Saturday, February 15, 2014

Links and Notes of Notable Linkability

* Philosopher's Carnival #160

* A website on the ancient and medieval Hebrew manuscripts of Sirach.

* The bones attributed to Charlemagne are probably his.

* Paul Raymont collects links on Jane Austen as moral philosopher

* Will Duquette reviews Paul Glynn's A Song for Nagasaki

* Ice T records Dungeons & Dragons audio short story (considerable amount of language). He was just asked by his sponsor,, to read a forty-page text; his manager didn't inform him beforehand what book he was recording, and apparently someone at the company has a bit of a sense of humor. Fortunately, he does, too, although he complains about having to pronounce unpronounceable names.

* The US's position on Reporters Without Borders's World Press Freedom Index has dropped considerably.

* There's recently been some discussion of camels and Genesis; as Jeremy Pierce notes, a certain amount of skepticism is required in considering the argument.

* The jötunvillur code of the Vikings has been deciphered -- or, rather, the underlying principle has been determined, since it's still difficult to decipher any particular message in it.

* A new mathematical study has concluded that there are 177,147 possible ways to tie a necktie-knot. The work is based on that of Thomas Fink, who had concluded that there were 85 ways to do it; Fink's work, however, had made assumptions that ruled out some necktie-knots that are actually used, most notably the backward-knot family.

The backward-knot family has had a resurgence due to the Matrix movies, as noted. However, contrary to the impression the article gives, these knots aren't all Matrix spin-offs. The Atlantic (which is a reversed form of the very popular Pratt/Shelby knot, my favorite tie knot) is a classic informal knot that has been around for at least three quarters of a century, and the Ediety, which is a doubled Atlantic and seems to have been the tie in the movie, is probably nearly as old. I had noted that Fink's list appeared to be missing this family of knots in April 2011. I suppose I should have followed up on that; although to do what Vejdemo-Johansson has done would doubtless have exceeded my mathematical abilities.

Most of Vejdemo-Johansson's ties, of course, would be incredibly exotic; and of the post-Matrix backward-knot ties, only the Eldredge seems likely to join the ranks of the Atlantic and the Ediety as a standard tie knot option. The major obstacles to popularity for a knot are complexity and suitability; most backward-knot instances, while striking, really need a very particular kind of tie. Complication doesn't of itself eliminate the possibility of popularity, but it increases the competition, as people will only keep memorizing and teaching a small number of such knots over long years. And people usually want knots that go with lots of different kinds of ties, but simple is what's always suitable. Striped ties usually require simple knots, and if the knot gets very complicated, it tends to be only suitable for solid colors. Backward knots, however, depend on the (usual) back of the knot looking interesting, so they will tend to be more complicated. The Atlantic is already somewhat tricky to tie, and the Ediety and the Eldredge are more complicated still. They only manage to be as broadly suitable as they are because they look simpler than they are.

* A little known fact: neckties are Croatian in origin. That's actually where the word 'cravat' comes from; it's a corruption of 'la Croate'. Modern schlipsen-style variants are from the early 1900s.

* I've sometimes wondered if Alain de Botton is going a little crazy, and this proves it.

* Douglas Duckworth discusses Gelukpa at the SEP. Gelukpa (also called the Yellow Hat school) is the dominant school of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy because it is the philosophical tradition of the Dalai Lamas, who began with Mongol help to influence significant numbers of monasteries in the sixteenth century. There are three other major schools, which are called Red Hat schools: Nyingma (the Ancient Translations school, and the oldest extant form, based on the earliest translated texts rather than, as with the others, on later translations), Kagyu (the Oral Lineage school), and Sakya (the Pale Earth school). While the schools do have doctrinal differences, the major differences tend to be in terms of how education occurs in each.

* Gelukpa, Kagyu, and Sakya all have a single head for the school. Contrary to common belief, the Gaden Tripa, an appointed position with seven-year terms, is head of Gelukpa, not the Dalai Lama; the Kagyu school, whose head, the Karmapa, has the oldest extant lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, is currently dealing with a schism, so there is uncertainty about which of the two claimants (1, 2) is the real Karmapa; and the Sakya Trizin heads the Sakya school. The Nyingma are a bit different; technically there is no traditional position, since decisions are made by group consultation among elders, but in order to deal with other schools and the Tibetan Government in Exile more effectively they choose a representative that counts as their head.

* This short video is very well done:

Friday, February 14, 2014

Imagination and Essence

Imagining is not oriented to the things of experience as remembering is. It is not its purpose to recall some single thing that was once experienced. The imagination can devise a world where the sky is green and trees are blue, where things fall up instead of down, rivers run backwards, etc. I mean that imagination may alter not only the concrete existence of particular things, but also the general types of experiences and the laws of nature. This free variation, however, has its limits. I can lend a thing any color I wish but it must have some color or other. I can constantly vary its shape but I cannot imagine it without any shape--otherwise it would no longer be a "thing." No more can I imagine a lion that is too unlionlike without it ceasing to be a lion.

The essence of things, what they are in themselves and what follows therefrom, sets bounds for the imagination (just as on the other hand the free variation of the world of experience leads to knowledge of its essential structure). Thus all intentional life, insofar as it constructs a world of things, turns out to be objectively bound.

Edith Stein, Potency and Act: Studies Toward a Philosophy of Being, Redmond, tr. ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2009) p. 370.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


It's turning out to be a busy week, and I'll be on a confirmation retreat trying not to be driven insane by high school students this weekend, and then I have family coming next week, so it's a busy time for me; I don't know how much posting there will be. My busy times tend to have weird stretches of blank space where I can't start anything big, so there probably will still be some, but it's likely to be off and on for the next week and a half.

I wanted, however, while I remember and still definitely have time, to ask a question. In April for the confirmation class I'm helping out with, I'll be doing the big session on the Gifts of the Spirit. And one of the things I'll be doing is having them pray in English the Veni, Sancte Spiritus (the 'Golden Sequence' for Pentecost, not to be confused with the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus). But I would like to have them hear it in the original Latin, in either Gregorian chant or a polyponic setting. It really needs to be good quality -- clear and beautiful -- since I doubt most students will have heard really good chant, whether Gregorian or any other, and whether they ever have a taste for it or not, they should at least have some sense of what it is like at its best. I don't have anything that would work on hand, and listening to versions online that I might buy the CD for, I haven't come across anything that is close to stunning. So does anyone know of any very good versions of Veni, Sancte Spiritus?

Oblivious Dews

Sonnet 13
by Anna Seward

Thou child of Night and Silence, balmy Sleep,
Shed thy soft poppies on my aching brow!
And charm to rest the thoughts of whence, or how
Vanish'd that priz'd Affection, wont to keep
Each grief of mine from rankling into woe.
Then stern Misfortune from her bended bow
Loos'd the dire strings;-and Care, and anxious Dread
From my cheer'd heart, on sullen pinion fled.
But now, the spell dissolv'd, th' enchantress gone,
Ceaseless those cruel fiends infest my day,
And sunny hours but light them to their prey.
Then welcome midnight shades, when thy wish'd boon
May in oblivious dews my eye-lids steep,
Thou child of Night and Silence, balmy Sleep!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Sacredness of the Unprotected

In the course of a recent conversation on this topic, I brought up the example of the mysterious character that attaches to the presence near one of a sleeping person, especially of a sleeping child. From the point of view of physical activity, or at least in so far as the notion of physical activity is defined in relation to the possible grasping of things, the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child. But from the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred. And there can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability. This sacredness of the unprotected lies also at the roots of what we might call a metaphysics of hospitality.

Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Part I, Chapter X.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Jacobs on Lewis

Alan Jacobs has a nonsensical post on C. S. Lewis and storytelling:

I don't think Lewis was by any means a natural storyteller, and all of his fiction suffers to one degree or another from his shortcomings in this regard. Every time he sat down to write a story he was moving outside the sphere of his strongest writerly gifts....

But in the basics of the kind of storytelling he liked best — creating vivid characters and keeping a lively plot moving along — Lewis struggled, and I think at times he knew it. Note how in That Hideous Strength he has to pause to tell us what we are supposed to believe about his two protagonists: “Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker”; “It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging.” Apparently we might not have figured out those points without explicit direction.

The problem with this is that nobody is a natural storyteller, except in the sense that all human beings are, and while it is certainly true that Lewis struggled with the kind of storytelling he liked best, this is true of any competent storyteller. In reality the only test of competence in storytelling is whether fair-minded people with a taste for story like the stories. That's the whole point of storytelling, and it can be judged by no other standard. It certainly can't be determined on the basis of things that Alan Jacobs vaguely suspects and can't coherently defend.

The argument about That Hideous Strength shows some of the problems. All storytelling is telling, by definition; and no storytelling is showing. 'Showing' when talking about stories is just a figure of speech for successfully interesting telling, and the success, again, is how it is taken by fair-minded people who like stories. The whole 'Show, don't tell' advice, of which this is just an unoriginal variant, boils down to the claim that you should not tell a story, but tell it well. Likewise, the sarcasm of the sentence starting with 'Apparently' runs aground on the fact that what the comments say about each character are essential to their character arcs. Whether the comments are successful in contributing to the story in this way has to be determined by whether they clarify or impede the typical reading experience of the good reader; that they are there, however, is not itself a flaw. Jacobs has fallen into the well known critic-trap of not recognizing that good criticism requires grasping the common taste of good readers as a standard and enriching its application, not imposing his personal taste as if it were the standard.

I'm not even going to get all the way into the fact that Jacobs does not get Menippean satires, taking as he does Frye's very abstract characterization for the purpose of contrasting with novels and Bakhtin's interaction with it as part of his philosophy of dialogue as if they were proper characterization of the genre itself. Of all of C. S. Lewis's novels, the only one that has clear concrete similarities to a Menippean satire is That Hideous Strength, and this is obviously because it has Menippean satires among its major literary influences. It also should not have to be said, but apparently has to be said, that Menippean satire is a form of storytelling.

Again, none of this is about the comparative strengths of Lewis, which have to be assessed from the taste of readers generally. It's obvious from the enduring character of his fiction that he's a better storyteller than a random person off the street, or, for that matter, some of our bestselling authors. And it's obviously a fool's game to demand perfection, since no one, not even Austen, Dickens, and Eliot, have ever achieved it. So the only question is whether there are features of Lewis's works that, when compared to the authors of the highest excellence, can be seen to be less than they could be. And it's really not informative to discover that someone is not as nearly perfect an author as someone like Jane Austen, nor does any such thing reflect on competence, natural storytelling ability, nor is whether an author struggles with something relevant to it. As I mentioned previously in talking about Alfred Austin's poor reputation -- which has come about largely because the critics have not been fair-minded but deliberately out to sabotage a definitely-not-Tennyson-league Poet Laureate who got the title at a controversial time by having the right politics -- to treat anything short of the highest excellence as a defect, in any craft, is a serious flaw in judgment that in reality shows a contempt for the craft itself, whose natural expression cannot be genius but only effective competence. Is Lewis an effectively competent storyteller? The only evidence that matters, that of people who love to read constantly reading his books, shows that he is, and, indeed, is not in the bottom tiers, either. After that we can talk about his defects relative to the summit of the art; but none of this has anything to do with anything Jacobs is talking about.


Jacobs has responded. I note some of the ways in which his response merely confirms the problem here. It should be noted, for those who don't click over, that Jacobs's scurrilous 'bet', by which he is clearly trying to poison the well without any evidence, that I had never heard of Menippean satire before his post is a bet he would lose; I have read quite extensively in the genre. This contrasts with Jacobs, who shows in his arguments every sign of having only a second-hand acquaintance with the genre, through Bakhtin and Frye, given that (1) he never compares Lewis to any actual Menippean satire, nor even mentions any of them; (2) his claims about Menippean satire depend crucially on abstract frameworks given by Bakhtin and Frye rather than evidential claims about the actual works in classical and Late Roman works of Menippean satire; and (3) his account of Menippean satire is so vague and broad as to make it not so much a genre as a literary technique found in radically different works.

Confide in Time

by Alfred Austin

Take not the Gods to task, for they are wise
When they refuse no less than when they grant.
Thou canst but know, with all thy bursting sighs,
What is thy whim, but never what thy want.
Did they, to smite thine importunity,
Answer each swift unregulated prayer,
Oh, what accursed trudger wouldst thou be,
And what a world of fardels have to bear!
Check thy lament. The days will surely come,
Thou wilt regard each crossed or shattered hope,
As now thou dost poor Philip's broken drum,
Or little Rosie's tangled skipping-rope.
Confide in Time, who will, as years expire,
Indulge, or else annihilate, desire.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Music on My Mind

Lindsey Stirling, "Stars Align".

Fortnightly Book, February 9

I have several things coming up the next two weeks, so I need a lighter book for the fortnightly book. And it's an interesting one as much for the complexity of the story: The Romance of Tristan & Iseult, as retold by Joseph Bédier, translated from the french by Hilaire Belloc and Paul Rosenfield. Joseph Bédier was a great scholar of French literature who did a great deal to re-popularize the old chansons and gestes. This is one of his popular works, a piecing together of a unified story from various sources. To create a popular work was the intent, but it took a great scholar to do it. As he notes in the author's Note at the beginning:

In this book I have tried to avoid a mixture of the ancient and the modern. To steer clear of disparities, anachronisms and embellishments and, through the exercise of historical understanding and critical discipline, to avoid intrusion of our modern concepts into older forms of thinking and feeling, has been my aim, my effort, and no doubt, alas, my delusion. My text has been assembled from so many sources that, were I to enumerate them all in minute detail,t his little volume would be weighed down by a profusion of footnotes.

In the Note he indicates that he has sources in Anglo-Norman, German, and French sources, particularly the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas, Béroule, Gottfried von Strassburgh, and Eilhart von Oberg. In this sense, the work is much like Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun texts: it is a literary creation, but it is a highly scholarly literary creation.

Hilaire Belloc, who might best be summarized as a force of nature, was, of course, French as well as English. His father was French, his mother was English; he was born in France, educated in England, spent time in the French artillery, and became a naturalized citizen of England in his thirties; he kept double citizenship the rest of his life. He was a Catholic, of course (his mother had been converted by Manning) and active in politics, which was a potentially dangerous combination; he seems to have survived by his sheer frankness and candor about it, mixed with his formidable speaking skill and wit. Belloc translated Bédier's work on Tristan, abridging it both by eliminating chapters and certain passages.

In 1945, Paul Rosenfeld put out a version of Belloc's translation, adding the chapters and passages that Belloc had left out.

The version I'll be using is a nice Heritage Press (New York); you can see pictures here, although I don't have the slipcover. It has quite a few richly colored illustrations. The type is 16-point Bembo.

The Proper Function of the Novelist

...[T]he proper function of the novelist consists exclusively of enabling us to get a more distinct grip on that unity which, of course, existed in life before it existed in fiction, and which makes fiction possible. The novelist communicates directly to us something which ordinary conditions of life condemn us merely to glance at. But the novelist is in no sense the inventor of this sort of unity; and the greater a novelist is, the more he gives us the sense that he is not making anything up. I quote Charles Du Bos on Tolstoy's War and Peace: ‘Life would speak thus, if life could speak’. I have no hesitation for my own part in saying that it is through the novelist's power of creation that we can get our best glimpse of what lies behind and under the reverberatory power of facts.

Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Part I, Chapter IV.