Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Letters, for example, are an interesting transitional phenomenon,: a kind of written conversation that, as it were, stretches out the movement of talking at cross purposes before seeing each other's point. The art of writing letters consists in not letting what one says become a treatise on the subject, but making it acceptable to the correspondent. but it also consists, on the other hand, in preserving and fulfilling the measure of finality possessed by everything state in writing. The time lapse between sending a letter and receiving an answer is not just an external factor, but gives to this form of communication its proper nature as a particular form of writing. So we note that the speeding-up of the post has not led to a heightening of this form of communication but, on the contrary, to a decline in the art of letter-writing.
   Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Second Part, II, 3(i) "The model of the Platonic dialectic"

Is that so? The speeding up of the post took place in part through the development of railroads, which made it possible for visits to replace some letters. Then of course by the early 20th Century there was the telephone, which enabled one to talk at cross purposes in real time.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Oh, Dear

Noticed, with some surprise, in the chapter "Training for Russia" of George Kennan's Memoirs 1925-1950:
This episode [of a warning ignored before US recognition of the USSR] has remained in my mind as the first of many lessons I was destined to receive, in the course of a diplomatic career, on one of the most consistent and incurable traits of American statesmanship--namely, its neurotic self-consciousness and introversion, the tendency to make statements and take actions with regard not to  their effect on the international scene to which they are ostensibly addressed but rather to their effect on those echelons of American opinion, congressional opinion first and foremost, to which the respective statesmen are anxious to appeal. The question, in these circumstances, became not: how effective is what I am doing in terms of the impact it makes on our world environment? but rather: how do I look, in the mirror of domestic American opinion, as I do it? Do I look shrewd, determined, defiantly patriotic, imbued with the necessary vigilance before the wiles of foreign governments? If so, this is what I do, even though it may prove meaningless, or even counterproductive, when applied to the realities of the external situation.
Congressional opinion now seems to respond chiefly to public opinion, at least the inferred opinion of those who are likely to vote in primaries, and so I think no longer counts as "first and foremost". I suppose it is well to be reminded that posing is nothing new.

Friday, June 8, 2018

College Recruiting

In George Kennan's Memoirs 1925-1950, chapter "A Personal Note", a paragraph reads
I cam to Princeton directly from St. John's Military Academy. The progression was not a usual one. I owed it partly to the excitement and sense of revelation derived from reading Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise in my senior year at school, and partly to the help and encouragement of the St. John's dean, the late Henry Holt, a modest, shrewd, and dedicated pedagogue.
In On the Decay of Criticism: The Complete Essays of W.M. Spackman, in "A Conversation with W.M. Spackman" there appears
Interviewer: Was Princeton your first choice for college?

Spackman: No, I was going to Cornell. But then I read This Side of Paradise--we all did then--and began to rethink my choice. Of my class of probably a dozen boys, one went to Harvard, one went to M.I.T., and six of us came up here. But look at this, two-thirds of the class go to the top universities! That was the kind of education we got in those days.

Interviewer: I have read that Fitzgerald's novel had that kind of influence. It's hard now to imagine--
Kennan graduated from Princeton with the Class of 1925, Spackman with the class of 1927. It is clear from what they write that Spackman a better time in college, not surprisingly: he was nearer home, he almost certainly had more money, and I infer that he had a generally more cheerful disposition. By the early 1950s, both were back in Princeton, Kennan at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Spackman as an independent writer.

It seems to me that I read This Side of Paradise while I was in high school, though I can give no account of the book now. It certainly did not occur to me that I might or ought to attend Princeton. A fellow a year ahead of me might have read the novel and found inspiration: he was admitted to Princeton, but for the following year, and spent his gap year working. At any rate, few in my class went very far away from Denver, and the famous novel about Colorado State or Creighton is yet to be written.

Are there now books that make students change their college choices? I suppose there might be. On the other hand, the high school student of today is often considerably more emancipated--or, if you will, unsupervised and undisciplined--than the high school student of 1920. It may be harder to create excitement about college.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jill Ker Conway, RIP

The newspapers this week carried obituaries of Jill Ker Conway, sometime president of Smith College. She wrote an excellent memoir of her childhood and youth in Australia, The Road from Coorain. I don't know that it stood up to a second reading as well as it did to the first. On the other hand, only so many memoirs invite a second reading, and The Road from Coorain certainly did. If you haven't heard of her or the book, you might do well to find and read it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Poplar Flowers

The yellow-poplar or tulip-poplar has beautiful flowers, but of muted coloring, and not clustered or large: the Audubon Society field guide says
 1.5 -2" (4 - 5 cm)long and wide; cup-shaped, with 6 rounded green petals (orange at base); solitary and upright and end of leafy twig;
The poplars are tall, therefore the flowers are high, and an eye has to be better than mine to see flowers less showy than a catalpa's or southern magnolia's at their common height. A fortnight ago I noticed them fallen, brought down the week's rains, and it occurred to me that I hadn't seen them on the trees. The only place I knew to look for the flowers at a convenient height was from a bridge out of the Zoo, which crosses Beach Drive at about twenty feet up. However, this past weekend I discovered another in Rock Creek Park, on a slope beside Ridge Road near Broad Branch:

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Arnold and Homer

The premise of On Translating Homer hardly stands up to consideration:
My one object is to give practical advice to a translator...
How many students, since the publication of On Translating Homer in 1860 have had practical ambitions of publishing a translation of the Iliad or the Odyssey; and what fraction do they make up of those who have read the essay? I would guess that the fraction is pretty small. The fraction since Chelsea House reprinted the work thirty-five years ago must be tiny.

Arnold argues for four qualities in Homer:
that is is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression  of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally that he is eminently noble;
He points out convincingly the want of one or more of these qualities in one or another of the translators of Homer into English, from Chapman on.  He quotes the strictures of Bentley on Pope's Iliad and of Wordsworth on Dryden's Aeneid. He offers his own translation of a few passages, and hints on meter.

Near the end of the essay appears
 for what he has in common with Milton--the noble and profound application of ideas to life--is the most essential part of poetic greatness.
The passages he quotes in support of this, from the last book of the Iliad certainly are remarkable:Rachel Bespaloff's essay "Priam and Achilles Break Bread" is worth reading for a sense of them. Yet I cannot see them as applications of ideas to life, or see how the application of ideas to life is an essential part of poetry.

I am glad to have read the essay. But I think the premise implausible, and for other practical uses I can think of better essays. For a comparison of translations, Guy Davenport's essay "Another Odyssey", collected in The Geography of the Imagination, has more extended and more current examples. Robert Fitzgerald frankly acknowledges the impossibility of translating the Odyssey "as an aesthetic object."

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Traveling, Etc.

Noticed this week in Truth and Method, Part I, 1.3.(a), "The retrieval of the question of artistic truth":
Even art forms which seem to be opposed to the simultaneity of the aesthetic experience, such as architecture, are drawn into it, either through the modern technique of reproduction which turns buildings into pictures, or else through modern tourism, which turns travelling into an armchair browsing through picture books.
The characteristic seat of modern tourism seems to me to be not the armchair but the airline seat with scant legroom. Still, perhaps I see what Gadamer means. As for the simultaneity addressed in this section, I think of Flann O'Brien, in the "Criticism, Arts, Letters" section of The Best of Myles:
 Search any old lukewarm bath and you will find one of these aesthetical technicians enjoying himself.... All round this person in the bath life is going on, nothing is ever lost, over in Harlem Einstein is testing a diminished seventh for an overstimulated thyroid, in Milan Buonaparte is writing the letter that ends Ah, Jos├ęphine! Jos├ęphine! Toi! Toi!, in the Bank of Ireland Silken Thomas has laid his sword on the counter what will they allow him on it, in Bohemia they are throwing the Emperor's ambassadors out of the window while always waddling comically into the polyphonic aureole of the sunset recedes the tragic figure of Charlie Chaplin. This is life, and stuffed contentedly in the china bath is the boy it was invented for, morbidly aware of the structure of history, geography, algebra, chemistry and woodwork; he is up to his chin in the carpediurnal present, and simultaneously, in transcendant sense-immediacy, sensible that without him, without his feeling, his observation, his diapassional apprehension on all planes, his non-pensionable function as catalyst, the whole filmy edifice would crumble into dust.