Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nor Time, Nor Accident

On a Lock of Miss Cresswell's Hair Given after Her Death
by Eliza Kirkham Mathews

Dear precious relic! of my angel friend!
For whom so oft I heave affection's sigh!
For whom, O! early lost! my lays ascend,
While friendship's sacred tear bedews my eye.
Dear precious relic! of my angel friend!
Nor time, nor accident, shall e'er us part;
With Mary's hair, my Anna, THINE I'll blend,
Whose image lives forever in my heart.
When melancholy chills me with despair,
And sad on frail mortality I muse,
To these will I with throbbing heart repair,
And gem these locks with pity's softest dews.
Soon Faith, with eagle eye, shall pierce the gloom,
And quickly dash the selfish tear away;
No more I'll mourn a friend or sister's doom,

Punctuation of early poems (this is from the late eighteenth century) is often strange, but I find myself quite attracted to how it works out here, since the punctuation does some serious work here in conveying mood and linking different parts of the poem.

Eliza Kirkham Mathews was the wife of Charles Mathews, one of the most creative actors of his day, and most famous for having practically invented the professional one-man show. Eliza herself is most famous for her novel, What Has Been, about a woman struggling to support her family.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dashed Off

The usual caveats. I'm behind on putting these up, so there will probably be a couple more in the weeks to come.

rhapsodic vs systematic search

It is especially appropriate for the Church to be called Mother, for mothers are first teachers.

paradigmatic families of arguments // bureaucracies

Great literary compositions have meaning not only in ordinary syntax but also in juxtaposition, opposition, and rotation.

Kant's schemas (the schema
magnitude......number as successive addition
reality........intensity as successive diminution and augmentation of experience
substance......permanence of real in time
cause..........succession according to rule
possibility....agreement of representation with the conditions of time in general
actuality......existence in some determinate time
necessity......existence of an object at all times
quantity.......successive apprehensions (time as a series)
quality........synthesis of sensation with representation of time (time as contentful)
relation.......connection of perceptions according to rule (time as ordered)
modality.......correlate of determination of whether and how an object belongs in time (time as having scope)

the natural ought: X ought to happen in system S, in that the internal resources of S, without outside interference, yield X
-> This is related to our notion of anomaly, which is deviation from apparent natural ought

Strong modalities can be derived by higher-order summations of null modalities.

artillery as a form of mathematical argument

a fortiori argument as a way of establishing a protective perimeter

Experience prepares for understanding through coherence and constancy.

Kant's schema for causation covers reasoning (premise-conclusion relations) just as easily as mechanical causation.

In the field of pure reason, polemic exists as a hypothetical, as a posit, as a structure.

Locke's philosophy as a noogony (Kant)

Perception by its nature is an effect of an actual cause.

It is in our nature not merely to try to survive but also to try to deserve to survive.

Every sacrament has indirect benefits accruing even to those who do not receive them. This is perhaps most clear with ordination and the eucharist, but it is true of all.

It is tempting to think of taste as extending beyond genius -- Shakespeare can be appreciated by people of less taste than he genius. On the other hand, full appreciation of Shakespeare perhaps requires a genius for reading and acting him.

temporal simultaneity as requiring reciprocal interaction (Kant)

Note empirical foundation of Kant's criticism of ontological argument: A225/B272.
Kant's attack on idealism is a defense of mediate realism on empirical grounds. B274

Where you are is something remembered, not known.

liturgy as symbolic providence -- both providence of symbols and symbol of providence.

The existence of sin is known by nature, but the nature of sin we understand very inadequately without the assistance of revelation.

Satan's choice as being to become what cannot repent

the devil's 'mendacious seduction' as spreading through the human race (note transmission: serpent -> Eve -> Adam; Adam never actually talked to the serpent); Christ begins to counteract this by revealing what it is and providing redemption

Original justice is a gift for all the human race through the generations. (Note importance of generations in Genesis.)

When someone promises, they set an end for themselves. This is not the whole story, but it is important.

predication, inference, division -- these are what Kant's categories of relation really are
(1) All that is predicated must be united in subjects not diversified by predications themselves.
(2) Every conclusion presupposes something upon which it follows according to a rule.
(3) All parts existing in a division are related by the division.

On Kant's account all modalities are epistemic, consisting of ways of being related to cognitive faculties.

As darkness splintered at the dawn I woke;
the mists of fog were curling in the tree.
I shook off remnants left from scattered dream,
began to build my day be force of rote,
to cast my bones and trace out fortune's path
by walking it like one who walks in sleep....

experience of permanence -> substance; experience of alteration -> cause

Plato as concerned with schemes of civilization more than particular arguments.

By being interwoven with the story of the plagues, the story of the passover becomes a story of redemption from death, the final plague.

All of our afflictions are made power in the cross.

The fundamental principle of jurisprudence is prudence.

universe of discourse as foundation of the possibility of assertive reasoning -- deduced a posteriori from experience or hypothesized/supposed for the sake of argument

An account of inquiry that has no room for muddling is defective in its very foundations.

Liberty requires system.

All human interaction has a political aspect because all human interaction involves lines of influence.

Every symbol presupposes a prior representation; symbols are signs of signs.

terms -> propositions -> arguments -> theories -> systems -> schools -> discursive communities -> civilizations

Mary as icon of new birth

Epiphany as bestowal of Israelitica dignitas on the nations (the epiphanic aspect of the Incarnation)
Baptism as the epiphanic sacrament

'Truth-tracking' is a term indicating the appropriateness of a means to an end. It therefore admits of more and less.

Coherent and practicable legal rights are signs of natural rights, although not always straightforwardly.

general intercessions as aspirations

The sacramental life of the Church, properly understood, contains the Scripture in sign and proclamation alike; the Scriptures, properly lived, contains the sacramental life of the Church in practice and intimation alike.

Probabilities are highly sensitive to changes in the universe of discourse.

Bodily integrity is not a physical state but a moral one.

Analogous problems do not necessarily have analogous solutions, particularly across disciplinary lines.

Matrimony as sacrament effects the union of Christ and the Church in being the sign thereof.

Mary as special patron of marriage (Jn 2:1ff)

The matter of each sacrament is necessary first, because it indicates that the physical as well as spiritual condition of man is included; second, for the sake of human knowledge, since we know the intelligible in the sensible; and third, for there to be a correspondence of causes.

the Gorgias as an argument that pleasure is only an instrumental good

Scandal is an issue arising from our prudential recognition of our status as occasional causes.

How many would-be defenders of orthodoxy shipwreck themselves by not understanding that the authority of the Church is a teaching authority!

Parents never stop being first teachers.

the doctrine of tradition
(1) Scripture was received within a context of Apostolic preaching and practice, to be interpreted within that context. Gal 1:8; II Thess 2:14; 2 Jn 3; II Tm 1:14; II Tm 2:2
(2) This context of preaching and practice has been handed down in perpetual succession. I Tm 3:15; Eph 4; Mt 16:18; Acts 1; Mt 28; Lk 22:32; Jn 20; Jn 21:17
(3) consensus of Fathers

Church : building :: Peter : rock Mt 16
Church : family :: Peter : steward Mt 17
Church : ship :: Peter : captain Lk 5
Church : net :: Peter : fisher Mt 13
Church : kingdom :: Peter : steward Mt 16
Church : flock :: Peter : pastor Jn 21
Church : fraternity :: Peter : confirmer Lk 22

Scripture -> Apostolic Tradition -> Teaching Authority of the Church -> Preeminence of the Councils -> Authority of the Fathers -> Petrine Primacy

three forms of preaching: speech, writing, sacramental sign

the ideal structure of an indefinite extrapolation

There are no levels of Church teaching authority, which is simple, but there are gradations of accuracy, precision, definitiveness, in documentary formulations of the teaching of that authority. The sculptor make use different instruments to achieve diverse effects, but it is all one skill; and, more to the point, the teacher teaches in many different ways, but the authority of her teaching is not itself diversified merely by the use of these different means and instruments. And the Church is of all teachers the one with the most singular and simple authority to teach.

- look more closely at Hume vs Malebranche on pride

modality blindness as the flaw of empiricism

"A body remains in a state of absolute rest, unless it is disturbed to move by some external cause." Euler (Prop 7) -> he establishes this on the basis of a principle of sufficient reason

We get from dynamics to statics (or vice versa) by counterfactual reasoning.

Godhead withstands all winds of change; the divine is never compelled to bend.

marriage as the sacrament of home

If knowledge is apprehension of the truth of propositions, knowledge is not justified true belief.

consent : marriage :: repentance : reconciliation

Without conviction there is no friendship.

The integrity of sex in marriage does not and cannot depend only on what is done at the precise moments of sex, or, indeed, only on what is done around that time. It depends on the character of the marriage itself, and our sexuality is likewise not something that is only operative during sexual acts.

No artificial formal language has ever had to serve the sheer diversity of rational ends served by natural languages every day.

Pronouns are not mere placeholders; they also classify, and this classificatory use is often important.

It is only through the analysis of action that we can attain an insight into the structure of our thought.

"For man's greatest actions are performed in minor struggles." Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.
-> This is the key to the power of novels.

liturgical calendars as social memories
the saints as representing in memory the work of the Church -> note that this representative function, saints as signs of the work of the Church does not depend on strict historicity

Interpretation is governed by deontic structures.

contrapunctal arguments: independent but 'fit' well together (analogy, associational links)

Newman's seven notes of true development
(1) preservation of type
(2) continuity of principles
(3) power of assimilation
(4) early anticipation
(5) logical sequence
(6) preservative additions
(7) chronic continuance
-> Brownson argues that (2) and (6) are reducible to (1), that (3) contradicts original sufficiency of type, that (5) is not relevant to development, that (4) is inconsistent with development, and that (7) does not distinguish true development from corruption

The difficulty of metaphysical 'thought experiments' is determining when they describe the really possible and when they describe the possible only in the sense of not-yet-ruled-out-by-what-is-available.

the Gorgias as arguing that democracy requires moral traditions if it is to survive

calm discussion & greatness in peace as requirements for good governance

Rhetoric is concerned more with means of persuasion than persuasion.

syncategorematic terms as operations + encapsulated kinds of reasons

To claim that the structure of the world is to be discovered empirically is a metaphysical claim legislating that the world must have a structure discoverable by empirical means, and since empirical means are defined in terms of sensory effects, it requires that the world's structure be discoverable by its effects.

Peirce: nouns substitute for pronouns

the Gorgias as an argument for the unity of the cardinal virtues

Tone and gesture carry logical information.

morals : Box-Box :: taste : Box-Diamond

Coherent regard for due process requires that something at least analogous to natural law be presupposed. The right to due process of law does not constitute due process, nor does any particular legislation concerned with process of law; they presuppose it, and laws must deliver the process of law that is already due.

"It is never possible to predict a physical occurrence with unlimited precision." Planck

Talking about resemblance across time requires that memory involve more than resemblance.

Although we often talk about arguments, we don't often talk about deployment of arguments. This is considered in the Organon (Topics, Sophistics, Rhetoric, Poetics), but rarely anywhere else.

wagering as an assessment of options for inquiry (Pascal)

To be refuted is sometimes the path toward demonstration.

Ask yourself the question or you might not know the answer.

It is the mind that hunts, not the bow or the gun.

To understand a geometrical diagram requires not merely understanding that which is represented in the diagram but also the mind's domain-specific freedom in constructing it. It is an error to think of diagrams as inert; they are things done.

Pieper's account of leisure as an answer to Nietzsche's account of the will to power

Fortitude is the protection of justice; temperance prepares one to take joy in justice.

the pre-understandings in tradition

There are two ways to be philosophically ambitious: scholastically systematic and romantically aphoristic. The ideal, perhaps never fully attainable, would be to be and have both.

tradition as gift, tradition as loan
tradition as learning by participation in authority

self-reference problems are usually non-termination problems

Since body is the matter of bodily change, it must have some conservation principles governing it; conservation principles as defining quasi-material causes.

juxtaposition of ideas held together as an aggregate
mixture of ideas held together by affinity
composition of ideas held together by purposive structure

doctrine, dogma, discipline, devotion

Part of being a historian of philosophy is coming to be able to predict what a thinker in a period might say, prior to investigation, based on knowledge of the period. Obviously this will be fallible, but one learns most by being able to identify why the unanticipated deviations happened.

Humean account of sympathy and general rules as giving a type of rationality that is neither instrumental nor epistemic in the usual sense

For morality to be important, you don't have to care for morality as such, only something morality covers

Many things called uncivil are not uncivil, just stupid; and many things that are not called uncivil poison civil relations.

Deuterocanon Friday: Roman Republic

Now Judas heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were very strong and were well-disposed toward all who made an alliance with them, that they pledged friendship to those who came to them, and that they were very strong.... [A]s many as ever opposed them, they destroyed and enslaved; but with their friends and those who rely on them they have kept friendship. They have subdued kings far and near, and as many as have heard of their fame have feared them. Those whom they wish to help and to make kings, they make kings, and those whom they wish they depose; and they have been greatly exalted. Yet for all this not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride, but they have built for themselves a senate chamber, and every day three hundred twenty senators constantly deliberate concerning the people, to govern them well. They trust one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land; they all heed the one man, and there is no envy or jealousy among them.

1 Maccabees 8:1-2, 11-16 (NRSV-C)

It needn't be said that this report of Roman government in the Republican period is quite idealized. The Senate did not in practice meet every day, and except in emergencies the Romans in fact split all of their most powerful offices, giving them to two people, to prevent one person from having too much power. However, I'm struck by how much it accords with a comment made in a Chinese report about Rome, the Weilue, that MrD posted about a couple of weeks ago:

The ruler of this country is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment.

Roman succession in the Republic looks quite like ordinary politics to us, only more unruly and violent, and not the sort of thing about which we would say that they showed no envy or jealousy. But all of the powerful offices had term limits and so the passing of power from one person to another was completely a matter of course. At the time it must have seemed astounding that the Romans kept giving people immense power then taking it away, while treating it just as their form of ordinary government -- so much so, apparently, that the stories of it were apparently still being remarked on in some form in China several centuries later.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Two Poem Re-Drafts


How many men are fallen, sons of men,
how many dead and dying
in great Ascalon and Tyre?
How many widows crying,
where blood flows down like water
from a horse's smashing hoof?

An angel in heaven was flying
to and fro o'er all the earth;
an angel in loud voice crying,
"How many, O sons of men?"

How many youths lie dead, O sons of men?
How many in graves unwed,
where roses grow, and poppies,
on bloody fields of war?
How many, O ye nations?
How many slip to darkness,
each face to be seen no more?
How many men are fallen, sons of men?

In starlit skies, bright-shining,
Mars has wandered to work his will;
the wolves on the plain are howling,
carrion-vultures take their fill.

The formless hand its word has written;
mene, mene, tekel and parsin,
no longer is it hidden.
You have branded it, sons of men,
branded it on the children's faces
as they laugh and as they play,
a new name to them have given, sons of men:
"Quick pickings and easy prey".

An angel in heaven was soaring
o'er sea and all the earth,
an angel in heaven roaring,
"How many, O sons of men?"

The Cranes of Ibycus

Can blood-guilt scream to heaven, cry unsated?
Can gods be blind to living law,
murderers solaced by forgetting?
Has memory no tooth and claw?

Say no! The gods are watchful-cold,
and step by step they work their doom;
on high, like rising stars of old,
see Nemesis and Sekhmet loom.

And cranes that fly in gentle peace
will bring to mind the murder done;
in every form, and without cease
their light the sinner, frightened, shuns.

The sinner flees the cover of the sky,
where cranes on wings of judgment fly;
he cries for hills to hide his head
as gods bring vengeance for the dead.

Aquinas on How to Remember Things

There are four things whereby a man perfects his memory.

First, when a man wishes to remember a thing, he should take some suitable yet somewhat unwonted illustration of it, since the unwonted strikes us more, and so makes a greater and stronger impression on the mind; and this explains why we remember better what we saw when we were children. Now the reason for the necessity of finding these illustrations or images, is that simple and spiritual impressions easily slip from the mind, unless they be tied as it were to some corporeal image, because human knowledge has a greater hold on sensible objects. For this reason memory is assigned to the sensitive part of the soul.

Secondly, whatever a man wishes to retain in his memory he must carefully consider and set in order, so that he may pass easily from one memory to another. Hence the Philosopher says (De Memor. et Remin. ii): "Sometimes a place brings memories back to us: the reason being that we pass quickly from the one to the other."

Thirdly, we must be anxious and earnest about the things we wish to remember, because the more a thing is impressed on the mind, the less it is liable to slip out of it. Wherefore Tully says in his Rhetoric [Ad Herenn. de Arte Rhet. iii.] that "anxiety preserves the figures of images entire."

Fourthly, we should often reflect on the things we wish to remember. Hence the Philosopher says (De Memoria i) that "reflection preserves memories," because as he remarks (De Memoria ii) "custom is a second nature": wherefore when we reflect on a thing frequently, we quickly call it to mind, through passing from one thing to another by a kind of natural order.

Summa Theologiae 2-2.49.1 ad 2.

ADDED LATER: The Dominican Fathers translation makes some odd translation choices here. 'Anxiety' in the third turns out to be sollicitudo, which explains why Aquinas launches into a brief account of mnemonic theory in his discussion of the virtue of memory: memory is a 'constituent' part of prudence, and solicitude/watchfulness/care (previously the translation has translated sollicitudo as 'solicitude') is a property of prudence. Thus the third way is based on a property of prudence. The 'reflection' of the fourth way is meditatio. Indeed, all four of these things are things that prudence has to be doing all the time in one way or another when we are making moral decisions. On their own they are not enough to yield prudent decisions, but to be prudent we need to assume appropriate likenesses (think analogies) of the good, orderly thought about the good, solicitude or care for the good, and meditation on the good, or to put it in a different way, analogies of the good drawn from experience, an orderly perspective on how our experience and past actions relate to the good, close attention to our experience and past actions in light of the good, and meditation on how our past actions involve the good. Each one of these could bear its own discussion, I think.

Argumentum ad Baculum

I imagine that practically every philosophy department in the English-speaking world has been joking about this recent news item.

(Reuters) - An argument over the theories of 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant ended in a man being shot in a grocery store in southern Russia.

RIA news agency quoted police in the city of Rostov-on-Don as saying a fight broke out between two men as they argued over Kant, the German author of "Critique of Pure Reason", without giving details of their debate.

"In the course of the fight, the suspect took out a pistol firing rubber bullets and fired several shots at his opponent," it said, adding that one man was detained and the victim was taken to hospital. His life was not in danger.

Kant lived in Koenigsberg, which is now the Russian city of Kaliningrad, and is a central figure of modern philosophy. Many Russians love to discuss philosophy and history, often over a drink, but such discussions rarely end in shootings.

The dispute was apparently over which one was a better fan of Kant, so I take it that shooting the other person with an air gun and rubber bullets, not being universalizable and thus not consistent with the categorical imperative, was a concession of the argument to the person who was shot.

On the other side, I find it somewhat amusing that everyone is reporting this as an oddity, as if it were particularly surprising that people might shoot someone (and non-fatally with an air gun, to boot) over Kant, given that over here in America people shoot each other with even more dangerous guns over ten dollars, beer spilled in a car, a cellphone, or a sports event; honestly, it's not difficult to find people shooting other people over much worse things.

That said, I do like the quietly understated touch of that last clause in the Reuters report.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Four Corners of the House

But this house stands by four corners for this reason, that the firm fabric of our mind is upheld by Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice. This house is grounded on four corners, in that the whole structure of good practice is raised in these four virtues. And hence do four rivers of Paradise water the earth. For while the heart is watered with these four virtues, it is cooled from all the heat of carnal desires. Yet sometimes when idleness steals on the mind, prudence waxes cold; for when it is weary and turns slothful, it neglects to forecast coming events. Sometimes while some delight is stealing on the mind, our temperance decays. For in whatever degree we are led to take delight in the things of this life, we are the less temperate to forbear in things forbidden. Sometimes fear works its way into the heart and confounds the powers of our fortitude, and we prove the less able to encounter adversity, the more excessively we love some things that we dread to part with. And sometimes self-love invades the mind, makes it swerve by a secret declension from the straight line of justice: and in the degree that it refuses to refer itself wholly to its Maker, it goes contrary to the claims of justice. Thus ‘a strong wind smites the four corners of the house,’ in that strong temptation, by hidden impulses, shakes the four virtues; and the corners being smitten, the house is as it were uprooted; in that when the virtues are beaten, the conscience is brought to trouble.
Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, Book II, Section 76.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Links of Note

* Rachel Hazelton discusses the importance of anaphora in writing.

* Deaf Architecture

* Christopher Zehnder on Pity and Indignation in Dante's Inferno

* Medieval animal trials

* Thony Christie on Saccheri's work with the parallel postulate

* Steven Nadler on why Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community in which he grew up.

* Alison Gopnik, Could Hume Have Known about Buddhism? (PDF)
There is also a recent Philosophy Bites podcast interviewing Gopnik on the same subject. It identifies a possible source to whom Hume would have had access to, in La Fleche where he stayed for several years, who would have been familiar with Buddhist doctrines; thus raising the possibility -- although no more -- that Hume's theory of self, which people have for independent reasons noted has some similarity with some Buddhist views of the self, could be indirectly related through a line of influence, rather than just by mere structural similarity or convergent development.

* Hershevitz on Shapiro on the Planning Theory of Law

* Joshua Berman has an interesting series, largely focused on Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) in light of Hittite treaties and the like, as an example of how Biblical criticism can enrich Orthodox Jewish thought:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

* Philosopher's Carnival #155 at "Blogging the End"

* Needlework as high art

* Plato and Deep Space 9

Bellarmine on Eternal Felicity

Today is the Feast of St. Roberto Bellarmino, known as Robert Bellarmine in English; from the fact that he has a standard Anglicized version of his name, you can tell that he was fairly well known -- notorious, in fact, for he was widely considered the polemicist for the Catholic Church against the Reformation. The following is from one of his non-polemical works, The Eternal Felicity of the Saints, and summarizes the book. This is my modernization of a seventeenth century translation.

In the first place, then, we considered Eternal Felicity under the name of the Kingdom of Heaven, yet as having this most great difficulty from the Word of God annexed to it, namely, The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away (Mt 11).

We afterward considered the same felicity under the name of the City of God, or the Heavenly Jerusalem; and there also we found no small difficulty, for those who are citizens of this world cannot be citizens among the saints; for it is very hard to live in the world and not be of the world.

In the third place, we considered the same felicity under the name the House of God, in which there are many rooms; and we noted that the door or gate of this house is most narrow, and that it cannot be penetrated or entered into without great labor.

Fourthly, we considered the same place of beatitude under the name of Paradise; but withal we considered with how high a price (not of gold or silver but) of tears and blood Our Lord, the Martyrs, the Confessors, and all the saints, both men and women, bought this Paradise; for we read, Christ ought to suffer, and so enter into his glory (Lk 24).

In the fifth place we considered the same felicity under the name of Treasure hidden in a field; and we no less showed that this treasure could not be possessed by one who found it unless to purchase it he sold all things he had (Mt 13).

Sixthly, we considered the same under the name precious Pearl, or Margarite, for the obtaining of which the buyer also ought to spend all the goods he has in order to purchase it.

Seventhly, we considered the same under the name of a daily Wage, which is not given to any save those who labor diligently and daily in the Vineyard.

Eighthly, we considered the same under the name or title of the Great Supper, and we saw that they are not reputed worthy of that supper whose affections are enthralled with temporal benefits and pleasures.

Ninthly, we have considered the same under the appellation of the Joy of Our Lord, to which only those are admitted who with great pains and labor multiply the Talents entrusted to them, those who did not do this being cast into outer darkness.

Tenthly, we considered the same under the title of a Princely Marriage, from which everyone was excluded who were given to sloth and idleness and who did not daily watch in the exercise of good works and the expectation of the Heavenly Bridegroom.

In the eleventh place, we considered the same under the name of a Prize or Reward, which only those took hold of who ran the race speedily and incessantly toward that Prize, and even then not without great toil and labor.

In the twelfth and last place, we considered it under the name of a Crown, which only they deserved who, most courageous in fight, overcame their enemies.

Now, in whatever way you turn yourself, and under whatever name you consider Eternal Felicity, you will find that it cannot be obtained unless in pursuing it you labor with all your strength both of mind and body.

Monday, September 16, 2013

With Quiet Eyes

Afternoon on a Hill
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
And then start down!

6000th Post

I seem to post a lot.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fortnightly Book, September 15

I've gone back and forth about what to do for this fortnighly book; it's a weird time of term, when I might have the time for something substantial and might not. It's best not to commit to too much. It would make sense to do something light, but the danger with those is that if they are too light and I'm busy, I'm tempted to put it aside until the last three days. On the other hand, there are works that I want to get around to -- like re-reading London's The Sea Wolf -- that I fear I won't do justice to if I get too busy. So what I really need is something not too heavy, that is a re-read, and that I won't be disappointed about if time constraints make it difficult to get something out of it, but at the same time that isn't something I can do too easily. After some thought, I've settled on Tim Powers's Declare. I think it's a good one for this sort of situation; it's a re-read, and not a super-light bite. When I read it before, I wasn't hugely impressed by the execution, although I liked the basic idea; but a lot of people seem to like it much better than I did, so it's a worthwhile choice for a re-read: I know I can get through it without simply hating it, but I might get more out of it. Some books are like that: OK on the first read, very good on the second.

Tim Powers is a guy who writes things. I actually don't know much about him except that he's still alive and a writer of secret histories, i.e., historical novels with a strong fantasy or science fiction element that puts a different interpretation on the events. Declare is his most famous work, and is essential a Cold War spy thriller with djinn. The title comes from Job 38:4:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Declare, if thou hast understanding.

Mac Hyman, No Time for Sergeants


Opening Passage:

The thing was, we had gone fishing that day and Pa has wore himself out with it the way he usually did when he went fishing. I mean he went at it pretty hard and called the fish all sorts of names---he lost one pretty nice one and hopped up in the boat and banged the pole down in the water which was about enough to scare a big-sized alligator away, much less a fish, and he spent most of the afternoon after that cussing and ranting at everything that happened. And all he caught was one catfish which warnt much bigger than the worm he was using, and he got finned by that, so by the time I brought the boat back in, he was setting in the front with the back of his neck red and his jaws moving in and out, the way he gets when he is upset, not speaking to me at all.

Summary: It turns out to be exactly the wrong time for the officials to come by and say that his son, Will Stockdale, has been drafted, and should have already reported, and will have to be taken into town; the result is a funny standoff over shotgun and barbed wire, which only a lot of talking manages to get around. Finally he negotiates a deal, in which Will is going to walk to town on his own rather than be taken back in the car like a miscreant. Will, who wouldn't have minded riding rather than walking the twenty-seven miles to town, is not wholly thrilled at this bargain negotiated to preserve his dignity, but he goes along with it, and the backwoods Georgia boy ends up in the Air Force (which at that time was still part of the Army).

No Time for Sergeants is an Invincible Innocent story, and Will Stockdale is the Innocent or Fool. What makes him so is partly that he just goes along with whatever, but he is also sarcasm-deaf and guilelessly honest: he takes everyone at face value. In an Air Force in which commanders regularly talk sarcastically to recruits, he is oblivious to it all; if a commander were sarcastically to tell him to take it easy since the Air Force didn't want to trouble him, he would thank them very kindly. When, as inevitably happens, the other person blows up over it, he just takes it as a peculiarity of people -- some people just don't have any sense sometimes -- and goes along with it. Unfazed, and unfazeable. And always friendly, even to Yankees, who, he is surprised to find out, actually make up a considerable portion of the Air Force; he, never one to insist on people's faults, is very careful not to let on that he's figured out that they are Yankees.

There really isn't much of a plot, being somewhat episodic, although to some extent the story is structured by the interaction between Will and Sergeant King, who plays the Malvolio or Inspector Dreyfus in this little comedy. By the end of the story, Will Stockdale has been pinned with a medal -- and his Air Force superiors very kindly do everything in their power to arrange for him to be a Private in the Infantry.

The humor is not always completely successful, but the story does stay funny throughout the entire book, and what really makes it work, I think, is Hyman's nearly perfect consistency in tone. The whole story is told by Will, and he never ceases to be that guileless, sarcasm-deaf honest young man who finds the Air Force filled with bafflingly inconsistent people, and simply has no clue how much of a juggernaut he is. There's some weird and not always comfortable racial humor, although not malicious, arising from the fact that Will is a Georgia boy who means no harm but has never been taught better. It is used to somewhat interesting effect, since to the extent that Will has any racism it's just been born and bred and he means nothing by it, and he shows himself perfectly willing to change when his friend and fellow recruit Ben lectures him on the matter; whereas the Yankees, mocking the Georgia boy for his racism, clearly show themselves to be more racist than he is. It's probably the part of the book that least stands the test of time, though.

Favorite Passage:

...I said, "Well, I guess I'll start getting packed now. I guess I'll see you around before I go so I can say good-bye, won't I?"

And then this fellow next to me said, "No use in that. He's going to gunnery school himself. He'll be right with you."

Well, ti was the most surprising thing! I looked at Sergeant King and he just kept setting there staring out the window, and I couldnt get over it for a little bit. Me and Ben and Sergeant King would all be together. "It just goes to show you," I said, " that nothing bad ever happens, but what some good dont come out of it one way or the other," and Sergeant King, he agreed, I think. But he still didnt say nothing, just set there staring out the window for the longest sort of time. (p. 144(

Recommendation: It is a quite funny book in a Mark Twain sort of way; if you like military humor, you will certainly like it. You probably aren't missing a huge amount if you haven't read it, but if it comes your way, it's worth a gander through the pages. But reading the book does make me want to see the Andy Griffith movie based on it.