Saturday, September 15, 2018

Umberto Eco, Baudolino


Opening Passage: Most of the novel is accessibly written, but it begins with a palimpsest -- Eco being clever, and a little heavy-handed.

Rattisbon anno Dommini Domini mense decembri mclv Cronicle of Baudolin of the fammily of Aulario.

I Baudolino son of Galiaudo Gagliaudo of the Aulari with a head that ooks like a lion halleluia gratias to the Allmighty may he gorgive me

ego habeo facto the greatest stealing of my life, I mean from the cabinet of the Bishop Oto I have stollen many pages that may belong to the Immperial Chancellor and I have scraped clean almost all of them excepting where the writing would not come off et now I have much parchmint to write down what I want which is my own story even if I don't know how to write Latin. (p. 1)

Summary: Baudolino is in the genre of secret history, like the novels of Tim Powers. Baudolino of Alessandria, named after St. Baudolino of Alessandria, is a fictional character, and the novel is essential his role in the actual factual events of the Third and Fourth Crusades. Thus he becomes an adopted son of the Emperor, Frederick Barabrossa and tells his story the Byzantine historian Niketas Chroniates during the Sack of Constantinople. He becomes good friends with the Archipoeta, who is the otherwise unknown author of a number of important Latin poems, and with Kyot, who is the otherwise unknown source to which Wolfram von Eschenbach attributes his knowledge of the Grail Quest, and with Robert de Boron, whose version of the Grail Quest became the dominant influence on most later versions of it. Thus the first root of the secret history is to posit that all of these very different people had some common factor. This on its own only gets you historical fiction; to have secret history you must have marvelous happenings in the interstices of the historical facts. This happens in two ways here. Emperor Frederick died suddenly and mysteriously in the midst of the Third Crusade. The reports of how he died are very conflicting, although he seems to have drowned. So here is a mystery susceptible of various interpretations, which is exactly the sort of thing, and Eco takes it further by turning it into a locked room mystery. And then the more fantastic happenings are drawn from the legends of the Grail (Grasal, as it is called here) and of the Kingdom of Prester John.

Secret history is a particularly enticing genre if you, like Eco, are interested in ambiguities when it comes to what we count as true or false. It is supposed to be historical fact, and, indeed, the usual expectation is that a secret history will take even fewer liberties with historical fact than historical fiction will. But historical facts are patchy and uncertain things. However good our research, only traces of the past remain. In ordinary historical fiction, you feel this in by historical plausibilities or (if we are honest, more oftenly) analogies from modern life. But secret history is a fantastic genre; it doesn't have to be fantasy in the strict sense, but whereas in ordinary historical fiction you are taking on the challenge of making the historical events plausible enough to imagine, in secret history you are not. Instead, the challenge is to fill the gaps with something shocking, startling, or surprising, something that is indeed entirely implausible on its own, and yet connect it to the historical facts in such a way that it begins to look plausible in light of them. In secret history the implausible borrows plausibility first by taking up the facts in a coherent narrative and second by 'clearing up' mysteries that cannot be solved just from the facts, and (if they are well chosen) that you cannot honestly solve from ordinary plausibilities. One of the things Tim Powers does, for instance, looks for surprising coincidences that cannot be given a rational explanation because the most likely theory is that they are, in fact, just coincidences; and then he weaves a story in which they are not just coincidences, but are connected. And no matter how strange the story is, there is something satisfying about reducing coincidences to regular order. That's the charm of secret history: taking things you know to be coincidences and asking, "But suppose they weren't?", taking things that aren't related and saying, "But if we told this story about them, they could be."

As you would expect, Eco is extraordinarily good at playing on the ambiguities that secret history provides. He oscillates an astounding speed from well-established historical fact to historical speculation to things that are probably not true but aren't ruled out by the evidence to implausible-sounding interpretations of things that are probably true to things that are definitely not true but are plausible to things that are purely fantastic. He plays very well with showing that the difference between the historian and the writer of secret history is largely that the latter is infinitely more bold; all historians have to speculate, fill in gaps, hypothesize, and all historians have their biases and peculiarities of interpretation. They may not be brazen liars like Baudolino, but what honesty they have does not come from doing something entirely different from what he does. Baudolino is a brilliant work. To compare it to the other secret history I've done for the fortnightly book, I would say it is much more brilliant than Tim Powers's Declare.

But here's the thing. Declare is an entirely successful secret history and Baudolino is not -- indeed, I think it is definitely a failure. Since the book is so brilliant, and the writing so good, it's difficult to pin down what prevents it from working, but I think there are two things.

First, Eco is not really committed to the secret history as secret history, but instead as a way to explore ambiguity of true and false when we are dealing with history. There are so many ways the history of the period could have been drawn into the story, but except for a few portions -- like the founding and saving of Alessandria, which no doubt works because Eco, who is a native of Alessandria, is invested in it -- he passes it all up. The history is not sufficiently integrated; it serves mostly as a frame. One sees this as well with the historical characters, who are mostly just pieces on Eco's board. The Empress and Emperor do sometimes stand out a bit, and Niketas as well (although Eco gives him relatively little to do), but only a bit.

The second problem, even more serious, is that Eco is trying to do far too much here. It is a locked room mystery, a Grail Quest, a quest for Prester John, an account of the Holy Roman Empire in Italy, an account of the fall of Constantinople, and more. The locked room mystery, which plot-wise is the central pillar, is heavily shortchanged. This is a great disappointment, because it was in some ways best part of the book, and since it is structurally so important, you could imagine an excellent book devoted to it. But while the build-up to Frederick's death is good, we then get a pause while everyone goes questing, and only then, much later, do we get the second layer of puzzle to it -- there are three different mutually exclusive confessions and a fourth possibility as well -- and the actual solution is found remarkably quickly. It all feels imbalanced because of the need to fit the two Quests into the the story. Probably what he should have done is stuck with the locked room and, if he really wanted to play around with ambiguities in truth, confined himself to the multiple confessions and perhaps the relic forgery subplot that threads throughout the whole book.

The interlinked Quests, however, are not merely culprits, because they suffer, too. There is about a hundred pages in the midst of the book where I had no idea when reading it what the point was, and having finished the book, I still don't really know -- something to do with the multiplication of error, I'm guessing. All throughout there is big build-up to things that don't happen, or, if they do happen, happen quickly and without full closure. I suppose this is deliberate, since by the end of the book, the Prester John part of the quest is still not completed, but it doesn't work. It's not that it was uninteresting, because there were many interesting episodes and one or two of the best characters in the book (Gavagai, in particular); it's just that it was unsatisfying, and felt more like an interlude than an integral part of the story.

Favorite Passage:

Perhaps she said it with her usual sisterly solicitude, perhaps she wanted only to animate the conversation, but for Baudolino anything Beatrice said was at once balm and toxin. With trembling hands, he drew from his bosom his letters to her and hers to him and, holding them out to her murmured: "No. I have written, and very often, and you, my Lady, have answered me."

Beatrice did not understand. She took the pages, began to read them in a low voice in order better to decipher that double calligraphy. Baudolino, two paces form her, wrung his hands, sweating, told himself he was mad, that she would send him away, calling her guards. He wished he had a weapon to plunge into his heart. Beatrice continued reading, and her cheeks grew increasingly flushed, her voice trembled as she spelled out those inflamed words, as if she were celebrating a blasphemous Mass. Se stood up, once, twice she seemed to sway. Twice she waved off Baudolino, who had risen to support her. Then in a faint voice she said only: "Oh child, child, what have you done?" (pp. 104-105)

Recommendation: Recommended; it's interesting, and very enjoyable in parts, although far from Eco's best.


Umberto Eco, Baudolino, Weaver, tr., Vintage (London: 2003).

Friday, September 14, 2018

Three Poem Re-Drafts

The First Way of Saint Thomas Aquinas

The changed all around us is easy to see.
Unchanged by another no changed thing can be.
What is able to differ cannot be its own act;
it is only potential that another makes fact.
Can-change with a changer is actual change
and by changing of changers is order arranged.
Take the whole changing order, suppose it unmoved:
that's a change with no changer, and impossible proved.
Every series of changers, in an unchanged cause ends,
and from that first changer those changes descend.
But a first cause of change that nothing can change --
to call this cause 'God' is not at all strange.


"I do," said God. The Dove upon the sea
was baptizing creation with the wind,
and light burst forth, a promised liberty,
with streaming rays out to endless end;
then order, breath-like, filled each kind,
like covenant and contract forming law.
It echoed from out of eternal Mind
as dawning stars formed ranks of awe.
Reverberation gave to world a form;
the sun and moon were bright and clear
as fish and fowl rode waves of storm
and beasts began to growl with cheer.
The heart looked up with thought anew
and sallied back with words: "I do."


Speak to me, O Muse,
of the man of many turns,
who wandered over-far
when he had toppled holy Troy,
seeing the many cities
and learning the minds of many men,
enduring in his breast many woes,
reaching out to seize his own life
and the return of his companions.
Yet even so he did not save them,
for all the ardor of his desire --
they died in frenzy,
having eaten the oxen of Helios on high,
so that he took from them their return-day.
Of these things also,
from every source,
O goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak.

Poem a Day X


I dreamed the world, and lo!
the world was bright and fair,
a joy to sense and know
and love, if you would dare,
a world where people flow
around the market square
without a fret or care.
True, time will catch us all;
you know the day will come
when all will softly fall
and hearts no longer drum,
and Charon then will row
when we our obols share --

but dream the world a while
and seek to know its ways
with joy and honest smile
until the end of days.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Mouth of Gold

Today was the feast of St. John Chrysostom. Re-posted from 2012:


Today was the feast of St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church. He was born in Antioch in the fourth century, at a time when Antioch was perhaps the second most important city in the Roman empire. He was never known as 'Chrysostom' in his lifetime; 'Chrysostom' is an agnomen later conferred on him to distinguish him from all other St. Johns; it means 'Golden-mouthed'.

We don't have a very in-focus view of his life. He became deacon for Meletius of Antioch, who was the presiding bishop of the First Council of Constantinople, and was later ordained a priest by Meletius's successor, who was probably Flavian. He was tasked with preaching, and it turned out that he was an impressive preacher. He developed his own style of preaching, which went successively through Scripture and looked at it step by step. His sermons when collected, therefore, made very close, very careful literal commentaries, and would on their own qualify Chrysostom to be considered one of the greatest theologians of his day.

In 397, however, he was suddenly and unexpectedly made Patriarch of Constantinople after the death of Patriarch Nectarius; he was a sort of dark horse, vaulted to the position for little reason other than the fact that he was a brilliant theologian who did not belong to any of the intensely opposed ecclesiastical factions that plagued Constantinople at the time. It was an interesting choice, because Chrysostom, unamused by the frivolity and finery of the capital, set out immediately to engage in an intensive reform of just about everything and to start preaching vehemently against the wealthy of the city. It took some time, but it was inevitable that something bad would happen to St. John; it was impossible to avoid politics in the capital, and Chrysostom, being a powerful preacher who was brilliant and spoke his mind, could hardly have avoided igniting an explosion at some point. At the instigation of the Empress, he was brought up before a synod on trumped-up charges, deposed, and exiled. However, his enemies hadn't quite reckoned on how much the poor of the city loved their Patriarch; they were on the verge of rioting before he was recalled from exile and reinstated. Tensions were still high, though; his enemies still looked for ways to depose him and at least two attempts were made on his life. Finally he was simply dragged out of church one day and sent into exile again. After he left the cathedral went up in flames, burning a large portion of the city with it; his supporters were accused of the arson and executed wherever they were found. Pope Innocent I protested his treatment, but was unable to do much. Chrysostom still had an extensive correspondence, which meant that his enemies couldn't be content even to leave him alone in exile; they captured him again and marched him off to an even more remote location, where he died along the way. His tomb is in Pitsunda, in the modern country of Georgia.

Poem a Day IX

Technical Term

In time
a word
in rhyme

is made
not tool
but jewel

where you
may find
in thought

the True
that mind
had sought.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The First Way and the Fire Example

Michael Almeida, in his recent book, Cosmological Arguments (which you can, for a short time, read for free online), on Aquinas's argument in the First Way against self-causation:

The argument here appears to be the following. If y is actually F and potentially G, and x is the cause of y actualizing G, then x must be G. So, if y is the cause of y actualizing G, then y must already be G. Therefore, if y is the cause of y actualizing G, then y is both actually G and potentially G, and that is impossible. Therefore nothing causes itself to move or undergo change.

Aquinas’s argument against self-causation is unfortunate. It entails that anything x that causes y to be some property G must itself be G. Thus, taken at his literal word, the fire that causes the wood to be hot must itself be hot. But it is obvious that something might cause an object to become green without actually being green. Copper undergoes chemical reactions that cause the metal to change to a pale green. But the cause is not pale green. Similarly corroding iron changes from silver to orange-red. The cause of this change is not itself orange-red. Examples are easy to multiply.

Analytic philosophers have been interpreting the argument this way ever since Anthony Kenny (who should have known better) interpreted it this way, but there is good reason to regard it as a misinterpretation. First some rough working through the Latin, without worrying too much about finer points:

Nihil enim movetur, nisi secundum quod est in potentia ad illud ad quod movetur, movet autem aliquid secundum quod est actu. Movere enim nihil aliud est quam educere aliquid de potentia in actum, de potentia autem non potest aliquid reduci in actum, nisi per aliquod ens in actu, sicut calidum in actu, ut ignis, facit lignum, quod est calidum in potentia, esse actu calidum, et per hoc movet et alterat ipsum. Non autem est possibile ut idem sit simul in actu et potentia secundum idem, sed solum secundum diversa, quod enim est calidum in actu, non potest simul esse calidum in potentia, sed est simul frigidum in potentia. Impossibile est ergo quod, secundum idem et eodem modo, aliquid sit movens et motum, vel quod moveat seipsum.

A bit clunkily: "Nothing is changed except inasmuch as it is potential to that to which it is changed; but it changes something inasmuch as it is actual. For to change is nothing other than drawing forth something from potency into act, but something cannot be reduced from potency into act, except through some actual being; just as the actually hot (like fire) makes wood (which is potentially hot) to be actually hot, and thereby moves and alters it. For it is not possible for the same thing to be at once actual and potential inasmuch as it is the same, but only inasmuch as it is different, for what is actually hot cannot at the same time be potentially hot, but is at the same time potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that, in one and the same way, something could be moving and moved, or that something move itself." Note, incidentally, that one could argue that the per aliquod ens in actu could be read as already implying that we are talking about another thing, and not just the generic 'some thing'.

Aquinas explicitly says -- twice, even -- that the point is that the cause of change must be actual. What Aquinas is arguing in context is that everything moved is moved by another; what he is doing here is specifying what that means in terms of actuality and potentiality, which, of course, are more fundamental than change. It is not correctly interpreted as "If y is actually F and potentially G, and x is the cause of y actualizing G, then x must be G"; what it actually says is "If x is the cause of y, which is potentially G, actualizing G, then x must be actual."

Indeed, the interpretation that takes him as saying that x must be G is interpreting him as proposing a claim that implies the claim, "All causation is univocal." We know that Aquinas does not think that all causation is univocal; that it is not is said and assumed in a wide number of passages. It's not as if it's something he rarely talks about, and has given little thought to. Thus the interpretation in and of itself should raise warning flags.

However, Almeida considers a suggestion from Craig that is essentially the right interpretation (although Craig underplays it as a charitable interpretation, it is, as I note above, what Aquinas explicitly says) and rejects it, arguing:

If Aquinas were arguing for the conclusion that only an actual thing can cause another thing to actualize some property, then there would be no reason to believe that an actual blue thing cannot cause itself to actualize the property of being green. The blue thing is an actual thing, after all. But such self-causation is precisely what Aquinas is anxious to deny.

This is arguably not the self-causation that Aquinas is anxious to deny. Either this is supposed to be per accidens (thing that is blue, but not insofar as it is blue, causing itself to become a thing that is green) or per se (actual blue as such causing itself to become green). Aquinas follows Aristotle in dividing the two from each other, and per accidens has a different (and entirely derivative) account. As for per se, Aquinas elsewhere argues that something can actualize its own potential in the sense that one part can provide the act to the potential of another part, and natural changes can be actualized by the natures of things that undergo them in such a way that the generating cause of the nature is the mover. In other words, there are two things in the vicinity of this that are definitely not counterexamples to what Aquinas is saying: if the blue changed itself to green in such a way that part of the blue changes another part to green, this would not be the relevant kind of self-causation; and if the blue is changing to green because it is in its nature to do so, the generating cause of the blue, which gives it that nature involving that change, is not the relevant kind of self-causation. These are loose kinds of self-causation. The self-causation Aquinas needs to rule out is strict self-causation, as it would be defined by his interpretation of the Aristotelian account of change.

And the argument that Aquinas gives for ruling it out is that "it is not possible for the same thing to be at once actual and potential inasmuch as it is the same, but only inasmuch as it is different." Admittedly, this is be somewhat obscure on its own, but the claim has a parallel passage in the Summa Contra Gentiles:

Nihil idem est simul actu et potentia respectu eiusdem. Sed omne quod movetur, inquantum huiusmodi, est in potentia: quia motus est actus existentis in potentia secundum quod huiusmodi. Omne autem quod movet est in actu, inquantum huiusmodi: quia nihil agit nisi secundum quod est in actu. Ergo nihil est respectu eiusdem motus movens et motum. Et sic nihil movet seipsum.

The hujusmodis are a bit of pain for translation, but I suppose roughly: "Nothing that is the same can be at once actual and potential with respect to the same thing. But all that is changed, as such is potential: because change is the act of the existent inasmuch as it is potential. But all that changes is actual as such: for nothing acts except according as it is actual. Therefore nothing with respect to the same change is both moving and moved. And so nothing moves itself."

Recall that in an Aristotelian account of change, change is incomplete act, but most importantly it is the act of the changer in the potentiality of the changed. There is not an act of changing and then an act of being changed; it's just one act. So the point is that if something that is changed is so because its act of changing itself is its act of being changed, then it is both merely potential (not having G but capable of it) and also actual (being made to have G) in the same way (namely, according to the act that is the change) at the same time. That's a contradiction.

Now, you could perhaps be very stubborn about this and say that nonetheless the Latin can be read as saying something closer to what Almeida means. And probably that's not wrong. But people have pointed out before that the scholastics had concepts like being G eminently. Thus the sun generates a man; but the sun was held to have more universal properties that are, so to speak, being drawn on in this particular case insofar as the man has less universal properties related to those more universal properties. And while I don't think it's necessary in the context of the ST (where I think he is giving a much more general version of the argument than he is elsewhere), Aquinas says things that sound very like it in lecture 10 of his commentary on Book VIII of the Physics, where he gives the argument for univocal causation first and then says that a similar argument can be run for equivocal causation, if you take 'same' in a less strict way. But even interpreting it thus, it seems to me that "If y is actually F and potentially G, and x is the cause of y actualizing G, then x must be G" is an inaccurate characterization, because according to usual formalization conventions, the G would have to be univocal, whereas this interpretation is precisely not assuming that what is the same between x and y is univocal.

Almeida doesn't place a vast amount of emphasis on it, but what often seems to give analytic philosophers particular trouble is Aquinas's fire example. There are several things that are going on in the misreading of it, but I think a great deal of it is not understanding how medieval examples work. Medieval scholastics don't generally give examples as illustrations the way we do; illustration is a rhetorical, and not a dialectical, use of examples, and would generally be regarded as out of place in a rigorous argument. Their understanding of an example, which derives from Aristotle, is that an example is an abbreviated induction, just like an enthymeme is an abbreviated deduction. And for the medieval scholastics, an induction was an argument in which you divided the possibilities and then either established or ruled out that something applies to each part of the division. Thus an example takes one kind of case, shows you that it gets the result, and leaves it up to you to finish the induction. Since the point is not to illustrate the conclusion or even to give you a paradigmatic case of it, but to give you an abbreviated form of an inductive argument, the standard practice is to pick a really obvious case without complications, because arguments are supposed to start with the more obvious rather than the less obvious. This is why medieval examples are so often extraordinarily trite, and why you keep getting the same ones over and over again -- they are usually taking cases that were commonly recognizable as very obvious, at least when such cases were available. Thus there is no implication, from Aquinas's giving the fire example, that every case is like the fire example. It's just that univocal causation is a more obvious case than equivocal causation, so he gives a univocal case.

I'm still reading Almeida's book, but so far it is quite interesting.

Poem a Day VIII


The gentle rain brings gladness to the endless summer heat.
My heart rejoices in the water falling from the sky,
and so I hope like rain will be the angel when I die,
and death itself like showers pouring down with coolness sweet.

Just like other men I fear my death too soon to meet,
and sometimes I have shivered at a sense it drew too nigh;
but sometimes, hot and thick, the air is sick with worldly lie.
Perhaps a light refreshment we would in our dying greet.

But this I have discovered from our Lord upon the Cross:
that death of soul is better feared than merely earthly death,
that all our fear has sprung from when the robe of light was torn.

I think few men can meet their fate and disregard the loss
who have not given up the ghost in trade for God's own Breath,
and died in fleshly Adam that in Christ they may be born.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Theories of Musical Expressiveness

People often seem to experience music as expressive of emotion in some way, and there are a number of different theories that have been proposed for this. I think there is good reason to think all of them inadequate, but ironically I also think they are all underestimated. In particular, I think there is good reason to think none of them can be complete, but that criticisms of each are often really based on oversimplifications of causation, or communication, or language, or emotions, or some such other thing, with the result that many of the objections made to each fail to recognize the resources available to each theory.

One of the most obvious families of theories of musical expressiveness is what is usually called arousal theories. The idea is that the expressiveness of a piece of music is its disposition or tendency to arouse emotions in the listener. The theory is often dismissed today, but I think critics often make it too easy for themselves. For instance, it's sometimes said in objection that people can hear music and not experience the emotions it is supposed to express (for instance, they can hear 'sad music' without feeling sad -- indeed, can be made happy by it). But the arousal theory does not require that people actually in every case have the effect. It does not claim that musical expressiveness is music's having a particular effect; it is the claim that it is music's disposition or tendency to a particular effect. Obviously whether listeners actually feel anything depends in part on the disposition of the listener, and not just on the disposition of the music. But the fact that anyone does feel emotions in response to music establishes that the music does play a causal role, and the fact that certain types of music often lead to feeling certain kinds of emotion establishes that something about the music itself is contributing to the result.

Moreover, the notion of arousing emotions is more complicated than the objectors often realize. Suppose you're sad and I am trying to cheer you up. Obviously, I am most successful at this if you actually feel good cheer, but this is not the whole of it, because I can have a wide variety of partial successes. Maybe I won't cheer you up, but you move in a 'cheerward' direction. It's the same causal story, just a less successful form of it. Perhaps I don't even have this success, but I do get you into a state of mind that cheer is going on, so to speak -- you might not feel it yourself, but you interpret yourself as being in a cheerful situation. This is a weaker form of success, but it would be by the same causal disposition. It's all related to causing good cheer -- actually having that effect is the central form of success, the complete and ideal one, and is what gives the disposition its name; but the fact that my words are suited to causing good cheer is shown not just in causing good cheer but in a wide variety of other related effects. One would expect this to be true in the musical case as well.

Arousal theory focuses on the listeners; obviously you could focus on the composer or the musician instead. It's this, after all, that seems to give 'musical expressiveness' its name: the music expresses the emotions of the composer or the musician. This family is usually called expression theories. The usual objection is that musicians need not actually be feeling the emotions that they express through music. This objection, however, runs into similar problems as the objection to arousal theories given above: the objection involves a simplistic view of the causal story involved in expressing emotion, just as the objection to arousal theories involved a simplistic view of the causal story in feeling emotions in response to things. Consider actors. Actors uncontroversially express emotions. The actor doesn't actually need to be feeling the emotions they express. But of course it's not as if actors simply make up expressions of emotions; that would just be weird. So where is the actor getting the materials for expressing (say) anger? The actor often draws from his own anger, but it doesn't have to be anger that he is feeling at that particular moment. We can express remembered emotions. What's more, we can draw on remembered emotions, and adapt our expression to whatever our particular ends may be -- exaggerate it, or restrain it, or shift it a bit to give it a different quality, or mix it with other things. In short, anything we can do with remembered emotions in our imagination, and thus we can be expressing imagined emotions, based on emotions that we have actually felt. And, what is more, in imagination we can approximate sympathetically what it would be like to have certain emotions we perhaps have not had, based on imitation of those who have had and 'putting ourselves in their shoes'.

As with arousal theories, the relevant family of expressions has a central case which lends its name to the whole family -- in this case, actually expressing the feeling that one has in the expression -- but there are related ways of expressing emotions, like expressing emotions as remembered or as imagined. And again, we see this very clearly in acting, so it seems entirely arbitrary to ignore it in the musical case. (Part of the reason the objection gets traction is perhaps that there is a tendency to distinguish 'expressing an emotion' from 'being expressive of an emotion', where the latter is a purely outward manifestation. But this, I think, is quite clearly an irrelevant distinction if we are just talking about the expressiveness of music. Since we don't have telepathy, the experience of the music qua expressive will be exactly the same in each case; and, far from being an important distinction to make in an account of expression -- whether of speech or of acting or of music -- any account of expression will have to straddle the divide.)

In a third family we find association theories. On these theories, the expressiveness of music is purely a matter of convention. Note that the claim is not that it is purely arbitrary; there can be a real, definite meaning of music, just as there can be a real, definite meaning of the sounds we call words and sentences; taking speech to mean something is not itself arbitrary. But the meaning of language, of course, is heavily conventional, and the idea behind association theories is that the expressiveness of music is very much like the meaningfulness of speech. (The fact that it can so easily show the analogy between the expression of music and other domains is a point in its favor.) Now, the usual objection given to association theories is that there are a great many differences between language and music -- most importantly that language is about emotions but often not expressive of it. However, again, I think this is a case of objectors making it too easy on themselves: in fact language is massively expressive, and a standard way we express emotions. Its representational function is so important that its expressive function is often quite secondary, but this is far from saying that it is not a very expressive medium. Philosophers of language may not have focused much on it (because it falls neither under sense nor under reference but under the 'tone' or 'coloring' or 'illumination' that is left over when focusing entirely on sense and reference), but we use language expressively all the time. The same sentence screamed, whispered, said slyly, said in an exaggerated way, said in a goofy voice, said very slowly, said very quickly, is capable of expressing many different things.

Resemblance theories form a fourth family. Music has a dynamic structure and resemblance theories take some analysis of this moving structure and note the analogies we tend to make between such structure and the dynamic structure of our natural and ordinary expression of emotion. We tend to interact with even obviously inanimate things as if they were quasi-animate, and so we're quite used to attributing emotional expression to other things even when we know that they are not expressing emotions at all. So we might joke about the anger of the wind if it slams a door, because door-slamming is something that can express anger, or we might talk about the ducks laughing, given that quacking and laughing can be similar sounds. So too, the suggestion is, with music. Even the more neutral language in which we talk about music is really something like this; the music moving 'up' and 'down' is obviously not physically moving in space. But we can make perfect sense in terms of resemblance of music going 'up' and 'down' -- and, in fact, when you do, you find that the mathematical similarities between moving up and down a musical scale and moving up and down on a spring are quite reasonably close. Now maybe the exact correspondence of direction has a conventional element -- I think I remember that some Asian languages have the directions reversed, so that what we would call a lower note they would call a higher note, and vice versa. But allowing for this, the relations are quite stable across different cultures. And this is true of a lot of things in music. Leaps in music have some formal similarities with physical leaps, pace in music with pace in locomotion, and so forth. In addition, music and dancing are very closely linked in all cultures, and we can see that some dancing fits various kinds of music, so we would expect any account of the expressiveness of dance to tell us something about the expressiveness of music by the 'fit' of the one to the other. On the other hand, one could well ask what any of the resemblances have to do with emotions in themselves; the resemblance theory seems to try to solve the problem by saying that music is similar to expressive thing X; but it leaves mysterious what makes the X expressive, and thus how it is that music can resemble X in the way in which X is expressive. But perhaps the resemblance theorist can reply that this is a research problem, not a fatal problem; that is, that we first have to identify what in music is expressive, which requires relating it to other expressive things, before we can determine exactly how that could be expressive.

It's noticeable that arousal and expression theories are both 'final' accounts (the expressiveness is linked to the objects of dispositions, either of the source of the music or of the music itself), while resemblance theories are 'formal' accounts (linking it to the structure either of the sound or, at times, the performance), and these theories, which all take musical expressiveness to be intrinsic in some way, can be contrasted with association theories, which gives an extrinsic account. It's tempting, then, to suggest that we should really see expression as a unified thing that can be analyzed in terms of something like the Aristotelian four causes plus conventional context. It does make independent sense to say that the expressiveness of music has to connect up with the communicative nature of music; and music as a communication, like language as a communication, has a unified structure:

source of communication -> shareable signs for communicating -> target of communication

The communication is not the bare signs, or anything in the source or target, but something to which they are all contributing in some way, and the way in which they each participate can be analyzed causally. Since it seems natural to think of musical expression as (at least) some kind of emotional communication, even when it is not (as we noted above) a central example of emotional communication; and a four-causes-with-convention account makes a lot of sense of language. And think of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" Op. 67, which is particularly interesting here because it is a deliberate attempt to pull together a number of different ways in which music can communicate. There's obviously a large conventional element to it, since it is put in a framework of a story; but the associations of the story are building on a prior expressiveness found in tempo, low and high notes, and the different sonorities of different instruments, which suggests something like a resemblance account, and the link with the story makes clear that these things are brought together with a definite purpose of arousing emotions, and possibly expression of them as well. There's a reason all of these have their proponents; they each seem to capture something you can genuinely find in the experience of music.

It's worth noting, too, that inevitably there are analogies between musical expressiveness and other forms of expressiveness, with the four major examples being everyday physical expression (natural gestures, spontaneous facial expressions, etc.), language, dance, and acting. No doubt there are some important differences among these different kinds of expressiveness, but any account of expressiveness really should be shedding light on all of these; one would expect all of them to have some fundamental base account even if there are differences arising from their distinctive features. But it seems plausible that each account alone will struggle with some features of expressiveness in these other contexts. For instance, resemblance theory can make some sense of music being like everyday physical expression, but it seems like it has to take everyday physical expression as just primitive -- at least, it's more challenging to say what spontaneous physical expressions would be resembling. Association theory can make sense of ways in which music is like language, but it does not do so well with some of the ways in which you can identify real resemblances between music and everyday physical expression. Plato's discussion of language in the Cratylus can be adapted to arguing that it's impossible to take alone either a conventionalist account like association theory or a resemblance account, if you want to capture what we do with language; and likewise, the perlocutionary aspect of language often seems to require something like an arousal account -- but obviously language is itself used expressively. And so it goes with other analogies to dance and to acting. It seems that a single-factor explanation is not going to be a generally adequate explanation.

Poem a Day VII


The cars are rushing here and there;
they never stop their hurried flight.
No wind is blowing through the hair;
the boxes are all locked up tight.
They always speed, through day and night,
and never catch their breath or pause,
and barely even keep the laws.
They do not talk, but radio
will ward off things that boredom cause
while car past car must swiftly go.

O Prince, the beasts with iron maws
are deaf to plaint and to applause;
they do not wish or want or know;
there is no love, and nothing awes
while car past car must swiftly go.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Poem a Day VI


incandescent stars
gaze down,
reflecting your eyes
in candlelight.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #14: Michel Strogoff

"Sire, a fresh dispatch."


"From Tomsk?"

"Is the wire cut beyond that city?"

"Yes, sire, since yesterday."

"Telegraph hourly to Tomsk, General, and keep me informed of all that occurs."

"Sire, it shall be done," answered General Kissoff.

The Russian Empire is in deadly peril as a massive rebellion led by the treacherous Ivan Orgeff has begun to cut the realm in two. The Czar in Moscow must get an important message to his brother Grand Duke, all the way across the Empire in Irkutsk, before it is too late, and he has entrusted to his most competent courier, the Siberian-born Michael Strogoff. Strogoff has to make the difficult journey, through storms in the Ural Mountains, across rivers and battlefields and through enemy lines to get the message to the Grand Duke. Along the way he will fall in with a brave young woman, Nadia Fedor, who is trying to reach her father in Irkutsk, and together they will have to save their families and the Russian Empire, against extraordinary odds.

Michael Strogoff was in many ways the height of Verne's career. We always remember him for his novels, but it is easy to forget that they were not his primary source of income. The Voyages extraordinaires guaranteed him a steady income, as long as he turned in his two novels a year, but his major income derived not from books but from the theater. He wrote and co-produced plays, which brought in the income that made his yacht vacations possible -- and also made it possible to survive his son's expensive economic misjudgments. The novels gave him security, name recognition, and marketing that he needed to make his plays successful; the plays brought in the big money. Michel Strogoff, an exciting and fast-paced adventure story, sold quite well, so with the help of the playwright Adolphe Philippe d'Ennery, he turned it into a play, also called Michel Strogoff, which for a while was one of the most widely attended plays in the world -- and just as today, when a book will spark interest in a movie which will itself increase book sales, the dual success of the novel and the play was perhaps the greatest literary and financial triumph in Verne's lifetime. There is also more than one critic who has argued that it is Verne's best-written novel. It's interesting, then, that it has not had the staying power of some of Verne's other successes, although in the movie age it did for a while have a solid if not stunning cinematic record. Perhaps, though, its revival is just waiting for someone to bring its racing excitement to the silver screen.