Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Thing That is Knot

The Washington Post this morning has a little guide to storm terms. The paragraph for "Knots" quotes the informant as saying
A nautical mile is one minute of latitude, so 50-knot winds is actually 90 miles per hour.
This estimate surprised me, for a nautical mile is not that much longer than a statute mile. But a bit of arithmetic suggests that the source said, or at least meant, "kilometers".

The other odd point in the the story is a quotation from Bob Dylan's song about the Titanic:
They battened down the hatches,
But the hatches wouldn't hold.
I doubt they did batten the hatches down, but I bet they would've held.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


  1.  Today was the 25th consecutive Marine Corps Marathon that I have not run in, after several years in which I missed but one. Judging by the way I felt on this weekend's runs, the streak is likely to continue.
  2. Recently, I heard of an "Edit-a-Thon", sponsored by the Royal Society, in which women were encouraged to edit Wikipedia entries concerning woman prominent in science and technical fields. The suffix or rather syllable "thon" has been floating loose for some time, I suppose since 1960s with "telethons" leading the way. Had I more time, perhaps I'd rent from Potomac Video the movies in which Rooney Mara has had a leading role (The Social Network, the Dragon Tattoo movies), and invite friends over for a "Mara-thon"
  3. Late in Swann's Way, a rather stuffy general remarks to the Duchesse de Guermantes that Jena was a batttle before it was a bridge--she has been making a dismissive joke about some Napoleonic title (fictitious, I think). Likewise, Marathon was a battle before a marathon was a race. (Though one could consider the hoplites' forced march back towards the city as having the nature of a race.)
  4. In Ancient Greek the word "marathon", according to Liddell and Scott, is the Attic version of "marathron", fennel, with which the field of the battle was overgrown.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Institutional Will

Higher education in this country needs an historian to tell us the organizational history of colleges and universities in their expansion, both as real estate enterprises and as they have found more subjects to confer degrees and certificates in. Perhaps the book has been written, but if so I've missed it. I see bits of the history in the newspapers, as Advisory Neighborhood Commissions push back against the expansion plans of the local schools. And I see it in the mail, when a local university advertises its Master of Interior Design program.

The physical expansion I suppose derives from the money that schools accumulate through their favored tax status, and from the need to use that money. The increase in the number of subjects seems to be driven by demand. Applicants for jobs suppose that a Master of x in y must be a positive value, for any values of x and y. Perhaps so; perhaps in the human resource offices the resumes get sorted into different pile. But the schools are out there scrapping to meet the demand.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

War and the Iliad

Long ago, probably in college, I read Simone Weil's essay "The Iliad: The Poem of Force." In rereading the Iliad since, I have thought now and then of her opening assertion that
The true hero, the true subject, the center of The Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away.... To define force--it is that x that turns anybody subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.
NYRB has had the happy thought of collecting the essay into a book, War and the Iliad, with Rachel Bespaloff's "On the Iliad" and "The Style of the Mythical Age" by Hermann Broch.

One cannot ignore the role of force--men killed, cities sacked, persons enslaved--in the Iliad. Yet on rereading Weil's essay, good though it is, I find that it says more--or at least I learn more--about her, in particular her need to identify with the powerless, and her desire to unite her love of the Greeks with her Christian conviction, than about the Iliad. If the translation of the essay is faithful, Weil cheats a little on her citations. Christopher Benfey's introduction points out the omission on the adverb "gently" when Achilles removes the suppliant Priam's hands from his knees. I notice also, among other examples

"If you can make an old man fall silent, tremble, obey, with a single word of your own ... " Yes, Homer says that the old man grew fearful and obeyed "the word", but Agamemnon's dismissal ran to several: Fitzgerald gives it a dozen English words, Fagles eleven.

"Achilles himself, that proud hero, is shown us at the beginning of the poem, weeping with humiliation and helpless grief--the woman he wanted for his bride has been taken from under his nose, and he has not dared oppose it." Yes, but more No. There are hints of an affection between Achilles and Bryseida, and she says later on that Patroclus promised that she would become Achilles's wife. The sources I have read suggest that Patroclus was soothing her with empty and impossible promises, though. More to the point, Achilles seems far more upset over lost prestige than over a lost love. And "not dared to oppose it" is too strong; Achilles had his sword half drawn to cut down Agammemnon before Athena warned him off the action.

Weil writes that "The Iliad formulated the principle long before the Gospels did, and nearly in the same terms, 'Ares is just and kills those who kill.'" I should say rather that the statement in Matthew "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword" expresses an imperative to live otherwise; Homer expresses no such imperative, and in fact cannot imagine it as a possibility. The occasional wish that there might be no war is definitely a conditional contrary to fact.

I had not previously heard of Rachel Bespaloff, and am grateful to have read her essays. They seem to me to engage the Iliad more closely than Weil's does. The first essay, "Hector", begins
Time and suffering have stripped Hector bare, he has nothing left but himself. In the crowd of mediocrities that are Priam's sons, he stands alone, a prince, born to rule. Neither superman, nor demigod, nor godlike, he is a man and among men a prince. He is at ease in akids of unstudied nobility that permits neither ride in respect to the self nor humbleness in respect to the gods.
This and the rest seem just and well put. She is very good on Thetis and Achilles, Helen, Achilles and Priam. Her concluding essay, "Poets and Prophets" strikes me as a sounder comparison of the Old Testament to Greek literature than Weil makes. I don't set up as a judge of Homeric criticism, but the back cover quotes Robert Fitzgerald as saying
This book is about the best thing I have ever read on the art of Homer, and unless you have tasted the poem in Greek, Mme. Bespaloff will serve better than the translators to convey how distant, how refined an art it was.
 Broch's essay on the mythical style, on "the style of old age" tells me chiefly that I will need to reread it, and to read more of Broch.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


There is a tendency among the educated to notice particularly the inefficiencies in their schooling and to suppose that the whole business could have been managed much more quickly. I think that this is probably an illusion. It is a widespread one though.

 In the "Harvard College" chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, Adams writes
The entire work of the four years could have been easily put into the work of any four months in after life.
That greatly impressed me when I was 20 and a lazy undergraduate. These many years later, I think that the statement needs the following qualification:
Provided that one had previously spent four years at Harvard or a comparable college, and thought carefully about what one had learned in the meantime.
Santayana, who had the same education as Adams, namely Boston Latin School and Harvard College, writes in Persons and Places of Boston Latin
In the best schools, almost all time is wasted. Now and then something is learned that sticks fast; for the rest the boys are simply given time to grow and kept from too much mischief.
In context, clearly he means "Even in the best schools..." and I'm fairly sure that he means to include Boston Latin among them.

At the end of Kipling's story "Regulus", which begins with a class construing fifth ode of the third book in Horace, the science teacher Hartopp makes his case
'And at the end of seven years--how often have I said it?' Hartopp went on,--'seven years of two hundred and twenty days of six hours each, your victims go away with nothing, absolutely nothing, except, perhaps, if they've been very attentive, a dozen--no, I'll grant you twenty--one score of totally unrelated Latin tags which any child of twelve could have absorbed in two terms.'
 Yet Kipling implies that boys have learned something:
'You see. It sticks. A little of it sticks among the barbarians,' said King.
It is, though, their third time through that Ode. And Kipling writes in his autobiography that he did not at all care for Horace until as an adult he picked up a volume one night.

These days I see men and women who grew up with the very regular orthography of Spanish try to make make sense of spellings like "would"--why not "wood"?--and "ought", irrationalities I mastered as a child. Some of them I mastered under the care of drab teachers and martinets I do not remember fondly. Still, after all those worksheets, somehow I learned the spellings.

The last word perhaps should go to Samuel Johnson, who had some experience in front of a classroom, and not--as Adams and Santayana's--at  a college:
Every man that has ever undertaken to instruct others can tell what slow advances he has been able to make, and how much patience it requires to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Last weekend we made a visit to Monarch Paints near Chevy Chase Circle, where we considered such colors as Morning Mist and Evening Mist, which are hard enough to distinguish side by side. Eventually, I amused myself by trying to reckon how many colors were represented. Each of the two central displays had, as I counted them, about 560 colors represented (eight sections each of ten rows of cards with four and cards with three colors). The outer two I didn't look at so closely, but guessed to hold more than half as many. You would probably be safe estimating 1500 colors.

Today I started to paint with the chosen color, "Edgecombe Gray". When applied, it looks just like the previous color ("Subtle"), particularly in the uncertain light of that bedroom. As it dries, it darkens, and reveals just how carelessly I painted. There will be a lot of touch-up work tomorrow.