, I plan to reread this domestic epic sometime during my Third Decade.