Sunday, March 31, 2013

Starting with Peirce

I’ve been interested in Charles Sander Peirce for many years. Scholars regularly call him America’s greatest philosopher. So how can a guy on his second ten-year reading plan trying to give himself a liberal education not be interested? Peirce is really hard to begin studying, though. He never wrote a book (he never even got a teaching position at a university!), so he never expressed any kind of comprehensive system an organized way.

But I’ve found the way to start. I’ve tried reading Peirce before, bits and pieces here and there, papers that I have found referenced in more modern scholarship. But nothing was clear until now. I highly recommend the Philosophical Writings of Peirce, edited by Justus Buchler. I had begun a month or so ago to read a book by James Feibleman “introducing” Peirce’s philosophy – a book longer than Buchler’s Peirce reader, by the way –, but Buchler’s preface says everything I had read in Feibleman, only much more succinctly and, for the beginner, more clearly. Buchler then arranges the papers, chapters, and excerpts of his volume in an order that starts the reader at square 1. I’ve read about ninety pages so far, and nothing I’ve come across seems disconnected or out of context, even if I haven’t understood everything.

The book begins with the striking notion that intellectual satisfaction comes not with truth but with belief. Only doubt incites inquiry; belief ends doubt. As a result, people develop various ways to fix their beliefs in order to find relief from the irritation of doubt: we block out all arguments against our belief, or we let the state decide, or we tolerate others’ preferred beliefs (this in 1877!). But only a fourth strategy, the scientific method, works its way toward truth. According to Peirce, the scientific method begins not with systematic doubt, pace Descartes, but with a hypothesis suggested by imagination. Such hypotheses are to be held lightly, since the whole idea is to rule out hypotheses after testing in order to hone in gradually on the truth. As a result the wise person constantly holds tentative belief in the most easily refuted propositions and must recognize the fallibility of all human argument. I found this view disturbing at first but then comforting: it holds fiercely to both the notion that “the truth is out there” for us to seek, and the notion that human reason can’t completely comprehend that truth. He applies this brand of doubt to the Bible in one example, but the details show that he’s doubting not the Bible itself but human understanding of it.

Peirce goes after Descartes again in claiming that the earlier philosopher’s explanation of “clear and distinct” ideas is itself neither clear nor distinct. The first level of clarity, says Peirce, is indeed confident recognition (Descartes’s “clearness”), and the second is the ability to define a thing abstractly (Descartes’s “distinctness”). But the third comes only with knowing all of a thing’s practical effects. It makes no difference what force “is,” he says, as long as one knows all its effects on motion.

In light of this last example, I got lost a little later when Peirce, in going through the roadblocks to honest inquiry, scolded a physician living before Pasteur for saying that a disease was nothing but a collection of symptoms. How is Peirce’s view of force any different? Or am I confusing his question with another: the question, for instance, of whether there is any undiscovered material medium involved in some particular force (I’m thinking of the imaginary graviton). Or is he just analyzing the muddle of language which uses nouns to refer to both substances and other structures (motions, qualities, relations, etc.).

On the other hand, maybe his view changed. Or maybe he was just fallible. Peirce’s view of the pursuit of truth depended on both possibilities. And when he goes after my beloved Aquinas at one point and I find myself entertaining the possibility that Aquinas may need some correction, I discover that acknowledgement of fallibility and openness to change support my pursuit as well.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Slow Time in Faulkner’s Light in August

Happy New Year, readers! Back in the sixth century, Dionysius Exiguus settled the basic Christian calendar we’re mostly familiar with. His work decided, for instance, the date of December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Christ. Then, as he rather logically figured, since human pregnancy lasts nine months, the Incarnation must have occurred on March 25, nine months before the scene in Bethlehem. He determined our year 1 (which scholars had previously thought of as year 754 of the Roman era) and declared that the Christian Era began with the appearance of God in the flesh on March 25 of that year. So whether you celebrated the millennium on Jan 1, 2000, or Jan 1, 2001, you were wrong. The third millennium A. D. began March 25, 2001.

That sideline has nothing to do with Faulkner. But making you wait for the subject matter promised by the title seems fitting in light of the meandering (I’m tempted to say wibbly-wobbly) sense of time in the narrative. The beginning of the book worked virtual magic on me. A pregnant girl named Lena is walking down a road (already a situation symbolic of slowly moving time). The narrative chooses a moment in that slow progress as the present moment and speaks of it here and there in the present tense. But the narrative also makes leaps to the minutes leading up that present moment through sudden lapses into the past tense. Interspersed with those descriptions come hints of the story that led her to walk down the road, all given in the past perfect. Five minutes before the point of nowness, Lena has passed a stopped wagon. Now she is sitting by the side of the road resting her feet and listening to the creaking motions of the wagon. The wagon has started up and is now pointed in her direction, but she has the impression that it moves without advancing, like a cart on a grecian urn. The cart does eventually catch up with her, but then the point of view shifts to the wagon driver, and we go five minutes back in time to experience, through his eyes, Lena passing the wagon. Through all of these opening pages, I kept seeing a picture of a knight running toward a castle and two curious sentries watching him running, running, always in the distance, until suddenly . . . .

I wish I could write on Faulkner from a position of greater knowledge. But I’m learning as I go along. I remember (some of) what my college literature professor said about him, and in my adult post-college life, I’ve made my way mystified through The Sound and the Fury and morbidly fascinated through As I Lay Dying. But some things are making more sense this time. Father Guido Sarducci might say that the American literature course in his university consists of this brief exchange: “I say-a ‘Faulkner,’ and-a you say-a “Stream-of-a-consciousness’.” And that was about the limit to which my casual observations on the author could run to previously. But it’s been twenty years or so since I last read Faulkner, and I have more awareness of the Joycean technique of breaking the fourth skullbone to give the reader almost direct access to the characters’ thoughts. And I can see now that Faulkner does much more than just quote a character’s inner dialog in the narration. He wanders, repeats phrases, interrupts sentence, strings together fragments, and so on, providing the reader an entire mental atmosphere as well as the thoughts that wing there way through it. Sometimes the prose isn’t clear, but I’m ready to say confidently that it isn’t supposed to be, or perhaps that the very clear message the opaque language delivers is that the character’s thoughts are as muddy as the creek by Joanna Burden’s house.

The parade of techniques and words and tenses and nested flashbacks is amazing and makes me more impressed with the man’s skill than I ever have been. But it’s hard to take in some of the content. Since we have such access to privileged recesses of his characters’ minds, I keep wondering, how does he know so well how to reveal the mind of a psychopath? I know the world is peopled with people, and that those people are flawed, broken, ill, degraded, and depraved. And I like my novels true to that world. But it doesn’t mean I’m itching to read about a man who has nearly decapitated a woman, later (or earlier: wibbly-wobbly, you know) meeting a prostitute in a honky-tonk, where he clubs to death his foster father, who has previously beaten a hatred for Christianity into him by blows with a buckled belt. I’d just rather read more about a pregnant girl walking down a road.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Reading Aristotle

A couple of weeks ago, my wife looked over my reading list for the year and mentioned that she would like to read some of the items on it. I’ve talked enough about Dr. Johnson, for instance, to make her want to read some of Boswell’s great biography. She said she’s eager to read some of Durant’s history. (Actually, I’ll probably read several chapters of it out loud to her while in the car later this year on a trip. Reading together aloud while driving makes it easy to concentrate on the material for a sustained time and helps the miles go by much more quickly!) And she might even try some Aquinas (although we won’t read that together in the car).

When she mentioned a desire to read Aristotle, though, she raised an interesting problem. If someone wants to read some manageable samples of Aristotle in order to get a general overview, what should she read? Many years ago, I got my first taste of Aristotle in a reader I checked out from the library of Westminster Choir College, in Princeton, NJ. That reader started with excerpts from the Prior Analytics, and I loved it, but I barely understood it and wouldn’t suggest that anyone else start there. My godfather in this reading project, Mortimer Adler (who has also served as pitching coach for my fantasy baseball team) had readers who followed his ten-year plan start with the first book of the Ethics and the first book of the Politics. These selections are appropriately easy, but aren’t broadly foundational and don’t reach many conclusions.

I googled “beginning to read Aristotle” and found a couple of forums on which people had asked this very question. The most common answer by far was a good one, I think: start with the Categories. In this relatively short book, you get a summary of Aristotle’s doctrine of being, and basic accounts of species and genera, substance and attributes. After this, people generally recommended Prior Analytics, Metaphysics, Politics, and Ethics. But no one mentioned the book I decided should come second on the list: On Generation and Corruption. Here Aristotle outlines his important theory of change and becoming and of the matter that underlies change. As for the rest of that list that other people suggested, I think they found the right books but should have recommended certain passages only.

Now I haven’t thought this all out to find the perfect order. But here’s my first draft of a program for reading Aristotle:

Physics: bk. II, ch. 3; bk. III, ch. 1; bk. VII, ch. 1 (Four causes, types of motion, First Mover)
Metaphysics: bk. XII, ch. 7 (God)
On Generation and Corruption
Ethics: Bks. I, II, V, X
Politics: Bks. I, III, VII
Prior Analytics: Bk. I, Chs. 1-7
Physics: Bks. II, III, VIII
Metaphysics: Bks. I, IV, VI, XII

Note 1: Instead of the sample from Prior Analytics, you could just read the first few chapters of a modern logic book. The information on syllogisms and deduction will essentially be Aristotle’s, but symbols and Venn diagrams help a lot!

Note 2: I’m tempted to add bk. VII of Metaphysics. I just read it two weeks ago, and it was full of important tidbits. But it seems especially disorganized (even for Aristotle, whose works, as I understand it, really consist of class notes by students and as a result contain a lot of digression, omission, repetition, and seeming contradiction). I became very confused as to whether universals can be substances. I wouldn’t have thought Aristotle believed it, but he said it once or twice, in spite of stating adamantly at other times that it was impossible. Then I turned to the wonderful online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy looking for answers, and at least derived great comfort from discovering that this question is the most disputed in all of Aristotle scholarship.

Note 3: I couldn’t even get to the second item on the list without changing my mind. I said earlier that On Generation and Corruption should come second, and then when I got to typing the actual list, I inserted just a few crucial chapters from books later in the list.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Increase Your Word Power with Dickens – 2013

I made my way through most of a Reader’s Digest one evening a couple of weeks ago for the first time in many years – decades even. Knowing I would write a blog post on Dickens’s vocabulary soon, I paid special attention to the the regular feature “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” and I was quite disappointed in how much it had been dumbed down since the 70s. Maybe I know more than I did when, as a teenager, I read this column faithfully every month, aiming in fact to increase said power; so maybe this monthly vocabulary exercise only appears easier to me now, partly because it did its work with me forty years ago. But I still find it sad that a prominent national magazine considers the words “bazaar” and “annals” as improvements on the education of Americans. (Don’t fifth graders still have to write “bazaar” ten times a day for a week and use it in a sentence? Maybe not.) More damning, though, is the grading scale at the end: 9 and below (and that category includes the score of 0) earns the quiz-taker an A-. That’s right, you’re still on the low side of excellent if you don’t know any of the words – and in defiance of the odds can’t even guess a single right answer – because you are all excellent, and each one of you is special and deserves a steady stream of prizes for just being wonderful you.

Here’s my quiz based on vocabulary from Little Dorrit. I’m a tougher grader than RD. If you get a 0 on my quiz, you FAIL. As a consequence, I assign you to a lifetime of enjoyable reading accompanied by enlightening consultation of dictionaries. Good luck!

1. nonage
      a. brevity   b. group of nine   c. period of youth
2. refection
      a. refreshment, esp. of food   b. return, esp. of good feelings   c. surrender, esp. of money
3. desultory
      a. without joy   b. without purpose   c. without companionship
4. asperity
      a. sour taste   b. severity, harshness   c. pain
5. perquisition
      a. a difficult exam   b. a completed purchase   c. a thorough search
6. repast
      a. nonage   b. refection   c. asperity
7. scrofulous
      a. having a diseased, run-down appearance   b. guarded about personal information
      c. in possession of many luxurious items
8. umbrageous
      a. affording shade or slow to learn   b. affording shade or inclined to take offense
      c. affording shade or nearly impossible
9. pollard
      a. an unscrupulous barrister   b. a rough wooden serving spoon   c. a tree pruned to the trunk
10. irrefragable
      a. impossible to refute or to break   b. impossible to cover or to hide  
      c. impossible to open or to reveal
11. marplot
      a. a pompous ruler   b. a pattern of tiles   c. a meddler
12. asseveration
      a. a clean break   b. a deep regret   c. a positive declaration

Scroll down for the answers.

But don’t scroll down too far until you’re ready.

The answers are coming.

And here they are . . .


1-c (non-age, get it?), 2-a, 3-b, 4-b, 5-c, 6-b, 7-a, 8-b, 9-c, 10-a, 11-c, 12-c 

Didn’t answer them all correctly? Well, before your nonage is too far behind you, prepare a repast, find an umbrageous spot, and make a perquisition of a tried classic. That the exercise will do you good is irrefragable. (By the way, blogspot's editor doesn't recognize words 5, 10, and 11.)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What I Can’t Decide on in Little Dorrit

In the last two posts, I wrote about, first, what I like in Little Dorrit and, most recently, what I don’t like about the book. But I couldn’t decide which post to include one of the most prominent features of the book in: I can’t settle on an opinion about the religious language and figures that fill this novel.

In the last letter Dickens ever wrote, he said, “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour.” In Allegory in Dickens, scholar Jane Vogel says more specifically that Dickens’s purpose in almost every novel is to show the superiority of the New Testament religion to religion of the Old Testament. “Old Testament religion” doesn’t necessarily refer here to Judaism. Dickens consistently showed far more concern over a dour and vengeful brand of Christianity that he saw as a counterfeit. And he certainly spends a lot of words in Little Dorrit delivering his judgment on the counterfeit, although he doesn’t have a lot to say in this instance to finish the comparison and lift up what he saw as the true Christianity.

I’m not sure that the kind of Christians Dickens had in mind are still around in our time. The Murdstones in David Copperfield, for instance, and Mrs Clennam in Little Dorrit seem to be Puritans, the kind of Puritans who outlawed Christmas turkeys and decorative buttons when they took charge of Great Britain in the 1600s: they wear black, show no joy, read the Bible and biblical commentary exclusively, and remain constantly aware of sin. Mrs Clennam outlines her theological doctrine at one point, a Calvinism gone horribly wrong: “This scene, the Earth, is expressly meant to be a scene of gloom, and hardship, and dark trial, for the creatures who are made out of its dust . . . . We are, every one, the subject (most justly subject) of a wrath that must be satisfied . . . . But I take it as a grace and favour to be elected to make the satisfaction I am making here [by suffering].” The people most like these characters whom I have known dress modestly but in color, go to Pentecostal or nondenominational churches rather than Presbyterian churches, and smile rather often (until you bring up your interest in Harry Potter). But despite the differences, I think I recognize a similar spirit.

Having grown up in a family of this sort, Arthur Clennam, the male hero of Little Dorrit has no fondness for Christianity or its earthly elements. Walking alone through London one Sunday, a dismal church bell “revived a long train of miserable Sundays.” Arthur has rejected the fiery creed of his parents, but hasn’t adopted a more suitable Christian doctrine. “The fierce dark teaching of his childhood had never sunk into his heart,” the narration says, so he keeps his mind on Earth and never thinks about Heaven.

But the dismal grays overflow Arthur’s heart and pervade the rest of the world of Little Dorrit as well. The streets of London have a special squalor in this book, their shadows have an extra darkness, their crowds an exaggerated animosity. Words from and allusions to Scripture and the Prayer Book appear frequently throughout the novel, almost always used ironically. Take for instance this perverted hymn of praise for Mr Merdle, the ungentlemanly gentleman: “Merdle! O ye sun, moon, and stars, the great man! The rich man, who had in a manner revised the New Testament, and already entered into the kingdom of Heaven.”

Of course ultimately it’s the characters who have perverted Christian truth, not the narrator. Summing up Mrs Clennam near the end of the book, that narrator tells us that “she still abided by her old impiety--still reversed the order of Creation, and breathed her own breath into a clay image of her Creator.” But still, the dreary doctrine fills almost the whole book, since Dickens launches his attack against it by ironically adopting it in the narration. C. S. Lewis said that The Screwtape Letters was a very difficult book to write since the topsy-turvy perspective of evil was so oppressive to sustain. In a similar way, as much as I agree with Dickens’s judgment (and I do agree to a great extent), I find the expression of it oppressive to read. And that’s why I can’t decide what I think about it. Good reading doesn’t equal pleasurable reading. The prophecy of Jeremiah isn’t pleasant to read, and yet it is good. But Little Dorrit is quite a bit longer than Jeremiah. I knew resolution was near when, very close to the end of the book, sunlight shining on the bars of the Marshalsea Prison made them look golden; until that point, all movement of the sun serves to move the dark prison shadow around the gloomy yard. But was it worthwhile for me to pace that gloomy yard for 340,000 words in order to enjoy the golden light for only the last few hundred?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

What I Don’t Like about Little Dorrit

I said that Little Dorrit was my least favorite Dickens novel, and it’s been good for me to analyze the problem and explain to myself why. As I did yesterday, I’ll start with characters and say the obvious: too many of them are unlikeable in this book. I don’t just mean that the cast contains too many villains; I mean that the villains don’t carry many attractions for the reader. Who doesn’t love to read about the Scrooge from the beginning of the Christmas Carol? And Bill Sikes, Wackford Squeers, Daniel Quilp, and Uriah Heep are villainous in such deliciously interesting ways. These are likeable villains, in that the reader likes to read about them. But Rigaud, Mr Dorrit, Mr Merdle, and Mrs Clennam all just go about their cruel, selfish routines, hurting the characters we care about, and, like Mark Twain reading Cooper, I wish they would all just go drown. The middle part of the book is especially tough going. The Swiss-and-Italian episode brings several of these self-centered people together for many uninterrupted chapters, and their tedious complaints about each other, society, travel, and foreigners just go on and on. Amy remains good through this period (because she is always good), but she doesn’t have any kind of crisis to make her interesting: she’s just patient annd forgiving. Many of the other “good guys” in the novel either are annoying or don’t appear enough. Flora offers a good example of the first category. Dickens performed grammatical miracles in writing long passages for Flora that never add up to actual sentences in any known language, but she’s a one joke character, so these nonsensical monologues get old fast. Mr Meagles stands in the second category. This three-dimensional fellow has strengths (honesty, love for his family, generosity) and weaknesses (insensitivity to his ward’s feelings and impatience with conditions of foreign travel) and a fantastic backstory including a twin daughter who died very young, leaving an image in her twin sister of the years of growth she never enjoyed; but he really only has three major scenes in the book when he’s the kind of character that should have ten.

But most unsatisfactory of all, the plot has confused and frustrated me both times that I’ve read the book. Most Dickens novels involve a major secret valuable to both hero and villain. Somewhere early in the second half, the drive toward possession of this secret begins, and somewhere in the last 10% of the book, the secret’s revelation brings about the downfall of the villain and starts the resolution process for the heroes. But in Little Dorrit, the plot drive just doesn’t work for me. The initiation of the crisis occurs when Rigaud supposedly disappears. Arthur Clennam senses an urgency to find him, but (1) all he knows about Rigaud is that he’s undesirable, so I would think he would be happy to see him go, and (2) from page 1, Rigaud has traveled all over Europe, so why should anyone, myself included, care at all that he has left London for a while? Ah, well! A Tale of Two Cities next year and Great Expectations in 2015, and I know I’ll relish every word.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What I Like about Little Dorrit

With my recent family health issues, I haven’t had and won’t have as much time for blogging as I’m used to. But I finished reading Little Dorrit yesterday and wish I had said more about my favorite author, even if it is my least favorite novel of his. So I’m going to try to write a series of short posts on LD. I’m usually terrible, though, at reigning in my tendency toward prolixity. (See, why can’t I even just say, “I usually talk too much”?) So we’ll just have to see how successful I am at carrying out this plan.

I’ll begin the series with what I like about Little Dorrit. Two paragraphs, and then I’m done. When I think about what I like most about Dickens, I usually start with characters. Scrooge, Sam Weller, Betsy Trotwood, Captain Cuttle, Sydney Carton, Miss Havisham – these are practically real people to me and stand out as the pillars of the great Dickens temple. Little Dorrit has neither a Micawber nor a Uriah Heep. But it does have Young John Chivery, who dreams up a new hilarious epitaph for himself every time he is reminded that Amy Dorrit has rejected his (somewhat unattractive) suit. It has Mr Pancks, who comes off at first like the villain but turns out the proverbial diamond in the rough – the rough consisting of snorting and pulling his spiky hair. And it has Mrs F’s Aunt, a more debilitated version of Mrs Gummidge with a really, really great name.

I always love Dickens’s vocabulary, and the vocabulary of Little Dorrit will get a special post later. I was fascinated by the themes of confinement (confinement in a prison, in a job, in a family, in government red tape, in society) and self-proclaimed gentlemen: Dickens tendered a  particularly scathing indictment of all upper-class snobbery with his combination of the haughty Mr Dorrit, the villainous Rigaud, and the lying Mr Merdle. I also enjoyed the kaleidoscopic cascade of descriptions and figures of speech involving light and shadow that ran throughout the book; I knew the happy ending was near when the light on the prison gate turned the bars golden. But perhaps the best thing about the book is the Circumlocution Office. In trying to sell people on my favorite author over the years, I’ve more than once said that modern British satire runs back to and through Dickens. Dickens describes the great Circumlocution Office as standing on the single noble principle of How Not To Do It. And when he says that anytime a new MP made a mistake and came perilously close to Doing It, the Circumlocution Office always stood ready with reams of paperwork to set him right, I heard clearly ringing in the passage’s echoes the proceedings of the Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dickens and Traveling

The week since I last posted has been split between sitting with my mother in the stroke ward of the hospital and moving in with my mother. The least agreeable of Dickens’s novels may not have been the best thing to read during this ordeal, but I stuck with it. Perhaps I felt sympathetic companionship from the man in a mood dark enough to produce Little Dorrit.

One volley of pointed satire I harmonized with right away is aimed at international travel. This Dickens tale concerns not just two cities but at least seven: London, Marseilles, Paris, Calais, Antwerp, Rome, and Venice all make appearances. Dickens’s sourness at the time he wrote Little Dorrit elicited cynical views on all this travel, while I’ve had almost perfect experiences the last three times I went to Europe. But I still recognize the rough edges he brings up.

The first remark I noted referred to the purpose of traveling the Grand Tour: Mrs General “saw most of that extensive miscellany of objects which it is essential that all persons of polite cultivation should see with other people’s eyes, and never with their own.” So much humbuggery gets revealed  in the course of that one sentence!

    1. That there are things one ought to see.
    2. That one element of society sees itself as politely cultivated.
    3. That this element would expect certain travel experiences from anyone
            else who wants to join the elite circle.
    4. That people neither look for what they enjoy nor enjoy what they see by
            means of a direct impression made the cathedral, painting, castle,
            river, or mountain in question.

Dickens refers several times to Mr Eustace’s travel book and everyone’s dependence on that expert to instruct them what they themselves think about each place. Today it could be Frommer or Rick Steves or a personal tour guide. But don’t we all tend to take helpful and interesting contextual information too far, to see the world through other people’s eyes?

Aristotle might call the view of tourist attractions the final cause of European travel. Dickens treats the efficient cause in the next passage I marked:
It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they lived, greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness, relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home. They were brought into these foreign towns in the custody of couriers and local followers, just as the debtors had been brought into the prison. They prowled about the churches and picture-galleries, much in the old, dreary, prison-yard manner. They were usually going away again to-morrow or next week, and rarely knew their own minds, and seldom did what they said they would do, or went where they said they would go: in all this again, very like the prison debtors. They paid high for poor accommodation, and disparaged a place while they pretended to like it: which was exactly the Marshalsea custom. They were envied when they went away by people left behind, feigning not to want to go: and that again was the Marshalsea habit invariably. A certain set of words and phrases, as much belonging to tourists as the College and the Snuggery belonged to the jail, was always in their mouths. They had precisely the same incapacity for settling down to anything, as the prisoners used to have; they rather deteriorated one another, as the prisoners used to do; and they wore untidy dresses, and fell into a slouching way of life: still, always like the people in the Marshalsea.
Which of us has never felt like a prisoner on a trip? We make ourselves prisoners of our own schedules, prisoners of the hotelkeepers, prisoners of our companions, prisoners of our unrealistic expectations.

Just this morning I smiled at poor Mr Meagles traveling around Europe “with an unshaken confidence that the English tongue was somehow the mother tongue of the whole world, only the people were too stupid to know it.” I smiled at the fictional account, but I’m embarrassed by these people in real life. I once stood in a line in the Netherlands behind a fellow with a cowboy hat on who opened a wallet full of greenbacks and asked the cashier, “How much is that in American?” If I didn’t speak French when my turn came, I’m pretty sure I used an English accent. I also remember, from an earlier visit to Europe, rushing with my head hung low out of a pastry shop in Germany after my travel buddy pointed at a roll and said, “I buy one dis. Yes?” But still I laugh when I read in Little Dorrit of Mrs Plornish who speaks to Signor Cavalletto in this same manner, fully convinced that she has mastered the Italian language.