Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Disinclination for Mathematics

I have always had my doubts about writers who boasted, or seemed to boast, of their incompetence in mathematics. Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Robertson Davies come to mind. A passage in the first section of James's Notes of a Son and Brother runs for example
 I so feared and abhorred mathematics that the simplest arithmetical operation had always found and kept me helpless and blank--the dire discipline of the years bringing no relief whatever to my state...
Ford I recall as putting it more whimsically, Davies more plainly. But the message is the same. I was therefore struck by a passage noticed the other day in The World as Will and Representation, Third Book, Section 36:
The disinclination of men of genius to direct their attention to the content of the principle of sufficient reason will show itself first in regard to the ground of being, as a disinclination for mathematics. The consideration of mathematics proceeds on the most universal forms of the phenomenon, space and time, which are themselves only modes or aspects of the principle of sufficient reason: and it is therefore the very opposite of that consideration which seeks only the content of the phenomenon, namely the Idea expressing itself in the phenomenon apart from all relations. Moreover, the logical procedure of mathematics will be repugnant to genius, for it obscures real insight and does not satisfy it; it presents a mere concatenation  of conclusion according to the principle of the ground of knowing. Of all the mental powers, it makes the greatest claim on memory, so that one may have before oneself all the earlier propositions to which reference is made. experience has also confirmed that men of great artistic genius have no aptitude for mathematics; no man was ever very distinguished in both at the same time. Alfieri relates that he was never able to understand even the fourth proposition of Euclid.
Well, perhaps. On the other hand, in the first book, section 15, Schopenhauer writes that
In our view, however, this method of Euclid in mathematics can appear only as a very brilliant piece of perversity.... We see that such a method is like that of a wanderer who, mistaking at night a bright firm road for water, refrains from walking on it and goes over the rough ground beside it, content to keep from point to point along the edge of the supposed water.
Would Alfieri have made more progress with a better text?

There are writers I prefer to Ford and Davies, if not necessarily to James, who were competent in mathematics. Stendhal was briefly fond of mathematics in his youth. Novalis wrote some pages in praise of mathematics that might or might not reflect considerable knowledge. I suspect that Tolstoy, as artillerist, and Chekhov, as physician, must have picked up at least the rudiments, and likewise Eliot and Stevens as businessmen. Still, perhaps I should not roll my eyes the next time I encounter the anti-mathematical writer.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Reading Aloud

One night last week, I read the first three chapters of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet aloud. My wife's book club is to discuss this in a couple of weeks, and her eyes were bothering her. I noticed a number of things, some owing to reading aloud, some owing to this being a second reading.

First, about myself. I was unable to read the first chapter, a difficult childbirth, unmoved. One of the women in my wife's book club was not sure about going on with the book after the first chapter. I did not understand this when I heard of it; I do now. I wonder whether I would have read it the same way at 20 or 30, before I had been in a delivery room (save as the one delivered). I wonder what I made of it when our (shared) book club read it some years ago.

Second, about a detail. In the second chapter, an troublesome character on board the American ship Shenandoah is restrained by marines. But if this ship is an American ship of war, what is it doing carrying wares for the Dutch Overseas Company? And if it is not a ship of war, how does it come to have marines? Discipline, and often harsh discipline, was enforced in the American merchant marine from early days; but not by marines in the military sense.

Third, about another detail that I had noticed in rereading later chapters: David Mitchell does not seem to distinguish between cross and crucifix. As far as I know, the Anglicans of 1800 did not go in for crucifixes, nor did the Calvinists of that day. But in this novel they do. The Georgian captain of the Shenandoah seems to have plenty of crucifixes and rosaries for the Japanese customs service to secure and impound. Yet though Catholics were never unknown in the US merchant marine and Navy, were they that prevalent?

My wife has since purchased the audiobook. She says, and I believe, that the reader does better than I did. He uses different voices for the different characters; I might have tried that, had I been able to settle on what they should sound like. If I listen to the audiobook at all, though, it will be to see how the reader renders Dutch names--what does Vorstenbosch sound like, or Oost, or Gronigen?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pelikan, Newman, the University

During the academic year 1990-1991, Benno Schmidt, the president of Yale University, invited the scholar Jaroslav Pelikan
to deliver a set of public lectures together with a seminar durng the academic year 1990-91 on "The Future of the University," as the first in a series of events in preparation for the observation of Yale's tricentennial.
Those lectures, extensively revised, became The Idea of the University--a Reexamination, a volume that I recently purchased and read.

Pelikan professed himself, as the title of the first chapter reads, "In Dialogue with John Henry Newman". Elsewhere (for example in  The Vindication of Tradition and in The Melody of Theology) he has written of Newman's influence on him as historian of doctrine and as theologian. In this book he took Newman's Idea of a University as presenting ideas to agree with and argue against. The chapter titles all incorporate quotations from Newman.

Where Newman assumed and expounded the English (and Anglo-American) collegiate system, Pelikan's heritage was that of the German university as it developed during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. This is to say that he places much greater weight on the work of research, publishing, and the direction of graduate studies relative to the instruction of undergraduates. He makes a compelling case for the importance of research and publishing, so that among other considerations the matter of instruction shall not become static and dead. He considers the role of the university press and the libraries in disseminating knowledge.

Pelikan of course argues well. He exemplified the scholar as writer during his career. Yet I would argue that it  is never the case that all or even a majority of the works that come out of the universities are important. I think of Jacques Barzun's objection to the
further absurd assumption that when a man writes a scholarly book that reaches a dozen specialists he adds immeasurably to the world's knowledge; whereas if he imparts his thought and reading to one hundred and fifty students every year he is wasting his time and leaving the world in darkness.
Pelikan does acknowledge the objection to many such works:
 Yet is distressing to see how many scholarly books are still being written more with the reviewer than with the reader in mind.... Therefore scholars must learn "contemplata aliis tradere" beyond the charmed circle of other professors. if scholars are to carry out this publishing responsibility, they have the obligation to give a lot more attention than they now do to the question of how we are to publish lest we perish.
(Contemplata aliis tradere: to communicate to others the fruits of one's contemplations, the motto of the Dominican Order, as Pelikan helpfully explains on the previous page.)

There is also the question of the suitability of German model to American conditions. John Jay Chapman wrote long ago in his essay on President Eliot, referring to the elective system he had introduced to Harvard College:
Now in Germany, where every student is already a highly educated person, who knows what he wants and knows how to work, such a system is admirable. But in America, where the boys come up to college with broken sets of rudimentary reminiscence, and without knowing what they want or how to get it, the great need in any University is the need of good teaching.
 Do the boys (and girls) now come up to college with better preparation than in Chapman's day? I suspect in the sciences and in mathematics they do; in modern if not classical languages they may also. Pelikan does consider the question of secondary schools, and the university's duty to shape their instruction and materials, and to prepare their teachers. This is something that I have not often seen mentioned in my (spotty) reading of works on universities. Jacques Barzun does mention it in passing in Teacher in America, and Richard Feynman's Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman has a curious few pages on textbooks for elementary instruction.

And? The book requires a second reading, which I have hardly begun. The bibliography runs to almost seventeen pages: it includes about a dozen works I have read through, half a dozen I have looked into, many more that I should read, and a couple that I will.

Friday, June 30, 2017


At a retirement party the other day, I spoke to someone who had been my boss's boss. He thanked me for pointing him some years ago to a passage by Tom DeMarco in Peopleware:
In my early years as a developer, I was privileged to work on a project managed by Sharon Weinberg, now president of the Codd and Date Consulting Group. She was a walking example of much of what I now think of as enlightened management. One snowy day, I dragged myself out of a sickbed to pull together our shaky system for a user demo. Sharon came in and found me propped up at the console. She disappeared and came back a few minutes later with a container of soup. After she'd poured it into me and buoyed up my spirits, I asked her how she found time for such things with all the management work she had to do. She gave me her patented grin and said, "Tom, this is management."
He had stopped by our department on some minor errand, and this brought the story to mind.

Our conversation the other day brought another bit of reading to mind, this from Herbert Simon's memoir Models of My Life. The passage is from Chapter 9, "Building a Business School: The Graduate School of Industrial Administration" (at Carnegie Institute of Technology, which later merged with the Mellon Institute to become Carnegie Mellon University). It concerns the first dean of that school, Lee Bach:
When I try to describe his style, it always seems too simple, too obvious. It's like saying of a tennis ace, "He always hit the ball squarely and with force, placing it precisely where he aimed." If you you can do that, you can be a great tennis player. But is the advice worth teaching? What do you do with that information?...

I warned you that I would say little about Lee that would tell you how to be a good manager, and I have made good my warning. The principles of good management are simple, even trivial. They are not widely practiced for the same reason that Christianity is not widely practiced. it is not enough to know what the principles are; you must acquire deeply ingrained habits of carrying them out, in the face of all sorts of strong urges to stray onto more comfortable and pleasant paths, to respond to provocations, and just to goof off. Lee had the self-discipline actually to apply the principles, to behave like a good manager and a leader. Not many of us do.
I am grateful to have worked for a few persons who had that self-discipline.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Price

Recently, I happened to look into a copy of Osip Mandelstam's Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S Merwin. Within the book, I found a receipt, which gave the price as $6.25. That seemed improbable, until I looked at the date: October 1987, purchased at Olsson's Records and Books in Georgetown.The date brought something else to mind: I must have bought the book after seeing the poem beginning "Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails" quoted in Vassily Aksyonov's novel The Burn, which I had read some months before. The poem appears in this volume on page 8, as poem 78 from Stone.

This time I looked up the book because I had been reading Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam. That volume I found on the outside carts at Second Story Books. I imagined that I would read it over the next couple of weeks: it occupied most of my spare time for the next four days. It gives an appalling picture of the Mandelstams' suffering--and of the bad behavior of many associates--during the period of his persecution for the "Stalin epigram"; it also leaves me wondering about their days in the Crimea and Georgia.

My copy of Selected Poems was published by Athenaeum. I find that NYRB keeps the collection in print, at a list price of $15.95.

Friday, June 23, 2017


The project of clearance reading, begun in May, wrapped up today with the end of In the Kingdom of Speech. It comprised two novels and four other books. My commute is now available for other reading.

In the middle of In the Kingdom of Speech, it struck me how padded the book is. Apart from the notes it has 169 pages, yet without Tom Wolfe's quirks of repetition, ellipsis, onomatopoiea, and snide social observations it would fit comfortably in about a third as many. Two of the other works of non-fiction were padded with pages of what might have or must have happened. Jonathan Raban's Bad Land: An American Romance was the exception: it was the longest of the four and had little if any spare flesh.

Did Tom Wolfe's way of writing derive from his career of writing for magazines? The publishers have advertisements they must fit in around a decent amount of text. The readers have time to kill, in a dentist's waiting room, in an airport gate or on a flight, and they may welcome padding that amuses. In a book, I'd prefer something more concise.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Watering the Bees

Until I read Virgil's fourth Georgic, I had never thought about where and how bees drink. But since that Georgic deals with bees, it tells how to site hives for proper watering:
But let clear springs and moss-green pools be near,
And through the grass a streamlet hurrying run,
Some palm-tree o'er the porch extend its shade,
Or huge-grown oleaster, that in Spring,
Their own sweet Spring-tide, when the new-made chiefs
Lead forth the young swarms, and, escaped their comb,
The colony comes forth to sport and play,
The neighbouring bank may lure them from the heat,
Or bough befriend with hospitable shade.
O'er the mid-waters, whether swift or still,
Cast willow-branches and big stones enow,
Bridge after bridge, where they may footing find
And spread their wide wings to the summer sun,
If haply Eurus, swooping as they pause,
Have dashed with spray or plunged them in the deep.
(Translated by J.G. Greenough, courtesy of the Perseus Project.)  The Macmillan edition of the Eclogues and Georgics has a note to this passage that quotes an English publication to the effect that an artificial basin will do if a stream is not handy.

Last weekend, I dealt with the birdbath in our garden a couple of times: once to fill it, once to adjust the support so that the basin is more nearly level. Both times there were two to four small bees flitting about the birdbath. I was pleased that they did not bother to defend the water. I tried to take a photograph, but found that my phone does not work well for small dull-colored bees against dull concrete.

Sunday, June 11, 2017


Mme. de Stael's De l'Allemagne ends with three short chapters, in all sixteen pages, on enthusiasm. They nearly exhausted mine, what I can manage on a Saturday afternoon at least. They seem to me to pursue quarrels that have died out or changed forms. Undoubtedly her circles in Paris were too much given to a way of thinking that had much to learn from the Germans of that day; but they and those Germans are gone. What she has to say about Kant, Fichte, and Goethe holds the interest still; the arguments with phantom antagonists do not.

A paragraph in the final chapter speaks of the uses of enthusiasm for national defense, and in a footnote she writes that she had England in mind. Now England, the land of the Mutiny Act and the press gangs, which is to say the small professional military, seems an odd choice. After a little looking, I found in Felix Markham's Napoleon some remarks by the Duke of Wellington:
As to the enthusiasm, about which so much noise has been made even in our own country, I am convinced the world has entirely mistaken its effects. I fancy that upon reflection, it will be discovered that what was deemed enthusiasm among the French, which enabled them successfully to resist all Europe at the commencement of the Revolution, was force acting through the medium of popular societies and assuming the name of enthusiasm, and that force, in a different shape, has completed the conquest of Europe and keeps the Continent in subjection.
(He wrote in October 1809, when Spanish enthusiasm didn't seem to be paying off much.) And Stendhal thought Wellington's Peninsular army the best that ever fought without enthusiasm.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Today, as on most weekend days, I ran in Rock Creek Park. Along Joyce Road, I saw a young woman walking along a guard rail. In the park these rails are made of treated lumber, six by eights I think. So it is not especially difficult to walk along the rail; but I couldn't tell you when I last saw someone doing so. Then on the way up from Beach Drive to Carter Barron, I saw a young couple walking on the guard rail there.

Why are people now walking along these rails? Is it something on TV?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Tomato Paste

In the books on our kitchen shelves there are many recipes that call for tomato paste. All that I have seen call for two tablespoons. As best I can tell, the standard American tomato paste can holds about four tablespoons. As a consequence, I have often left half-used cans of tomato paste in a refrigerator, secured with plastic, then found them weeks later with mold growing on them. I do understand that it would not be economical to sell two-tablespoon cans of tomato paste.

We could double the recipes, but then we would be making space in the refrigerator for another casserole, not another small can. We could simply use twice the tomato paste called for by the recipe, and sometimes we do, generally without bad effect. I suppose that the best approach would be to put the remaining contents of a can into a plastic container and freeze that. However, I don't know whether I'd remember to look for frozen tomato paste before opening a new can.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Language of Clarity, and A Neighbor

Noticed in Mme. de Stael's De l'Allemagne:
For objects the most clear in themselves, Kant often takes a thoroughly obscure metaphysics for guide, and it is only in the shadows of thought that he carries a glowing  torch: he recalls the Israelites, who had for guide a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day.
(Part 2, Chapter VI, "Kant")
But systems that aim at a complete explanation of the universe can scarcely be analyzed by any speech: words are not suited to these kinds of ideas, and so it occurs that in making them do this work one spreads over everything the darkness that preceded creation, not the light that followed it.
(Part 2, Chapter VII, "The Most Famous German Philosophers Before and After Kant")

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Past As It Would Have Been

As part of my clearance reading, I have just read The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt. The book does hold the interest, though I consider that Greenblatt might have done better in further untangling the threads that make it up, which I take to be
  • The biography of Poggio Braccioloni, who first discovered a manuscript of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius and brought it back into European consciousness.
  • The philosophy of Epicurus and its history, both in antiquity and, largely transmitted by Lucretius, in the modern world.
  • To some degree, Greenblatt's own commitment  to Epicurean philosophy.
  • Miscellaneous Renaissance history as it touches on Poggio, his employers, his friends, and his enemies.
What struck me first, though, was the frequent use of "would" and "might". Within a couple of paragraphs of Chapter Two, "The Moment of Discovery",  one reads
.,. Poggio would have dismounted and walked up the tree-lined avenue toward the abbey's single, heavy gate.... The granaries at this point in the winter would still have been reasonably full, and there would have would have been ample straw and oats for the horses and donkeys in the stable. Looking around, Poggio would have taken in the chicken coops, the covered yard for sheep, the cowshed with its smell, and the large pigsties. He might have felt a pang for the olives and the wine of Tuscany, but he knew that he would not go hungry....
 In 1417, if Fulda was indeed Poggio's destination, that ruler was Johann von Merlau. After greeting him humbly, explaining something about himself, and presenting a letter of recommendation from a well-known cardinal, Poggio would almost certainly have begun by expressing his interest in glimpsing the precious relics of St. Boniface and saying a prayer in their holy presence.
I think I understand the excitement that a scholar would find--as Petrarch, Poggio, and Erasmus did--in searching out forgotten works of antiquity, and I can understand an author wishing to convey that excitement to readers who have not considered it. But above a certain density of "would have"s and "might have"s, one starts to resist.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reading Friedell, Again

Egon Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit ends with about thirty pages devoted to the few years between the end of WW I and the appearance of the book. These give the impression of bewilderment, for Einstein appears next to a metallurgical crank with a glacial theory of the development of galaxies; astrology gets a mention--the Age of Aquarius--and Freud is mentioned with considerable respect, Freudians or simply psychoanalysts with contempt. It strikes me as understandable that a man who had come to maturity before the war would find the world after it baffling.

I suppose that the measure of a cultural history comes down to three matters. There is plausibility: do the points on which one can judge make one confident in the author's account of the rest? Is there the sense of being in touch with a lively mind? And does one come away with a longer reading list to follow up? On all three, Friedell measures up. I don't know that I quite believe in Bismarck as he did, or that I know what to make of his account of Wagner. Here and there he reminds me of the exile in Pictures From an Institution who said that his ambition was to be unjust to Austria. But in the balance these quibbles, even if I were wholly correct in them, seem to me to count for little.

Will I read it again? No, probably not all the way through, for 1300 pages make a long way. Will I pull it off the shelves now and then to refresh my memory of his judgments on this or that figure--Bismarck, Goethe, Flaubert, Luther--or simply to to enjoy the salt with which he expresses them? Almost certainly.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Tree Sinks Down

The other Sunday, I noticed that a tree along 16th St. NW was leaning drastically:

By this Monday, someone had done a little trimming, though the caution sign seemed an odd touch:

Yesterday evening, someone had done considerable trimming:

I was surprised that it took so long for the property management to get the job done. It is true that the limbs hung over a busy sidewalk, and at times a busy street, so that bringing in a standard tree crew might not have been practical.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Too Cultured for His Own Good

About 25 years ago, the University of Utah Press brought out Reading and Writing, the transcripts of a couple of lectures Robertson Davies delivered as one (or two) in the series of  Tanner lectures on human values. A discussion about "guilty pleasures" over at Informal Inquiries brought a passage to mind:
How dull he is being, you may think, as I draw near to my conclusion. How like a Professor. He is simply parroting Matthew Arnold, with his tedious adjuration that "Culture is the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit." But I assure you that I mean no such thing, and I have always had my reservations about Matthew Arnold, who was too cultured for his own good; he seems never to have listened to the voices which must, surely, have spoken to him in dreams or in moments when he was off his guard--voices that spoke of the human longing for what is ordinary, what is commonplace, vulgar, possibly obscene or smutty. Our grandparents used to say that we must eat a peck of dirt before we die, and they were right. And you must read a lot of rubbish before you die, as well, because an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual dyspepsia. How can you know that a mountain peak is glorious if you have never scrambled through a dirty valley? How doe you know that your gourmet meal is perfect in its kind if you have never eaten a roadside hot dog? If you want to know what a masterpiece The Pilgrim's Progress is, read Bonfire of the Vanities, and if you have any taste--which of course may not be the case--you will quickly find out. So I advise you, as well as reading the great books that I have been talking about, read some current books and some periodicals. The will help you take the measure of the age in which you live.
I regret to say that the press seems to have put the volume out of print: the earliest volume of the Tanner lectures offered is 26, and Davies was printed as volume 13.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Those Who Did Not Attend

In The Cultural History of Modernity, Egon Friedell mentions briefly the reform of the Gymnasium curriculum in late nineteenth-century Germany. He is without illusions concerning its shortcomings, including a couple of requirements then removed (to the distress of the traditionalists), the essay, which
never was anything but a comedy of free composition, for it consisted of the empty mechanical permutation of Ciceronian phrases
 and Latin as the language of instruction:
although this was a perfect farce, for what could be sillier than a dressed-up, bespectacled petit bourgeois addressing his fellow men in the manner of the Roman Quirites?
 In his remarks on the essay, he sounds a bit like Coleridge on the composition of Latin verse in the English schools of his day.

But he goes on to say that
Indeed one can master one's own mother tongue only by way of the dead languages: without instruction in Latin one will never learn to write a precise, clear, and fluent German, and without Greek never a philosophical German; and in fact, there have been no classical German stylists who were not practiced in Latin. And the greater diffusion it once had in the middle classes is the reason that until the beginning of the twentieth century one so seldom encounters wretched German in letters, diaries, and other written work; while since then--powerfully aided by the newspapers-- it is almost the rule in private correspondence. The worth of the classical curriculum is proved less by those who had it, than by those who did not.
I don't know that this is the case for English. The barely-schooled Abraham Lincoln comes to mind as a counter-example; but then drawing inferences from genius is risky. It is true that the general level of English prose these days is pretty bad, and that the remaining classicists seem to write a lucid prose.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Vanishing Seconds

When the weather is not too hot for it, I walk to or from work about three days a week. The distance is a little less than three miles by the shortest route, which follows 16th St. NW and requires about an hour. Long ago, I learned the timing of the lights on U through P Streets. At an easy walk, the pedestrian who begins to cross U St. just as the light changes to green will arrive at the next five lights just as they turn. It may be possible to do the same at a very brisk walk, but I haven't tried it.

There have been times that I was in the middle of a block coming toward the next light and thought by the number of seconds shown on the pedestrian signal that I could hurry and cross. This has never worked, though, and eventually I noticed that the light will, at least some of the time, jump ten seconds suddenly. Today I watched one light, probably at S St., as the seconds display went from 16 to 6. I wonder idly whether the count ever runs down all the way by seconds, or whether the jump is constant on these lights. I think that I have seen the same behavior at one of the L St. intersections, a bit southwest of these.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Clearance Reading

Our shelves are full enough that it can be hard to place a new book. I look at shelves in the office upstairs, and see a number of books that I don't think we need to keep, but which I do think I should probably read before we get rid of them. In most cases they were presents, and I remember who gave them to me, and sometimes remember for which birthday or on which Christmas. It seems to me that I will have done my duty by the givers if I read the books.

So next week, when the current bus book is done, I will devote my commute to making space on the shelves. In all, there are six or eight books due for this treatment. One more might qualify, but is awfully heavy. Carpe Librum will accept them and might be able to sell them.

The last book that I read to get rid of was Perry Miller's The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. It was not bus reading, requiring as it did too much concentration. I read it mostly sitting on the couch, and gave it away. The friend who took it must have backlogs of his own; I have never asked whether he read it.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The View from 1931

 I have been holding off from quoting Friedell, for there remain about one hundred and fifty pages unread in the third volume of his history. But a passage from the second chapter of the fifth book caught my eye:
Still there remained the theoretical possibility that proceeding in this direction one would someday be in a position to release and make use of the huge, but ordinarily bound resources of energy in the atom. It is estimated that the fission of a single penny's mass would release roughly thirteen and a half billion horsepower. The release of the "interatomic" energy would obviously result in a thoroughgoing revolution of all earthly relations. But here only the naive can suppose that this would also mean the solution of the social question. For since the "normal man", who admittedly is not normal, but who rules our economic life, is born and dies a thoughtless scoundrel, one can expect this sort of development of technology, like all those previous, to lead only to new forms of universal avarice and injustice. One  considers how two hundred years ago someone would have prophesied, knowing that humanity would have succeeded in making use of magnetic energy, electric energy, the solar energy that is stored in black coal, and the hydraulic energy stored in "white coal": what entirely obvious conclusions, and what a sublime social condition he would have inferred. In spite of this, all has become much worse, and Europe is split into capitalistic states, in which the majority are paupers, and Soviet states, in which all are paupers. No: through the use of atomic power, the rulers will simply become greedier, the poor poorer still, and both still hungrier, and war still more bestial. For the solution of the social problem we require a moral emanation, production of rays, and atom-splitting.

Egon Friedell, Cultural History of Modernity.

On the one hand, I agree that technological improvements do not as such imply social improvement. On the other hand, I imagine that if I were a large shareholder in Toshiba, I might laugh bitterly at the thought of nuclear energy enriching those already rich. And considering the course of WW II from September 1939 through August 1945, did the atom bomb make warfare more bestial, or just more efficiently destructive?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stories of Centaurs and Dragons

Should a traveller, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted; men, who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies.
On reading this in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, it occurred to me that Hume had of course never had a chance to read much of the writing concerning certain distant nations that one read in the US between about 1970, or to see its widespread reception as simple truth.

Widespread, but not at all universal. Herbert Simon wrote, in Models of My Life, of a trip to Sweden in 1969:
... But the meeting with Jan Myrdal, and his significant other, was fascinating. Myrdal had written an excellent book, A Chinese Village, about peasant life in the People's Republic of China--with a distinct Maoist slant but descriptively accurate. That is, it sounded just right for peasants. More recently, he had been in Albania. Without blinking, he told me, "Some of the peasants had poor land in the mountains, others much better land in the valleys. So they held a great meeting, and they all agreed voluntarily to make exchanges in their lands, so they all would be equal."
    Now here I applied the Travel Theorem. I had never been to Albania, but I had encountered peasants, in the United States and Mexico, and even in Germany and France. And I had read accounts of many peasants in many lands at many points in history. The probability of Myrdal's statement was far too low to be rescued by a single eyewitness statement.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Linux Cruft

This past week, I dealt with some machines, all running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6, which had numbers of updates to be applied. The first one took some doing, for at times the update process would stall with a message about incompatible libraries. Eventually, I narrowed the problems to three packages:
  1. fprintd, a program to allow for authentication via fingerprint
  2. gd, a program for creating and rendering images
  3. matahari, a package for system monitoring and management
Now, this server, running on a virtual machine (VM), has no fingerprint reader; we don't render images on it; and we don't use matahari. But rather than get mixed up in effort to remove them, I worked around the difficulties and got all but gd upgraded.

Along the way, I had a look at the packages installed--scripting languages and databases never used, Java servers never thought of, fonts for rendering Swedish or Tamil or Uighur, etc.--and thought, "Why?" As I remember it, this was the first Linux VM we set up, and I think that a co-worker simply clicked the boxes to install everything, while I nodded or shrugged. Everything turned out to be quite a lot. We have become more selective lately: this machine and another of about the same vintage have more than 1600 each, a slightly later one has about 1350, the most recent two machines are around 700 each.

When I first installed Linux, it was with the use of packages downloaded over a modem connection and copied on to 1.4 MB floppy disks. Creating a half dozen of those probably took about the same time it takes to download a 600 GB ISO image from Red Hat now. One was necessarily more selective about the packages. I don't miss those days of 60 MB hard drives, or foot-high stacks of floppies, though.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

That Depends on Whom You Ask

This also must be confessed, that the most durable, as well as justest fame, has been acquired by the easy philosophy, and that abstract reasoners seem hitherto to have enjoyed only a momentary reputation, from the caprice or ignorance of their own age, but have not been able to support their renown with more equitable posterity. It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its contradiction to popular opinion. But a philosopher, who purposes only to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more engaging colours, if by accident he falls into error, goes no farther; but renewing his appeal to common sense, and the natural sentiments of the mind, returns into the right path, and secures himself from any dangerous illusions. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed.
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section I, Of the Different Species of Philosophy (1748)

A century and a half later, Charles Saunders Peirce wrote
To erect a philosophical edifice that shall outlast the vicissitudes of time, my care must be, not so much to set each brick with nicest accuracy, as to lay the foundations deep and massive. Aristotle built upon a few chosen concepts--such as matter and form, act and power--very broad, and in their outlines vague and rough, but solid, unshakable, and not easily undermined; and thence it has come to pass that Aristotelianism is babbled in every nursery, that "English Common Sense," for example, is thoroughly peripatetic, and that ordinary men live so completely in the house of the Stagyrite that whatever they see out of the windows appears to them incomprehensible and metaphysical.
"Preface to an Unwritten Book", 1897-1898, collected in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings,  Harper and Rowe 1972. To be sure, Peirce goes on to write of the insufficiency of Aristotelianism, though also of the difficulties encountered by its would-be successors.

Friday, March 31, 2017

San Luis Obispo

Tuesday and Wednesday we visited with friends in San Luis Obispo. On a walk around their development, Stoneridge, we admired the flowers and plants, many of which we could not identify:

(Bird of Paradise)

(Hens and chicks--many times the size of those I remember from Ohio.)

(Pencil cactus over hens and chicks)

Our friends picked us up at the Santa Barbara, train station and took us  to Chaucer's Bookstore on State Street.  We managed to come away with only four more books to haul back to Washington.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

In a Superior Civilization

The other day, I pulled from the shelf a copy of August Frugé's A Skeptic Among Scholars, a memoir of his work at The University of California Press, and happened on a passage from one of the authors he worked with, Rico Lebrun:
The real drama is in the fact that personal drama produces nothing of merit whatever. Many professors have struggled even harder than Cézanne, and for the wrong reasons. In a superior civilization someday, we should have a Pantheon for them: "He was an ass and toiled as if he had the obligations of a hero." Who knows how many of us may yet belong to that legion?
 (Rico Lebrun, Drawings.)

But what of us too idle to qualify for that Pantheon?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

After the Warm February

Shortly after the magnolia blossoms came out, we had a cold snap. The blossoms turned brown and still hang on the trees. The middle of the first full week of March was warm, then the weekend was cold, and Monday night it came on to snow. In the city the snow was a good deal mixed with sleet and cold rain, so that every shovelful weighed as if it were six or eight inches, not one or two. In the yards there was snow up against flowering bushes and trees:

A good deal of the snow remained this morning

and for that matter tonight. But the forecast calls for a return to seasonal temperatures (about 58 F) on Saturday.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Yesterday in Friedell's Cultural History of Modernity, I ran across a passage on Flaubert:
But he is in this again utterly opposed to Romanticism: for he rejects all stylization, idealization, tidying-up of reality, rejects rose-colored glasses, and shows men in their smallness, meanness, vulgarity, indeed their contemptibility; his heroes are not heroes. He depicts his world with the same thoroughness and coolness with which an entomologist regards an anthill or a beehive: he writes not one subjective line. He said himself: "The author must be in his work like God in the the universe: everywhere present and nowhere visible." But does not the artist also resemble God in loving his creations as a father his children? Doubtless; and so it is with Flaubert. The unheard-of novelty of his scientific, unsentimental method of observation concealed from his contemporaries, and from Flaubert himself, that as with every other artist his creative principle was an understanding love.
 This reminded me of Yeats on Synge:
 Whenever he tried to write drama without dialect he wrote badly, and he made several attempts, because only through dialect could he escape self-expression, see all that he did from without, allow his intellect to judge the images of his mind as if they had been created by some other mind. His objectivity was, however, technical only, for in those images paraded all the desires of his heart.
 (Ch. XIX of "The Tragic Generation" in Autobiographies)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Math Distraction

Our water heater has started to drip from the pressure-release pipe whenever we run the hot water. The troubleshooting guide in the manual says that this can be caused by "stacking", a condition in which short uses of hot water, which lead to the infusion of cold, cause the area around the thermostat to cool while the rest of the tank is very hot. That does not seem to be the cause here, for this morning I avoided all use of hot water until my shower, and the pipe still dripped.

On Tuesday, when my wife noticed his she called the plumbers. She then called me to ask what the volume of the water heater is. I said that I thought it was 50 gallons. That is correct, but I had never looked at the information on the heater; rather, about fifty years ago I heard fifty gallons mentioned as the volume of a particular water heater, and have since supposed most domestic ones to be of that size.

In trying to come up with a better justification, I thought, Suppose that the tank is sixteen inches across and five feet high. Then roughly speaking
  • The cross-section is 20 cm x 20 cm x pi, or roughly 1260 square centimeters
  • Five feet is 1.5 meters, 150 cm, giving the volume around 190000 cubic centimeters, 190 liters, a bit under 50 gallons.
 So 50 gallons sounded about right. I find that the tank is nearer 1.4 meters high, but I had figured the diameter as the trickier factor anyway.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Not Necessarily a Useful Thought

The friend who set up an on-line discussion group for War and Peace a couple of years ago has decided that it would be well to do the same for Shakespeare's comedies. While he adjusts WordPress to his liking, I have read a fair bit of Shakespeare over the last several weeks. I believe that we will be looking at the same time at Rene Girard's A Theatre of Envy: anyway, I have read the plays in the order mentioned in that book's chapter headings

On my taking up Two Gentlemen of Verona for the second time since the New Year, it suddenly occurred to me that in three of comedies touched on by Girard one has a female character who disguises herself as a young man. Given that boys played the female parts of Renaissance dramas, this reminded me of "britches" parts in operas, in which a mezzo-soprano plays the part of a young man, a young man who just might in the course of the opera find it useful to dress as a women: think of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro or Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

I'm not sure what if anything to make of this, except to say that the English of about 1600 had a robust sense of humor, and so did the Austrians of two and three hundred years later. But that isn't news, is it?

I mentioned this to an older relative, who said that she never cared for the "trousers" parts, even though one of her favorite arias, the Barcarolle in Tales of Hoffman, involved one. Yet I don't think she'd care to see Cherubino's arias eliminated from The Marriage of Figaro.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Very Warm February

We have mostly had a warm February in Washington, DC. This morning I noticed someone carrying balloons to the house across the street, and was briefly confused: surely the boy's birthday was in late winter. Then I remembered that by the calendar it is late winter.

Yesterday I took some photographs as I walked down 16th St. NW to work:

(Meridian Hill Park, opposite Kalorama Road)

(About Swann St.)

(Just north of S St., across from the Masonic Temple)

(Immediately south of Scott Circle)

Today I took a couple more photographs on Taylor St. NW:


I would have preferred the cold weather to stay longer. At this point, though, my chief wish is for rain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Schoenhof's Is Closing

This evening, I clicked on the "Promotions" folder in GMail, thinking that perhaps there might be something from Schoenhof's. There was, but it was not what I wanted to see. The gist of it runs
It is with some sadness that we announce our retail store in Harvard Square will be opening its doors for the last time on March 25, 2017. However, we will continue to be available to you 24/7 at www.schoenhofs.com. The cost of rent in Harvard Square coupled with online competition has forced us to make this decision.
Now, having been to Schoenhof's exactly once, almost four years ago, and having purchased only a couple of books from the since, I can't claim to have done much to keep it going. And I suppose that it is impressive that the store held on so long in so expensive a neighborhood: Larry McMurtry pulled Booked Up out of Georgetown a good twenty years ago. But I find this disheartening

From February 22 until the store locks its doors for the last time on March 25, there will be a closing sale starting with 50% off domestic titles and 60% off foreign titles.
So I suppose I will stock on some reading that I won't get to for a while.

Monday, February 20, 2017

No Explanation

I am not sure what brought this to mind, but a bit out of the Prologue of George Kennan's The Decision to Intervene: Soviet-American Relations 1917-1920, Volume II did come to mind this afternoon:
For [the educated upper class], the war posed a difficult problem. American society had no tradition that could help it to accept a foreign war with calmness and maturity. Its political philosophy--optimistic, idealistic, impregnated with the belief that an invincible progress had set in with the founding of the American state--had no comfortable place for mass killing and destruction as an end of American policy. There was no explanation for America's involvement in the war which fitted with the basic assumptions of the American outlook and at the same time permitted the adoption of a realistic image of the enemy and recognition of the war as integral part of the process of history. It could not, in the American view, be anything generic to human nature that had produced this confusion. Only a purely external force--demonic, inexplicable, evil to the point of inhumanity--could have put America in this position, could have brought her to an undertaking so unnatural, so out of character, so little the product of her deliberate choice.
  ... There was a sort of mass running for cover; and "cover" was an impressive show of noble indignation against the external enemy, coupled with the most unmeasured idealization of the American society whose philosophic foundation had been thus challenged. This was, somehow, the only wholly safe stance, the only one that gave protection against being drawn into dangerous depths of speculation where one would be quite alone, in moral isolation, and where there would be no stopping point, no terra firma.
  The result was an hysteria, a bombast, an orgy of self-admiration and breast-beating indignation, that defies description. In one degree or another it took possession of press, pulpit, school, advertising, lecture platform, and political arena. The President's official statements were, whatever the merits of the political philosophy underlying them, restrained, moderate, and statesmanlike. But the same could not have been said of private discussion. Never, surely, has America been exposed to so much oratory--or to oratory more strained, more empty, more defensive, more remote from reality. The humorous magazines suddenly acquired the abysmal humorlessness that enters in when the effort is made to base humor on wrath. In the eminently respectable Outlook, editor-emeritus Lyman Abbott, himself a clergyman, denied the application of Christian charity to Germans.... America, it might be said, had little or nothing to be ashamed of in the substance of her war effort; but in the public discussion of it at home, in the interpretation it was given, and in the reflection it found in civic behavior, this was not America's finest hour.
One of my grandmothers, being from a comparatively well-off family, was in high school at time the US declared war on Germany. She had studied German for all or most of three years of high school, but did not get to study a fourth year, for some ardent patriot broke into the high school and burned the German texts. At least that was an individual act of vandalism, without state sanction: the state of Nebraska passed a law, the war having ended, to forbid instruction in foreign languages. That law, the Siman Act, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

But one cannot say that America was unusual in that regard. The press and public opinion in most of the combatants were not particularly rational. Karl Kraus gave a devastating picture of the public mood of Austria; one could multiply examples from England, Germany, and France.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

You Could Do That Then, Part II

Some time ago I wrote of things one could do once but no longer, and mentioned among them the simultaneous holding of drivers licenses from multiple states and the quick replacement of a lost license. I never held or wished to hold multiple licenses, but I thought it an example of a certain freedom now lost that one could once do so, and certainly the quick replacement made my life much simpler once.

This past week, during an ESL class, we reached an exercise in which the participant describes himself: clothing, accessories, eye color, hair color. When I look in the mirror it is generally to shave, so I don't make much eye contact with myself. It seemed to me that my eyes are green and brown, though. It struck me that my driver's license might note this, and I took it from my wallet. The license does not give my eye color, or for that matter my hair cover. It does give height and weight. It also gives its expiration date: my most recent birthday, some months ago.

Friday, we went down to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Georgetown. At the entrance we found that I had failed to mention, and my wife had failed to notice, the requirement that she provide an official document showing her Social Security number. She will have to find a W-2 and go back: fortunately she has several months in which to do this, for her license is not yet expired. We filled out forms, we presented documents. I left with perforations punched in my current drivers license, and a printed form stating that I have a "Real ID" license in the works. The form has my picture, my height and weight, but does not mention hair or eye color.

The new license will arrive in the mail. This seems to me to contradict the whole "Read ID" premise of improved security, for mail does not always arrive where it should. Our neighborhood's letter carrier is reliable, but like anyone might fall ill or take a vacation. We receive now and then neighbors' mail and know that mail sent us hasn't arrived. So it is possible that the new license, to get which I proffered an old license, a current passport, my Social Security card, a mortgage statement, and a telephone bill, will be delivered to somebody who has never met me. In that case, the best outcome would be that the recipient leaves it with us; second-best that the recipient throws it into the trash; and worse and unlikely but still possible, that the recipient reserves the license for occasions on which he is caught speeding or running red lights.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Last week at Kramerbooks, I noticed on the shelves Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, by James Schall, S.J., and bought it. The Jesuits, I thought, have put some thought into the conditions of teaching and learning, and here is one who has something to say about them. Having read the book through, I don't regret the purchase, though I suspect that Schall has written better books.

Many of the essays in Docilitas were delivered as lectures, and therein lies some of the weakness of the book. Lectures, to be taken in by ear, must be more repetitive and diffuse than essays written to be read. One notices some of that in the various chapters.They are also delivered to a particular audience, gathered in one place at one time. Some of the lectures were delivered in New England, some in the Midwest, others on the West Coast, and all over a range of a dozen years or so. In print, they run to not quite 200 pages, and the reader thinks, Yes, you said that a few pages ago.

Lectures may also come to be transcribed more or less accurately. I don't know how these came to be written down, whether from stenographers' transcripts or from Schall's own copies, but omitted words and confusing formulations occasionally suggest the former. In any case, it is a distraction when one reads a sentence a couple of times, and finally concludes that a pronoun has been omitted. This happens now and then, and if I re-read the book, I will mark such places.

There are other signs of carelessness. A passage from Johnson is ascribed to Boswell. The date of an utterance of Johnson's becomes the date of The Life of Johnson. "The Sound of Silence" is a song by the Beatles. There are typographical errors in English and Latin. (One might say in Spanish, too, for the last page of the book gives the author's city of residence as "Los Gator", California.)

Schall writes well, though. To take a trivial example, I have been in the habit of cringing when a homilist introduces a quotation from Peanuts, but Schall usually makes his quotations from Peanuts apposite and effective. (Perhaps the ability to quote Peanuts effectively is distinctly Jesuit, for I remember from forty years ago an essay in America that proposed the following challenge for those aspiring to practice hermeneutics: explain a Peanuts strip to a German.) He is as deft with quotations from Aristotle, St. Augustine, or Goethe as he is with those from Charles Schultz.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was running through the McKenney Hills neighborhood of Montgomery County, Maryland, when I heard a voice that seemed to come from below my feet. I saw an uncovered manhole, the cover beside it, and I leaned down to call, Who's down there? A boy of ten or twelve came in to view. He and a couple of friends were down there, he said. "There" clearly was "in the storm sewers". I said that I didn't think it safe to be down there. Oh, he said, it was safe. They came down and explored all the time. They had been as far as the middle school. (Sligo Middle School, that was, about a mile east of this manhole.)

There wasn't much I could do. I couldn't descend and catch them, and if I could have caught them, I couldn't have retrieved them. Not knowing their names, I couldn't speak to their parents. There was no neighborhood listserv, or at least I wasn't on it,  so I couldn't alarm the neighborhood by posting an account. In any case the sky suggested no imminent rain that might endanger them. I did what I could, which was to mind my own business and continue my run.

I still don't think it was a good idea for the boys to explore the storm sewers. (Though at ten or twelve I might have thought it a fine idea.) But it speaks to a level of enterprise and freedom that some suggest has been bred out of the middle class children of today. Are the children of McKenney Hills still exploring? I don't know; I seldom get out that way now, and would be unlikely to know in any case. But I wouldn't be surprised.

(A piece on the sewers of Paris over at Book Haven brought this story to mind.)

Thursday, February 2, 2017


We went to the movies yesterday evening. The movie was fine, but while the trailers ran I spent most of the time with my fingers in my ears. The trailer for the coming movie about Dunkirk was not louder at peak volume than the trailer for domestic, and as far as I could tell non-violent dramas. Why? Why should a domestic drama have a trailer with bass notes at the volume of a freight train at twenty yards, or of a jet airplane heard from a house under the approach to the runway?

Do the studios wish to advertise their sound effects? Do they think that we lapse into a daze while advertisements and trailers run, and must be awakened to notice the name of the movie? It hardly matters. I'm too old to worry about how I look covering my ears in a darkened theater.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Reply All

In the morning, while brewing my coffee, I use my phone to look at the emails that have arrived in my work account overnight. Generally there are about a dozen, most of them from automated jobs. In most cases, I can judge from the subject line whether I can delete the email or must read it and follow up.

Friday morning, there were about 370 emails. After I read a few, I understood what had happened. Somebody at NetApp, which makes the storage units we use, had sent out a bulletin using the CC field rather than the BCC field. A few techies sent out a reply to all, and then more sent replies to ask what was going on, or to ask others to quit replying. One ordinarily imagines techies as understanding the pitfalls of using Reply All; and perhaps we are less apt to do so, but for a sufficiently large mailing list it doesn't take a large percentage to create this sort of storm.

The incident did show the ubiquity of NetApp gear. I saw replies in French, Italian, Russian, German, and perhaps would have found more languages still if I hadn't been in a hurry to get rid of them. A young and mobile systems administrator could have built up a list of organizations to apply to, and perhaps of responsible parties within them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Doing It Yourself

Last Saturday's New York Times had a picture of the inaugural guests and functionaries gathered at the west front of the Capitol. It caught my eye because of the remarkable number of guests who appeared to be taking cell phone pictures or videos: on the left side of the picture, I counted about 25 out of about 150. On the right side, there seemed to be a few more guests but fewer cell phones. I did notice that none of the clerics, robed justices, or military officers appeared to have phone in hand.

I find it hard to imagine anything more thoroughly photographed and filmed than an American presidential inauguration Cell phone and tablet cameras have improved remarkably over the last decade. But can the quality compare with what a professional gets from his gear?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

He Bears No Grudges

Not long ago, I read The Nichomachean Ethics, which I hadn't read through before. A couple of passages in Book IV caught my attention. On the Perseus website, they run
[The great-souled man] is not prone to admiration, since nothing is great to him. He does not bear a grudge, for it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them. He is no gossip, for he will not talk either about himself or about another, as he neither wants to receive compliments nor to hear other people run down (nor is he lavish of praise either); and so he is not given to speaking evil himself, even of his enemies, except when he deliberately intends to give offence. In troubles that cannot be avoided or trifling mishaps he will never cry out or ask for help, since to do so would imply that he took them to heart. He likes to own beautiful and useless things, rather than useful things that bring in a return, since the former show his independence more.
The vain on the other hand are foolish persons, who are deficient in self-knowledge and expose their defect: they undertake honorable responsibilities of which they are not worthy, and then are found out. They are ostentatious in dress, manner and so on. They want people to know how well off they are, and talk about it, imagining that this will make them respected.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Winter Reading

We received a number of books at Christmas. My office was closed between Christmas and New Year's, and I was getting over a cold, so there was plenty of time to read. Three seem particularly worth mentioning.

My son gave me Latin: Story of a World Language by Jürgen Leonhardt. This covers the history of Latin, from earliest times until now. It is not philological in its focus, though no doubt Leonhardt can hold his own philologically Rather, it considers what it means for a language to be standardized and to become a world language. There is a snippet of Latin every five pages or so, with translations provided. They begin with "the so-called Duenos inscription, a brief text written on a vase from the sixth century BCE"; this uses a very old form of Latin, old enough that one wrote "duenos" rather than "bonus" (good). They continue through (among others) Cicero, Augustine, Erasmus, and Newton, concluding with Angelina Jolie's abdominal tattoo. Figures show manuscripts and early printings of poetry, plays, and grammars, and depictions of Romans and Latinists. Three long days will serve to read the book. Anyone interested in Latin in particular or languages in general is likely to find it interesting.

A friend gave us a couple of books by Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. We had read many of the pieces when they originally ran in Gourmet magazine. Gourmet is no more and, far worse, neither is Laurie Colwin. Looking through the pieces reminded me how well I liked them when I first read them. It also raised the question whether we ever actually cooked from them. I haven't yet spotted a recipe that I know we have used, though I see a number resembling ones we use now and then. I think that what we enjoyed in her columns was her common-sense, optimistic  approach to cooking. The books are the sort to pick up and dip into as you have free time: there is always the chance of getting the menu for your next dinner.

Friday, January 6, 2017

On Englishing the Bible

From time to time I pick up this or that version of the Bible, and startle at the flabbiness of the translation. It could be St. Matthew, the calling of the apostles in this one, or it could be the Epistle to the Galatians in that. There is a flatness that doesn't seem right. Now and then I speak of this to a friend, who complains also, generally with chapter and verse.

Eventually this put me in mind of  Ronald Knox's book On Englishing the Bible, which I head heard of long ago, and recently I tracked it down. The book is a collection of essays, by-products of the nine or more years that Knox spent in translating the Vulgate, which in part meant discussing his translation with other scholars, and justifying the choices he made. (At the time, the Catholics of the English-speaking world got by with Bishop Challoner's 18th-Century revision of the Douay-Rheims translation of the late 16th and early 17th Centuries.)

Knox is persuasive on most of his points, and some of his points are provocative. He writes, for example, that
Unlike the French, the English have always been accustomed to having an archaic Bible. Douay and the Authorized Version were compiled in the time of Shakespeare; but neither was written in the idiom of Shakespeare's time. Read a couple of pages out of any of the comedies, and you will be sensible of it at once. More than three centuries have passed, and as current idiom has changed, 'Bible English' has become a sort of hieratic language; it is old, therefore it is venerable (for it is  a fixed belief in the heart of the ordinary Englishman that 'venerable' means 'old'). Let him beware, then, who proposes to alter it. Let him try to render the sense of of Scripture plainer to us by whatever means he will, but let him adhere (or rather, let him cleave) to the good old-fashioned diction which was good enough for our forefathers, and is still better for us because it is still more old-fashioned.
and elsewhere
It is no use objecting that the Authorized Version is good English. The Authorized Version is good English only because English writers, for centuries, have treated it as the standard of good English.
and again
 Do not be deceived when your friends tell you that they like Bible-English. Of course they do, reading or quoting a few sentences; there is a slow-moving thoroughness about it which conveys a sense of dignity--you get the same in an Act of Parliament. But if they would try to read a chapter on end, which they never do, it would rapidly become tedious, and the attention would begin to wander; why? Because they are reading a foreign language disguised in English dress. Just so, an indifferently translated French book gets you down; en effet is translated 'as a matter of fact' when it ought to be translated 'sure enough'; and d'ailleurs is translated 'anyhow' when it ought to be translated 'if it comes to that'. Your translator is almost imperceptibly failing all the time to hit the nail exactly on the head.
(This is not partisan abuse; Knox has plenty of hard things to say about the old Douay and the not quite as old Challoner versions. But there can hardly be anyone but Catholics over 70 and a handful of scholars who remember even Challoner.)

However, after his discussions of the choices that a translator must constantly make, I am less surprised that there are bad translations as that there any adequate ones. On translations in general:
Two alternatives present themselves at once, the literal and the literary method of translation. Is it to be 'Arms and the man I sing', or is it to be something which will pass for English? If you are translating for the benefit of a person who wants to learn Latin by following the gospel in a Latin missal when it is read out in church, then your 'Arms and the man I sing' is exactly what he wants. If you are translating for the benefit of a person who wants to be able to read the word of God for ten minutes on end without laying it aside in sheer boredom or bewilderment, a literary translation is what you want--and we have been lacking it for centuries.
Anybody who has really tackled the business of translation, at least where the classical languages are concerned, will tell you that the bother is not finding the equivalent for this or that word, it is finding out how to turn the sentence. And about this, the older translators of the Bible took no trouble at all. Take this sentence: 'The Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.' No, do not exclaim against the cumbrousness of Douay; that comes from the Authorized Version.
 Yet words are not that simple, after all:
And now, what of words? Here a consideration comes which is often forgotten. The Bible is usually translated by a syndicate; and the first thing a syndicate does when it gets together is to make sure that all the members of it tell the same story. If you proposed to translate the Aeneid this way, each member of it translating one book, the first item on the Committee's agenda would be, What is going to be our formula for translating the word pius as applied to the hero of the poem? They go away, after agreeing (say) on the word 'dutiful', which does well enough. But if a single man translates the whole of the Aeneid, he very soon realizes that pius takes on a different shade of meaning with each fresh context; now it is 'Aeneas, that dutiful son', now it is 'Aeneas, that admirable host', now it is 'Aeneas, that trained liturgiologist'. The compilers of the Authorized Version evidently did something like that with a word like dikaiosune in the New Testament, or tsedeq in the Old. They could see that Douay's rendering 'justice', was beside the mark nine times out of ten. What they did was to resuscitate a more or less obsolete word, 'right-wiseness', recondition it as 'righteousness', and use that all through the Bible as the equivalent of the tsedeq-dikaiousune idea. It served well enough; but this wooden rendering, constantly recurring in all sorts of different contexts, has resulted all throughout the Authorized Version in a certain flatness, a certain want of grip. You constantly feel that your author is not being allowed to say what he wants to say; his thought is being forced into an artificial mould.
Words are not coins, dead things whose value can be mathematically computed. You cannot quote an exact English equivalent for a French word, as you might quote an exact equivalent for a French coin. Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations; and what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are forever eluding his grasp.
On Englishing the Bible is out of print per se. Baronius Press provides it as lagniappe with the Knox translation; though Baronius marks the volume "NOT FOR SALE", some of those who have acquired it will sell it on the used market. In any case, the book is not hard to purchase, whether in the Baronius printing or an older one. I suppose that I should find the Knox translation next.