Saturday, December 31, 2016

Coincidental Reading: the New Year

This morning a quotation from Metternich caught my eye:
I detest every New Year. I am so inclined to prefer what I know to what I must learn, that my preference extends even to the four numbers that I am accustomed to write.
(Letter to the Duchess of Lieven, quoted in Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit.)

My father was subject to a mild melancholy on New Year's Eves at the thought of another year past. No doubt he dated a few checks with the wrong year, as I have done; but I don't think that the burden of learning a new number had anything to do with his mood.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Known by Their Tails

This past weekend, I had opened Liddell and Scott to see what the Greek word "ailouros" (αἴλουρος) might mean. I was satisfied to learn that it means "cat," and delighted to read the codicil "so called from the wavy motion of the tail". Curiously, neither of the versions of the lexicon available on-line at Tufts gives the etymology. Was it a rash conjecture since discarded, or did the those who put the lexicons on-line wish to save typing?

I had read in Thoreau that the name "squirrel" derives from "skia oura", "shadow tail", and here the versions at Tufts bear him out:
σκίουρος [ι^], , οὐρά) prop.
A.shadow-tail, i.e. squirrel, Opp.C.2.586; cf. Plin.HN8.138.
The on-line versions do not note what the paper version does, that the squirrel is also "kampsiouros" as having a bending tail, and "hippouros" as having a tail that reminded someone of a horse's. The latter distinction it shares with a fish and an insect.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

John Montague

 Neither of the newspapers we subscribe to, The New York Times and The Washington Post, has noticed the death of John Montague on December 9. I heard of it only via Books, Inq.

It had been a while since I looked into the volumes I have, Selected Poems (1982) and The Dead Kingdom (1984); a few poems are found in both. Some I remember from first reading thirty years ago still: "Clear the Way", "The Cage", "Killing the Pig", "Country Matters", "Life Class", the prose poems "The Huntsman's Apology" and "Coming Events". The last begins
In the Stadzmuseum at Bruges, there is a picture by Gerard David of a man being flayed.
That picture is "The Judgment of Cambyses", as we discovered when in Bruges some years ago.

The poem "A Private Reason" begins
As I walked out at Merval with my wife
Both of us sad, for a private reason,
We found the perfect silence for it,
A beech leaf severed, like the last
Living thing in the world, to crease
The terraced snow, as we
Walked out by Merval.
The Collected Poems of 1995 must comprehend Selected Poems and The Dead Kingdom. Wake Forest Press, which published them all, keeps in print several of his other volumes as well. And it offers as its poem of the week Montague's "At Last", which you can find in Collected Poems.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Newman on Notional Assents

This fall, I took up Newman's Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. I have now read to the end of it. It deserves a second reading, but when I will get back to it, I do not know.

To what extent one finds it in the end convincing depends in part on one's predispositions, something Newman acknowledges. I start from largely the same premises, and thought the book well argued. However, I believe that even one who in the end disagrees would find much of interest in Newman's exposition of degrees and processes of assent.

The book bears out Newman's reputation for lucid prose; the temptation is simply to quote at length. I shall limit myself, though, to some passages from Chapter 5, Section 1. This section, dealing with "Notional Assents", i.e. those not to a fact, ranges such assents from weakest to strongest as Profession, Credence, Opinion, Presumption, and Speculation. It is full of striking passages, as for example the following, from the beginning of the sub-section on Profession, and a paragraph or two in:
There are assents so feeble and superficial, as to be little more than assertions. I class them all together under the head of Profession. Such are the assents made upon habit and without reflection; as when a man calls himself a Tory or a Liberal, as having been brought up as such; or again, when he adopts as a matter of course the literary or other fashions of the day, admiring the poems, or the novels, or the music, or the personages, or the costume, or the wines, or the manners, which happen to be popular, or are patronized in the higher circles. Such again are the assents of men of wavering restless minds, who take up and then abandon beliefs so readily, so suddenly, as to make it appear that they had no view (as it is called) on the matter they professed, and did not know to what they assented or why.
... This practice of asserting simply on authority, with the pretence and without the reality of assent, is what is meant by formalism. To say "I do not understand a proposition, but I accept it on authority,” is not formalism, but faith; it is not a direct assent to the proposition, still it is an assent to the authority which enunciates it; but what I here speak of is professing to understand without understanding. It is thus that political and religious watchwords are created; first one man of name and then another adopts them, till their use becomes popular, and then every one professes them, because every one else does.
Thus, instances occur now and then, when, in consequence of the urgency of some fashionable superstition or popular delusion, some eminent scientific authority is provoked to come forward, and to set the world right by his "ipse dixit." He, indeed, himself knows very well what he is about; he has a right to speak, and his reasonings and conclusions are sufficient, not only for his own, but for general assent, and, it may be, are as simply true and impregnable, as they are authoritative; but an intelligent hold on the matter in dispute, such as he has himself, cannot be expected in the case of men in general. They, nevertheless, one and all, repeat and retail his arguments, as suddenly as if they had not to study them, as heartily as if they understood them, changing round and becoming as strong antagonists of the error which their master has exposed, as if they had never been its advocates. If their word is to be taken, it is not simply his authority that moves them, which would be sensible enough and suitable in them, both apprehension and assent being in that case grounded on the maxim "Cuique in arte suâ credendum," but so far forth as they disown this motive, and claim to judge in a scientific question of the worth of arguments which require some real knowledge, they are little better, not of course in a very serious matter, than pretenders and formalists.
I have occasionally been struck with what seems to me the cast of mind of some American politicians, church-going men whose temperament seems to owe more to the Old Testament than the New, to confidence, let us say, rather than repentance. Newman offers a hint in the section on Credence, though he is writing of England, and sounds not unlike Emerson in English Traits:
What Scripture especially illustrates from its first page to its last, is God’s Providence; and that is nearly the only doctrine held with a real assent by the mass of religious Englishmen. Hence the Bible is so great a solace and refuge to them in trouble. I repeat, I am not speaking of particular schools and parties in England, whether of the High Church or the Low, but of the mass of piously-minded and well-living people in all ranks of the community.
I will end by quoting a couple of paragraphs from the section on Presumption:
By Presumption I mean an assent to first principles; and by first principles I mean the propositions with which we start in reasoning on any given subject-matter. They are in consequence very numerous, and vary in great measure with the persons who reason, according to their judgment and power of assent, being received by some minds, not by others, and only a few of them received universally. They are all of them notions, not images, because they express what is abstract, not what is individual and from direct experience.
However, if I must speak my mind, I have another ground for reluctance to speak of our trusting memory or reasoning, except indeed by a figure of speech. It seems to me unphilosophical to speak of trusting ourselves. We are what we are, and we use, not trust our faculties. To debate about trusting in a case like this, is parallel to the confusion implied in wishing I had had a choice if I would be created or no, or speculating what I should be like, if I were born of other parents. “Proximus sum egomet mihi.” Our consciousness of self is prior to all questions of trust or assent. We act according to our nature, by means of ourselves, when we remember or reason. We are as little able to accept or reject our mental constitution, as our being. We have not the option; we can but misuse or mar its functions. We do not confront or bargain with ourselves; and therefore I cannot call the trustworthiness of the faculties of memory and reasoning one of our first principles.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


I hadn't thought about Thermopylae much lately, but around the beginning of October it came to mind. First, we made it to the National Geographic Museum to see "The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great" before it left for Chicago. About two thirds of the way through, one finds a room with the bust of a warrior from the acropolis of Sparta, traditionally identified as Leonidas, and next to it a set of arrowheads evidently from Xerxes's army: Scythian, Persian, and so on. The text on the walls mentions the battles of that war. And of course it mentions the Thermopylae and the three hundred Spartans.

Now, the three hundred Spartans were not a tenth of Greeks at Thermopylae. The National Geographic of course credited the four thousand from other Greek cities. The three hundred were not all even of those who stayed and fought to the death when the pass was turned. They were outnumbered among the latter by seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans, or what was left of them after several days' fighting. Yet the Spartans are remembered, the Boeoteians not. The movies are "Go Tell the Spartans" and "300", not "Go Tell the Thespians" and "700.

To be sure, when the war was over,  Sparta could plausibly represent itself as the savior of Greece, leader at Plataea; and Thebes at least, which had Medized, and sent a contingent of dissidents largely to get them out of the city, probably preferred to drop the discussion.

Second, a friend emailed me concerning the expression "molon labe" (μολὼν λαβέ).  I'm not sure how this came up for him. I had first seen it last year on a sticker on pickup truck in Arizona. Not having toted along Liddell & Scott and Tutti Verbi Graeci, I couldn't translate it; still, the silhouette of an AR-15 below the words seemed to provide a context. Then while running in Rock Creek Park I encountered a man with the words tattooed on his bicep. He explained that it meant, more or less "come and get them", i.e. the arms. At that point I forgot about it.

My friend's email referred to Wikipedia's entry, which referred to a reply from Leonidas to Xerxes. Now, in Herodotus, there is no back and forth between the two, just fighting. Puzzling through Peter Green's The Persian Wars, and through the Wikipedia article, eventually I found the source of the reference in Plutarch:
τὰ ὅπλα,’ ἀντέγραψε, ‘μολὼν λαβέ.’
("'Come and get the arms,' he wrote in reply.") It is short and pithy in Plutarch's version. It is shorter and pithier still in the tattoo and sticker version; yet that seems to me to have the drawback of omitting the direct object, and leaving baffled those of us who are neither Second Amendment sticklers nor deep students of Plutarch. But I can see that even the abbreviated version requires a full bicep or an average bumper sticker.

My friend also thought that the expression might occur in Thucydides, in the defiance offered by some island to Athens. I can't say. However, a look at his account of the negotiations at Melos suggests to me that Thucydides is better at the prolix than the pithy.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Good News

The last time that I was at Kramerbooks, about the beginning of November, there was plywood up behind the register. One of the clerks said that there was construction going on that would allow for another register come the holidays. That sounded useful, I thought.

Today when I stopped by I found the front door displaced toward Dupont Circle. The store has taken over a space next to it, increasing its space by a quarter or a third. In my brief visit, I did not quite figure out where everything is. It appears that history and new non-fiction have moved into the new area, and that fiction, philosophy and religion are about where they were, with poetry moving around a corner. Yet it is still difficult to get around the essay shelves unless one is gaunt.

I am grateful to see an independent bookstore expanding.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Travel Reading

Before our vacation, I considered what to take along for travel reading. Really I wanted a book for the return flight from Amsterdam, for on the eastward flight one is too tired to read much, and when abroad time spent inside one's hotel room seems wasted. My requirements were that the book should be light, for I would have to carry it through four airports; that it be long, to occupy me during most of seven hours; that it be readable when I am tired; and that it be new to me, or worth rereading now, to justify its space and weight. I couldn't think what around the house met these requirements.

There are histories that fail the weight requirement. There are volumes of philosophy that I cannot read unless well rested. There are novels that I don't consider that I need to reread just now. For some reason, I did not consider poetry, though I have in the past taken poetry along on trips.

On the Friday before we left, I understood that what I really wanted was some novel of Trollope's, preferably in an Oxford World Classics volume. By then it was too late to make it to a bookstore before the airport, and airport bookstores aren't that good in the US these days. Schiphol's English-language selection is not bad, but I didn't see anything I really wanted to get. The next trip we take will probably be to the west coast; I'll keep Trollope in mind for that.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Venice: Graves

Today our path took us past Cimitero

(Not only did Diaghilev's have flowers, but a woman stopped to cross herself in what I take to be the approved Orthodox fashion before she moved on.)

And on to Madonna dell'Orto

At Cimitero, we missed the Protestant section of the cemetery, and so the graves of Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky. We haven't had much luck with the graves of poets this trip: last week in Ravenna we missed Dante's.

Friday, November 18, 2016

In Bologna: Odds and Ends

We arrived in Bologna on Monday afternoon. With the exception of Wednesday, when we took the train to Ravenna, we have been walking about and looking at churches, palazzi, and towers since. One can find photographs of these by better photographers who used better cameras. Mostly I have taken pictures of minor curiosities that caught my eye.

On Monday evening we found the Piazza Maggiore largely occupied by booths being set up. Tuesday the Cioccoshow was open, with something like eighty vendors. Most of the chocolate looked very good. A number of the makers had put a lot of work into the appearance of the chocolates:

The old architecture is well-proportioned and handsome, and there are well-designed modern buildings to be seen here and there. However, not all modern adaptations of old buildings were thought through enough:

That is on the Piazza San Stefano. San Stefano is a very old church, or rather complex of churches. But the Benedictines who run it seem to be right up to date.

Finally, we have been astonished at the number of independent book stores: clearly, Bologna is not in the Amazon drainage. There are also news stands, which have nearly vanished from Washington, where one has Hudson News and not much else. This morning I stopped to by postcards at a newsstand, and saw

For 6.8 Euros, one can buy a bilingual edition of Epicurus's letters; that is inexpensive enough to be a casual purchase for the browser who had stopped by for a newspaper.  Now, Hudson News does carry books, and might carry The Marriage of Opposites. I would not expect it to carry works of what I would consider philosophy, and certainly not a volume from the Loeb Classical Library.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Pots and Poetry

While reviewing some basic Italian vocabulary this week, I encountered "pentola", "pot". This called to mind a passage from Iris Origo's memoir Images and Shadows, concerning her instruction in the classics by the tutor Professor Solone Monti:
 The path of learning was sometimes made easy, too, and enlivened by an element of surprise.
"Do you know what Pascoli said to the kettle which wouldn't boil for his dinner?" Monti suddenly asked me one morning, 'Pentola, pentola, pentola, bolli. Pentola, bolli!' Then he added, turning to an equally hungry friend in the doorway, 'Che bell'esametro!'"
Taking a pencil, Monti wrote it down, marking the long syllables and the short--and so, in three minutes, the rhythm of the hexameter was fixed in my mind forever.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Daylight Savings Time

At the end of the 1980s, I worked on a project that managed a number of Data General MV/Eclipse minicomputers. The operating system that ran on them had the peculiarity of not tolerating the system time being set back: setting the time back would crash the process that managed queues and logins. Therefore on the autumn Sunday when the country reverted to standard time, operators would change the time and restart the computers.

Eventually, Data General modified the executive program to survive the time being set back. Eventually, too, it was possible to connect to a government service over the internet and set the time automatically. (This was in the days before one heard much about the Network Time Protocol; and I'm not sure that the DG minis ever supported NTP.) The time changes became more routine, less a source of chaos and confusion. Computer clocks have become more accurate, and the use of NTP more widespread, so that now one expects the systems to handle time and time changes correctly and without fuss. However, when the rules for daylight savings time change, one must patch operating systems and other programs that use local time.

The United States Congress has an odd belief that extending daylight savings time benefits the economy. This belief is not, as far as I know, shared by statisticians and economists. During the oil shock of 1973 and 1974, the country stayed on daylight savings time for the winter. I was commuting to college then, leaving the house many days by 6:30, and got in a fair bit of star-gazing those mornings. More recently, in 2005, daylight savings time was extended to the first weekend of November. My chief reaction then was annoyance at having to apply patches for no good reason.

Today's New York Times carries an opinion piece by James Gleick, a historian of science, suggesting that we should all be on Greenwich time, or UTC as some call it. That is fine advice for computers: run the system clock on UTC, and display local time according to the location of the machine or (when it can be inferred) the user. For the rest of us it seems too radical.

Friday, November 4, 2016


On Tuesday, a co-worker reported that Lafayette Square was partially closed. She wondered whether crews were beginning construction of stands for the inaugural parade in January. Today, another co-worker and I passed by the chain link fence that blocks off about a third of the square, and it appears so. The protesters who would ordinarily be on Pennsylvania Avenue facing the White House have now set up near the statue of Jackson.

One forgets, occasionally, in the noise and novelty of an election year, how much goes on by routine. In 1980, a project I worked for shared office space with the Quadrennial Commission, an organization that meets, or met, every four years to consider the compensation of federal employees. As best I recall, they did not know when they started who the next president would be. They did, however, know that personnel in all three branches of the federal government would be collecting pay during the years 1981 through 1984, and that the government needed guidelines for setting the rates of their pay.

So the workers along Pennsylvania Avenue expect that there will be an inaugural parade on January 20. Someone will take that oath, and someone will ride up from the Capitol in a limousine. In all probability, they are correct.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Courtesies of War

Happening to open Josef Pieper's Tradition as a Challenge the other day, I found
By chance, as I was recently paging through Goethe's autobiographical writings, I came across what is not a particularly significant but is both a characteristic and amusing example of such a change. It occurs in the Kampagne in Frankreich--in the records of that strange campaign, which foundered miserably in mud and rain, of the European monarchical forces pitted against the people's army of the French Revolution. In this war, which in many ways really belongs to our era, an arrangement was still able to be made between the warring armies: the outposts on both sides, when the weather was bad (in September! in France!) had the right, depending on the direction of the wind, wrapped in their overcoats, to turn their backs to the enemy without this temporary defenselessness being exploited.
 Grant writes in his memoirs that
The next day, the 24th, I started out to make a personal inspection, taking Thomas and Smith with me, besides most of the members of my personal staff. We crossed to the north side of the river, and, moving to the north of detached spurs of hills, reached the Tennessee at Brown's Ferry, some three miles below Lookout Mountain, unobserved by the enemy. Here we left our horses back from the river and approached the water on foot. There was a picket station of the enemy on the opposite side, of about twenty men, in full view, and we were within easy range. They did not fire upon us nor seem to be disturbed by our presence. They must have seen that we were all commissioned officers. But, I suppose, they looked upon the garrison of Chattanooga as prisoners of war, feeding or starving themselves, and thought it would be inhuman to kill any of them except in self-defence.
and again, of an inspection about a week later
[Chattanooga Creek], from its mouth up to where it bears off west, lay between the two lines of pickets, and the guards of both armies drew their water from the same stream. As I would be under short-range fire and in an open country, I took nobody with me, except, I believe, a bugler, who stayed some distance to the rear. I rode from our right around to our left. When I came to the camp of the picket guard of our side, I heard the call, "Turn out the guard for the commanding general." I replied, "Never mind the guard," and they were dismissed and went back to their tents. Just back of these, and about equally distant from the creek, were the guards of the Confederate pickets. The sentinel on their post called out in like manner, "Turn out the guard for the commanding general," and, I believe, added, "General Grant." Their line in a moment front-faced to the north, facing me, and gave a salute, which I returned
The most friendly relations seemed to exist between the pickets of the two armies. At one place there was a tree which had fallen across the stream, and which was used by the soldiers of both armies in drawing water for their camps. General Longstreet's corps was stationed there at the time, and wore blue of a little different shade from our uniform. Seeing a soldier in blue on this log, I rode up to him, commenced conversing with him, and asked whose corps he belonged to. He was very polite, and, touching his hat to me, said he belonged to General Longstreet's corps. I asked him a few questions—but not with a view of gaining any particular information—all of which he answered, and I rode off.
In World War II there was a tacit understanding that when shells were fired to scatter propaganda leaflets the recipients had some minutes of grace to pick them up, and of course to get out of foxholes and trench, stretch their limbs, and so on. But this understanding was more between the psychological warfare arm and the artillery than it was between the warring sides.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Computers and Superstition

Computer systems in the best case are built in carefully defined layers. The user clicks on a button: the browser sends a request to the web server; the server program issues some commands to send this information and retrieve that; perhaps a database adds information to a table and sends information back; the web server sends a new page for the browser to display. Here the browser is built to display pages and send requests, the web server to send pages and handle requests, the database to save and retrieve information.

In theory, there is a clean separation of responsibilities. The person writing the programs the web server will run need not worry about how the browser works or the details of queries running against the database. Those who configure the database need not concern themselves with what programs will use the database--maybe it will be a script on a web server, maybe the data will be pulled into a spreadsheet. And there is a hard boundary at the database: for the most part commands and data go in, responses and data come out, but one need not worry about what happens inside the database.

In practice, things are not so cleanly separated. Often enough the person writing the scripts for the web server will also write the queries against the database. That person may have to know some of the quirks of the different browsers, and how they follow or break standards--admittedly this is a fairly shallow knowledge. The person writing queries against the database may have to look very closely to see why something runs slowly and how it can be made to run faster.

I have found little in my work that is more frustrating than coming up against one of these layers, needing just a bit of information from the other side, and being unable to get it. It is well to know that steps A, B, and C will produced result D; if D always comes about, that all one needs to know. But if the every tenth application produces E, then one needs to look further. That can be very hard to do.

I have been trying to figure out why certain "integrations", methods for receiving outside data into the Great Plains accounting system, sometimes work properly and sometimes don't. I set these up as copies of another integration. After looking carefully at them all for discrepancies, I have come to a number of conclusions:
  • The integration I copied was copied from some other source.
  • At least one element of the source integration is otiose: it might have made sense in an integration that is a generation or three removed, but not here.
  • Setting up systems in this fashion is nearer superstition than to sound technical practice.
  • The explanation of the discrepancy is simple, a matter that could be explained to me by an expert in ten minutes.
  • Finding that expert is not a technical but a social problem, and could be all but insoluble.
I have tried what I could think to try. The logs produced when the integration runs with logging set to the "trace" level resemble the box scores of baseball games, which is to say that they will tell you what happened but not how. The database level trace on the other hand recorded almost a thousand operations to record three invoices. I gave up on it, but may have to go back.

Trying a change with a notion of what it will effect, and how, and how one can tell that it produced that effect, is experimenting. Changing something because maybe it will help is superstition. It is too easy to fall into superstitious coding, and it always makes me uncomfortable.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Fathers

Long ago, I had heard of Allen Tate's novel The Fathers as very good. Yet though I read a fair bit of Tate's criticism and poetry,  I had never bothered to find and read the novel. This past week,  it turned up at Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan. After a first reading, it seems to me to justify the reputation.

The Fathers is set in the years 1858 through 1861 in country more or less familiar to me: Fairfax County and Alexandria in Virginia, Georgetown in the District of Columbia. Of course, both sides of the river have changed greatly in the last century and a half, the farms of Fairfax now all suburb, and  Georgetown built up the hill beyond the small town it had been. Anyone trying to follow the path of Lacy Buchan's afternoon walk of May 6, 1861 up from what I take to be M St. would walk through some very expensive yards. The only features of Georgetown I could reasonably identify were the towpath, the college, the Convent of the Visitation, and Holyrood Cemetery. The streets named in Alexandria retain their names; but Georgetown has been assimilated to the Washington system, and my identification of the streets there is conjectural.

The social territory is still more changed, of course, than the physical. Apart from the presence of slavery, there is the society of Virginia, where, in the words of the disruptive Georgetown resident George Posey, "They do nothing but die and marry and think about the honor of Virginia." Some of the older men, like the narrator's father, are unionists and conservative, living in a Virginia that they have imagined:
"Damn it, Lacy, it's just men like your pa who are the glory of the Old Dominion, and the surest proof of her greatness, that are going to ruin us. They can't understand that reason and moderation haven't anything to do with the crisis."
Yet their codes and customs give the Virginians a framework that George Posey lacks; they know what to do in a given situation, be it courting, dueling, or secession. Repeatedly, Tate's narrator, Lacey Buchan points up the difference:
In the sense of today nobody wrote personal letters in our time: letters conveyed the sensibility of of society, the ordered life of families and neighborhoods. George Posey was a man without people or place: he had strong relationships, and he was capable of passionate feeling, but it was all personal...
Posey has for his resources on the one hand mere business and money-making, on the other violent impulse, bringing death to his own family, death and madness to the Buchans. The older generation, Major Lewis Buchan and his cousin John Semmes simply cannot understand Posey: the younger generation look to him for something they are missing. The Posey family of Georgetown is turned in on itself and, George apart, feckless and self-absorbed.

The last word might be left to a Virginian in another novel, John Carrington in Henry Adam's Democracy:
"And would you bring the old society back again if you could?" asked she.

"What for? It could not hold itself up. General Washington himself could not save it. Before he died he had lost his hold on Virginia, and his power was gone."
 (Adams gets a small, off-stage cameo as "a great snob even then" who sometimes attends the "levees" of Charles Buchan's ambitious wife. Well and good; but was it for Virginia to judge the pretensions of Massachusetts?)

I finished the book, Tate's only novel, with something of the feeling I had after reading Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It: I wish I could next read his second novel.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Readings for the Day

The Gospel for today, Friday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time, is Luke 12:1-7. Part of it struck me as curiously apposite:
There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness
will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed on the housetops.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Plain Prose, or Not

A dozen years ago, overseas, I noticed a couple puzzling over a word in a novel, one of John Irving's. I offered my help--the word was "smitten", and then went on to a number of other words that the man had underlined. Both spoke excellent English, he from graduate and postgraduate studies in California, she from a former marriage to an Englishman. Still, there were words they hadn't encountered. All were familiar to me, but I realized on looking at them that they were words I would not expect to meet outside of novels or essays. I had not thought of John Irving as a writer who reaches for the unusual word--he is no Alexander Theroux or S.J. Perelman--yet here were these words.

More recently I have looked through books for passages that adults learning English might be able to read as class exercises. I have long taken it for granted that the best American writers of the 19th Century wrote a good plain style: think of Dana, Lincoln, Grant, Thoreau,  and Twain. And then I look, and think again.

There is the first paragraph of Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, a book I first read when about 13 years old:
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the
brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western
coast of North America.  As she was to get under weigh early in the
afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o'clock, in full
sea-rig, and with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three
year voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if
possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books
and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my
pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure.
Certainly that is plain enough. But I see a number of words or expressions that would require explanation: "brig", "under weigh", "sea-rig", "outfit" (in the sense used), "pursuits."

Lincoln passed for a very plain orator, justly so. Here is the third paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which
it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the
conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should
cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less
fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and pray to the
same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.  It may seem
strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in
wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us
judge not, that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be
answered--that of neither has been answered fully.
You have "magnitude", "duration", and on through to "wringing their bread".

There is Grant's famous note to Buckner:
SIR:--Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.
 World War II popularized the expression "unconditional surrender"--FDR knew his Grant--but how many native speakers of English understand it accurately, or can define "capitulation" or "armistice", or have seen "works" used in this sense?

Thoreau, I have always thought, writes plainly enough. Here are a few sentences from the chapter "Reading" in Walden:
I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled "Little Reading," which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to. There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of provender, for they suffer nothing to be wasted. If others are the machines to provide it, they are the machines to read it.
The words "form" and "convict" are not often used in these senses now, and I don't often see "provender" or "cormorant".

 Here is the first paragraph of Mark Twain's  Life on the Mississippi:
THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

I think that excellent clear prose. Yet is it for beginners? How many of us us have a sense of 45 degrees of longitude, for one thing? And barges have long superseded "flats and keels". (At the moment, I can't think how Twain could have imagined that Delaware was in the Mississippi watershed.)

A couple of weeks ago, another teacher brought in a piece from the Wall Street Journal for the students to read. A look through showed words and idioms that I would not expect a new student to know. At the end of every paragraph we explained three or four expressions: "trumpeted", "touted", "playing offense", and so on. I was wary from the start, having tried out the The Washington Post Express on students a couple of years ago without it yielding a return proportionate to the time spent.

The experiment with the Express made me realize what I had more or less known, that newspapers are written in a particular subset of English. It is one that I began learning more than fifty years ago now and hardly notice. It is not one I'd advise students to model their own writing on, not that I have ever been able to get students to write much of anything. It is worth learning in the long run, but it is of limited use in instruction.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Magnolia and Monkshood

Last week, while walking near the Ellipse, I was surprised to see a magnolia tree with a couple of flowers on it, of which one was low enough to photograph with decent resolution:

I knew that there are magnolias that keep blooming after the spring, but early October seemed late; and though I walk past this tree about once a week, I don't remember recent flowers.

This weekend my wife showed me that the monkshood in the garden is blooming:

We planted it with great care, for monkshood is poisonous, and apparently an English gardener died from the effects of mere skin contact with it. I am shy of it, without being good at spotting it by its foliage; I just know that there is something in that corner of the garden to avoid. But it does have lovely flowers. I will post another picture or two once more of the blooms are out.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Command and Assertion

I have started reading Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. It is clearly written, as one would expect. It is also closely written, to be read slowly and carefully.

I am still in the early pages, where Newman lays out the forms of propositions, interrogative, conditional, and categorical, corresponding to the ways or modes of holding them: doubt, inference, and assent. On the second page appears the paragraph
No one is likely to deny that a question is distinct both from a conclusion and from an assertion; and an assertion will be found to be equally distinct from a conclusion. For, if we rest our affirmation on arguments, this shows that we are not asserting; and when we assert, we do not argue. An assertion is a distinct from a conclusion, as a word of command is from a persuasion or recommendation. Command and assertion, as such, both of them, in their different ways, dispense with, discard, ignore antecedents of any kind, though antecedents may have been a sine qua non condition of their being elicited. They both carry with them the pretension of being personal acts.
The passage recalled a paragraph from Herbert Simon's memoirs, Models of My Life, from his early years teaching at Carnegie Tech (as it then was):
Once when I was auditing [Elliot Dunlap Smith's] class (for a time he hoped that I would understudy him, but ultimately let me go my own way), he made a particularly sweeping statement, then turned to me and asked, "Isn't that so, Professor Simon?" My father had carefully taught me, "Never sign in the presence of the salesman," and I had learned that valuable lesson well, to the point of reflexive response. Recovering from my momentary shock, I quickly replied, "On the whole, it seems reasonable." Smith turned to the class and, his voice dripping with sarcasm, said, "Professor Simon says on the whole it seems reasonable. I tell you it's so."
 There I think is a good illustration of the difference between the categorical and conditional proposition, and of the personal nature both of assertion and command.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Incidental Reading

At the last or second last meeting of the neighborhood book club, a neighbor and friend gave back to me a copy of Peter Schneider's The German Comedy: Scenes of Life After the Wall. I had forgotten not only that I had lent it to her, but also that I had ever owned a copy, and indeed that there was such a book. At the moment, it seemed to me that I must have read one of the essays included when it appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine; I find that it must have been "The Deep-Freeze Theory and Other Hypotheses".

Last night, being too tired to read the book I had in mind, I picked up The German Comedy, and shortly found that I had certainly read it; most of the essays were familiar. And I found reading matter that I hadn't known the volume comprised, not Schneider's: receipts from a vacation that we took in the fall of 2013. I don't know how they got there. I'm fairly confident that I didn't take the book along to the eastern Baltic.

I am always interested to read matter left in books, though I hope I would have the strength not to read matter left by someone I knew. There would have been nothing of much interest between the pages of The German Comedy, just receipts from restaurants, shops, and bars. None of it, I think, would have held any surprises for an observant person who had sat across many dinner tables from us over the years. And really, I don't think our neighbor read it, though I may ask at the next book club meeting. Still, the next book that I lend, I'll look into first.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Punch and Politics

Noticed Sunday night in Lichtenberg's The Waste Books, while looking for something else, Notebook L, entry 47:
When negro servants in the West Indies mix a punch the first ask, for drunk or for dry? We might ask something of the sort before political disputes: shall we dispute with feeling or reason, for drunk or for dry?

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Index of His Patriotism

The other evening, in Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 2 of An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, I noticed the sentence
Again, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," is a mere commonplace, a terse expression of abstractions in the mind of the poet himself, if Philippi is to be the index of his patriotism, whereas it would be the record of experiences, a sovereign dogma, a grand aspiration, inflaming the imagination, piercing the heart, of a Wallace or a Tell.
It is no surprise to find that Newman was one of those who found that Horace's Ode iii.2 reads oddly in the light of ii.7. Nor, really, to find that he states this more pithily than most of us could.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Carolina Mantis

This bug,

which I think is a Carolina Mantis, was on our front door this evening when I got home, and still is there.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Boswell, Johnson, and the Hebrides

I have wished now and then that Oxford University Press had kept in print R.W. Chapman's volume combining Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. A couple of times I have seen this volume in a bookstore and considered buying it to send to my brother; but they were bookstores out of town, I didn't want to carry the book home, and he has gone without.

I have just learned what I should have known before, that Penguin Classics has long published the two works in one handy volume, edited by Peter Levi. It has the advantages of a smaller size and better notes. I wonder whether I mightn't have learned of it nearer the time of publication, 1984. But it was about then that I bought the Oxford Paperback printing.

The Penguin edition is 7.75 inches high, 5 inches wide, and not quite an inch thick. It will fit in a coat pocket. The Oxford Paperbacks edition is 3/8 of an inch thicker. It would fit in a pocket of the coat that Boswell writes of Johnson as wearing
with pockets that might have almost held the two volumes of his folio dictionary
but in none of mine.

The Oxford notes are only the footnotes of the original editions. Penguin has extensive end notes as well. Oxford may have thought it beneath its dignity to provide, or of its readers to have provided for them, translations of Latin tags from Virgil or Horace, or of the Latin poetry of Samuel Johnson and a Scot or two; Penguin, bless it, has no such reservations. Beyond that, the notes have useful information about persons well known (or not) in their time and unfamiliar now, identification of places, etc. They have the salt of strong and informed opinion, as a couple of times when Levi does not bother to translate the Latin: the inscription of a monument visited on 21st September "is not worth translating"; an ode by Dr. M'Pherson, mentioned on 28th September, consists of "[l]ame and thumping verses"--Boswell was not wholly correct when he introduces the ode with "My readers will probably not be displeased to have a specimen of this ode." A reader already familiar with the books will be tempted to read this edition by scanning the notes for a interesting entry and going back to the text it refers to.

Chapman's introduction concerns the writing and publication of the two books. Levi's is longer, with more about the background of the trip, the state of Scotland at the time, and the characters of the two authors. It strikes me as very good, and makes me regret the volume I had of the Penguin Classics Pausanius, also of Levi's editing, that fell apart and is gone.

I see two advantages to the Oxford edition: it has indexes of subjects, of persons and books, and of places; the table of contents to The Journal is in the old expansive style, and with Chapman's cross reference to A Journey, e.g.
August 24. Goldsmith and Graham. Slains Castle. Education of Children. Buller of Buchan. Entails. Consequence of Peers. Sir Joshua Reynolds. Earl of Errol . . . 220 [16]
(Boswell's entry for August 24 begins on page 220, and Johnson's chapter "Slanes Castle. The Buller of Buchan" begins on page 16.)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Theory and Practice

A while ago, I picked up a copy of Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, of Immanuel Kant. Having read through the essay "On the Proverb: That May Be True in Theory, But Is of No Practical Use", it strikes me that Kant has demonstrated that a number of maxims that serve in everyday use are of no use in theory. To be sure, Kant's "practical" has a large theoretical component: the "practical" of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason is not the "practical" of Bowditch's Practical Navigator.

Having read Kant's demonstration in the essay, which has the force one would expect, I found myself thinking of Bagehot on the Members of Parliament:
They are common Englishmen, and, as Father Newman complains, "hard to be worked up to the dogmatic level". They are not eager to press the tenets of their party to impossible conclusions. On the contrary, the way to lead them--the best and acknowledged way--is to affect a studied and illogical moderation. You may hear men say, "Without committing myself to the tenet that 3 + 2 make 5, though I am free to admit that the honourable member for Bradford has advanced very grave arguments in behalf of it, I think I may, with the permission of the Committee, assume that 2 + 3 do not make 4, which will be a sufficient basis for the important propositions which I shall venture to submit on the present occasion." This language is very suitable to the greater part of the House of Commons. Most men of business love a sort of twilight. They have lived all their lives in an atmosphere of probabilities and of doubt, where nothing is very clear, where there are some chances for many events, where there is much to be said for several courses, where nevertheless one course must be determinedly chosen and fixedly adhered to. They like to hear arguments suited to this intellectual haze. So far from caution or hesitation in the statement of the argument striking them as an indication of imbecility, it seems to them a sign of practicality. They got rich themselves by transactions of which they could not have stated the argumentative ground--and all they ask for is a distinct though moderate conclusion, that they can repeat when asked; something which they feel NOT to be abstract argument, but abstract argument diluted and dissolved in real life. "There seem to me," an impatient young man once said, "to be no stay in Peel's arguments." And that was why Sir Robert Peel was the best leader of the Commons in our time; we like to have the rigidity taken out of an argument, and the substance left.
I cannot imagine this argument appealing to Immanuel Kant. But just now  the next couple of Bagehot's sentences sound not unappealing
Nor indeed, under our system of government, are the leaders themselves of the House of Commons, for the most part, eager to carry party conclusions too far. They are in contact with reality.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

And That's Where I Stopped Reading

Today's New York Times Magazine has articles about education, one, "Fortress of Tedium", i.e. on high school, by Nicholson Baker. I had seen reviews of his book about working as a substitute teacher, and so had a look. Near the bottom of the second page, I found the sentence
 The result of my 28 hellish, joyous days of paid work (I made $70 a day) was a book, more chronicle than meditation, called "Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids."

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Not Quite Autumn

The air was oppressive this morning, hot and with high humidity. At the farmers market, in direct sun on a paved space, we were uncomfortable. There was a breeze now and then when we ran, and it was far from the hottest day of running this year. Still, you'd have to call it hot.

I noticed though, that there are many leaves down already. They showed most on the bike trails just in from Oregon Avenue. But along the road going up to Carter Barron, I saw plenty in the gutter. Yet trees appear to be in full summer leaf. One birch did seem have some yellow leaves, but was that the beginning of autumn, or distress from the drought?

There was one unmistakable sign of autumn, a cultural one: children's soccer on the playing fields at Carter Barron. At noon, or whenever I passed by, I don't think that there was anyone older than seven in shin guards, and most may have been about six.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Roadside Assistance

Thirty years ago, I used to go "tubing" with friends. One gets the inner tube of a truck tire, inflates it, and then floats down a small river. There is little excitement, except where there may be a small rapids, but it is a pleasant amusement on a hot day. Ideally the party has cars at both ends of the route.

A friend reported a mishap from a trip after I had ceased to go. They were at Harpers Ferry, where some locals made a business of inflating tubes and driving the tubers up the river a couple of miles. On this trip, one man, who had in his trunks a pocket that zipped closed, volunteered to take the party's keys. At the downstream end, he discoverer that the packet had zipped back open, and that two or three sets of keys were now at the bottom of the Shenandoah River. He and perhaps another couple called family or friends for help.

My friend was not sure what do, but then remembered that Lexus offered roadside assistance to owners and leasers. He called to find out whether his case qualified, and, sure enough, a flatbed truck presently turned up. The driver winched the sedan onto the truck and drove my friend, his wife, and the Lexus the sixty or so miles back to their driveway. After that, it was a matter of retrieving a house key from a neighbor. I was impressed at the service.

Today, I got a call from home: our car would not start. Google suggested various problems, one being a blown fuse. It seemed to me that a dead battery was more likely, though the car is not four years old. Unfortunately, though we certainly must have neighbors with jumper cables, it seemed unlikely than any had cables long enough to jump a car parked nose-in to a narrow garage. After some discussion, I started considering how to get to the parts store on Georgia Avenue for a new battery.  Then it turned out that the dealer would send a truck that could either jump start the car or retrieve it. The trucker hooked up the cables, the car started, and all is well, with many thanks to the local Acura dealer.

We don't know which of us left the dome light on. We've both done the equivalent once or more. When it was a compact car with a stick shift,  I could roll start it and be OK. This car has an automatic transmission, it is not compact, and even with the car we had twenty-five years ago, I'm not sure that the grade of our alley or the state of my back would suffice. No doubt we should have jumper cables, preferably long ones. And I suppose that it will be a while before I get out of the car without checking the dome light.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Even Although

In The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, one of the correspondents, Jeremy Melford, attends a dinner of Grub Street writers, where among others he meets
The sage, who laboured under the agrophobia, or horror of green fields, had just finished a treatise on practical agriculture, though, in fact, he had never seen corn growing in his life, and was so ignorant of grain, that our entertainer, in the face of the whole company, made him own, that a plate of hominy was the best rice pudding he had ever eat.
(Letter of June 10)

In the introduction to a Macmillan edition of Virgil's Bucolics and Georgics, the editor, T.E. Page, wrote that
... when true Grecian art had perished with Grecian liberty, no form of amusement became more fashionable among the literary dilettanti of Alexandria than the turning into verse of prose treatises on scientific subjects. Thus Aratus, "a man ignorant of astronomy" as Cicero tells us (de Orat I. 16), turned into verse a treatise of Eudoxus; Nicander too of Colophon wrote poems on bees (Μελισσουργικά), beasts (θηριακά), farming, and matters connected with the country, although Cicero again describes him as "a man who had never seen a field (homo ab agro remotissimus), while the fashion was so prevalent that even a student such as Eratosthenes did not disdain this form of art, even although he knew what he was writing about.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Not Really a Repetition

Some night this week, I opened up The Moviegoer, and found the eponymous character's mother describing how she had fed his father when the father was not eating, apparently because of an existential malaise:
I had my breakfast early and I made his and brought it to him right there in his bed. I got his book. I remember it--it was a book called The Green Murder Case. Everybody in the family read it. I began to read and he began to listen, and while I read, I fed him. I told him, I said, you can eat, and I fed him.
 On Friday when I went to drop off a book at Carpe Librum, a woman came to the counter to buy three books, the top one The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dyne. I knew the author's name somehow, but don't think I had encountered the title outside of The Moviegoer.

Readers of The Moviegoer will remember that the narrator, John Bickerson (Binx) Bolling is very interested in rotations--the experiencing of the new beyond expectation--and repetitions--encounters bridging years in a way that lets the time between be felt. This counts as neither. Perhaps if I had seen The Greene Murder Case on the family shelves, it would; yet though there may have been a Van Dyne mystery there, I can't say that it was that one.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Back from Oregon

We made a quick visit to Corvallis, Oregon, at the end of last week. Corvallis is not a large city, dominated by the expanding Oregon State University. However, the students were mostly not back from vacation, and the town was quiet.

Saturday was hot, with a high temperature approaching 100 F. The humidity was low, which I thought made it tolerable. The house we visited got by with fans; air conditioning is not common in Corvallis. In general, the summer temperatures must be tolerable, for our guide down to the farmers market did not seek out the shadiest possible path, as I would do in Washington, D.C.

The farmers market had some good musicians, from a violinist not yet in his teens to bands made up of men with white hair. It also offered food


and armaments

At least one of the local microbreweries, one that our hosts patronize, makes very good beer.

On Monday in Portland, I managed an hour's visit to Powell's. Thinking of the bag I would have to carry through a couple of airports, I limited myself to three books, and of course regretted several more as soon as I left. Of the books I bought, two were by Edward Dahlberg: The Sorrows of Priapus and a volume comprising (and titled) Bottom Dogs, From Flushing To Calvary, Those Who Perish And other hitherto unpublished and uncollected works by Edward Dahlberg. It seems to me that on the last visit to Portland I left a volume with only Bottom Dogs on the shelf.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Americans and Venetians

A while ago, in Yeats's Autobiographies, I noticed the passage
In the Dublin National Gallery there hung, perhaps there still hang, upon the same wall, a portrait of some Venetian gentleman by Strozzi, and Mr. Sargent's painting of President Wilson. Whatever thought broods in the dark eyes of that Venetian gentleman has drawn its life from his whole body; it feeds upon it as the flame feeds upon the candle--and should that thought be changed, his pose would change, his very cloak would rustle, for his whole body thinks. President Wilson lives only in the eyes, which are steady and intent; the flesh about the mouth is dead, and the hands are dead, and the clothes suggest no movement of the body, nor any movement but that of the valet, who has brushed and folded in mechanical routine. There all was an energy flowing outward from nature itself; here all is the anxious study and slight deflection of external force; there man's mind and body were predominantly subjective; here all is objective, using those words not as philosophy uses them, but as we use them in conversation.
 (The Trembling of the Veil, The Tragic Generation, section III)

That called to mind a passage remembered from John Jay Chapman:
In looking at the eighteenth century portraits of Puritan Elders, I have often reflected that the Puritans were traders. Whatever they may have been when they first landed, they soon became keen-eyed and practical, hard and cold. Their resemblance to the old Venetian merchants may be traced in the Doge's Palace, where the cold, Yankee faces loom down familiarly on the shuddering American tourist. I could attach to almost every portrait in Venice an honored Puritan name; and, with a little study and reflection, I could tell how each pictured aristocrat must have made his money.
(The essay "Mr. Brimmer",  published in Memories and Milestones.)

Well, each gets what he looks for, when he looks for it. Chapman wrote mostly on culture and politics broadly considered. He had a good eye for art, but "Mr. Brimmer" is about a bygone period of Boston society. Yeats may not have considered that Wilson was not then a young man, particularly by the standards of 1917. Giovanni Battista Brignole (and I suspect he was Genoese, not Venetian) has a receding hairline in Strozzi's portrait; still, he has the look of a man in vigorous middle age.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Read and Remembered

In Not Entitled: A Memoir, the autobiography of Frank Kermode, I happened to notice the other day
The academy has long preferred ways of studying literature which actually permit or enjoin the study of something else in its place, and the success of the new French approaches has in many quarters come close to eliminating the study of literature altogether; indeed, there are many who regard the word as denoting a false category, a term used to dignify, in one's own interest, a one set of text by arbitrarily attributing to them a value arbitrarily denied to others. This position many find grateful, either because it saves trouble or because they have ideological objections to the notion that certain sorts of application can  detect value here and dispute it there; or because they are, as it were, tone-deaf, and are as happy with the new state of affairs as a professor deaf from birth might be if relieved of the nightmare necessity of "teaching" the Beethoven quartets.
(This is about 1970, and the new French approaches are structuralism and deconstruction.)

After the first smirk, it struck me that I had read something not dissimilar long ago. In Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man there occurs
I have seen many a graduate student who had gone to Germany to study under some great classicist, like a colour-blind botanist going to a flower-show with a bad cold in his head; he came back as a doctor of philosophy, knowing a great deal about his subject, I dare say, but not knowing how to appreciate or enjoy it. So between the ineducable pupil on the one hand and the ineducable mechanical gerund-grinder, as Carlyle calls him, on the other, the system, speaking generally, did fail; it failed, as many a good system has failed, through getting into bad hands.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing About Writers

Richard Zacks, the author of Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, writes adequately. He practices the Time manner of omitting the definite article, writing for example "Rogers's six-foot-tall assistant, twenty-eight-year-old Katherine Harrison", which sets my teeth on edge. Now and then he just has to wedge in some facts--
Twain reached France and brought the family back on May 18 to the famous harbor with more than one hundred piers, the busiest commercial port in America.
That is, New York. He has found that a dollar in the 1890s was the equivalent of $30 today, which is useful information for evaluating Twain's debts, expenses, and revenues; however, he gives 2016 equivalents repeatedly,  as if the reader will have forgotten the ratio, or can't multiply by 30 (or 150, if the money is given as pounds sterling). There are sentences that distract one, such as
(Chatto published elite authors such as H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Samuel Beckett.)
Chatto and Windus did, but not by 1896.

Still, Zacks conveys the main facts of the trip clearly enough, and the history of Twain's business disasters and family griefs.

One would not notice so much the faults of the writing but for the paragraphs of Twain's writing given every few pages and, for those of us who have read Following the Equator, our memories of that book. Eudora Welty, reviewing Arthur Mizener's biography of Ford Madox Ford, wrote of it that
The heaviness of [Mizener's] own style seems always to show most when he comes up against Ford's imagination; that seems to burden him. "The right cadence," so central in Ford's style and in his own test of good writing, is lacking in his biographer. ... This calls insistent attention to itself, for situated among the paragraphs of Mizener are the many quotations from Ford. To read while they alternate is like being carried in a train along the southern coast of France--long tunnel, view of the sea, and over again.
(Collected in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews.)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Selinsgrove and Sunbury

We drove up to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, Friday afternoon, and returned on Sunday. The city changes slowly. After the 1990 census results came out, The New York Times ran an article on Selinsgrove as the city that had changed the least demographically over the years. Market Street--the main street, as seems often to be the case in central Pennsylvania--must not be what it was. Susquehanna University continues to do what American universities do, namely build and expand: it looked all the larger and newer for the absence of students. The presence of the university must help keep the town going, as an employer, and as a source of the young with money to spend.

While on an errand, I encountered this:

I was surprised, for I had thought of Coxey as a Midwesterner, and indeed by the time he led his army he was a resident of Ohio.

Sunbury, a few miles away upstream and across the Susquehanna, has suffered from the loss of industry. Market Street here has fallen off a good deal from what it was fifty years ago. The Edison Hotel

appears to be a rooming house. The building that housed the Aldine Hotel has a bar on the first floor, and I suppose apartments above. There are thrift shops where there were department stores. But the park that divides the lanes of Market Street a block above Front Street is well kept up. The churches appear to be in good trim, though not architecturally distinguished.

Lorenzo Da Ponte lived in Sunbury for some years, where he kept a store. In his memoirs, he spoke of it as "the fatal town of Sunbury", I recall. He found the time to tutor the young Simon Cameron, later a senator, cabinet member, and diplomat. But he must have found his work and his residence much more satisfactory when he became a professor of Italian literature at Columbia College.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Last night we dined late. We then had half an our to wait for our dessert to cool down enough to eat. I sat on the couch and tried to read, but found myself dozing. In the intervals of waking, I remembered that J.V. Cunningham had written an epigram that had something to do with this. It is number 74 in "A Century of Epigrams":

Three matches in a folder, you and me.
I sit and smoke, and now there's only two,
And one, and none: a small finality
In a continuing world, a thing to do.
And you, fast at your book, whose fingers keep
Its single place as you sift down to sleep.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What Is More Common?

Noticed today in the first of the essays in Newman's The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: Nine Lectures to the Catholics of Dublin:

It were well if none remained boys all their lives; but what is more common than the sight of grown men, talking on political or moral or religious subjects, in that offhand, idle way, which we signify by the word unreal? “That they simply do not know what they are talking about” is the spontaneous silent remark of any man of sense who hears them. Hence such persons have no difficulty in contradicting themselves in successive sentences, without being conscious of it. Hence others, whose defect in intellectual training is more latent, have their most unfortunate crotchets, as they are called, or hobbies, which deprive them of the influence which their estimable qualities would otherwise secure. Hence others can never look straight before them, never see the point, and have no difficulties in the most difficult subjects. Others are hopelessly obstinate and prejudiced, and, after they have been driven from their opinions, return to them the next moment without even an attempt to explain why. Others are so intemperate and intractable that there is no greater calamity for a good cause than that they should get hold of it. It is very plain from the very particulars I have mentioned that, in this delineation of intellectual infirmities, I am drawing, not from Catholics, but from the world at large; I am referring to an evil which is forced upon us in every railway carriage, in every coffee-room or table-d’hôte, in every mixed company, an evil, however, to which Catholics are not less exposed than the rest of mankind.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Benjamin Constant

In The Last Attachment, Iris Origo tells of Lord Byron sending his mistress Teresa Guiccioli a copy of Benjamin Constant's novel Adolphe. The novel purports to be the history of a young man who seduces a woman from idle vanity, then finds her on his hands; he will not, from a sense of obligation, renounce her, but he cannot be wholeheartedly committed to her, and both live unhappily. To Guiccioli this sounded uncomfortably like the relation existing between Byron and her, and the neutral reader will agree.

A Folio paperback including Adolphe turned up at Carpe Librum a while ago, and I bought it. I can understand Teresa Guiccioli's distress. Byron spoke of it, in the letter accompanying the volume, as "well written and only too true." I am no judge of French prose; I did find it terribly plausible.

The volume included also Le Cahier Rouge, a memoir of Constant's youthand Cécile, a roman-à-clef concerning Constant's efforts to break away from Madame de Stäel and take up with Charlotte von Hardenberg. The memoir was mildly interesting, most of the interest lying in the demonstration of what unreliable and distractable oafs many young men are. About halfway through Cécile, though, I found myself wondering why I kept on reading it. Mme. de Stäel is of interest through her writings, and Constant through his. But as protagonists, they don't really sustain a roman-à-clef. Maybe I had to get the full $1.06 worth from my purchase.

Shortly before reading Cécile, I had seen a quotation from Metternich, "The French are the people of intelligence. Intelligence runs the streets; but behind it is no character, no principle, and no will; they run after everything, can be managed through vanity, and like children must always have a toy." One might think that Metternich had Cécile in mind, but the manuscript was not found and published until the middle of the twentieth century. Is it fair to think of think of Benjamin Constant, born Swiss, as French?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Noticed in Kant

Noticed this weekend in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Chapter 1:
Power, wealth, honour, even health and that complete well-being and contentment with one's state which goes by the name of 'happiness' produce boldness, and as a consequence often over-boldness as well, unless a good will is present by which their influence on the mind--and so too the whole principle of action--may be corrected and adjusted to universal ends; not to mention that a rational and impartial spectator can never feel approval in contemplating the uninterrupted prosperity of a being graced by no touch of a pure and good will, and that consequently a good will seems to constitute the indispensable condition of our very worthiness to be happy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Street Art

Some weeks ago, the hood of car appeared along 16th St. NW just south of the bridge over Piney Branch Parkway. How it got there, whether from a wreck just there, or fallen from transport, I don't know. It stood, downside out, along the fence that blocks off Rock Creek Park.

A couple of weeks ago, somebody decided to use the hood as a canvas:

Who is Cristina Maria? Model, artist, or both? Is this a memorial? It is not clear that there was an accident just here, let alone one that cost a life.

I wonder how long the hood will be there. It has been there for about six weeks, I think, and I don't see any reason it shouldn't be there longer. It is possible that the city regards this as the National Park Service's problem, and that the National Park Service doesn't know about it--the fence is on the very edge of Rock Creek Park, up a steep and wooded hill from Piney Branch Parkway.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Germans and Greeks

Well along in the second volume of Egon Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, there appears a closely reasoned fifty-page section, "The Invention of Antiquity". Summarized, the thesis is that 18th-Century Europe invented a Greek past to suit the needs it felt with the exhaustion of the baroque era; and that it did so by thoroughly misunderstanding ancient Greece. Twenty or fewer pages would have sufficed to trace the origin, errors, and consequences of the invention. But Friedell seems to have suffered from the infection he diagnosed, and to have been unable to let go of the Greeks once he had taken them up.

He is biting on the etiology of the invention:
And we know today where the aesthetics and conception of history of the German classicists had its origin: from the teaching and example of the generation that brought it forth, a generation of physically and spiritually undernourished teachers, stooped bookworms and crook-backed art pedants, out of the dusty confines of libraries and writing rooms, the dusky close air of provincial streets, the tedium of the crooked and curled miniature world of the German baroque. Today we feel this world, not antiquity, as historical: in its old worm-eaten feeling, its smell of wood plaster and train-oil lamps, the anemia from bad feeding, its touching and bizarre concern to give itself depth and gravity through stiff pedantry, heaped up proper nouns, and book titles.

Poor Winkelmann, earlier called "the disastrous founder of German plaster of Paris classicism," gets several pages partly of praise but mostly not.

Friedell writes that "If one were not perfectly well aware that the gymnasium students understand not a word of the Greek writers, one would not only have to remove their works from the curriculum, but also privately forbid it as thoroughly immoral." He illustrates the immorality and amorality of the Greeks amply, but it is hard to take what he says about the students literally. The pages he gives to Greek musicality and the Greek language suggest that he understood more than a few words. So, for example,
An eminent, indeed unique musicality expresses itself in the Greek language: in its liveliness and subtlety, power of modulation and it melody, color and fullness, force and flexibility, and not least (what one in a certain sense can also regard as a musical element, for the world of melody is immediately intelligible to everyone) in its pure popularity. Greek, although it first raised the highest scientific and philosophical problems, possesses almost no loan words, and likewise has a mysterious ability to make the abstract always plastic, to express the purest concepts tangibly, to occupy itself in the fullest Platonic sense with the seen idea. In addition it has an unusual richness of forms, not a few of them unique to it, as the optative mood, the aorist tense, the doubled adverb, the middle voice, the dual; particularly the last two are of astonishing subtlety: for what one does for oneself is as sharply distinguished from what one does for another as from what another does to one; and what one does as a pair bears an different character for what one does with more or does alone. It is possible that the great role that the erotic played in Greek life might have been determinant for this cultivation, which runs through all tints and shades. And the language gained a simultaneous coordination and nuance, firmness and mood, enabled by the unsurpassed quantity of particles, as well as an indefinable element of playful, floating irony. Certainly these delicate tints of expression cannot be translated, unless through the finest reflection and most sensitive feeling for language; the garden variety philologist's translations into German, which satisfies itself to render all parts of speech literally, and as far as possible clumsily and old-fashioned, in messes such as "Troth! Thou might herein now have some reason", fail entirely.
That the Greeks actually regarded language as a musical phenomenon is attested in their remarkable sensitivity to false expressions, emphases or word orders, which is conveyed in numerous stories, and finds an analogy only in the sharp ear of the Italian public for bad singing. And this was really the secret of the Greek "style": they were educated by centuries-long organized hearing and seeing to the highest receptivity and capacity for distinctions.
John Jay Chapman made comparable remarks (allowing always for the differences between New England and Central Europe) in "Greek as a Pleasure", collected in Memories and Milestones:
In the time of the Greek tragedians noun and verb and adjective and conjunction, as we know them, existed not. Greek adjectives are half nouns, pronouns are voices, and might easily be called so; propositions are moody, bat-like things, and ought probably to be called moods. The verbs turn into nouns upon the slightest provocation, and the case-endings attract and eat each other up with whimsical facility. All is done for the sentiment of the ear, noting for rule, all is governed by a supergrammatical instinct, which the modern mind can neither practice nor understand. All the words in Greek take their meanings from each other to an extent not easily conceivable. Their wings are in motion like butterflies that will nto alight. The air is full of the petals of particles for which we have no modern equivalents and which yet flutter and wheel with an inner poetry and an inimitable logic of their own. We were men before we were scholars, and therefore these things affect us like music.
But back in the Kulturgeschichte Winkelmann is dead in Trieste, the classical fashion has spread to France and Britain, and Friedell is about to move on to revolution and empire. Perhaps I will take a break for the weekend of the Fourth.

Thursday, June 30, 2016


Seen about the middle of June in front of the Masonic Temple on 16th St. NW between S and Riggs:

I think this is a European linden, but it could be one of that linden's American cousins. By now the flowers have dried up and mostly fallen off, and the fruit has appeared. It occurs to me that this is something of a European block as far as the trees go: the other trees in front of the temple are English oaks.

Monday, June 27, 2016

This Intolerable Deal of Sack

Having looked into Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (published in 1986), I found the results of inquiry into alcohol consumption in Lithuania during the 1970s:
The average resident of this region (note that Lithuania is one of the most culturally advanced republics of the USSR) spent 330 rubles on vodka and 3 rubles on books.
That is not quite as bad as Falstaff's ratio of expenditure for sack and bread, which is something greater than 136 to 1, yet it is impressive. But a friend who spent some time in the Soviet Union during its late days offers some context: a ruble would buy an art book, 35 kopecks a hardback novel. Given that Utopia in Power reports a 28.5 liter per capita consumption of vodka at that time, one can say that a liter of vodka cost about 11 rubles, roughly 30 times the price of a novel. My most recent purchase of a hardback novel was for about $19. I have never contemplated the retail purchase of a bottle of an alcoholic beverage costing even four times that, let alone thirty times.

Still, do any of us but teetotalers manage a ratio weighted to the book side?  I doubt that the general population of the US does. Alcohol is heavily taxed, and books take time to read. The Census figures are not quite clear, but it appears that in 2014 wine, beer, and liquor stores had sales of about $34 billion, book stores had about $9 billion.