Saturday, December 29, 2018


In Drawn and Quartered by E.M. Cioran, I noticed the the paragraph
The real writer writes about beings, things, events, he does not write about writing, he uses words but does not linger over them, making them the object of his ruminations. He will be anything and everything except an anatomist of the Word. Dissection of language is the fad of those who, having nothing to say, confine themselves to saying.
 That recalls Flann O'Brien, who wrote
Yes. Twenty years ago, most of us were tortured by the inadequacy of even the most civilized, the most elaborate, the most highly developed languages to the exigencies of human thought,  to the nuances of inter-psychic communion, to the the expression of the silent agonised pathologies of the post-Versailles epoch....
As far as I remember, I founded the Rathmines branch of the Gaelic league. Having nothing to say, I thought at that time that it was important to revive a distant language in which nothing could be said.
Yet is Cioran correct? The dangers of Alexandrianism lie on one side, yes. But on the other side there lie the dangers of too much trust in words and language to do what one counts on them to do, the possibility of thinking that one is writing something original when one is repeating the gestures of a writer of fifty or a hundred years ago.

Drawn and Quartered, I will add, has the wonderful paragraph
"A taste for the extraordinary is characteristic of mediocrity." (Diderot) . . . And we are still amazed that the Enlightenment had no understanding of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Joseph Plumb Martin

On Sunday, that being the Third Sunday of Advent in the third year of the liturgical cycle (a "C" year), Roman Catholic congregations heard verses read from the third chapter of St. Luke, including
Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Joseph Plumb Martin, in his memoir of service in the Revolutionary War, wrote of hearing part of the passage during bad times in 1777:
While we lay here there was a Continental thanksgiving ordered by Congress; and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least, that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the trees of the fields and forests afforded us. But we must now have what Congress said—a sumptuous thanksgiving to close the year of high living, we had now nearly seen brought to a close. Well—to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions, our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, reader?—Guess.—You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you: it gave each and every man half a gill of rice, and a table spoon full of vinegar!! After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting, and hear a sermon delivered upon the happy occasion. We accordingly went, for we could not help it. I heard a sermon, a "thanksgiving sermon," what sort of one I do not know now, nor did I at the time I heard it, I had something else to think upon, my belly put me in remembrance of the fine thanksgiving dinner I was to partake of when I—could get it—I remember the text, like an attentive lad at church, I can still remember that, it was this, "And the soldiers said unto him, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, nor accuse any one falsely." The Preacher ought to have added the remainder of the sentence to have made it complete; "And be content with your wages." But that would not do, it would be too appropos; however, he heard it as soon as the service was over, it was shouted from a hundred tongues
The message evidently goes over better with soldiers who do receive wages. And I doubt the chaplain dressed in camel hair and lived on locusts and wild honey.

The Continental soldiers were not above some sharp practice when foraging, but seem to have lacked the heart for extortion:
I do not remember that during the time I was employed in this business, which was from christmas to the latter part of April, ever to have met with the least resistance from the inhabitants, take what we would from their barns, mills, corncribs, or stalls; but when we came to their stables, then look out for the women; take what horse you would, it was one or the other's "pony" and they had no other to ride to church; and when we had got possession of a horse we were sure to have half a dozen or more women pressing upon us, until by some means or other, if possible, they would slip the bridle from the horse's head, and then we might catch him again if we could. They would take no more notice of a charged bayonet than a blind horse would of a cocked pistol; it would answer no purpose to threaten to kill them with the bayonet or musket, they knew as well as we did that we would not put our threats in execution, and when they had thus liberated a horse (which happened but seldom) they would laugh at us and ask us why we did not do as we threatened, kill them, and then they would generally ask us into their houses and treat us with as much kindness as though nothing had happened.
Martin served in some pitched battles, from Brooklyn Heights through Monmouth to Yorktown. Mostly, though, what one notices in his memoirs is the hard service and the lack of provisions, sound clothing, shelter, and pay. In his concluding chapter, he wrote,
But what did we ever realize of all this ample store:—why, perhaps a coat, (we generally did get that,) and one or two shirts, the same of shoes and stockings, and, indeed, the same may be said of every other article of clothing—a few dribbled out in a regiment, two or three times in a year, never getting a whole suit at a time, and all of the poorest quality; and blankets of thin baize, thin enough to have straws shot through without discommoding the threads. How often have I had to lie whole stormy cold nights in a wood, on a field, or a bleak hill, with such blankets and other clothing like them, with nothing but the canopy of the heavens to cover me, me, all this too in the heart of winter, when a New-England farmer, if his cattle had been in my situation, would not have slept a wink from sheer anxiety for them.
Oftentimes have I gone one, two, three, and even four days without a morsel, unless the fields or forests might chance to afford enough to prevent absolute starvation. Often, when I have picked the last grain from the bones of my scanty morsel, have I eat the very bones, as much of them as possibly could be eaten, and then have had to perform some hard and fatiguing duty, when my stomach has been as craving as it was before I had eaten any thing at all.
...reader, believe me, for I tell a solemn truth, that I have felt more anxiety, undergone more fatigue and hardships, suffered more every way, in performing one of those tedious marches, than ever I did in fighting the hottest battle was ever engaged in, with the anticipation of all the other calamities I have mentioned added to it.
For all that, Martin lived to be 90.  His memoir, The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, written when he was about 70, is available in a number of inexpensive paperback editions, and can be read online at Wikisource.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Chronic Discoveries

John Jay Chapman wrote in 1898 that
The history of these chronic discoveries of Whitman as a poet, as a force, as a something or a somebody, would write up into the best possible monograph on the incompetence of the Anglo-Saxon in matters of criticism.
About 1950, Randall Jarrell wrote that
Serious readers, people who are ashamed of not knowing all Hopkins by heart, are not at all ashamed to say, "I don't really know Whitman very well." This may harm Whitman in your eyes, they know, but that is a chance that poets have to take.
Having written that, he went on to write a score of pages discovering Whitman for his time. The essay, "Reflections on Whitman", is collected in Poetry and the Age.

By Jarrell's day, the Anglo-Saxons, or at any rate the Americans, had come to think of themselves as pretty fair critics. He published two books of criticism during his life, and his heirs brought out a couple later. Yet he complained that many among the reading public had come to prefer reading the criticism to reading the works criticized: the essay "The Age of Criticism", also collected in Poetry and the Age, discusses just that.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Abbot Aidan Shea, O.S.B., 1930-2018

This morning, I drove across town to the Requiem Mass for Abbot Aidan Shea, O.S.B. The St. Anselm's gymnasium was well-filled. Mostly of course, it was filled by laity, largely connected with the school as students and alumni, their parents, and often enough the children or grandchildren of alumni. (Abbot Aidan had officiated at the weddings of some of those children's parents or grandparents.) There were plenty of clergy: the monks of the abbey of course; a bishop, a secular priest or two, a Franciscan, some nuns, and a couple of men who by their hats must have been in Orthodox or Uniate orders. Abbot Aidan was a Benedictine for sixty years less eight days. He had served as abbot of St. Anselm's for sixteen years ending in 2006. For all I know, his titular abbacy of Tewkesbury Abbey may have continued until his death.

One of the two eulogists was a former student. He was not a child, having first encountered the then Brother Aidan as his third-form Latin teacher in the late 1950s. Most of the eulogy had to do with Fr. Aidan as friend, but he touched on other aspects: the priest, the homilist, the lover of animals. Among many most interesting things, he said that in sixth-form Latin he was "shutting down" from boredom with Virgil. Father Aidan considered the case, and set him to reading Juvenal, which was "sarcastic, rude, vulgar, right up my alley." His studies then went on smoothly.

I gather that Abbot Aidan was a remarkable teacher. My own acquaintance with him was slight. John Jay Chapman quotes an "old and very fussy" scholar at Oxford as saying of William James, "But he certainly has the face of a sage." Abbot Aidan had that, and the presence of a wise and holy man. The abbey has a brief,  readable notice on its website

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Very Thin Book

NYRB has brought out A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-1940, assembled from the diaries of Iris Origo by Lucy Hallett-Hughes. I do not regret buying the book, but it strikes me as very thin for $15.95-- there are 146 pages, not counting the introduction by Ms. Hallett-Hughes and the afterword by Origo's granddaughter Katia Lysy.  The diary entries are perceptive and well-phrased; one sees how some, perhaps many, Italians thought as Italy drifted towards war; yet the entries are few enough, and I should say that they do not carry the heft of those in War in Val d'Orcia, written when Origo was again a perceptive spectator but also a participant with heavy responsibilities and in real danger. There is little new information in the foreword for anyone who has  read Origo's Images and Shadows, and less for anyone who has read Caroline Moorehead's biography of her. The granddaughter's afterword does have some curious information about Origo's habits of work and her eccentricities.

I wonder whether NYRB might not have done better to bring A Chill in the Air out in a single volume with War in Val d'Orcia, which it has also recently brought back into print. Yet I can see that chronology would demand that the diaries of 1939 and 1940 precede those of 1943 and 1944; and some readers might quit before War in Val d'Orcia, which is by far the more substantial book.

The person who has read either War in Val d'Orcia or Images and Shadows will find A Chill in the Air worth the small price and brief reading time. The person who has read none of Origo's memoirs would do better to start with War in Val d'Orcia, to see why one might wish to read her writings, and then go on to Images and Shadows for a fuller picture of her and her world.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Poet, Meet Pedant

A book club I know read Michael Ondaatje's Warlight, so a copy has been at hand in the living room. The club, I hear, on the whole enjoyed the book. I read in a steady condition of irritation. In this book, Ondaatje seems to prefer the portentous phrase to the accurate one, and his grasp of fact, where I can test it, is shaky. I concede that he may be playing a deeper game that I just don't grasp, but I doubt it. The novel is set for the most part in the middle to late 1940s.

Portentous: the author's mother, having done intelligence work during the war, is said to have listened "with her ears pressed against the complicated frequencies of a radio's headset." I don't know that the frequencies used for transmission were any more complicated than those of other electromagnetic radiation; and in the headphones one heard the frequencies of the human voice, probably simplified through loss in encoding and decoding. (Or one heard Morse, which required only simple frequencies.)

At a slow river, the day after bombs fell nearby,  "the water was flat, undamaged." Without the impulse of wind or a steep enough gradient, water is in general flat. And what can it mean to damage water? One can muddy or pollute water, but I never heard even the foulest rivers spoken of as "damaged".

A character "felt raised a league or a fathom into the air". Which? A league is three miles, a fathom is six feet, so a league contains is at least 2,640 fathoms, more if the miles are nautical rather than statute.

Facts: Early on, one encounters a man known as the Darter: under the nickname "The Pimlico Darter" he had some years before been the best welterweight north of the Thames. I suppose that I could have said with Jake Barnes, "Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title," and forgotten it. But in twenty or so pages, the Darter is described as tall. To box as a welterweight, one must weigh in at no more than 147 pounds. Welterweights are seldom tall as America judges height, or as I suppose England did.

In the Bibliothèque Mazarine, in entering which one somehow "entered the fifteenth century" (Mazarin was born in 1602), a character reflects that he prefers "older maps that are cityless, marked only by contour lines so that they can even now be used for accurate reconnaissance." The oldest maps with contour lines are from the nineteenth century.

An ethnographer (among her other vocations) "had risen into a dark sky infested with other gliders that shuddered in the air as brittle as glass, in order to listen to how porous the wind was and search for rainless light, so they could postpone or confirm the invasion."  How does one grade the porosity of wind, and are the gliders as brittle as glass, or is it the air? The gliders were fragile enough; but I believe that a) the meteorological observations for D-Day were made largely by ships on the Atlantic, and b) the only gliders then in the air in numbers that could could count as "infesting" were not observing weather but carrying troops.

A young expectant mother, reluctant to carry on her work as a waitress, finds work at an explosives plant. (I'm not sure that this is what the medical profession would suggest.) She works near "the Great Nitrator, in which nitroglycerine had been made for two centuries." Nitroglycerine was first synthesized in 1846.

And in general the notions of intelligence and counter-intelligence are silly. British intelligence as imagined by Ondaatje seems to have no idea of compartmentalization, of the sharing of data on a need-to-know basis. The same woman monitors transmissions from allied agents, broadcasts coded instructions, and carries out hazardous operations in the field. Agents knowing a great deal about sensitive operations are allowed to fall into the hands of hostile groups. I could go on, but won't.

Or is this all an elaborate leg-pull? There is nothing wrong with a bit of deliberate, elegant silliness. Yet the masters of that style--I think of Flann O'Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds or Gilbert Sorrentino in Mulligan Stew--make it clearer what is going on.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


The editors of  Tocqueville's Souvenirs include a note referring to Chateaubriand's memoirs, Book XVI, Chapter 1. Chateaubriand's nephews, orphaned by the revolution, were brought up with Alexis de Tocqueville and his brothers. In mentioning this, Chateaubriand writes
Alexis de Tocqueville traveled through civilized America; I visited its forests.
Am I wrong to detect a hint of competitiveness there?

It may be as well that Chateaubriand did not live to see Tocqueville's "A Fortnight in the Wilds" published. (Nor did Tocqueville: Beaumont published it in 1860.)  Early on, Tocqueville remarks on how ill Chateaubriand's (and Cooper's) depiction of the Indians fit those he met. To be fair to Chateaubriand, those that Tocqueville met had suffered another four decades of pressure from the settlers. Still, I can believe that Chateaubriand was as imaginative in his account of persons as in his account of the distances he covered.
In any case, Tocqueville and Beaumont undertook some difficult journeys through sparsely settled country. In  "A Fortnight in the Wilds", he tells of a long day of about forty miles from the Flint River to Saginaw, the latter described by his host in Pontiac as "the last inhabited point until you come to the Pacific Ocean."  Getting to the Flint River required forest travel as well, and brought them to a house with a bear chained up outside.

"A Fortnight in the Wilds" is printed in Journey to America. The bulk of the book reminds one that Tocqueville did come to American to visit its civilization, not its forest. But there were plenty of forests remaining between the centers of civilization. Unfortunately, Yale University Press has let it go out of print.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Life Dream

Fifteen or twenty years ago, The New York Times ran a piece by Margo Jefferson. I no longer remember the burden of it, but I remember that she said that she sometimes listened to country music. In talking to friends who knew more about it, who perhaps had grown up with it, she tried to distinguish between the good country music and the rest; but they rejected the distinction. On the other hand these friends made the same sort of distinction in the music that Ms. Jefferson preferred, and she rejected their distinction. (Ms. Jefferson is African-American: how she characterized her preferred music I don't remember.) At the time I thought that I agreed with her about country music and with the country fans about hers, and I quickly forgot about it.

I thought of that this week when I encountered in The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Chapter "Image and Word", the paragraph
Contemporaries who see the works of art being born accept them without question into their life dream. They do not appreciate them on the basis of objective aesthetic perfection, but on the basis of the resounding reverberation within them of the sacredness or passionate vitality of their subject matter. Only when the old life dream is dreamed out with the passing of time, and sacredness and passion have vanished like the scent of a rose, only then, by virtue of its means of expression, that is, its style, structure, and its harmony, does the purely artistic effect of a work of art begin. These elements may actually be the same in both the fine arts and literature, but they may, nonetheless, generate an entirely different artistic evaluation.
In the United States, one need not wait for a life dream to be dreamed out. One can just get in the car and drive twenty miles to find another that displaces it.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Two Writers

In Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Chapter 4, The Forms of Love, I noticed the paragraph
Reality is at any time more wretched and cruder than the refined literary ideal of love sees it, but it is also purer and more ethical than it is represented by that shallow eroticism which is usually regarded as naturalistic. Eustache Deschamps, the professional poet, lowers himself in many ballades, in which he has a speaking part, to the most debased transgressions. But he is not the real hero of those indecent scenes, and amongst them we suddenly find a tender poem in which he points out to his daughter the virtues of her dead mother.
In A Skeptic Among Scholars, August Frugé writes of the poet and translator C.F. MacIntyre that
It may be that Mac was wilder in his youth, before I met him, than he was later, but I knew him through most of his time as an outsider. Behind the rebel facade lurked a family man manqué. In his unpublished novel on the life of Tristan Corbière, which he let me read, the sex scenes--based presumably on experiences with female students--were rather unreal, while the scenes of son with parents were truly felt and convincing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

University Press Week

NPR announced this morning that it is University Press Week. Considering that the week was first proclaimed 40 years ago, I am a bit surprised never to have heard of it. The events listed by the Association of University Presses are out of town, in New York and Miami. I'm not sure how those of us not in those two cities, and not employed in publishing should honor the week. Buying a book or two published by a university press might be a good way. Three days remain in the week.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Par Excellence

The most recent translators of Schopenhauer's On The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason did an excellent job, as far as I can judge. One decision, though, repeatedly caught my eye.

The translators give the original words in footnotes for technical German terms and for quotations from other languages. The former practice is what one could wish for: it is frustrating to read a work of philosophy and have to guess what word in the original an English word corresponds to: does "being" stand in for ens or esse? Does "idea" replace Idee or Begriff? The latter practice does maintain the flow of the argument.

 E.F.J. Payne, the translator of most readily acquired version of The World as Will and Representation simply included the quotations untranslated, then gave his translation into English in a footnote. This meant that one could have as many as three versions on the page, the first two from the original: Greek, since that was the source; Latin, since some of us with Abiturs may have forgotten our Greek, but all can be counted on to remember our Latin; and English in the footnotes for the paying customers. In The Fourfold Root one has only two versions to deal with, one almost always English.

Almost always; for it is an exception that caught my eye. The authors not unreasonably render the Greek κατ᾽ ἐξοχήν as par excellence. Yet to find French words in the text italicized and footnoted with the Greek original looks odd the first time, and funny the sixth. Still, I do realize that par excellence is long naturalized, and I don't know what I'd offer to replace it. Eminently?

Friday, November 9, 2018

Seen Online

I often check the Hacker News to see what topics interest the tech world. Perhaps 60% of the linked items have to do with computing, science, or mathematics, another 20% to do with politics or economics, and the remainder can be curiously assorted. Over the last couple of days a link to an article about whether Nero killed Agrippina has been in the first few pages.

Though I do now and then see them, I don't go to Hacker News looking for links to pieces about the humanities. I was surprised, then, today to see what was evidently an item by Cynthia Haven about René Girard on the first page, ranked #18:

 Professor Haven tells me that the linked site slowed to a crawl under the traffic that Hacker News directed its way. I hope that the site will have found some new readers to make up for the load.

A sometime co-worker has made it to the first page of Hacker News a few times. However, his blog mostly has to do with old computer hardware, which suits what I take to be the interests of most of the Hacker News readership. I am interested to see that the techies find mimetic desire so well worth reading and arguing about.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Another Specialty of the House

We drove up to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Friday night for the birthday dinner of a friend. A bit before 1 pm on Saturday, we drove to the West Shore Farmers Market in Lemoyne to meet a relative and to do some shopping.

A stand that I will not name had promised to have some hog maws for my wife. When she asked for them, the manager said that he had supposed she would get them Friday, and so had sold them to another customer Saturday morning. He referred her to Schaffer's. Schaffer's, may its name be praised, had four on hand to sell her. We have purchased hog maws a number of times over the years, generally at the West Shore Farmers Market; but this was the first time we purchased from a butcher without prior arrangement.

The Bookworm upstairs has its own specialties, including volumes of Norman Mailer in languages including at least German. There were four or so copies of  Die Heere der Nacht and something involving a bear hunt (Why Are We in Vietnam, or an excerpt from it?). I have no desire to purchase these, but find it reassuring to know that they still are there. And I was glad to find a boy of about one sitting on the floor when I got there, gesturing at books near his eye level, and a brother and sister between seven and ten looking over books at a table outside the main area of the store

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Monkshood, again

It is time again for monkshood, maybe a bit past the prime. Anyway, from last weekend here is the monkshood in our back yard

and down the street

I gather that it is not quite as dangerous on skin contact as I once thought: the consequence is likely to be discomfort but nothing worse. Still, I think we will warn the people who have bought but not moved into the house down the street.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Forty Years of Second Story Books

Last month, Second Story Books reached its 40th anniversary of operation at Dupont Circle. It marked the occasion with a contest and with pop-up sales. The latter I missed, because they were announced on social media. The former was framed as
Send us a list of books (at least four books but no more than forty) that you wish everyone might read to make the world a better place. Please tell us (briefly or at length) why the books on your list make a difference. A panel of judges will select the most noteworthy entries in September.
The notion that everyone (however "everyone" is defined)  might read something between four and forty books seems impractical to me, judging by my experience of schools, book clubs, and life in general, where reading is often scanted. The notion that the said books might make the world a better place should everyone read them seems pretty speculative too.

Having said that, I am grateful to Second Story Books. It seems to me to have made Washington a better place by its operation. I am grateful also for the many books it has sold me over the years. I hope it will have another forty years at 20th and P Sts., NW.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Practical Syllogism

There was a kerfluffle some months ago, forgotten by now thanks to new and improved kerfluffles that followed it. At the time it made a bit of noise for a few days. A national publication put out a piece weighing the rights and wrong. The publication concluded that the rights were on the side it favored, the wrongs on the other.

It struck me at the time that this was a straightforward syllogism:
  • We are always right.
  • "Always" comprises "this time".
  • Ergo, This time we are right
The name of the publication does not matter, for many opposed to it on that and other occasions use the same syllogism regularly.

It is a handy one. Perhaps it could be printed on a card, so that one could carry it about in the wallet for reference, as one might the Red Cross cards outlining the steps to take in rendering first aid..

Friday, October 12, 2018

Read Again

In our suburb of Cleveland we were friends with a woman who had emigrated from Bavaria about 1910. She lived in a rowhouse (I think) with (certainly) grape vines trained along the rails of her back porch, a patch of vegetables including kale, and shelves of Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I had no opinions then on condensing books, and I got through quite a few of the multi-book volumes.

This past weekend, the used book sale at a local church yielded a copy of The Captain, by Jan de Hartog. I read this in condensed form probably in 1967 or 1968, for it was published in 1966, Reader's Digest published the condensed version in 1967,  and my family left Ohio in the summer of 1969. It had been my impression that Reader's Digest called it Master After God, an expression that occurs in the book; but that is not so. Anyway, I decided that it was worth the $2 asked.

The bulk of the novel concerns the trials of a Dutch tugboat captain: first as relief captain on coastal tows off wartime England; then on a tug outfitted for rescue work on a couple of Murmansk convoys. I found in reading it that I probably remembered 70% of the plot. I believe that the prologue and epilogue, set in the 1960s were omitted by the condensers. Some of the matter from the 1930s may have been skipped as well. At least one sex scene made the cut, but I think other such bits certainly didn't.

Curiously, almost the only other book that I have reread at a comparable interval is Two Years Before the Mast; yet I don't know that I have ever been out of sight of land on a boat. De Hartog does not hold up as well as Dana, but he undertook a different task: not a narrative of sea service, but a novel, and a novel with a moral message embedded or tacked on. Would I purchase the book now if it had just been published? I suppose that the decision would depend on reviews, blurbs, and my schedule.  Will I read it again? Probably not.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Shakespeare's Lives

I admire authors of conspicuous erudition, who seem to have read everything relevant, and to have apposite quotations in easy reach as they write: Barzun, Friedell, Pelikan, and Schopenhauer come to mind. Though I have no possibility of matching their reading, yet I imagine it as involving not only labor but fascination. Reason says that they must have made their way through some awfully dull stretches of history, theology, philosophy, and literature: imagination is happy to remember the Xenophons, Augustines, Platos, and Shakespeares as if they made up a greater proportion of the reading than they must have.

Samuel Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives is another work of astonishing erudition. Yet here the dull comes to the foreground regularly, and one regularly encounters biographers mad or just tedious who had the energy to write thousand-page books. At the the bottom of page 427, one encounters
Similar theories are expounded, in much the same judicial tone, in John H.Stotsenburg's depressingly long An Impartial Survey of the Shakespeare Title (1904).
About two-thirds of down page 427 is
Usually associated with the Baconian stalwarts, Sir George Greenwood (in his dauntingly  voluminous writings) more than once denies membership in the club.
On page 435 is
Canon Gerald H. Rendall, sometime Gladstone Professor of Greek at University College, Liverpool, [who] read Looney and, at the age of eighty, experienced a conversion [to the Oxfordian cause]. He proceeded to advance the cause with a series of volumes: Shakespeare Sonnets and Edward De Vere (1930), Shake-speare: Handwriting and Spelling (1931), Personal Clues in Shakespeare Poems & Sonnets (1934), and Ben Johnson and the First Folio Edition of Shakespeare's Plays (1936). So prodigious was the display of energy that one admirer was prompted to exclaim in 1944 that Canon Rendall  'represents one of the biological reasons why the Germans, despite all their sound and fury, will never overcome the British.'
 Even the sane and level headed wrote at great length. E. K. Chambers, who was not mad, wrong-headed, or, I gather, on the whole tedious, might speak for many:
Contemplating the two volumes, which run to over a thousand pages he confessed, 'I have not found it possible to use quite that brevity of words which the confident surmise of youth anticipated.
If one wishes to learn how our scant information about Shakespeare has been assembled, Shakespeare's Lives has that information. If one wishes to learn about forgers (Ireland, Collier) who have confused the record, or thieves (Halliwell-Phillips, apparently) who have advanced it, the book has that. If one wishes to learn how the unfortunate have sought cryptograms within the plays, and been wildly mislead, these unfortunates get about seventy pages.

Schoenbaum did not contract prolixity from his mad or long-winded subjects. What he writes is to the point and lucid. Yet he required almost six hundred pages for the book. Near the end I thought I detected signs of weariness: references to books not previously named or named in passing, perhaps more typographical errors left to stand. If I projected the weariness I felt onto the energetic author, his shade has my apologies.

It is a remarkable book, one that I am glad to have read. I don't know that I need to read it again. Perhaps Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life would contain much of what I wish to know, and take up less space on the shelves.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Banknotes and Cheques

In On The Fourfold Root of Sufficient Reason, after rejecting Aristotle's view that all thinking requires a "mental image", Schopenhauer goes on to say that
Only this much can be maintained: that any true and original knowledge, even any genuine philosopheme, at its innermost core, or at its root, must have some kind of intuitive apprehension. .... If the explanation has such a core, it is like a banknote payable in cash; in contrast, any other explanation arising out of a mere combination of concepts is like a banknote which is itself again secured only by the backing of other promissory notes.
The first paragraph of Section 2 of Chapter 1 of ABC of Reading runs
Any general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it. If Mr. Rockefeller draws a cheque for a million dollars it is good. If I draw one for a million it is a joke, a hoax, it has no value. If it is taken seriously, the writing of it becomes a criminal act.
Did Ezra Pound read Schopenhauer? Schopenhauer gets no entry in the index to Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era. And I believe that in Guide to Kulchur Pound names Leibniz as the last real philosopher, though I haven't a copy handy to check..

(The OED defines"philosopheme" as "A philosophic conclusion or demonstration ; a philosophic statement, theorem, or axiom".)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Do, Will, Hereby

Do and Will: In J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words, the very first example of a "performative", i.e. a sentence that does not describe an act but itself acts is
'I do (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)'--as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony.
At the bottom of the page is the note
[Austin realized that the expression 'I do' is not used in the marriage ceremony too late to correct his mistake. We have let it remain in the text as it is philosophically unimportant that it is a mistake...]
Indeed, in The Book of Common Prayer (printed 1945) and a Tridentine Missal (copyright 1953), the operative words are "I will."  In the current Roman Missal, "I do" is permissible in one form of The Consent, though that form is prefaced with
If, however, it seems preferable for pastoral reasons, the Priest may obtain the consent of the contracting parties through questioning.
I don't blame Austin for the mistake, for though I have been to quite a few weddings, I did not remember the form.

Hereby: Early in James Jones's novel The Thin Red Line, a private counted as unsatisfactory in peacetime service has distinguished himself in the company's first engagement. The company commander, in need of such enlisted leadership, promotes him to acting sergeant. The private is not sure about the form of this and asks
Don't you have to say hereby? You know, to make it official.
The reader is likely to sympathize with the company commander, a reservist faced with Japanese machine gun nests in front and with an impatient batallion commander, of course a West Pointer, to the rear. Yet in Austin one finds (Lecture V) that
'Hereby' is a useful criterion that the utterance is performative.
Acting Sergeant Dale's instincts were not entirely wrong.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Square Root of Three

Whole years have passed without my thinking about the square root of three. The square root of two has occurred to me more, perhaps because of the ancient scandal of its irrationality. I have not felt the absence of these thoughts of the square root of three as a loss. For what it's worth, the number is around 1.73.

Then recently a household member noticed in a design magazine the picture of a handsome round table. The top was supported on a structure that had rods rising up from an equilateral triangle, the latter supported by feet at the angles. The table was out of our price range; the question was whether we could get something like it built. Perhaps so, but it might be useful to reckon the specifications.

The first question was the size of the equilateral triangle at the top. That size depends on the size of the circle around it. It turns out that the length of such a side is equal to the square root of three times the radius of the circle. So for a circle with diameter 20", radius 10", one can fit in it an equilateral triangle with sides 17.33"

The next question was the size of the triangle at the bottom. An equilateral triangle with sides of length n will have its angles resting on the midpoints of the sides of an equilateral triangle with sides of length 2n. However, the picture shows the rods leaning out: the triangle twice the size of the top triangle is therefore larger than the actual supporting triangle. Well and good: how do we calculate the difference in length of sides, supposing that the sides of the larger triangle are at distance m from the sides of the smaller triangle?

I arrived at the answer by drawing a couple of right triangles with a side of length m opposite a sixty degree angle. The calculations necessarily involved the sine of sixty degrees, which is the square root of three, divided by two. The number I came up with was 6m divided by the square root of three, or roughly 3.46m. I will leave the derivation as an exercise for the reader, unless somebody asks me to show my work.

I found myself thinking of a paragraph from Kipling's story "The Impressionists":
“There's great virtue in that 'we,'” said little Hartopp. “You know I take them for trig. McTurk may have some conception of the meaning of it; but Beetle is as the brutes that perish about sines and cosines. He copies serenely from Stalky, who positively rejoices in mathematics.”
I don't know that I ever positively rejoiced in mathematics, but I can say that I wasn't as the brute beasts that perish even about trigonometric functions. I can also say that nothing I have read since my last math class, about 45 years ago,  has made me think as much about sines and cosines as the picture in a design magazine has.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Sweeping Statements

In The Reader Over Your Shoulder, Graves and Hodges interpret
"You will find bee-orchids almost anywhere in Devon."
--meaning perhaps in a few fields in several parishes in the Torbay district of South Devon.
(Chapter 5, "The Principles of Clear Statement", Principle Four, "There should never be any doubt left as to where something happened or is expected to happen.")

I think of this, now and then, on reading assertions about what everyone does or knows, or about what the culture consists of.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Writers, Mothers and Sons

I cannot think of many cases in which a mother and a son have acquired some fame by writing, and in most of those, I don't know what either thought of the other's efforts. What did Rebecca West think of Anthony West's books, or he of hers? Anthony Trollope thought that his mother's most famous work, The Domestic Manners of the Americans, was unduly harsh, and he had reservations about her fiction, but he expressed his gratitude and admiration for the way in which she kept a family going with her writing:
I do not think that the writing of a novel is the most difficult task which a man may be called upon to do; but it is a task that may be supposed to demand a spirit fairly at ease. The work of doing it with a troubled spirit killed Sir Walter Scott. My mother went through it unscathed in strength, though she performed all the work of day-nurse and night-nurse to a sick household;--for there were soon three of them dying.
Frances Trollope lived long enough to see a number of her Anthony Trollope's books published. I don't know that there is a record of what she thought about them, though he writes of the days before he had published that
 I knew that she did not give me credit for the sort of cleverness necessary for such work.
All this came to mind when I looked into the introduction of  On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and Other Writings, where I found
[The dean of the philosophy faculty of the University of Jena] quickly circulated a letter announcing the dissertation while mentioning that its author was the son of 'the well-known authoress, Frau Hofrätin Schopenhauer.'...

Unfortunately, the published dissertation earned, at best, lukewarm reviews. Indeed, the most stinging might have come from the young man's mother, who asked sarcastically whether his book was for pharmacists. Schopenhauer retorted that his work would still find readers when not even a single copy of her writings could be found in a junk yard. Undaunted, Johanna Schopenhauer spat back, 'Of yours, the entire printing will still be available.'
I had not known that Johanna Schopenhauer was a writer--had not for that matter known her name. The Gutenberg project offers a book of travels that she wrote.

In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer asserts that intellect is inherited from the mother, character from the father. He certainly thought well of his own intellect, and must have been compelled to rate his mother's high. What made her think of  pharmacists? Did the the word "root" suggest it?

Monday, September 3, 2018

Seen in London

Last month, while walking across Paddington Street, we noticed a plaque:

(In 1793 the author of "Memoires d'Outre-Tombe"/Chateaubriand/1768-1849/Lived as an emigre in a garret close to this site and began his literary career. He returned in 1822 as French Ambassador and resided in Portland Place.)

Chateaubriand writes of his residence there in Book X, Chapter VI of his memoirs:
My friends found me a room better suited to my sinking fortunes (one is not always at the peak of prosperity); they placed my in the neighborhood of Marylebone Street, in a garret with a window looking out on a cemetery; every night the watchman's rattle told me that someone had just stolen bodies.
 The editors note that Paddington Street's Garden, opposite the plaque, served as the cemetery of St. George's Church from 1731 through 1857. I suspect that the resurrection men were not nearly as active there as Chateaubriand suggests.

Friday, August 31, 2018

How Pleasing It Would Be

The epilogue to George Kennan's The Decision to InterveneVolume II of Soviet-American Relations 1917-1920, ends
The reason for this failure of American statesmanship lay, as the reader will have observed, in such things as the deficiencies of the American political system from the standpoint of the conduct of foreign relations; the grievous distortion of vision brought to the democratic society by any self-abandonment--as in World War I--to the hysteria of militancy; the congenital shallowness, philosophical and intellectual, of the approach to world problems that bubbled up from the fermentations of official Washington; and the pervasive dilettantism in the execution of American policy. How pleasing it would be if one were able to record, in concluding this volume, that these deficiencies had been left behind, along with all the individual undertakings and adventures of 1918--to be recaptured, like these, only by the labor of the historian; to take on, like these, that deceptive quaintness which the passage of time bestows on all human situations, however tragic; to be contemplated, now, from a safe distance, as the components of dead situation only partially relevant to our own.
That would have been pleasing to suppose in 1956, when Kennan published the volume. It would be pleasing to suppose now, and about as difficult.

Yet after reading the volume, it seems to me that though the failures of American policy are clear, no ally's policy was sounder. The concerns of the US War Department were borne out by the results of the intervention--an embitterment of Russian opinion, with no effect on Soviet power, or, while the war lasted, the efforts of the Central Powers. The British and French authorities that nudged the US into the undertaking had much more professional management on the civilian side, but their understanding of the realities of Russia was no better and perhaps worse.

(Princeton University Press has brought the both volumes of the pair, Russia Leaves the War being the first, back into print.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Don't Come from Boston

The narrator of Alan Tate's novel The Fathers makes a passing reference to Henry Adams, then  in his early twenties, as "even then a great snob". I have questioned the qualifications of Virginians as judges of New England humility. On the other hand, Adams was aware of the impression he made:
For twenty five years, more or less, I have been trying to persuade people that I don't come from Boston and am a heartless trifler. I might as well try to prove that I am an ornithorhyncus of the siluroid civilization. If I stood on Fifth Avenue in front of the Brunswick Hotel and in a state of obvious inebriety hugged and kissed every pretty woman that passed, they would only say that I was a cold Beacon Street aristocrat, and read the New York Nation regularly.
(Letter to E.L Godkin, 6 August 1881, collected in volume II of The Letters of Henry Adams.)

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Adult Time

At American swimming pools, the last ten minutes of an hour are commonly given to "Adult Swim". The lifeguards blow their whistles, person under eighteen years of age scramble out, and the adults can swim, laps or otherwise, unobstructed by the young at play. I don't remember resenting this much as a child, or making great use of it, say for lap swimming, as an adult. Still, I have been accustomed to expect the whistles at fifty minutes after the hour.

It occurs to me that a similar custom would serve bars and and restaurants well: during the last ten minute of an hour, the pounding music could be turned off, and adult conversation made easier.  Many of the customers may love to hear the American popular music of fifty years ago played at arena volume, or it may never have occurred to them that they might dine or drink otherwise. On the other hand, some number do wish to carry on a conversation, which can be difficult when music of any sort plays at such volume.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Reading Churchill in London

Where we have been staying there are a few books, among them the six volumes of Churchill's history The Second World War. I have dipped into it here and there, and found in the first volume
I had arranged at the beginning of 1931 to undertake a considerable lecture tour in the United States, and travelled to New York. Here I suffered a serious accident, which nearly cost me my life. On December 13, when on my way to visit Mr. Bernard Baruch, I got out of my car on the wrong side, and walked across Fifth Avenue without bearing in mind the opposite rule of the road which prevails in America, or the red lights, then unused in Britain. There was a shattering collision. For two months I was a wreck.
After several days trying to remember which way to look, I can see how this might have happened. I don't remember this incident from Roy Jenkins's biography of Churchill.

Yesterday afternoon, we had wine and snacks in a hotel bar in Holborn. This had many bookshelves When first seated I noticed the cover of a volume ten yards away, and walked over to check it. It was, as I had supposed, a volume of Churchill's history, but in a different binding. I wonder where I knew this binding from--a relative's house or a school library?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018


Noticed yesterday in How to Do Things With Words by J.L. Austin, the last paragraph of Lecture III:
And we must at all costs avoid over-simplification, which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of philosophers if it were not their occupation.

Saturday, August 18, 2018


The Boltonia in front of the house has mostly gone for show in vases. In back it remains, right up against the birdbath:

 I have not watched to see how it affects the birds. But I think it must entirely obstruct the view from under our neighbor's porch, an observation spot favored by a number of neighborhood cats.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Gerald Weinberg, RIP

Before I had read through anything of his, I saw quoted one of Gerald Weinberg's dicta:
If architects built buildings the way programmers build programs, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization.
I don't think that I ever read the piece from which that was taken, but eventually I read The Psychology of Computer Programming, The Secrets of Consulting, Becoming a Technical Leader, and Perfect Software. Weinberg combined remarkable ability in programming with an equally unusual ability to listen to and hear what people were saying. My copies of The Secrets of Consulting and Becoming a Technical Leader I lent out about ten years ago and never got back, but I think of some of the precepts frequently. I believe that even persons with no interest in computing could read them with profit.

Weinberg died August 7. This sample of his writing includes a few precepts from The Secrets of Consulting.

(By the way, when I mentioned the programmers and architects analogy to an architect of my acquaintance, she said, "Oh, but that is the way architects build buildings." I hope she exaggerated.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018


For the second time in a bit over a year, I have read G.E.M. Anscombe's Intention. Among the blurbs on the back cover is one from J. David Velleman of the University of Michigan:
Often quoted, sometimes read, rarely understood, Anscombe's Intention is nevertheless the defining moment in twentieth-century philosophy of action.
I can't confidently say that I beat the average on "understood", but I think that I have read it more than I have quoted it, for I'm not sure I've quoted it: certainly I have spent more time reading it than quoting it.

The book is slim, 94 pages, but slow going, at least for me. When I first saw it, it was next to a much thicker collection of essays about it. Perhaps they'd have enlightened me. On the other hand, I suspect I might do better by going back over Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Maybe I will.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Immature Acorns

A few days ago, I noticed many immature acorns in the alley, and then on the back lawn and the sidewalks. These acorns are mostly cap, and not much of that: the cap will be a quarter-inch in diameter, and the tip of the nut hardly protrudes. Here are a couple, with a penny to show their size:

I don't remember seeing this in other years, and we wonder whether the heavy rains of the previous ten days brought these acorns down. We wonder also if it will be a lean year for acorns after several fat ones.

Sunday, July 29, 2018


Joel Poinsett, diplomat and amateur botanist, is chiefly known for introducing the Mexican plant, there called the Flor de Noch Buena (Christmas Eve flower) to North America and beyond, where it is called the poinsettia. Other than that, I had never heard much of Poinsett's activities, except that he held responsible diplomatic posts in Latin America.

In Journey to America, de Tocqueville's notebooks from America, edited by J.P. Mayer, the transcript of a conversation with Poinsett take up about nine pages. While looking through this, I was struck by the following passage:
The most dangerous men are the emancipated blacks. Their presence makes the slaves restless and long for freedom. I think it is indispensable to take away from the masters the right to free their slaves, and especially the right to free them by will. Washington gave a very bad example by freeing his slaves at his death.
Most people have thought that Washington gave a very good example. It is true that during the first half of the 19th Century emancipation became more difficult in a number of states, and Maryland (I believe) made it impossible to free slaves by a will.

Yet Poinsett goes on
It is an extraordinary thing how far public opinion is becoming enlightened about slavery. The idea that it is a great evil and that one could do without it is gaining ground more and more. I hope that the natural course of things will rid us of slaves. I know people still who have seen slavery in New England. In our time we have seen it abolished in the state of New York, then in Pennsylvania; it only holds on a precarious existence in Maryland; there is already talk against it in Virginia.
It is not clear from the transcript how Poinsett imagined the future of the formerly enslaved.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Only His Are Much Longer

Noticed the other week in The Man from New York: John Quinn and His Friends:
At the end of the year [1916] the two were corresponding half-seriously about a play on which Mr. [John Butler] Yeats had been working in a desultory way. Sending Quinn some lines of verse from his fragmentary text, he commented: "Like Homer, I have written two poems, only his are much longer."
The senior Yeats's formula is wonderful, and easily adapted:
Like Michaelangelo, I have painted ceilings, only he put pictures on his.
Like Chekhov, I have written short works of fiction, only mine were to explain absences from school and work.
The book is most interesting to dip into for anyone with an interest in the literature and art of the early 20th Century. Quinn was purchaser, patron, benefactor, or lawyer to Synge, Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, among many others. He was active in Democratic politics, an admirer of  Grover Cleveland but not at all of Woodrow Wilson. On solicitation from John Sloan he contributed to the socialist newspaper The Masses, though as a lawyer he represented such clients as Standard Oil. Yet for all its interest, the book is forbiddingly thick, and I'm not sure what short of a two weeks quarantine will settle me down to read it through.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

And I Read It There First

In "Classics by the Pound", an essay on the then new Library of America, Hugh Kenner wrote
And one difference between Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96) and Ross Macdonald (1915-) is that Macdonald, in devising his fables of modern identity, wrote them as things called "detective stories," handled at Harvard with tongs, whereas Mrs. Stowe's famous eleven Kleenex tract, sanctified by a testimonial of Lincoln's, soars aloft into the Disnified sunsets of literature. So the matter stands in 1982. But in a hundred years, if this series is still around, it either will have atrophied into total irrelevance or else will have managed to embalm three novels by Ross Macdonald. Just watch. And you read it here first.
I did read it there first, in Harper's when it appeared in 1982, and since when collected in Mazes.

Macdonald's work did not have to wait a century. Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels is the third volume of Macdonald's novels that the Library of America has published, appearing in 2017; the first volume appeared in 2015. Nor is he the only one whose detective novels are available: Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett are linked from the Macdonald pages on the Library's website. And I do  not suppose that Harvard handled detective fiction with tongs these many years.

I should have taken Kenner's and Welty's words on Macdonald when I read them all those years ago. Welty's were in a review (collected in The Eye of the Story) of The Underground Man, one of the four later novels. I found the volume yesterday at Second Story Books, and have read through it with great interest. It would take another reading or two to get all of the genealogies of the novels straight: perhaps the Library of the America should include in an appendix family trees such as one finds in histories and mythologies.

According to the notes in the back of the volume, Kenner and Kenneth Millar, who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald, became friends in 1951, when Kenner was teaching at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Welty became a friend of Millar's after her review of The Underground Man.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Beach Drive, Again

The stretch of Beach Drive between Broad Branch and Joyce Roads NW opened on Tuesday, after a bit less than eleven months. The work now commences from Joyce Road to the Maryland line.

This morning I went for a run, and found that the opening of Ross Drive and Ridge Road did not mean that I would have to dodge cars while running from Joyce to Broad Branch. Probably many drivers have not discovered yet that it is opened; with Beach closed above Joyce, there is no route along these roads that is quicker than some other way; and I suppose that at 6:30 in the morning there seldom were automobiles there. Still the barriers were comforting; I expect that the weekend will bring auto traffic to the picnic groves along Ridge and Ross at least.

The pavement along the remaining portion of Beach Drive was pretty rough in many spots. On Saturday, I stepped into a foot-sized pothole that could have wrenched a knee or pitched me onto my face, had my stride been a bit different. On Sunday, knowing that it would be my last chance to run the stretch for about a year, I went back, and avoided that and the many other potholes.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Simply an Evil

Noticed the other day in the letters of Pliny the Younger, describing the ways of his uncle:
Often after his meal--which he took in the old fashion, during the day, light, and simple--if it was summer and he was at leisure, he lay in the sun, reading a book, annotating it and taking excerpts. For he took excerpts from everything he read: he used to say that a book was simply an evil if nothing came of it.
I have fallen out of the habit of writing into a notebook excerpts from what I read. This may have happened when I started blogging. I do annotate books. In the more daunting this is the equivalent of dropping pebbles to find my way back; in others there may be references to other books, or to other pages in the same book. Certainly there are books that are simply wastes of time; but there are others that are not, and for which I could hardly tell you what came of the reading.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Its Second Childhood

Remembered and then looked up in Pictures from an Institution,  near the end of Part V, "Gertrude and Sydney":
The demands American education could not meet--that it give a continent a college education--had forced this portion of it into regression: Benton was in its second childhood. it had sloughed off the awful protean burden of Magdalenian caves and Patmos and palm-leaf scriptures from Ceylon; of exiles' letters from Thrace or the banks of the Danube; of soldiers' letters from the Wall--the Roman Wall, the Chinese Wall. Benton did not see that it is we who ride upon Proteus, and that without him our journey is weary and our way unfriended. So, most of their burden flung off, the people of Benton went light and refreshed on their way, their broad smooth concrete Way; and when, soon, their legs got tired, they said to one another that it is the destiny of man to get tired.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


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

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


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Oh, Dear

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

College Recruiting

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jill Ker Conway, RIP

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

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Poplar Flowers

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Arnold and Homer

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Traveling, Etc.

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

Friday, May 25, 2018

Seen on 16th St. NW

Yesterday, while walking home from the bus stop, I saw this work in progress

at the bridge over Piney Branch Parkway. The light was not favorable, but this morning, when the ligth might have been better, the stand and the model were gone.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Carpe Librum Returns

Carpe Librum has reopened, at 2134 L St. NW and at Union Station. I visited the first of these location today. Whether through lack of space and shelves, through having to share with Union Station, or both, the stock is considerably smaller than it was at 17th St: it might be a sixth or eighth of what it was there. Still, anyone who really needed to spend money could have found something to buy. I bought a copy of the JQuery Cookbook, not to spend money but for quick reference when, as sometimes happens, I need to write or adjust a bit of JQuery.

According to the cashier, the L St. location will be open until July.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Pillar of Aristocracy

On September 2, 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson a letter containing among much else
 Now, my Friend who are the ἄριστοι ["aristocrats"]? Philosophy may Answer the Wise and Good." But the World, Mankind, have by their practice always answered, "the rich the beautiful and well born." And Philosophers in marrying their children prefer the rich the handsome and the well descended to the wise and good.
 What chance have Talents and Virtues in competition, with Wealth and Birth? and Beauty? ...
 The five Pillars of Aristocracy are Beauty Wealth, Birth, Genius and Virtues. Any one of the three first can at any time over bear any one or both of the two last.
Adams added a postscript:
You may laugh at the introduction of Beauty, among the Pillars of Aristocracy. But Madame Barry says La veritable Royautée est la B[e]autee ["true royalty is beauty"], and there is not a more certain Truth. Beauty, Grace, Figure, Attitude, Movement, have in innumerable Instances prevailed over Wealth, Birth, Talents Virtues and everything else, in Men of the highest rank, greatest Power, and sometimes, the most exalted Genius, greatest Fame, and highest Merit.
This came to mind when I was reading through the pages dedicated to Mme. Récamier in Mémoires de Outre-Tombe. These were to have formed a book of the third part, but Chateaubriand decided against publishing them: Livres de Poche includes them in the "Fragment retranchés" at the end of the third volume. They run to twenty-three chapters, almost ninety pages. Mme. Récamier's beauty does seem to have prevailed over much. The list of men with their heads turned includes at least Lucien Bonaparte, Prince August of Prussia, Benjamin Constant, and of course Chateaubriand. (One could presumably add M. Recamier to the list; but in the narrative he is all but absent.) It is fair to say that Mme. de Staël was devoted to her also. A thumbnail biography in the back of a Larousse writes of Mme. Récamier as celebrated for her wit, her beauty, and the salon she kept. Was she enchanted, flatter, bored, or distressed by the very silly letters sent her by mostly sensible men?

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Pelidisi System

In The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921, Bertrand M. Patenaud writes of a system to identify the children most in need of help, the Pelidisi system:
This was the creation of a Viennese medical doctor, Professor Clemens Pirquet, who served as chairman of the Austrian equivalent of the [Russian-managed relief committee]. Pirquet devised a formula for determining the degree of undernourishment in children up to the age of fifteen. The measurement was the cubic root of the tenfold weight of the body divided by that body's sitting height. For adults the average would be 100, for children 94.5--anything below that signified undernourishment.
On the face of it, this is confusing. The cube of 100 is 1,000,000: so for units x of weight and y of height we need a body weight of 100,000x for height 1y. Unfortunately, the units are not stated. But presumably, since Pirquet was Austrian, they are taken from the metric system. Nor is "sitting height" defined. One can make sense of this by assuming that
  • weight is stated in grams
  • height is given as centimeters from the ground, or anyway the seat
  • we aim at  numerator/denominator = 1, then multiply by 100
For a person weighing 100 kg, 10 * the weight in grams will be 1 million, the cube root one hundred. That just works out with a seated height of 1 meter, 100 centimeters, which one might expect of a man 6'7" tall. Men that height play basketball at 220 lb without anyone supposing that they are starved. Still the numbers look about right.

An article in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps gave the formula as stated, and also committed itself to the statement that "the cube of the sitting height in centimetres is about ten times the body weight in grammes." Again, assuming that for sitting height we sit on the ground or measure from the seat, my sitting height is around 90 cm: I would be considered adequately nourished at around 72 kg, roughly my weight on graduating from college. A person 5' tall might have 75 cm sitting height. Then that person should weigh around 42 kg, call it 93 lb.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Grinding out Meaning from Alien Vocables

A post over at The Palace at 2:00 a.m. brings to mind a passage in Jaques Barzun's Teacher in America, in the essay "Tongues and Areas":
Every two or three years it falls to my lot to conduct the language examinations for Ph.D. candidates in European history. I am invariably shocked at the number of mature men and women who suppose that foreign prose is basically nonsense They must suppose this, or they would not put down English nonsense at its equivalent. Of course I know how they get into this defeatist frame of mind, but I groan at the thought that they have stewed in it since first-year high school. Once or twice these victims have had some claim on my time, which I discharged by putting them through a course of self-tuition in reading. We take a work of Ranke's and one of Michelet's, the dictionaries, and we start for an hour of intellectual misery grinding out meaning from alien vocables. The hour is only a sample. The student goes on at this pace until he or she can read at sight fluently. Fluency does not mean exactitude, sense of nuance, or even infallible recognition of unusual words: it means going on with the author at a reasonable rate. New words can be guessed, shades of meaning deduced from a second reading and exactitude checked with a new translation. Scholarly work will bring its own assistance later through repetition and criticism.
What is deplorable is that this should not be a well-known technique, and that the determination to squeeze sense from a text should be so rare, even among professional translators....
Here and there in Cultural Amnesia, Clive James advocates roughly the same procedure, though for German he mentions Golo Mann..

Thursday, April 26, 2018

No Greater Flaw

 Some early readers of the Port-Royal Logic complained of its organization, some perhaps of its simple lack of dullness. The authors wrote in response that
But those who reason thus [complain of the organization of the logic], do not sufficiently consider that a book can scarcely have a greater defect, than that, of not being read, since it can only benefit those who read it ; and that thus everything which helps to make a book read, contributes also to its usefulness. Now, it is certain, that if we had followed their advice, and had made a logic altogether barren (with the ordinary examples, of an animal and a horse), we should only have added to the number of those of which the world is already full, and which are not read. Whereas, it is just that collection of different things which has given this work such a run, and caused it to be read with less distaste than is felt in reading others.
This seems fair enough. Leszek Kolakowski quotes part of this near the beginning of the second part of God Owes Us Nothing, his study of Pascal and the fortunes of Jansenism. Without the context, though, it reads oddly: "there is no greater flaw in a book than that it is not read".  I reflected on how many books have grave flaws that I discovered only by reading them, and wondered what the logicians could have meant.

Kolakowski says also that the logic is now "read only by a tiny bunch of of people specializing in the intellectual history of the seventeenth century." That I don't doubt. Yet is it much more forgotten than most of seventeenth century philosophy, the biggest names apart, and how well remembered are they? Certainly I'd find many persons who had read Spinoza's Ethics before I found one who had read the Port-Royal Logic; but how many would I have to stop on K St. NW before I found five who had read the Ethics?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Eastern Redbuds

Around fifteen years ago, the city planted quite a few trees along this block. Many are scarlet oaks, but some are eastern redbuds  (Cercis canadensis), and this is their time to flower:

This winter the city, unless it was the National Park Service, planted two or three at the corner of 16th Street and Arkansas Avenue NW.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

One Tree, Nine Weeks

In early February, I took a picture of this tree on 16th Street NW

for the beads of water on it caught my eye. Today I noticed it again:

Friday, April 13, 2018

Quickly Read

With a trip to California coming up, I thought it well to stop by Second Story Books to find something that would last for one cross-country flight or two, and could be left behind in Los Angeles if desired. I had in mind either On the Road, the scroll edition, or Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, the former because we were traveling, the latter because W.M. Spackman gave it a good review in one of the essays collected in The Decay of CriticismHappy All the Time was slimmer, had no preface, and cost $5 and tax, so I bought it.

After a few dozen pages of Happy All the Time, it struck me that of course Spackman enjoyed it: it was his own novel Heyday brought up to date, the well-born, well-educated, and well-heeled pairing up, but in the prosperous 1970s rather than the Depression, and with the women having attended the same colleges as the men. Still, I enjoyed Heyday, and I enjoyed Happy All the Time. I have objected to novels that seemed to be about what might have happened to people the author went to college with. On reflection, I see that what matters is what the author can do with the material, and Colwin was adept. The book might have lasted the flight had I not started reading it beforehand.

Idle Time Books had a copy of The Brass Ring, a memoir of youth and military service by Bill Mauldin. Those who have not heard of Bill Mauldin should try an internet search for him. The book is readable throughout, though Up Front and Willie & Joe: The WWII Years have more of the cartoons that made him famous. Most curious perhaps is a pair of  blurbs on the back cover:
Mauldin's contribution to understanding of the war and how the G.I.s saw it is unique."
  General James M. Gavin

"If that little son-of-a-bitch sets foot in Third Army I'll throw his ass in jail."
  General George S. Patton
Gavin seems to have represented the opinion among generals better than Patton. Mauldin tells of hearing at second hand of an endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.,  and of passing on an autographed original to Mark Clark.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Descanso Gardens

Over brunch in Pasadena on Sunday, friends suggested that we visit Descanso Gardens. We did, and were glad that we did.

In 1942, the founder of the gardens purchased about 100 thousand camellias from Japanese nurserymen facing internment, evidently at a  fair price. The gardens do have plenty of camellias, and many were in flower

as were many other plants, some of whose names we knew, for example clivia

and calla lilies

some unknown

some new to me but identified by the signs

The gardens had many visitors, though they did not seem crowded. Some visitors were there for "TOMATOMANIA!", said to be the world's largest tomato seedling sale, and had seedlings in hand. Most just strolled through, taking pictures now and then.