Friday, January 31, 2014

A Word on Eccentricity

Hilaire Belloc writes, in The Path to Rome,
... those who blame the middle-class for their conventions in such matters, and who profess to be above the care for cleanliness and clothes and social ritual which marks the middle-class, are either anarchists by nature, or fools who take what is but an effect of their wealth for a natural virtue.

I say it roundly; if it were not for the punctiliousness of the middle-class in these matters all our civilization would go to pieces. They are the conservators and the maintainers of the standard, the moderators of Europe, the salt of society. For the kind of man who boasts that he does not mind dirty clothes or roughing it, is either a man who cares nothing for all that civilization has built up and who rather hates it, or else (and this is much more common) he is a rich man, or accustomed to live among the rich, and can afford to waste energy and stuff because he feels in a vague way that more clothes can always be bought, that at the end of his vagabondism he can get excellent dinners, and that London and Paris are full of luxurious baths and barber shops. Of all the corrupting effects of wealth there is none worse than this, that it makes the wealthy (and their parasites) think in some way divine, or at least a lovely character of the mind, what is in truth nothing but their power of luxurious living. Heaven keep us all from great riches--I mean very great riches.

Now the middle-class cannot afford to buy new clothes whenever they feel inclined, neither can they end up a jaunt by a Turkish bath and a great feast with wine. So their care is always to preserve intact what they happen to have, to exceed in nothing, to study cleanliness, order, decency, sobriety, and a steady temper, and they fence all this round and preserve it in the only way it can be preserved, to wit, with conventions, and they are quite right.

I find it very hard to keep up to the demands of these my colleagues, but I recognize that they are on the just side in the quarrel; let none of them go about pretending that I have not defended them in this book.
That is only one aspect of eccentricity, though. More later.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reading Fichte

Happening to pick up a copy of Science of Knowledge the other day, I noticed early on a paragraph that Fichte concludes with
The dogmatist flies into a passion, distorts, and would persecute if he had the power; the idealist is cool and is in danger of deriding the dogmatist.
Now, for Fichte, the dogmatist is one who begins with being, as opposed to the idealist, who begins with self-consciousness. The dogmatist par excellence for Fichte is Spinoza, who as I recall does not at all fly into passions or distort, who gives no evidence I remember of a persecuting temper. Fichte's own temper does not generally read as "cool"; the danger of deriding seems not to bother him. In fact, the translators say that
Infelicities of expression are by no means the only obstacles to appreciating Fichte's work. His literary persona, alternating between arrogance and mock humility, and always ready for vitriolic personal attacks, is thoroughly unbearable.
Quite. But on this, which is at least my third try at the book, I am starting to follow the arguments; most of the credit, both for motivation and for background, goes to Frederic Beiser's German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 1781-1801. Maybe a few more snow days will be what it takes.

Monday, January 20, 2014

But I Did Not Read There

In The Evolution of Medieval Thought, Dom David Knowles writes
. . . . on almost all points where Scripture gave no lead, Augustine accepted from the Timaeus and Meno of Plato and the Enneads of Plotinus the explanations they gave of the intellectual problems that engaged his attention, and if a reader of Augustine is in doubt about the origin of a particular philosophical idea, he will usually find the answer in Plotinus. But Augustine was never one to take words and propositions from another without re-thinking them for himself . . .
Augustine tells of his first encounter with the Platonists in Book VII of his Confessions. A couple of paragraphs give the flavor of several more:
  I did read there that the Word, God, 'is not born from flesh, or blood, or human desire, or of fleshly desire, but from God.'
  But I did not read there: 'The word became flesh, to live with us.'
  I did tease out from various expressions and modes of thought in those books that the Son, since 'he had the form of the Father, considered it no usurpation to be held God's equal,' since he was by nature his equal.
  But those books do not contain: 'He emptied himself out into the nature of a slave, becoming like to man. And in man's shape he lowered himself, so obedient as to die, by a death on the cross. For this God has exalted him, favored his title, over all other titles, that to the title of Jesus all knees shall bend, above the earth, upon the earth, and below the earth, and the lips of everyone shall testify that Jesus is Lord in the glory of the Father.
 (Translation by Garry Wills: has Pusey's translation, which I think less readable, and for that matter the Latin text.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Tcl is 25

The scripting language Tcl just turned 25; the five or six years centered on 1990 seem to have been the Baby Boom of such languages, for Perl is now 26, and Python must be over 20.

I learned Tcl mostly because of Expect. I haven't used that in years, but it was a very useful tool. Need to monitor a modem bank? No problem, we'll write a script. Need to copy gobs of files from scads of servers using FTP? No problem, we have Expect installed. Then there was/is Oratcl, and for a while I used the AOLServer web server, which used Tcl. Very occasionally I used Tcl/Tk,.

Those who set store by elegance in computer languages, notably Richard Stallman, complained about Tcl. Their complaints were not wrong, just not necessarily relevant to those who used the language. Heaven knows it had its quirks: everything a string, arithmetic requiring "expr", no complex types beyond lists and arrays, etc. etc. But I've used other languages that made me long for Tcl's "uplevel".

Anyway, Happy Birthday, Tcl, and Thank You, John Ousterhout.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Common Pursuits

D.G. Myers remarks, I believe correctly, that "In my teaching, I have learned that I cannot assume any common background knowledge, not even in English majors." This is in response to the critics of an earlier post in which he discusses the want of a common pursuit and the fragmentation of the curriculum.

Well, that has been going on for a while. In Pictures from an Institution, published 60 years ago, there is the genteel old professor who
must have had in the depths of her wistful soul a Gift or Daemon that once or twice a year awoke, whispered to her a sentence she could repeat--to the world's astonishment--and then turned back to sleep. Dr. Rosenbaum had first been aware of this Daemon when Miss Batterson retorted, to a colleague's objection that all Benton students read that in high school: "There is no book that all my students have read. Dr. Rosenbaum knew that it is in sentences like this, and not in the pages of Spengler, that one has brought home to one the twilight of the West. He gave a brotherly laugh and agreed: "Ja, dey haf de sense dey vere born vidt."
Go back about ten years more to Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America, which closes the chapter "Columbia College, Columbia University" as follows
The unrestricted right to shop among electives may look like unrestricted freedom, but it may actually be confining, as a student from the Middle West confessed when I asked what his preparation in history had been. "I was going to be a minister, so I took Pre-Theological Rural Sociology." Custom tailoring is excellent for the human form, but in collegiate teaching it can soon become  patchwork. Besides, its appearance of perfect adaptation is deceptive. There is no such thing as a separate sociology for rural ministers. The title betrays the touch of the salesman, doubtless well meant, but more congenial to the catalogue maker than the teacher.
Or back to the Harvard of President Eliot. John Jay Chapman says ("President Eliot", collected in Manners and Morals) that
Besides this matter he had his "Elective System," which I have never understood, but which seems to have been a corollary from the axiom "size first." It was imagined that a university must be a place where everything was taught, and that all sorts of departments ought to be opened at once. It was perfectly natural that America, looking at Germany, and bent upon swallowing the whole of learning at one gulp, should invent some sort of great fair, where the students were to come and take their fill, following their own election under some sort of supervision. The thing which nobody seems to have  thought of was the relation which any foreign University bears to the average literacy of the country it serves. Perhaps our pedagogues neglected this consideration with their eyes open. They conceived that a University need provide opportunities merely, and that the students would do the rest. 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.
Santayana, a couple of years younger than Chapman, begins with the architecture of Harvard Yard in discussing that period:
On the whole, it was the architecture of sturdy poverty, looking through thrift in the direction of wealth. It well matched the learning of early New England, traditionally staunch and narrow, yet also thrifty and tending to positivism, a learning destined as it widened to be undermined and to become, like the architecture, flimsy and rich. It had been founded on accurate Latin and a spellbound constant reading of the Bible; but in the Harvard of my day we had heard a little of everything, and nobody really knew his Latin or knew his Bible. You might say that the professor of Hebrew did know his Bible, and the professors of Latin their Latin. No doubt, in the sense that they could write technical articles on the little points of controversy at the moment among philologists; but neither Latin nor the Bible flowed through them and made their spiritual lives; they were not vehicles for anything great. They were grains in a quicksand, agents and patients in an anonymous moral migration that had not yet written its classics.
So what is one to do? I do not know. It seems to me that quite regularly the vivifying reform of year x becomes the stultifying, Procrustean system of year x + y. The schools that Peter Abelard enlivened gradually withered to be fair game for mockery by Erasmus and Rabelais. The curriculum that electrified the German Romantics struck Henry Adams, viewing it a couple of generations later, as utterly deadening. The educational reformer who can overcome this tendency will be long remembered.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Roads, by Larry McMurtry

The Friday after Christmas, I bought a copy of Roads: Driving America's Great Highways at Idle Times Books in Adams-Morgan. By Wednesday, I had recommended the book to three friends.

It is a short book full of long, high-speed drives, for example Duluth to Archer City, Texas, in two quick days. Here and there I found myself recalling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the remark that from a car you see the landscape through the windshield, as on a TV screen; on a motorcycle you are in the landscape.  Wright Morris in The Cloak of Light: Writing My Life wrote of  himself as a compulsive driver, starting early and continuing late; but driving twenty years before the interstates were built, he traveled much more slowly, and stayed in towns and ate at diners not yet homogenized. McMurtry writes of 800 mile days at the wheel.

It is McMurtry's remarks on the places he knows well make the book worth reading. I bought it in part from the memory of a book review that quoted some incisive remarks about Washington, DC. What he has to say about northern Michigan, Los Angeles, Texas, and New Mexico--places I have never been--also caught my eye. The book is of the sort that one can take up and dip into for ten minutes' reading when ten minutes are all that one has.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Styles and Languages

In a fragment Chateaubriand once meant for the end of Book XIII of his memoirs, and which the editor includes in an appendix of the volume, he writes (approximately)
Two languages dominated the ancient civilized world, two people judged, alone and as court of last resort, the monuments of their genius. Victorious over the Greeks, the Romans had the same respect for the works of the conquered that had been felt at Alexandria and Athens. The glory of Homer and of Virgil was faithfully handed on by the monks, the priests, and the clerks, instructors of the barbarians in the church schools, the monasteries, the seminaries, and the universities. A hereditary admiration descended from race to race to us, by means of the teachers, of whom the faculty, working these fourteen centuries, confirms without ceasing the same verdict.
It is no longer so in the modern civilized world: five languages flourish there; each of these five languages has its own masterpieces, which are not recognized as such in the countries where they speak the other four languages.
No one, in a living literature, is qualified to judge any but the works written in his own language. Only mistakenly do you imagine that you know another language through and through: you lack the milk of your nurse, likewise the first words you heard at her breast and in your cradle: certain accents are only of the homeland. One argues that true beauties belong to all times and all countries, yes, the beauties of feeling and of thought, not the beauties of style. Style is not, like thought, a cosmopolitan, it has a native land, its own sky and sun.
Perhaps--but did the Romans employ Greek wet nurses or the Franks Roman ones?

I should say that criticism and judgment is one thing, creation another. Knowing no language inside and out but English, I wonder how many can write at the highest level a language learned after childhood.

Coleridge says
this style of poetry, which I have characterized above, as translations of prose thoughts into poetic language, had been kept up by, if it did not wholly arise from, the custom of writing Latin verses, and the great importance attached to these exercises, in our public schools. Whatever might have been the case in the fifteenth century, when the use of the Latin tongue was so general among learned men, that Erasmus is said to have forgotten his native language; yet in the present day it is not to be supposed, that a youth can think in Latin, or that he can have any other reliance on the force or fitness of his phrases, but the authority of the writer from whom he has adopted them. Consequently he must first prepare his thoughts, and then pick out, from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, or perhaps more compendiously from his Gradus, halves and quarters of lines, in which to embody them.
 (Indeed, in a later portion of his memoirs, Chateaubriand writes of sending out from jail for a Gradus so that he might occupy himself in writing a Latin epitaph for a friend's daughter. But he says that he needed to check the quantity of a word, not to look for phrases.)

John Jay Chapman, in his essay "The Pleasures of Greek" has his doubts:
And yet accurate scholarship and scientific precision are illusions in the case of language, and there is no scholar living who could write a page of Greek without making ludicrous errors--errors of the sort that the Anglo-Indian makes in writing English, which he has learned from books. If even Mr. Mackail or Gilbert Murray or Nauck, that great, horrible, mythic monster--should spend a whole day in dove-tailing phrases which they had fished out of Plato or Thucydides to make an essay of, the chances are that any Athenian would laugh five times to the page over the performance.